Unexpected Encounters With Intriguing People

Derek Interesting People 27 Comments


My two friends and I were debating whether or not to have one last beer before hopping in a taxi for the ride back to my apartment. We were sitting on cushy sofas in the corner of one of the most laid-back and hidden bars in Playa del Carmen.

As the debate continued for an unnecessarily long period of time, a large, jolly-looking man with a fluffy white beard and puffy red cheeks, suddenly turned around from his bar stool and glanced over at us.

“I’ve just ordered you another round, so I guess you’re staying,” he said as he clumsily hopped off his stool, stumbled in our direction and took a seat on one of the sofas. My immediate reaction was that this was just some old drunk expat who will most likely have no idea why so many pesos are missing from his wallet when he wakes up the following morning.

However, he introduced himself through a wide smile, and with plenty of beer spilling out from the bottle hanging around his neck, and sure enough, surprised was I, to discover that this straw hat-wearing, aloha shirt-clad, chain-smoking man was none other than the mayor of Brookston, Minnesota.

While that might not seem so interesting, I had never met a mayor before. And truthfully, when I hear the world ‘mayor’ the image that pops into my head certainly has zero resemblance to this wacky fellow that was now sitting in front of me. Immediately, I knew that this man was going to be one intriguing individual. And he certainly didn’t disappoint.

Over the following hour and a half, we listened to this man’s tales of being the mayor of a 200 person community located in the middle of a large Chippewa Indian reservation, where he takes on a job as a heavy-machine operator in order to supplement his $25 per month (yes, per month!) salary as mayor of his virtually bankrupt town.

We learned of his distaste for hunters and how he gladly offers them advice when they inquire about the best areas to find deer by sending them into the most inhospitable swamplands so that the hunters never want to come back again. He explained how the first action he took as mayor was to triple taxes so that he could increase the city’s savings from $0 to $30,000, which was enough money to install the city water and sewer systems they so desperately needed.

He was a great storyteller and a very affable guy, leaving me to seriously consider taking him up on his invitation to stay in one the cabins he owned in what he described as ‘the most beautiful wilderness in America’.

But the point of this article is now about this interesting mayor, well, in a way it is…but the overall point is that you just never know who you’re going to meet.

THE WALKING NUN

A few minutes after stepping off the airplane, I was walking through the terminal in Abu Dhabi when I nearly crushed the foot of a tiny Buddhist nun. I hadn’t really been paying attention because I was trying to locate my connecting gate and so when I heard a little squeak, I looked down and saw the sub-five foot Japanese woman looking up at me. I immediately apologized and then, as any practicing Buddhist nun would be inclined to do I suppose, she just smiled widely and invited me for some tea.

With over an hour before my next flight, I agreed to join her and off we walked towards the cafe, with her carrying nothing more than a cloth bag slung over her shoulder holding a traditional prayer drum.

As we sat chatting, and often laughing, I came to learn that this was no ordinary Buddhist nun. This was Jun Yasuda, also known as the Peace Walker, a woman who has dedicated most of her life to walking around the world promoting peace. She has walked long distances in the name of cultural understanding, walking with people of all nations, religions and backgrounds and in support of dozens of worthy causes. She’s repeatedly trekked across North America, sometimes in the dead of winter, as well as from Europe to Asia, across Russia and up and down the length of Japan, over and over again.

At the time of our brief conversation, I really couldn’t comprehend the positive effect Jun was having on the world, but as soon as I reached my final destination of Bangkok and looked her up online, I discovered how well-known and truly remarkable she was.

Six months later, when I was in Melbourne, a friend of mine called me one afternoon and during our conversation he mentioned that a Buddhist nun and some others had walked through his home town the day before en route from Perth to Sydney. Within minutes, I had convinced another friend, who had a car, to drive into the country with me in order to meet up with Jun. And we did, finding her and her fellow walkers resting in a community center in a small country town.

And as soon as I walked through the door, Jun recognized me and yelled out, “My airport friend who break my foot!”. It was a remarkable moment.


