“Where are you from?”
It’s the conversation starter you sometimes hear several times per day when you travel. On this occasion, the question was posed by a friendly, bearded waiter from Barcelona at the Amici Ristorante in the small beach town of Santa Teresa, on Costa Rica’s lovely Nicoya Peninsula. I told him I was from Buffalo and lived in Chicago and he said, “Chicago? You have to meet Giovanni, our pizza maker, he lived in Chicago.”
Giovanni was standing near the wood fire oven, tending to a slew of pizzas and I almost didn’t bother to go over to meet him. At home in Chicago, I probably wouldn’t be curious enough to greet the guy making our pizza, but when I travel I’m almost a different person. I am more outgoing, friendlier, more willing to take chances. And when I’m on the road, I always meet the most interesting people. So I walked over to Giovanni and introduced myself.He was originally from Sardinia but had lived all over. Just prior to moving to Costa Rica to work at Amici – which is owned by one of his friends – he lived in Chicago.
“I’m a gypsy,” he said. “I don’t stay anywhere too long.”
We compared notes about Chicago and it turned out that he lived in Evanston, which is the suburb I live in. I asked him what street he lived on and it was the street right next to mine. I asked what his exact address was and then looked it up on Google maps. He lived in an apartment 2-1/2 blocks from ours. It’s quite possible that our paths had crossed before – maybe we walked past each other on the street but had never stopped to chat.
Giovanni told me that I had to try a restaurant called Trattoria DOC, where he used to work, and it took me a minute to register the absurdity of the conversation. I was getting a recommendation for a restaurant five minutes away from my house from a guy who lived two blocks from me in a remote Costa Rican beach town. Our paths probably never would have crossed in Chicago.
Conventional wisdom dictates that travelers ought to focus on meeting locals when they’re on the road. And I agree that in order to understand the place you’re visiting, you have to get to know some people who live there. But as a traveler, you probably have more in common with your fellow travelers than with the person selling tomatoes in the market, or driving your cab, or many of the other people you will encounter while away from home. It would be a shame to travel to another country and not meet any locals but it’s just as big a mistake to avoid your fellow travelers.
Over the years, I’ve made friends with French people in Mexico, Mexicans in Spain, Dutch in Costa Rica, Scandinavians in Greece, Germans in Italy and just about every other international combination imaginable. The stories and the times I’ve shared with these people are just as memorable as the places where our paths crossed.
On a recent 15-day trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, I met some wonderful locals, but the people I met who I am most likely to stay in touch with are from all around the world. While hiking in Rincon de la Vieja National Park, for example, I met a Dutch couple, Marion Bloem and Ivan Wolffers who, as I found out, are both bestselling authors in The Netherlands (see top photo). They regaled me with stories about a six-month trip they took through the Americas and while Marion, who is 60 but looks and hikes like she is 35, blazed a path ahead of us, Ivan told me stories about traditional healers he has studied in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Bangladesh and other exotic places.
Costa Rica’s magnificent beaches draw surfers, sun-worshippers and dreamers from around the world and after meeting three North Americans who moved to Santa Teresa and now work at Florblanca, the magnificent eco-resort I stayed in while in town, I couldn’t help but fantasize about moving there myself.
Trish, a native of British Columbia, visited the town 13 years ago when the area around Florblanca didn’t even have electricity and there was little tourism to speak of. She slept in a tent on the beach and fell in love with the place. Five years later she moved to Santa Teresa and hasn’t looked back since. Her colleague Billy, a 40-year-old American with a Peruvian wife, came to surf and started a business that didn’t pan out but still lives in a house on the beach just down the road from the resort. And the general manager of the place, Cody, A Missouri native, studied journalism in Boulder but fell in love with Santa Teresa and decided to put down roots in the community.
In Nicaragua, I met Robert Kruijthoff, a 30-something Dutchman who quit his job as an investment banker to operate a bed and breakfast in Costa Rica; Luis Rolando Casamalhuapa, a Salvadoran singer with an amazing voice; and a Canadian couple that left the rat race in Vancouver to open El Garaje, one of the best restaurants in Granada, among others.
Every time I travel abroad and meet a slew of interesting fellow travelers and expats, it reaffirms my belief that travelers are the most interesting people you can meet.
I love to meet nomads who spent months each year on the road and expats who visit a place, fall in love with it and decide to relocate there. As a compulsive traveler who is miserable when forced to stay put for too long, meeting fellow vagabonds on the road is like joining an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. There is comfort in getting to know people that are even more adventurous and restless than I am.
So in your zeal to understand the place you are visiting, don’t ignore your fellow wanderers, because you have more in common with them than you might realize. And you never know, the people you meet might actually be neighbors you’d never known unless you traveled far from home.
[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]