One of the most enriching things about traveling is the sheer plethora of people you get to meet. People you would have never met otherwise. People from all over the world, with perspectives and opinions so foreign to your own ways of thinking. People with riveting stories that leave you amazed at life’s possibilities.
Sometimes, they are in your life for only the briefest of moments, a split-second compared to the vastness of a human life. You might share a conversation over dinner in a hostel, connecting on an intimate level, to never see them ever again, not even knowing their name.
Time and time again, I’ve learned that the duration you spend with someone is, in a very real way, irrelevant. The depth and intensity of a connection is not necessarily tied to its length.
There is always, on one level or another, an exchange happening. You might learn from each other, you might inspire each other, you might trigger each other. No matter, you always leave something behind.
Some of the people you’ll meet become a travel buddy for a day, exploring the city with you. Some become good friends you keep in touch with even after years have passed, while still others turn out to be lovers.
And maybe, just maybe, one or two exceedingly special individuals are going to change your life, in ways you never imagined possible.
However, some of the encounters you’ll have will be of a different kind. They will stand out because of their perplexing, perhaps even unbelievable nature. They will leave you wondering for a long time afterwards, scratching your chin in an effort to comprehend what has actually transpired.
What follows are two of the most remarkable encounters with perfect strangers I’ve had whilst traveling. Perfect strangers that stayed strangers. While the two stories differ greatly from one another in almost every respect, they have that certain surreal, inexplicable quality in common. I hope you enjoy.
On my way back to the hostel, I was crossing a street in central Valencia, eating pre-cut rye bread. Thinking about nothing in particular, it was a pretty ordinary March day. Coastal Spain treating me to what felt like early summer in Switzerland, I was enjoying life’s simple pleasures.
Looking left, looking right, I checked for traffic like a dutiful kinder gardener and, once satisfied, proceeded on to the other side.
We all know about first impressions, right? How sometimes, you’re immediately on the same wavelength with somebody you’ve just met. Or, on the other hand, how somebody can make you feel ever so slightly on edge, simply by their presence.
What happened then and there, as I was about halfway through the street, was similar, only on a level I’ve rarely, if ever, experienced before.
In front of me and slightly to my right, about 20 meters away, a clothing store presented itself. A regular clothing store, as bland as they come. Having done just fine with the same three t-shirts for the past year (constantly debating if I should get rid of one), these stores are usually invisible to me, my mind paying them no attention.
While the store didn’t interest me, the same couldn’t be said about one of the employees inside of it. I saw him first.
Quite tall, donning an Afro the size of a basketball, his skin a creamy mocha, my eyes stayed fixed on him while the rest of my body went into auto-pilot, my mouth continuing to munch on the now suddenly tasteless bread, my legs keeping me on course.
Unable to take my gaze off him, everything around me went quiet. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. It was almost as if he reminded me of someone, but not someone I’ve actually ever met.
My brain went into overdrive, trying to come up with a logical explanation, frantically searching all the drawers and files in my memory, matching his appearance against everybody I had ever seen. It came up short.
He must have felt this intense focus directed towards him, for he looked out of the shop’s front window, and, without hesitation, his eyes snapped onto mine. Stopping dead in his tracks, he returned my stare.
More often than not, getting caught staring at someone results in a rather awkward situation. Not now though. Far from it, his at first slightly dazed face quickly transitioned into a more questioning, studying expression, revealing much of the same I was going through was happening within him as well.
For a long five seconds, we looked at each other, momentarily being transported out of the everyday world of traffic and customers into a completely different realm.
Only when my legs, still occupied with their task of getting me to the hostel, took me around the corner, our line of sight unexpectedly broke because of an advertisement lining the shop’s window front.
With it, the spell that had been cast upon us was temporarily lifted, allowing me to regain some form of free will. Looking ahead, I saw that in a few steps the advertisement was going to make way for more unadorned window, offering a chance to reestablish the connection, which I was unwilling to let go of so soon.
In that instant, I would have been willing to bet a considerable amount of money on my conviction that he was going to be searching for me reappearing after the advertisement, just like I was going to be searching for him; I simply knew it.
Without skipping a beat, as soon as I got past the advertisement, our eyes found each other again. He hadn’t moved an inch, still standing in the exact same spot as before. I stopped walking and, facing him, got my first good look.