THE GUIDEBOOK OF KABUL

It was my second day in Kabul and I had just purchased a half-torn, half-crumpled guide book of the city from a street vendor. This was not your typical guide book though, it was about the size of a postcard and had only 50 pages. But nonetheless, it had been written the year before and therefore represented the only semi-current guidebook for any traveler visiting Kabul.

As I wandered around the city, trying to locate the somewhat infamous Chicken Street, I came upon a small hotel and decided to inquire as to their nightly rates. After learning that the rooms were well out of my price range, I just sat down in the lobby for a while, escaping the chaotic traffic outside. The hotel owner kindly brought me some tea and I began reading through my guidebook, when another foreigner, perhaps in his early forties and dressed in a sport jacket, walked up to me.

“What do you think of that guidebook?” he asked.

“It’s ok, there’s not so much information in here, but I guess that’s expected given the current state of things,” I replied.

“Has it helped you at all?” he continued.

“A bit I guess, but I wouldn’t have paid more than the $3 I paid to get it,” I said with a little chuckle.

“I’m the author,” he said.

After a bit of backpedaling and a great deal of appreciation that this man didn’t take any offense to my comments, I found myself listening to valuable insider advice and recommendations from Dominic Medley, the one foreigner who seemed to have a greater knowledge of Kabul than anyone else.

In fact, his advice proved to be so reliable and solid that it ended up helping me out in ways that I never imagined. One week after I had left Kabul, I learned that two Swiss backpackers had been killed in one of the parks that I had originally planned to visit, but that Mr. Medley had strongly urged me to avoid. I remember reading the story and thinking that it could just as easily have happened to me had I never met this guidebook author in such an unexpected way.

IN CONCLUSION

We never know who we’re going to meet…so when we’re out there in the world, whether it be in a foreign land or in places more familiar, it pays to keep our ears and eyes wide open and to not shy away from meeting new people (something I’ve admittedly had problems with at times). The person sitting at the table next to you right now or the person you chat with while waiting in line at the bank, just may be someone who could teach you something new, put a smile on your face or even have a far more significant impact on your life.


Who are some of the interesting people you’ve met when you least expected it?

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Comments 27

  1. Brutus | ScooterTrippin

    Earl,

    I a, very impressed. I just found this blog and am hooked. I write, in general, about travel by motorcycle. My absolute favorite specific topic is the great people I meet along the way. The people really do make the travels so much more interesting. AND, you my friend make reading this blog a must-do every day!

    Thanks,

    Brutus

  2. Suzy

    This is a great post Earl. The imagery created in each story is remarkable. I love those characters you encounter while traveling. They are people that you would have never even had some sort of connection with had you not traveled. You become forever changed by them. Thanks so much for sharing these with the world.
    .-= Suzy´s last blog ..How to Travel Like a Temperamental Ginger =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Suzy! Thanks so much for your comments. People always ask me if it is difficult being away from friends while traveling so much. I always tell them exactly what you just wrote – I would never have even met most of my friends or most of the interesting people I’ve come across had I never started traveling. And that’s an incredible reward in my eyes…and it seems in yours as well!

  3. Sandi

    I was really hoping Jan Yasuda looked more like the nun at Khalighat.

    After living in Uganda for 7 months, it actually takes a little effort to make eye contact and smile at a “newbie” in my small little village- plus becoming more socially awkward each day doesn’t help. Although the new white person in town may only be here a few days, they do have a story and if a person is all they way over here, it’s usually an interesting one to be told 🙂
    .-= Sandi´s last blog ..Holidays and Beyond… =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Sandi – it of course can be difficult at times meeting new people and certainly being a remote village like you are doesn’t make it any easier! But I would agree with you that anyone who makes their way to Uganda is going to have a unique story and is probably well worth interacting with, as are most of the local people in your village I would assume.

  4. Adam

    This was a really great post. Meeting strangers is half the fun of life and it’s something I’m always working on.

    Your experience in India sounds particularly inspiring. Every now and then I work up the courage to ask random questions of random people. I don’t think I’ve had a negative interaction yet, not that it matters, because it’s the good ones I remember.
    .-= Adam´s last blog ..#MusicMonday: Songs from Around the World =-.

