THE BLOG

The People You Meet While Traveling

02/11/2015 05:47 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015
Copyright Michael Mellinger via Getty Images

(The following personal reflection was written by THINK Global School student Liisa Toomus.)

A few months ago I started to reminisce about a moment that occurred at my local airport in Sweden. I was thinking back to the early two thousands, long before they had expanded the airport, and well before they added hundreds of boutiques, last minute souvenir shops, and a dozen restaurants. At this time, all they really had were forty international gates, the security band, a small coffee shop fitted with humongous windows from which to watch planes take off, and most importantly: really great chances for bumping into interesting people.

This was also before I had grown an additional meter, reached puberty, changed schools multiple times, received my first outside-of-Schengen stamp, traveled to nearly every continent, and been featured every now and then for my photography. In other words, this was precisely a lifetime ago.

Looking back, I can't remember if my mom and I were going to the Canary Islands or for a quick visit to Estonia. But that hadn't stopped my mom, a natural social butterfly, from striking up a conversation in front of those humongous windows with the fellow traveler next to us. Maybe it was just for my big, intrigued eyes that he started explaining that the impressive camera bag flung over his shoulder was his only hand luggage. "The rest is checked in, but this, this is my most important asset: my camera. I could never check this in," he said. Perhaps following that, someone started explaining to my why he couldn't, like the risk of losing it or the camera becoming damaged; I can't remember that part exactly. But for some reason, I remember the rest of the moment very well.

Before we departed, the man with glasses and greying hair (which he had dressed in an elegant and exclusive looking light brown straw hat) explained his occupation and where he was headed: he was a teacher or professor, the original camera wizard (although these are only my own words), and he was about to head out somewhere in Africa a week before his class of students were scheduled to arrive. The only thing young me could picture was a warm savanna with zebras, a glaring African sun, and dozen of stereotypical mud huts. Somewhere along those lines is where he must have headed, while my mom and I went to another gate. Like most of the people you meet when you travel, you never bump into them again.

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Liisa would eventually see Africa through her own camera lens. Photo by Liisa Toomus.

Many years later, I swiftly asked my mom if she remembered the old photographer we met. Her answer was a firm no. Another time, I also asked my mom if she remembered the man who had built a enormous, out-of-this-world detailed sand statue on one of Greece's many islands depicting Jesus. Her answer this time was also a firm no. So I started wondering, in a few years from now, will I remember any of these faces and characters from my travels? I can recall a few very specific faces and people from around the world, but for no obvious reason. Mainly it was people that somehow intrigued me at the time, or people who felt special and perplexing in moments outside of what I would consider normal. Examples being: Argentine David, who'd always kindly give me a free additional croissant to go with my café con leche; the two dreadlocked men playing drums in a New York subway; a child shielding from the rain under a mud hut in rural Tanzania; and an Indian prostitute running between cars in Mumbai, half naked, crazy, and her hair looking like it hadn't been brushed in a million years. Just the glance of her from my bus window made my heart ache with sorrow.

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A child shelters from the rain in Tanzania. Photo by Liisa Toomus

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A homeless woman gathers her belongings in Hyderabad, India. Photo by Liisa Toomus

After years of traveling solo, I have slowly developed an airport tradition of my own. When leaving Sweden, I always buy a three-dollar lottery ticket and scrape it while sipping flat whites in front of my favorite coffee shop, although now those enormous windows I mentioned face passengers handing their bags in. Last time, as I sat there sipping my coffee and tossing away lottery tickets that promised no riches, I also began reflecting on whether or not I would ever make a memorable impression of my own on someone -- either as a traveler or local.

Before I left the table I made sure I hadn't forgotten anything important and that I still had my slightly worn passport. When I had assured myself I had all of my belongings, I flung my brown leather camera bag --purchased on an Indian beach from a man named "Babu"-- onto my shoulder. As I adjusted my black Danish wool hat and headed to my gate, the answer suddenly dawned on me: maybe we're not meant to ever find out if we, too, can create a lasting, positive impression on the people we meet while traveling. But that doesn't mean that we should ever stop trying.