I often find myself drifting into the realm of the 'what if' – what if I'd ordered a burger instead of a pizza? What if I asked out that girl I liked? What if I chose political science instead of engineering? Would my life by any different? If so, is it for the better or for the worse? Truth is, you can never know the answers to these questions, and it's probably best that way. We wouldn't be able to live our lives knowing the possible outcomes of our alternative choices. The one 'what if' that has baffled me the most, though, always relates to people. How would my life turn out if I'd met this person in a different time or place? How would it be if I hadn't even met that person?
Perhaps that notion is why the Before trilogy are some of my favorite films; they took that notion, romantically, and applied in a subtle way that even a cynical person like myself came to appreciate. The premise was simple; boy meets girl on a train to Vienna and they get to spend one day together, knowing they only had that one day. Whether you believe the whole love at first sight deal or not is irrelevant; watching the two protagonists slowly come to understand they're soulmates, but with just a day to spare, is interesting, and it gets you wondering – if I were in their shoes, would it have ended similarly? Or would I have not even approached the girl?
True to the spirit of those films, travel does open the flood gates when it comes to the realm of chance, and you'd be surprised how many people you encounter during your travels that would impact you more than you could possibly imagine. It didn't take long for me to personally experience that 'chance' factor along side the 'what if' one. I reacted less than wisely, and lost what could've been a very cool friendship. So, to put my restless mind at ease and convince myself I can't be the only fool who does that, I decided to ask other people if they encountered people during their travels that left a mark – ones they still remember to this very day – and how they reacted to that encounter. Surprisingly, not all their encounters were romantic; in fact, most weren't.
NORA TAMIMNora in the United States
The scholarship I was on abroad had ended, and I needed to turn in the room I was staying in and find somewhere else to stay. I wasn't prepared for this and I had no idea what to do. So, I got on a bus back to New York. I had a lot of bags that were a mess to carry around, and I wasn't even sure I could Uber because I couldn't afford to. I roamed around with the bags, and I decided to get some rest in Central Park till I figure out where I'd be staying the night. Out of nowhere, the wheels on my suitcase broke under the weight they were holding. I started taking one step, and lagging 10 others.
Then, out of no where came this tall, white guy wearing a headband. He asked if I needed help, and I said 'please save me'! He took out a joint and offered to smoke it together, but I politely declined, much to his amazement. He then went on to explain that the headband I was wearing, similar to his own, gives people the impression I'm a pothead. It was then my turn to explain that I was only wearing it because my hair was a mess. Afterwards, I took out a couple of bananas and offered him one. We kept talking as we walked, and he told me all about himself and how he's on his way to Orlando. I also opened up to him and shared my journey in America thus far, and how much I enjoyed the country. I decided to get on a train to a suburb of New York where I'd spend the last few days of my trip. We scrambled to the train station, trying to catch the train with all my bags, and I finally caught it. He lifted my bags on board for me, and we waved goodbye while the doors closed. We never got to know each other's names nor have we ever gotten in touch after that day. I would've liked to know if he caught his flight to Orlando or if I delayed him. We talked about everything, and when we parted ways it felt sad because I felt like we could've been good friends if we had the chance.
I'm doing what I do now because of a person I only met once on a business trip. I was working abroad for some time, and this one day we had a brand manager who was Turkish over for a business dinner. I remember him asking how old I was – 25 back then. He then asked all of us how old we thought he was. We said around 50. Turns out he was 65! He then went on to tell us how it was travelling that made all that difference, because he walks a lot and goes to new places. It kept him young, and his career benefited the most from all his travels. He then gave me a piece of advice that still resonates with me almost five years later. He said, "from now till you're 30, spend every penny you earn on traveling. Forget marriage and everything else."
He explained to us how travelling will do more good to our lives than anything else, and how you'll come back a better person full of ideas and acceptance of others. It was an eye-opener for me, and it had sort of a butterfly effect, you know. My passion for travelling started growing, and with it I decided to pair another passion of mine, writing. Years down the line after I heard that advice, I merged those two passions of mine and co-founded the Middle East's first travel publication, and it all started with friendly advice from an absolute stranger.
AHMED HATHOUTHathout and Duncan
I met Duncan Webb in Tbilisi, Georgia. The hostel I was staying in was a cozy little place, and the owner was a very nice woman. One night, she told me "hey, do you see this old person sitting there? He just started living his life after retiring from a lifetime of work and study." I went and talked to Duncan; he was holding this poetry book. We started talking, and I was dumbfounded by how well-read and cultured he was! When I told him I was from Egypt, he literally recited the country's history to me and we talked about former and current presidents. His insight about current affairs was really admirable. I showed him some pictures of home and invited him to come, and he told me he actually has Egypt on the list. Duncan's story was quite interesting. He and his wife have travelled to over 50 countries, but they travel in different styles. While she prefers to stay in hotels, Duncan prefers to stay in hostels to meet new people and immerse himself in the country's culture and traditions. When we got to talking about work and I shared with him how I disliked my job, I was even more astonished by the man when I found out he had four degrees! He studied law, philosophy, IT, and economics! He advised me to keep moving and not stick to one thing in life.