    1. Earl

      Thanks Adam! Speaking with random people/strangers is a funny thing. Most of us want to meet new people yet most of us are also so uncomfortable trying to speak with new people. So all it takes is someone to say the first few words, perhaps using the method that Osborne mentioned above, and the barrier is instantly broken. And the more people we meet, the more memorable interactions we have in life. And as you said, that is half the fun!

  5. Nate

    Wow! It just goes to show you…never judge a book by its cover, right? I think every single person, whether it’s a mayor from a very small town or a Buddhist nun promoting peace, can teach us life lessons and at the very least, get us to think outside of our usual, preconceived notions.

    Thanks for sharing these stories – I love them!
    .-= Nate´s last blog ..Gaining Glimpses of Wholeness =-.

    1. Earl

      In a way, it actually all ties in with your latest post about thinking outside the box. The more people we meet in life, then the more ideas, thoughts or even lifestyles we encounter that may appear ‘outside the box’ to us, helping us view our own lives in a new perspective.

    2. Brenda Hansen

      Think this is great site, but he should have left when he wanted to because because the “Mayor” in our town is a joke! We have a wonderful community! What mayor would disrepect the town he is in? We have a wonderful town! Whenever anyone needs help, everyone is there to help. For expample when our river over flowed, people came to sand bag the houses that were in trouble. I am so mad that the mayor made our beautiful little town sound so terrible!

      1. Earl

        Hello Brenda – Thank you so much for your comment. Although, I do believe that you mis-interpreted my post. Not once did I or your mayor mention that you did not have a wonderful community over there in Brookston. And I’m not sure which part made you feel that the mayor disrespected the town.

        In fact, at the end of the post I finished by stating that I would “seriously consider taking him up on his invitation” to visit the Brookston area. If he had painted such a bad picture of the town, I certainly wouldn’t have thought about visiting!

        In the short amount of time I spent with your mayor, he spoke very positively about Brookston and repeatedly encouraged me to take a trip to experience it’s beauty and charm for myself, not once describing it as a ‘terrible’ place.

        1. Brenda Hansen

          Thank you for responding to me. I guess what made me mad about what our “mayor” said was that he would tell hunters where to go so they never come back. It makes us sound as though we are not polite to people who come into our town. Also, we are not in need of city water and sewer. We are small town and that would be ridiculous.

    1. Earl

      Hey Moon – I went to Kabul at the end of 2004. I had been in traveling in Pakistan when I learned that tourist visas for Afghanistan were being issued again and so I went to an Afghan consulate. Unexpectedly, I had a visit in less than an hour and figured I might never have that chance again, and so off I went. It proved to be the most-eye opening travel experience of my life as you might imagine.

  6. T-roy

    Dude, this is one of the best blog post I have read in a long time. Serious when I say that! So many posts are written for search engines and they miss the core of some things when traveling and thats meeting people. People will always make or break a trip for me and sites/attractions rank very little compared to this.

    I’ve always said no matter what country your in, one good person can change your thoughts of the place and make it to the top of your list of favorites places.

    When in Singapore I met a guy that went way out of his way to make me feel at home in Singapore and to the day I die I think I will forever love Singapore because of the kindness of a stranger.

    http://www.foggodyssey.com/2009/06/11/why-i-travel/

    I’m just trying to decided which one of the 3 I would love to meet first:
    * The mayor is funniest and anyone who buys me a beer is worth meeting!
    * The nun is the most original!
    * The guidebook writer was so random and what were the odds???

    … hard choice amigo! 🙂
    .-= T-roy´s last blog ..Road Tripping with Outlaw Venezuelan Bikers in Ecuador: Part II =-.

    1. Earl

      You’re spot on T-roy. I often don’t really care what country I’m actually traveling in because it is always the people that create the experience and there are interesting people in every country of the world, all over the place. Just like with your Singapore example, the first thing that comes to mind whenever I think of most of the places I’ve been to is some sort of interaction with the people, very rarely is it a particular attraction.

