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.
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?