Travel Isn’t About Places. It’s About People.

What a stranger overseas taught me about the pandemic

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Travels are painted and layered by the individuals you encounter. The people make the place. This much I have learned for certain.

And I have met some truly wonderful people.

But I have also met some people that I did not find so truly wonderful. Some people that would be more aptly described as characters.

Not mean or malicious people but strange, idiosyncratic, and maybe a bit too candid at times.

And yet, I’m sure others in different countries and cultures thought the same about me, too at one time or another. A wide-eyed American exploring a faraway land that, to them, may have been the only place they’ve ever been.

One time, in Phuket, Thailand, there was a guy I met in a hostel.

He called himself Stan.

We did not so much “meet,” but, rather forcefully, he sat down next to me in the lobby and started talking as if we had been friends for years already.

It was not much of a conversation at first, for he was not talking to me, but at me.

Stan said he had been on the road for over a decade. He was easily over 50 years old, the only one in the hostel over 26. That gave him an air of arrogance that I’m still not sure whether he earned or fabricated.

Stan was balding, thin and gangly, with a nose that looked permanently sunburnt and a graying five o’ clock shadow.

When I asked him where he was from, he said, “All over, kid. All over.”

(To note, I’m about 6’2”, and at the time had hints of scruffy facial hair. It had been years since someone called me kid. I’m still uncertain whether he did this affectionately or in condescension).

This began a series of stories about how many women he’s been with, how many wives he had divorced, how many overseas investments he had fortifying his many bank accounts.

Stan told me, and anyone else who would listen, about his travels.

About how jungle safaris are not as great as they sound. About how the best Shanghainese food he ever had was in Sydney, Australia. About how, if he wanted, he could have made it in Hollywood.

The way he spoke conveyed that he really thought highly of his own existence.

More than once he referred to himself affectionately in the third-person, “When you’ve been on the road as long as this here Stan, you’ll know wisdom, kid.”

He was not exactly friendly, though he acted as if he was the most popular guy around once upon a time. His manner was gruff and forward, and it was clear that he did not give a toss what anyone else thought of him.

Strangely enough, I felt comfortable around him because I knew that he didn’t care whether I did or not.

Other than his age and arrogance, what I remember even more than Stan’s stories was the way he smelled. Or maybe it was simply the fact that he smelled.

His presence made me, and whomever else was around, wince and crinkle our noses.

But nobody ever said anything, because that’s just not what you do: you don’t arrive at a hostel and make friends by telling someone they are in need of several showers.

For four days, Stan and I shared a room with two other college-aged guys from London. By the end of the three days, we three youths all smelled like Stan, because we had shared a room with him.

After this distressing realization, I took on a temporary unreasonable fear of balding, long-armed and thin 50-year-old men with sunburnt noses.

I’m not sorry for writing this, and I’m not changing Stan’s name to protect his identity. Instead, I wish to pose a warning to other travelers not to share a room with Stan, lest you want to find out what it’s like when soap itself does not work.

Though unoriginal of me to say, it really is the people you meet that make the places you go.

Sure, Phuket is a beautiful place, a sight to behold and one that I hope to see again soon. But there’s only so much I can write about white-sand beaches and scenic boat rides.

But Stan? I could write a book about his pungent scent alone, and then a sequel entirely about the holes in his socks.

The thing about traveling is that the place you go is not always the best part. The place isn’t even usually the best part. Only sometimes, on those times you get (un)lucky enough to not meet anyone mildly interesting.

People make the places worthwhile.

I don’t know why this is the case, but that’s what I’ve found across a great deal of travels.

I should have asked wise old Stan this question. I’m sure he would have answered confidently and with some vague reference to something or someone he had conquered in his life.

When the pandemic befell the world this year, everything changed.

Travelers all over the globe were told to bunker down, cancel their flights, and cease their globetrotting.

“Tame the wanderlust until this virus goes away,” we were told.

Nobody appreciates being told they can’t do something.

For me, hearing this from someone only prompts me to do something even more. An extra reason to address that chip on my shoulder, further motivation to take action in a certain direction merely because someone else said not to.

That was over half a year ago.

In the US, international travel still remains unpopular (though not mandated, the worries and qualms people have over traveling overseas these days is pervasive and intensive).

The reality is, the world is telling travelers not to travel. It’s like fate. Two years of traveling for me and then the universe intervenes, forcing myself and the world to a halt.

But a time of rest can be the launchpad for the next step, the coming adventure and journey.

A period of reflection, musing, and gratitude.

In these pandemic months, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my travels, as well as learn to appreciate home — sunny Southern California — to a degree I never have.

For this I am thankful.

I’ve had the opportunity to write about my time overseas. To remember the places I’ve traveled to. To remember the people I have met.

To remember Stan and what it was like to share a room with him.

The time will come again where travels are once again part of the fabric of normalcy. Until then, we can only live, day by day, and take the tide as it comes.

This can prepare us and, if you let it, can excite us, for the journey to come.

And a journey most certainly is coming, because one always is. The horizon before us continues to move and change.

The best we can do is reflect on our last journey and prepare for the next.

Reflecting has shown me that we live life in chapters, each chapter part of a long and overarching story. The next journey is coming. That is the lesson that I’ve arrived at during these times without physical movements.

Who knows what the next journey holds. Oh wait. That’s right — Stan knows. I digress.

If you want to read more travel stories, check out my bestselling travel book, “Everywhere But Home: Life Overseas as Told by a Travel Blogger” on Amazon.

For more photos, check out my Instagram.

This article originally appeared on my travel blog on October 9th, 2020.

Written by

Bestselling travel writer. Columnist. Author. USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

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