      And the mayor was absolutely hilarious! I was hoping to run into him again during his stay but it didn’t happen.

  7. Osborne

    The easiest way to start up conversations with people, is to just incorporate them into your already existing one. As your hanging out and talking with your friends turn to the closest random person and ask their opinion on whatever topic it is you are discussing regardless of what you are talking about. I have met many people in coffee shops, fast food joints, elevators, and just simply on a street corner doing this. Some get a tad freaked out at first then they usually get involved and you suddenly meet a new and fascinating individual.

    1. Earl

      Hey Osborne! That’s some great advice. We often find ourselves, or at least I do, having a difficult time figuring out ways to strike up a conversation with someone new. But of course, the other person is most likely having similar thoughts. Your idea is the perfect way to ‘break the ice’ and forget about any pressures we might be experiencing. Considering that I work almost every day at cafes here in Mexico, I’m definitely going to give this a shot!

        1. Earl

          Hey Michael – Internet down here has been extremely reliable and fast, even when I was living in a somewhat remote 300 person village. There are several major Mexican cafe chains that all offer free high-speed internet that you can always count on and are open about 18 hours per day. As for internet at home, the places I have lived in have had wi-fi included in the monthly rent, so it didn’t cost anything. But if this isn’t the case, you can easily set up a connection for about $30-$50 per month. Internet is definitely nothing to worry about in Mexico!

  8. Ash

    Earl…you know something? Your blog posts never, ever fail to disappoint. I am never bored. I never skip and scan over it. I read every word, and every damn time, you manage to inspire without even directly giving advice. You inspire by showing. And it’s rad.

    I’m in love with the idea of the Peace Walker, and am going to look her up right now.

    And while the perspective here is that these people have all managed to bring so much value into your life and your travels and your memories, I can only suspect that, on the flip side, you have been equally as awe-inspiring for them. I know that if you were to step on my foot (to which I’d likely elbow you in the ribs and make a GRR face, and then promptly invite you to have beer, instead of tea), the encounter would definitely be one that I’d remember, just hearing your stories.

    You rock. The end.
    .-= Ash´s last blog ..Hula Hoop Contest 2010! =-.

    1. Earl

      Wow Ash! I’m just thrilled to have you as a reader and to know that you’re enjoying the posts. And coming from an, no, sorry, THE undeniable superstar of inspiration (yes, that’s you!), your words are most truly appreciated. Not so much the elbow to the ribs, but then again, as long as there’s some beer afterward, I think I can handle it. But not the GRR face, that will absolutely freak me out.

      And the Peace Walker is unreal…this link pretty much tells it all: http://www.dharmawalk.org/junsan1.htm She’s definitely not your typical Buddhist nun, but then again, who is these days?

    2. Katy pirila

      I’m am a child who has lived in the town of brookston all my life I have been raised in that town. So you know our town is awesome and not exactly how our major has explained. Our town is very awesome. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone is willing to help another out no matter what it is. If you think about it our town is like a great big family. And honestly our town is not poor. And if people are they make enough to get by and some. To me I would never want to live any where else we have the most amazing town in the whole u.s. We would like if you came to our town so we can really show you brookston. And if I would suggested a day I would say the 4th of July because we have the cutest parade you will ever see also people come from many places to see our fireworks. We have better fireworks than most bigger cities.

      1. Earl

        Hello Katy – I’d like to thank you as well for your comment on this post and for the invitation to visit your town! Spending the 4th of July out there sounds very tempting indeed!

        And I also think I need to clarify one of the lines from my post. When the mayor referred to the town as ‘bankrupt’, he was not referring to the individual people and their incomes. He was simply speaking of the city government’s lack of funds and how that made it difficult for the town to install such things as a city-wide sewage system. The mayor never mentioned anything about the income of those living in the town and never mentioned that it was a poor place at all.

        Either way, I have no doubt that Brookston is a wonderful, caring community! And if I am able to make it out that way at some point, I hope you don’t mind if I do get in touch in with you!

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