I think I was touched by the glaring contrast between Duncan as an old person and other elders in my country. Here, after retiring, our parents and their generation wait for their inevitable demise. A guy like Duncan is starting a new life after he retired; he has a plan and a list of places he wants to discover. He even goes to Uganda once every year to work on some charity projects there! He's almost 85, and he's been going to Uganda since he retired to help with projects they do there to help locals find water and such. It's incredible how he and his wife travel not just to have fun, but they want to discover cultures and meet new people. It was inspiring to see how his life had meaning even at such an age; it mattered.
We're still friends to this very day and we often chat, and he even visited Egypt and had lunch with my family and I.
Antoine NaggarAntoine on his trip
So, I was on a trip with a group of people cycling all over Egypt. I was helping in the trip, mostly with photography. One day, on the road, we crashed at one of the locals' that were helping us. I got up a bit early the morning, and there was this big beautiful field out there. So I asked our host if I could have a stroll there. He welcomed the idea and even sent his 9- or 10-year-old kid to walk with me. I started walking with the little guy in the field, and he then reluctantly said "Naggar, can I ask you a question? But don't get upset." I told him he could ask anything and I wouldn't be upset. He then went to ask "are you really a Christian?" I told him yes, I was. "But Christians aren't good people!" he responded.
I asked him why he thought that, and we kept talking. Turns out the only other Christian he knows was his school teacher who hits the kids and no one likes him. So that was his take on all Christians, that they were all like that teacher. It was a strange experience; so many people are enclosed in bubbles, Muslims and Christians alike, and they don't deal with anyone different from them. So, for me, it was great to deal with people that have never encountered someone different from them. I wanted to talk to these people and get to know how they think. This was one of the things that prompted me to decide to walk to Baltim, so I could meet as many different people as possible and interact with them.
As for the little guy, I explained to him that we're all human beings, and there's bad people of all faiths, but that doesn't mean the entire faith is like that.
Mostafa Adel (Me!)The hostel where I met Sara
One year ago, I was in Nepal for a little over a week. During my final night at the hostel, I went up to the roof to listen to some music and watch the stars above the beautiful Kathmandu; there was no one else there. Some time later, this girl comes and sits across the roof from me; we graciously greet one another. She was tall and had a heavy jacket and a wool cap on, but you could see her blonde hair and blue eyes across the room under the moonlight. A few minutes passed before she asked me where I’m from. I told her, and she told me she was from the United States. We got to talking; she was about 4 years older, and her name was Sara.
We talked about work and, when I asked about hers, I saw a glint of sadness in her eyes. She said she was a waitress, but that was only until she gets her masters in journalism, and she wanted to become a journalist at some point. We talked about life and about things in our countries. We talked politics and feminism and injustice. We also talked about marriage and failed relationships; ironically, we sort of shared the same cynical view when it comes to ‘love'. Talking with Sara was extremely enjoyable. She was smart, genuine, and very easy to talk to. It felt like I had been chatting with an old friend that night. I even divulged a few thing I don't normally share with my own friends! I'm not sure if it was because I knew we wouldn't meet again or because it just happens that you click with a person and feel you could tell them anything, but it happened anyway.
We talked for over two hours before being joined by others. Late into the night, Sara excused herself because she was going to wake up early and go to Pokhara, which my friend and I had just come from. We gave her a few tips, and then said goodnight. Her final words to me were “I really enjoyed talking to you.” At this very moment, I should’ve asked her for her Facebook account, as we did with another really cool person we met later that night, but for some reason I didn’t.
The next morning when I woke up, she was already gone. I wouldn’t say I mourned a ‘lost friendship’ or something, but a year later, I still think about that encounter. My interest in her wasn’t exactly romantic and I’m not naïve to call this anything than what it actually was, but I’ve felt more of a connection in those two hours talking to a stranger than I felt in years-long failed relationships. I think I mourned the loss of what could’ve been a very cool friendship more than anything.
I had fun that night, and though I’m plagued with “what ifs,” I know this will not be my last interesting ‘chance’ encounter. More trips and more strangers are to come. But should it be so, it was well worth it to bond that much with an absolute stranger, and for that I’ll always be grateful. And maybe one day our paths will cross again, and I'll have the guts to ask for contact information this time.