Ok, I admit the title for this post was inspired by a recent book I read titled “People We Meet on Vacation” by Emily Henry. But I have been meaning to share some of the unusual experiences I had on my most recent trip to the US (which was more than 3 months ago).
After two years of being stuck on the small island nation of Singapore, I was thrilled to finally board a long flight (15 hours) to San Francisco. I was eager to meet my daughter who had left months earlier to begin her Master’s degree and also to revisit the neighborhoods which had been home for me almost two decades ago.
The holiday was fun and I returned with many good memories, stunning photographs and assorted books. Yet, there was one aspect that was striking, not because it was unusual but because we seldom stop to write about this aspect of our travel – the random conversations with people who cross our paths. These are the interactions that are sometimes quirky, sometimes life-changing but always memorable, if we choose to honor them.
Here are five such interactions that I would like to share. I leave it to you to categorize them.
Generosity at the most unexpected moment
Our family’s fondest memories are from our holidays to exotic places. Thanks to Covid, the last memorable holiday was our safari trip to Tanzania in 2019. In order to have a few days together in a new location, we planned a trip to San Diego. We had booked a cute cottage not far from the beach that was furnished with an ocean theme and had surfboards in the backyard. In order to use the washer-dryer tucked away in the little shed, we needed some detergent.
Our search for travel size detergent took us to a neighborhood laundromat. As we were trying to figure out how to use the vending machine which looked like it had not been used in a while, a man who was loading a washing machine asked us if we needed detergent. When we replied in the affirmative, he said he had some in his car. As we walked out with him to the parking lot, we noticed that he actually lived in his car. He handed us a whole bunch of pods and refused to take any money.
We were shocked (in a good way) at his generosity and were not sure about the appropriate response. It didn’t seem right to insist and stick money into his hand but we couldn’t walk away either. We offered him a couple of snickers bars that we had picked up at the adjacent convenience store which he happily accepted. We walked away with a smile and a life lesson about generosity.
A gorgeous view that we almost missed
From San Diego, we drove down one morning to the picturesque seaside town of Encinitas. Several people had recommended a visit to the ashram of Paramhamsa Yogananda (of Autobiography of a Yogi fame). What we didn’t know was that the ashram was closed due to Covid. However, a kind lady let us in and allowed us to sit in silence for a while when she found out that we had come all the way from Singapore. When we left the ashram, she encouraged us to visit the gardens located a short walk down the road.
A friend had mentioned the gardens as being very serene and located in a perfect spot with a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean. When we reached the gates, a guard told us that the gardens were closed to the public on Mondays. Looking at our crestfallen faces, he enquired whether we were from out of town and when we responded, he generously opened the gates saying that he was allowed to make exceptions for non-local visitors.
As we climbed the curving steps that took us through a well-maintained garden to the lookout point at the top, we were speechless. On a clear day the sky and the ocean stretched out endlessly until they met at the horizon. A few surfers bobbed on the waves close to the beach. With no one else around, the silence and solitude amidst soothing greenery and the expansive blue in the distance was unforgettable. I didn’t get the name of the guard but surely he was an angel who ensured we could partake of the heavenly beauty of nature that was within reach.
A booklover at Balboa Park
As the sun began its early descent on a December evening, we walked around the Alcazar Gardens in Balboa Park in San Diego. On this trip I had embarked on a photography project to take pictures of my book, Rewriting My Happily Ever After in each city that we visited. In search of a stunning backdrop, I walked alongside the pretty walkways until I stopped near the Museum of Man. The golden hour was receding fast and I propped my book against the sculpture at the entrance, vaguely aware of a woman walking a small dog hovering around me. She was wearing sweatpants and her long blond hair was streaming out of a pink beanie.
I smiled at her once I was done and moved away. She approached me and asked to see my book.
“Did you write this book?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied, surprised that a stranger would want to engage in conversation.
She went on to ask me what the book was about, whether it was my personal story and took a photo of the cover saying that she loves to read inspiring stories. I walked back to my family with a stunned expression over what had just transpired. It felt good to make a connection in real life over a book that means a lot to me. And to have it validated by a stranger’s genuine interest felt like the icing on a very satisfying cake.
A book can be a stimulus to conversation, an excuse for connection and a way to expand our understanding of each other.
Finding connection on a long drive
It was dark when our flight from San Francisco landed at Austin. We booked an Uber ride to the home of our friends who lived somewhere in the vast expanse of Texas, unaware of how long the ride would be. Our driver was a young woman with a pleasant smile and an exotic accent who was happy to chat with us as the car meandered through wide highways and deserted suburban roads. As we exchanged personal details, we came to know that she had arrived as a student from Burkina Faso, speaking very little English. And now she spoke clearly and articulated her strong opinions with ease, backing them with real life examples.
Having lost her job during the pandemic, she was trying to make ends meet by driving. It had been a tough few years for her yet she had a sunny disposition not marred by some of her unpleasant experiences in her adopted country. We were impressed with the clarity of her thinking and her even temperament, something we could all use in these fraught times when we are ready to take offense at every small slight. It’s not often that we learn important lessons from the people who briefly cross our path. She drove us to our physical destination and also steered us towards deeper thought and greater compassion. And what a ride it was!
From the land of Crazy Rich Asians
The streets of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco were deserted. I remembered the last time I had been here, more than a decade ago. It was a clear, sunny afternoon in June. The Golden Gate Bridge was shimmering majestically in the distance. The streets were abuzz with tourists.
My daughter was twelve then and I was secretly dreading the teenage phase that lurked around the corner. We stopped to get a sketch done by one of the many artists who lined the sidewalk, offering to get a portrait done in 15 minutes. The artist managed to capture her innocence and charm at that age and I was pleased with the result.
On this trip, we found just one artist to draw our family portrait. The sun went down quickly as he began to sketch us one at a time. The temperature began to drop rapidly (even though it wasn’t 5 p.m.). Once my turn was done, I entered the Sunglass Hut for warmth as well as to check out a new pair of sunglasses. As the only customer in the store, I had the exclusive attention of two salespeople.
Alice approached me with a smile. With large black-rimmed spectacles and her hair tied back into a high ponytail, she looked very young. We began chatting as she suggested various options.
“Where are you visiting from?” she asked.
“Singapore,” I replied, not expecting her to know where it was.
“Oh, nice. I’ve been to Singapore,” she replied.
“What brought you to Singapore?” I asked, obviously surprised.
With a sheepish smile, she said “The Crazy Rich Asians movie. It made me curious about the country”.
It amazed me that someone would fly out all the way to Singapore on a whim ignited by a popular movie. Alice went on to say that she had been impressed with Singapore and had also visited Japan on that trip.
When I walked out of the store with my purchase, I shook my head at the strange coincidence of running into someone who had been to the country that is now home to me.
Travel is enriching in so many ways over and above the novelty of visiting a new place. No wonder I missed it so much.
What have your memorable travel moments been?