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The People You Meet

by Colin Mulligan | 2009

Anyone who's spent more than five minutes in a backpacker hostel knows how repetitive the conversation can be. For the most part, these are places where people from all over the world stop in for a few days of cheap lodging, not so cheap beer and travel advice on their destinations of choice. The unfortunate side effect of this is that relationships in such an environment tend to be short and superficial. In fact, the average first encounter at backpacker lodgings is so predictable that some travelers, myself included on occasion, will yield all of their vital statistics up front upon meeting someone new: "I'm Colin; I'm American; I've been in Africa for three months; I'm twenty-six. I don't know how long I'll be traveling through the region..."

While I was in Maputo, waiting for the sticky wheels of Mozambiquean bureaucracy to turn enough for me to register my new motorbike—it eventually took three weeks—I met no less than thirty different people who were only in the capital for one night before heading north to the beach. It might have just been coincidence, but afterwards I noticed that I started keeping much more to myself. I always go out of my way not to be rude or condescending, because everyone has their unique story to tell, but keeping up with all the names, nationalities and itineraries attached to the stories reaching my ear became a chore. So instead of walking around hostels with a notepad and pen, I started lumping my road acquaintances into groups, based upon the kind of travelers that my sensibilities perceived them to be.

The first category of backpacker I met was also the most common: people who weren't interested in immersing themselves into a foreign culture, or even indulging in the basic conversational niceties with strangers from other countries. These types seemed to prefer hanging with their friends from back home, talking football and exulting about how cheap everything was, before following their guidebooks to all the can't-miss tourist destinations the next day.

Even though this type of behavior was more or less the norm at youth hostels, I had the pleasure of meeting many, many notable exceptions. These other breeds of travelers fall roughly into three main categories: first come the adventurers, like the Swiss nurses who bought a Volkswagen Gulf in South Africa and drove it up the Sani Pass at five miles an hour. Or the two Frenchmen I met in Mozambique, who, after riding their motorbikes south from Paris to Gibraltar, ferried across to Morocco and then traced the length of Africa's coastline until they reached South Africa and began to round back up. Out on the road, one also comes across the socially aware brand of traveler, who comes to exotic locations not for relaxation and pristine beaches, but to seek out a greater understanding of the world, while hoping to make it a better place. These people—like the American artist volunteering for public health initiatives around Tanzania, or the Australian doctoral student studying ways to improve Africa's resource distribution—are among my favorites to converse with, because their experiences have led them to understand that beauty comes in many forms.

The third type of traveler is what I like to call the LJPT—locals just passing through. These are individuals who generally spend only one night in town, either accompanying a friend to the airport, or finishing up a business trip. Despite the fact that they tend to go to bed early, LJPTs can be a valuable source of information about their homeland. I met "Selaisse," a friendly Jamaican citizen at a guest house in his native Kingston, and after an evening spent chatting on the patio, he invited me up to his house on the island's wild north coast. Along with the food and shelter that he graciously gave me, Selaisse also taught me a great deal about Jamaica's ecosystem, biodiversity and infrastructure. He was a squatter who left the crime and desolation of Kingston's Spanish Town neighborhood with nothing but a strong back, a few dollars in his pocket and the determination to start a new life. In the decades since he moved to the countryside, he taught himself to farm, fish and make curative tonics from local plants and herbs. Now he lives in quiet solitude, earning a comfortable living by making jewelry, and hoping to turn his guest house into an eco-lodge for adventurous and socially aware travelers looking to enjoy a more authentic and rustic Jamaican experience.

So much of the beauty of travel comes from encounters with others, and for every ten loudmouth boozehounds or obnoxious, safari goers that you are forced to endure, someone will come along who makes a lasting impressions on you—older women journeying alone, locals struggling to realize their dreams against all odds, and people whose travel-induced spiritual growth is reflected in every aspect of their personality.

In hostels I have met many people who were in the middle of great and daring adventures; people on motorbikes, walkers, hitchers and individuals who gave up the comforts of home to pursue more simple and meaningful existences. I was always enthused and recharged after meeting them, and it wasn't at all important for me to know their histories or politics, or even their names. For me, it was enough just to know that they were out there, seeking understanding and self-discovery on their own terms. As I write this, there are tens of thousands more, from all nationalities and backgrounds, spread across the world on similar missions. Some are seeking adrenaline, some contemplation and some human empathy, but whatever their purposes on the road might be, they're all evolving in their own way. And each of them is contributing to the hope of a better world, one adventurous step at a time.

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