We don’t travel to move; we travel to be moved.
Travel is all about the unknown, with each new place revealing unforeseen adventures and experiences. For me, the most exciting uncertainty related to travel is meeting new people, especially the possibility that strangers could become friends.
During our two years of full-time travel, Perry and I were fortunate to make the acquaintance of many fine folks from countries as diverse as Estonia, China, Sweden, Taiwan, Bulgaria, Italy and Japan. Time and time again, we were met with great kindness, proving that the world is full of good people and new friends are just around the corner.
They generously gave to us in unexpected ways. They shared their life stories. They opened our eyes to their countries and customs. They invited us into their homes. They became friends. All of which left me in deep and heartfelt admiration, and gave my travels great personal meaning. While on the surface, we were learning about the world, these exchanges ultimately provided the most insight into ourselves.
When we stopped traveling, I started writing about these encounters as a personal antidote to the daily news cycle of mass shootings and toxic politics. These stories remind me that becoming bitter and cynical is not the answer. You and I have friends all over the planet, even if we haven’t met them yet.
Part cultural enlightenment, part humorous recollection, and written with much love, I hope you enjoy meeting my friends from the road.
The first time we met Darren, my maternal instinct kicked in. This is noteworthy because I don’t have children and the concept of mothering doesn’t come naturally.
Not that he needed a mother- he has a perfectly good one living in China, and as mothers go, these Chinese mamas are exceptionally devoted. But he did need help that day and considering we were not anywhere near China at the time, I stepped in as a poor proxy.
Our introduction occurred in London on an unusually warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. We were in a pub, which in London, is not unusual. While we were officially in the country to pet sit in Ipswich, we had been looking forward to attending a traveler meet-up arranged by Travis and Heather of Extra Pack of Peanuts (EPOP) travel podcast fame.
Perry was the first to notice Darren, who was standing off the the side while the extroverted attendees like myself chatted away endlessly. Leave it to Perry and his keen self-awareness to pick up on the presence of someone who was a little shy.
Perry interacted easily with Darren, drawing from his experiences at the University of Leicester (2013-2014), where he had many Chinese classmates, and since then had picked up a decent Mandarin vocabulary. Not that he needed it, as Darren’s English was excellent.
I eventually came over and began to chat with Darren, finding him friendly, interesting and very polite. As our conversation progressed, I had no idea our encounter was about to change the course of our future travels.
Darren, originally from a city about an hour outside of Shanghai, was in the UK on a global exchange program where Chinese students are sent to locations around the world to learn about the horse racing industry. He happened to be stationed in Suffolk, home of Newmarket racecourse, the famed British Thoroughbred racing venue that we had once been lucky enough to attend.
We exchanged stories about being expats in England, although Darren certainly had us beat in the uniqueness of his experience, which involved everything from mucking the stables to learning about the business of racing, conversing for hours at a time in a language that was not his first. For a naturally shy young person, this was an incredibly bold undertaking so far from home.
It was hard not to be impressed. Even attending this event was an act of fearlessness. He described how he was a fan of travel and the EPOP podcast, and decided he wanted to meet like-minded people even though the journey from Newmarket to London was complicated, involving many trains and transfers.
As the afternoon sun waned, the event shifted into an outdoor picnic at a nearby park. At this point, we asked about his return journey, and he admitted that there were delays with his train and probably wouldn’t get home until very late. I was worried about him and that’s when my ‘inner mom’ kicked in, convincing him to take the train back to Ipswich with us, where we would then give him a ride home in our rental car.
Eventually, we arrived safely in Newmarket where Darren invited us in for a delicious meal of noodles, chicken and vegetables.
As we bid our farewells and exchanged information, Darren reminded us that he would be back in China in April and that he would like to show us around if given the chance. Earlier in the day, we had mentioned our plans to visit Asia in the spring, and made vague promises to stay in touch and waved goodbye.
Fast forward six months.
As our Asian itinerary began to come into focus, we realized that we actually would be in Shanghai near the time that Darren would arrive back in China.
