The real power of travel is I think the sharing that happens between people. Whether we like it or not, we’re all citizen ambassadors when we leave the country but it’s not a one-sided relationship. Meeting new people, learning about their stories and lives, that is I think the most important part of the travel experience. Through them we begin to better understand their culture and country, most times erasing misjudgments and wrong impressions in the process. While there are certainly outliers, I’ve learned that people are genuinely great almost everywhere in the world and that there is so much more that unites us as humans than what divides us along political lines. This is a look at just some of the amazing people I’ve met traveling.
While traveling around Israel on a rare solo trip, I met plenty of interesting characters along the way. The most engaging though were a pair of folks I chanced upon at dinner one night. I was at a restaurant in West Jerusalem, awkwardly eating alone yet again. About midway through dinner, a woman approached me and asked if I would like to join her and her friend for the meal. I was pretty shocked, that had never happened before but never wasting an opportunity to meet new people, I readily accepted and started what turned out to be an amazing evening.
I had asked to pet their dog earlier, so they knew I was American thanks to my give-away accent. Turns out they were curious more than anything else, and were both up to some weighty discussions. She was a manager at the controversial City of David archeological site and he was a lobbyist, entrenched in the confusing politics of the country. We talked about everything from politics to Palestine and even American pop culture. They were curious about my take on everything, and what Americans in general thought. The conversation was tense at times and we absolutely had many different opinions on the current events of the day, but that’s what made it so enjoyable. I’d spent several days looking at ruins, learning about Jerusalem of the past. I walked around barricades and noticed the stark differences between East and West Jerusalem. So it was good to chat with some locals and to hear their points of view, whether or not I agreed was besides the point. That simple interaction and their act of kindness transformed my trip and turned my entire stay in Jerusalem into something much more than a simple sight-seeing visit.
Located in the jungles of Maui, not too far from the coast, is an unusual man who runs a very unusual establishment. The Boo Boo Zoo as it’s known locally, the East Maui Animal Refuge is a place of last resort for animals no one else seems to want. From cows to peacocks and everything in between, the Zoo has been saving the lives of animals for more than 30 years.
Sylvan Schwab started the refuge as a way to help his wife ironically enough. She had been diagnosed with cancer and he wanted to find something for her to work on so she wouldn’t be lost in her thoughts. Not only did his wife survive and thrive, but so did the zoo. While he’s had to fight many battles and constantly worries about funding for the property, he has made it his life’s work to safe these precious animals. I’m an animal lover and to see any suffer, especially at the hands of man, is almost too much for me to take. What Sylvan does every day at the zoo is completely selfless and one of the best examples of human empathy that I’ve ever seen. It takes a strong constitution to do what he does, and I want the world to know about him.
When visiting Banff I expected snowy vistas, hot drinks by the fire and plenty of wintertime fun. I never expected to meet someone so impressive though that I’d still be thinking of her two years later. As the owner of two Siberian Huskies, I was excited for my first dogsled experience through the woods around Lake Louise. The owner of Kingmik Dogsled tours, Megan, met us and took us out personally on the ride of a lifetime.
Megan is a seasoned vet of some of Canada’s most inhospitable areas. She’s explored the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and spots on the map that will probably never have a name. All of this has been done in the harshest of winter weather conditions and all in the name of training with her dogsled team, her true love in life. Business has slowed for her in recent years though and it has become harder for her to retain her dogs as well as to pay the people in her employ. That morning she taught me a very important lesson, the lesson of supporting local businesses when traveling.
Instead of putting money into the coffers of a multinational company, we went with her and in the process helped her be profitable and continue doing what she loves. She doesn’t do it for the money though, she’s a strong believer in the importance of the tours in sharing Canadian history and traditions. As she told me, “if people don’t come, Canadian, Americans, or whoever, how can they learn about this important heritage?” And that’s exactly right.
Soweto, South Africa
As an American of a certain age, the name Soweto immediately conjures images of poverty, riots and repression. But those were the images of apartheid, now gone for twenty years incredibly enough. In its place is a Soweto of strength and determination, a surprisingly positive place to visit. The South West Townships, or Soweto, outside of Johannesburg have been around for a long time and will most likely be around even longer. Home to more than 1 million people, Soweto is the only place in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners once lived on the same street (Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu) and it’s of course where the Soweto Uprising of 1976 occurred. Soweto though is a story best told by the people who live there though, some of whom made an incredible impression on me.
I was on a bike tour and our guide for the day was a young guy, probably 20 or so years old, and a lifetime resident of the township. Throughout the bike ride he surprised me not just in his maturity, but for his appreciation for the history of the place he calls home. He was barely alive when apartheid ended; it’s an era that he did not experience. But the stories live on, the importance of them shared from one generation to the next. He portrayed a sense of self that is hard to find in people of any age, much less one so young. It warmed my heart to see that the lessons of the past are far from forgotten, they’re very much a part of modern Soweto.
The moment that really touched me though was at a stop in one of the poorer areas of the community. Sitting inside an old shack made of corrugated metal, sharing homemade beer from a paper carton one gentleman, easily 30 years my senior looked at me dead in the eyes and said, “You are welcome here.” I sensed that was an important moment, although I couldn’t particularly tell you why. I sensed it was an acceptance of my presence, yes, but even more so an appreciation that I was there at all. Moments like those can’t be planned or anticipated, but are priceless beyond compare.
A trek through the jungles of Taiwan’s mountains was the last place I expected to meet someone who would make a very personal impact on me, yet that’s exactly what happened when I met Aliman Madiklan.
Madiklan is a reformed journalist; having spent decades covering the news for large papers around Taiwan he gave it all up a few years ago when a chance of a lifetime arose. There are 14 recognized aboriginal tribes in Taiwan and Mr. Madiklan is of the Bunun people, who at one time called the jungles of the Central Mountain Range in Taiwan home. A huge swath of his people’s traditional lands had come up for sale and the government wanted to buy it to build a new rest stop for drivers traveling through the area. Shocked by the plan, Madiklan developed his own and bought the land outright, preventing the construction of the rest stop. Instead of paving over his people’s past, he wanted to find a way to showcase it, which he does every day through his unique Luanshan Tribal Village experience. The goal is to introduce visitors to Bunun customs and to hopefully impart a respect for a lifestyle that is all but lost today.
It wasn’t just the education I received that day that was important, it was something Madiklan said to me as we left. “We don’t want to own nature, we just want to be a part of it.” That’s an important statement and one that many of us should keep in mind as we travel the world.
These are just a few of the many people who have touched me in some way. Who are some interesting people you’ve met on your travels?