Crazy Adventures, Solo Travel, Travel Addiction

People I Will Never Know: Thoughts On Meeting People While Traveling

stranger in a strange land
Photo courtesy of Debi Magonet

Living in Japan is a really lonely experience. I have a lot of acquaintances here, but few people I can call close friends. This is true of my life in America too, though. I’ve spent so much time abroad that I’ve collected friends like I’ve collected postcards; found and then immediately forgotten.

I’m a regular reader of the Metropolis Classifieds section (Metropolis is an English language magazine popular among foreigners in Japan). They sometimes feature funny ads in their personals section, posted by people searching for some beautiful stranger they had a random chance encounter with. They read something like this:

“I’m searching for a girl with long, red hair who I saw at the Tokyo station on October 15th at 5:02 pm. We made eye contact and you smiled at me. Please email me. It’s really important that I see you again.”

These ads are ridiculous but I love trying to imagine the people who wrote them. Everyone has had memorable encounters with random strangers, but I think frequent travelers encounter them at a far higher rate. There’s something about being in new, frightening or dangerous situations that creates a feeling of closeness and intimacy that wouldn’t develop under normal circumstances.

I owe the reason I’m in Japan (at least in part) to one such encounter.

Last year, on a 10-hour train ride in India, I met a girl from New York. We both ended up in the same crowded sleeping car that was teeming with smelly livestock and smelly, leering old men. We shared a dinner of potato chips and bananas and compared India stories and tattoos. We learned that we were remarkably similar (we’d gone to college near each other, majored in Psychology and even shared the same birthday).

Then she told me all about Japan and her two-year teaching stint. She told me stories of vending machines that sold used school- girl underwear and bars where women dressed as maids and called the customers “master”. She also told me about the Japanese boyfriend she was planning on marrying in a few months. I was intrigued.

When our train arrived in Agra the next morning, we parted ways. She gave me a book (The Life of Pi, which I still have) but we didn’t exchange contact info. What would have been the point?  So we left it at “maybe I’ll see ya around…”

Of course, I never saw her again.

But it’s interesting how vividly I remember that night. The sounds of the trains whooshing past the open window. Shivering under a thin blanket. The man with the crate of chickens who slept next to me.

And so months later, in New York, as I tried in vain to string together some semblance of a life plan, I thought of her Japan stories.

And well, you know the rest.

I’ve met so many people this way. I once stayed for a week at this Brazilian’s apartment in Amsterdam. I met him on a bus. Every night we’d sit up on the roof of his building with a group of his friends and eat hummus and watch the sun set over the city.

Another time, I was in Paris and this American business man gave me 200 euros, after overhearing me explain to someone how my ATM card wasn’t working and I didn’t have enough money for cab fare to the airport. I don’t know what I would have done if it weren’t for his generosity. I probably would have had to walk all night to get there.

So many people, so many random encounters that have had an impact on my life. And they’re all people I’ll never see again.

I wonder how many people can say the same thing about me?

It makes me sad to think about it.

Is it weird that I now not only mourn the loss of old friendships and relationships but also the loss of potential friendships and relationships?

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12 thoughts on “People I Will Never Know: Thoughts On Meeting People While Traveling

  1. Hi! I too found your blog through JulieinJapan. I love reading your entries as I lived in Himeji Japan from August 06-late July 07. I really loved Japan, but like any country it had it’s ups and downs. It also helped that my two best friends from college came with me, and I ended up living with one, then the other. I found that I really adjusted better having friends from home around. I taught at the now defunct Nova and actually really enjoyed it overall.
    Sorry for typing out my life story, haha but I do really agree with your post. After coming back from Japan I moved to Georgia w/my boyfriend whose in grad school, and while I constantly miss friends from home, I worry that if I move back home for grad school, and don’t move someplace new, I’ll miss out on some possibly great potential friendships. Do you choose what’s familiar and comforting, or branch out into the unknown once again? I feel like that’s the theme of my life.
    Anyways, I really love reading your blog, so keep up the great posts!! If you’re intersted I also have a ton of info about cool places to visit in Japan!

  2. Hi Sarah,

    I can imagine that it would be a lot easier to come to Japan with friends from home. When I first moved here, I lived with a friend from college (she was another reason I came here) but then she got a job in Hong Kong and moved shortly after I arrived!

    But at least she introduced to me to a lot of her friends before she left. I don’t know what I would have done otherwise.

    But yes, it’s hard to know when to chose the familiar over taking risks and moving somwhere new. I struggle with that ALL THE TIME. I’ve had the most life-enhancing experiences everywhere I’ve lived so I can’t say I regret it, but it’s made keeping friendships alive pretty damn hard. I find that no matter how much you lie to yourself and say “we’ll keep in touch”, eventually you drift apart. Every time! It really, really sucks.

    But please do tell me about cool places to live in Japan! I haven’t had time to travel much being that I work all the time…but now that I’m quitting…

    Anyways, thanks for reading my blog and taking the time to comment.

  3. Beautifully written. I’ve had the same kind of thing where I’ve met awesome people and never kept in touch. I keep thinking “well, you’ve got to enjoy the experience for what it is, no matter how transient” (plus they could turn out to be jerks), but there’s always a little bit of me that wishes I had stayed in touch…

    Sucks that you’re having a rough time in Japan… but what are you going to do now that you’ve quit? More traveling?

  4. Nice post. I have a friend who lived in Beijing for 5 years who eventually came back to the States and we have conversations on this subject all the time.

    I think this whole sadness over friendships thing is another aspect of having a restless personality. Being “up in your head” (over-thinking everything) is also another trait.

    Try not to stress it. It’s a normal human reaction. Honestly if you came back to the States and settled down and kept all your friends forever, you’d still have these thoughts–they may even be worse!

  5. Pushupyogi – Yes, I’m actually going back to the States for a few weeks next month and then maybe to Thailand, Korea or Hong Kong…we’ll see how much money I can save! But then I’m coming back to Tokyo.

    Vin- Are you saying that I over-analyze things? ; ) Yes, that’s most likely true. I’ve definitely been told that one before.
    I think the fact that I spend hours on the train commuting every day with nothing else to think about may have a little do with that. What conclusions did you and your Beijing friend come to, exactly?

  6. I’m exactly the same way, I always see people on the train, they smile at me, and I smile back. One time a group of streetdancers came into my car on the subway and he handed a CD to me which had two mp3’s on it and the name GRIGG on it. Potential friendships are probably the strangest and sweetest, because you dont know eachother well enough to be cruel.

  7. Hey Reannon, you should really hire Julie as your publicist…cause I found your blog through her as well 🙂

    I’ve only read a couple of your posts and I’m quite intrigued. Your story with the girl on the train is beautiful.

    Even the way it ended is perfect, without exchanging any contact details and leaving it at that. I don’t think it would’ve had the same impact on you if it ended in any other way. Just my opinion.

  8. Thanks Yara. But it wasn’t fiction…it really happened!

    Yeah, it was really, really sweet of Julie to take the time to write that. Thanks to her, a lot more people have discovered this blog! Which is nice, but that means that I’ll also have to come out of a self-imposed retirement and actually write more often. : )

    Thanks for reading!

  9. I love your most, it moved me! honestly i understand how you feel! beautiful post!
    And im sure just like how you were thinking of thse strangers u once met, they must have thought of u as well!

  10. Hey Alya,

    Yeah that would be nice if it’s true, wouldn’t it? Maybe they’ll read it one day and recognize themselves and email me.

    I think the odds of that happening are slim, but one can hope.

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