After a few messages back and forth, we made our plans to meet up in Shanghai where Darren would crash on the couch of our Airbnb apartment. The day we arrived, we were a little bit freaked out realizing that we were about to spend several days with someone we barely knew. Our London conversation had been fun and friendly, but did that qualify as friendship? We were about to find out.
Our first day together was a whirlwind of tourist activities. From eating fresh pastries (be careful, the cream filling is super hot!) at Kobayashi, to trying new Chinese foods (chicken feet) at Yuyuan market to touring Yu Gardens, we were soaking up the experiences fast and furiously.
We kept the conversation light, cheerful and fast-paced, with Darren putting his English to the test under my barrage of non-stop queries. I’m a super curious person and knowing we had the answers right there made it impossible to resist. From inquiries about the history of China to simple ‘what are those’ type questions, our first day together Darren became my personal Google search engine.
Cultural revelations abounded. That night at our Airbnb, I began to make scrambled eggs and pulled out a jar of Lao Gan Ma while Darren, normally reserved became animated and wanted to know how we knew about this product. We had been huge fans of Lao Gan Ma, famed Sichuan chili sauce, since we first came across it in Chengdu. We listened intently as he gave us a brief history of the condiment with the ‘Old Dry Mom’ (loose translation) and her disapproving stare on the front of the package.
I was so enthralled, I burnt the eggs. Not even Lao Gan Ma could make up for it.
As we gained insights into the country and each other, our conversations expanded beyond the superficial. Darren had arranged some job interviews while he was in Shanghai, and when he returned after one such appointment with a major airline, we could tell he wasn’t quite himself.
When asked, he shared that he experienced an intense line of questioning from the interviewer as to why he was not pursuing employment in the horse racing industry. When he tried to explain it simply wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life, the interviewer remained unconvinced, casting a shadow over the proceedings.
In China. switching careers or fields of study is not typical, so despite his diverse international experiences and excellent English, his intentions were viewed with suspicion, because in China, the nail that sticks out gets hammered.
Luckily, we had the perfect diversion, a special Shanghainese lunch with Darren and a friend. It was quite memorable because the restaurant was one we never could have selected, as there was no English menu or English speaking staff. The cuisine, unique to the Shanghai area, included red braised pork, eggplant in soy sauce, vinegar infused scrambled eggs, pork soup with knotted tofu noodles, and red braised baby eels.
Everything (including the eels) was absolutely scrumptious.
Over the course of the next few days, we settled into a routine of touring and eating.
We all stepped outside of our comfort zone with Darren getting us to try various new foods like stinky tofu and pork trotters, and he agreed to accompany us to a cat cafe in the Tianzifang neighborhood.
I think he enjoyed the ice cream more than the cats.
In between all of these outings, we spent a lot of time in public- on the streets and in the metro- where we would often find ourselves immersed in boisterous conversation, laughing and carrying on like old friends. I couldn’t help but notice that we drew plenty of stares, a combination of curiosity, irritation and astonishment. I imagine that while many Chinese in Shanghai probably have some English, and see western tourists often, it’s not everyday they witness a fellow countryman engaging in this level of demonstrative friendship. We stood out. He stood out.
In a country where standing out is not as culturally acceptable, I admired Darren’s moxie even more than I had before.
On our last night, we decided to celebrate by visiting the 103rd floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center. It’s the one to the left with the top that looks like a bottle opener.
It was one of those thrilling nights that stands out over the course of our travels. The energy of Shanghai carried us late into the night, and by this point, our discussions were those of good friends, full of shared experiences and inside jokes.
The next day, Darren accompanied us to the rail station for our high speed train to Beijing. The mood was a bit somber as we realized this would be our last face to face visit for quite some time. Perry, in his knowing ways, lightened the mood as we rehashed the week’s events over congee (breakfast rice soup) and hammed it up for the camera.
We’ve stayed in touch since then, although not as often as I would like. I think about that time in Shanghai- some days it feels like last week and others, a lifetime ago- but whatever the case, I’m confident that when we do meet again, we will pick up exactly where we left off.
Just like good friends do.