Rebecca: A brief (but lasting) encounter
Vietnam: Ha Long Bay/Hanoi
Sometimes when you’re travelling you have encounters with someone that last only a couple of hours but that still impact you in some way; you feel like you know that person a lot deeper for some reason. I’ve talked about it before, but boundaries are so fluid when you’re travelling. You’re in a liminal space, constantly moving, things always changing, which I think allows you to be more open and receptive and moreover, vulnerable.
Rebecca and I met by way of chance, me sitting next to one her on a bus from Cat Ba to Hanoi. It was packed out with only individual seats left. She looked friendly and approachable – and I’m so glad I chose that seat! We got talking about our respective travels, what we’d been doing with our time and had some quite intimate conversations about future-related anxieties. I remember her telling me about teaching kids in China and Liberia and thinking how perfect she was for that job (despite having known her for approximately 34 minutes).
I got back in touch with Rebecca recently, where we had the chance to catch up. I also asked her more in detail of the work she did in those countries:
“I spent two years in the Peace Corps in western rural China teaching at a medical university. After that, I spent a year in Liberia working at an NGO focused on education and women’s empowerment. I am a fierce believer in women’s education. Working in Liberia, you never knew what the day would bring, but I was always focused on making it so the women and girls we taught could read and write and have pride in who they were. The majority of our curriculum focused on mental and sexual health.
“My warmest memories are just being embraced by the community. They were so thrilled to have me be a part of their lives and proud to show me their culture. They would take me to their rural farms or invite me to their tables to share a meal. Community was always their top priority. This opened my eyes to a new way of living and changed the rest of my life.”
Rebecca had this warm, wide smile that made me feel comfortable the second I started talking to her, so it’s no mystery how she must have made the kids feel there. Speaking of, most of the 5 hour journey, a sweet little Vietnamese girl was behind us, playing with a plastic alligator and found it hilarious to prank us with it for most of those 5 hours. We obliged!
I asked her what she remembers of our brief time together:
“I remember we had an instant kinship. It was like chatting with an old friend! We found each other when we needed to. I remember you being nervous about the future and I was thinking: ‘but we all are – nobody has any idea what they are doing.’ I thought of you often after and recalled your warmth and hoped life was treating you well.”
We really did find each other when we needed to. At the time, I was feeling quite anxious about parting ways with a travel friend I’d been with for the last 2.5 months and worried about doing my own thing solo again. But Rebecca’s kind, wise words really put me at ease.
I remember her telling me about her yoga and how she’d kept that going while she was on the road, how much more in tune with mindfulness it made her feel. She also told me about moving to Madrid and how she was going to study there. I was telling her about my plans to find work in Australia and see what happened from there on.
Over 2 and a half years later, I asked her of her experience in Madrid:
“Madrid was terrific – the people, the city, and way of life were incredible. It was a hard city to leave. I studied for a master’s there, and going back to school was very fulfilling and unique to do it in a different culture.”
I asked her if she was still practicing her yoga, too:
“Every morning I start the day with yoga stretches and meditation. I only spend about 20 minutes between the two, but it is the best way to start my day. I often joke yoga is my best friend – always there for me: kind and encouraging, while making me a bit braver. I hope to keep this habit up for the rest of my life.”
I asked her what her highlights of her experiences travelling were (the most impossible question of all):
“Writing this, I realized many of the highlights now were actually the hard parts of the past. Looking back, it was the tough things I remember and am proud of. Few people get to meet and befriend people different than themselves. I’m very blessed to have met and gotten to know so many beautiful people. Every person has something to teach you about yourself and the world.
“Traveling and living abroad is a lonely experience at times – learning to be alone and depend on myself was painful- but I feel this is now a highlight. I love that I had a chance to really get to know myself and learn to love and like myself!
“My house in Africa had a cement floor. I wanted to install a tile floor in my kitchen. This is something I would never have done back in the U.S. – but I did it all by myself! It was terribly done, but I still feel so proud of that floor. I have never really built something with my hands before. Sometimes when I need confidence, I think of that floor and know I can do hard things!”
At one point we swapped our Instagram details and promised to keep in touch and we still follow each other, which I’m glad for. In fact, going through our chat, I’d forgotten she had sent some photos of us on the bus (at the top of this post) and that the little girl had given me her keyring to keep as a gift, which I immediately put onto my little travel satchel and still have somewhere.
As I expected, when I asked Rebecca what she was doing these days, she was of course contributing to making the world a better place:
“I currently work at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington DC, helping large organisations use renewable energy to help fight climate change. I’m passionate about making sure the earth is healthy and happy for us and generations to come.”
I asked, finally, if she could impart 3 nuggets of wisdom she’s learned on the road to any future traveller, what they would be:
1) “Different is not good or bad – just different. Being judgmental will rob you of the experience to open your mind to different ways of life and possibly richer understandings.”
2) “People are kind, generous, and usually want the same things – to be happy and healthy. Ask for help when you need it, give it freely when you can.”
3) “Travel the way you want to: travel fast, travel slow, explore the parts of the world you want to. There is no right way to travel.”
Thank you Rebecca, for sharing your rich experiences, empowering inspiration and kind spirit.