He was aglow with this uncanny familiarity. It oozed from his every pore. Yet, now that we were closer, I could tell that this was nobody I had ever seen before in my life. Beyond the shadow of a doubt.
What do you do, faced with an impossible situation? When you know somebody without ever having met them. When your thoughts tell you one thing and your feelings the opposite.
Raising his hand above his head and pointing an index finger at me, his face contorted into both a smile and a frown at the same time, conveying: “It’s you, right!?”
I couldn’t hold back anymore, my need for a rational explanation being overwhelmed by the childlike happiness welling up inside of me. I raised my hand, giving him a thumbs up, communicating through the window: “Yeah man, it’s me.”
Both of our faces lit up with a huge grin, spanning ear to ear. Evidently, we had both let go of any attempt to understand what was happening, in favour of simply enjoying it. We had recognized each other.
It was as if I had run into a best friend from long ago, in a place I never thought to stumble upon him, after a decade of being separated. Here he was. I felt nothing but pure, unadulterated joy at the sight of this stranger.
And that was that. After some moments of enjoying each other’s company, I continued on my way to the hostel.
Now, you might think to yourself: “What!? Why didn’t you go talk to him?” Writing down this story, I’m asking myself the same, but, at the time, the thought never crossed my mind. What had just happened was more than enough. It was complete. It was perfect.
The Silent Enigma
The clock, looming high over Puerta del Sol like the disembodied eye of a cyclops, had just struck ten. The sweltering midsummer heat having somewhat relented, I was sitting on a bench in Madrid’s central square, people watching.
My senses were fully absorbed by all the novelty, greedily soaking it up. Having arrived only a couple of days ago, everything was still moist with that particular freshness unique to an unknown place.
Slowly, I eased myself into the environment, careful not to go too fast, as if lowering into a tub with steaming hot water. Letting it envelop me, bit by bit, until I disappear, melting into the background. A silent observer, engrossed in the many little stories unfolding themselves on tonight’s stage of life:
The Senegalese street vendors bartering with a group of suspicious Korean tourists, insisting that the shoes are original. A timid, middle-aged Bangladeshi with dark bags under his eyes trying his luck selling overpriced roses to young couples on a city trip.
Little did I know, I myself was about to star in another, slightly more unusual, story. The protagonist was already on his way, walking towards me.
He stood out. The first thing I noticed was his lack of shoes, instead walking bare feet. He had a long, white beard, reaching down to his bare chest, accompanied by straight hair matching the beards color, bound back, going all the way to his lower back.
Dressed in a colorful vest that would arouse the envy of every hippie doing LSD back in the 60s, he looked like the lead singer of a rock back long past it’s prime. It probably didn’t help that the vest was a few sizes too small for him, stopping short at the belly button. He didn’t bother buttoning up the front, leaving much of his skin showing. Green cargo shorts rounded off the look.
It sounds silly, but he wore it well. His odd appearance intrigued me. For a second, I wondered if he was homeless, or something close to it. Either way, this man must have some stories to tell, must have lived a different life, I concluded. I put him to be somewhere in his late 60s, early 70s.
As he was walking closer, our orbits gravitating towards each other, something in his demeanor, something behind his odd appearance, made my interest turn into fascination. His stride was calm, so natural it evoked a certain sense of grace, like a big cat ambling through its territory. He let his gaze wander, eyes unclouded, anchored in the present. Until, about three meters away, they noticed mine.
Standing still, he studied me. After a couple of seconds, he gestured at me: a thumbs up. His thumb lingered there for an instance, before slowly tilting sideways, where it rested, until continuing all the way down, a questioning look on his face all the while.
Confused, I didn’t get what was going on, missing the obvious: He was asking me how I was. My confusion showing, he skipped ahead and, with an outstretched arm pointing to the space on the bench next to me, asked if he could take a seat. I nodded and scooted over a little bit. As he sat down, a short rush of excitement fluttered its wings against my stomach, jolting me alert and awake.
After rummaging around in the pockets of his shorts, he emerged with a small booklet and a pen. The booklet was about birds, giving brief descriptions on many different kinds of birds and how to identify them. It’s in this booklet that his part of our conversation took place, for he never spoke a single word, not a sound escaping his throat.
Instead, he wrote down what he wanted to say in small, squiggly letters, leaving me with the task of vocalizing his sentences. To this day, I don’t know if this muteness was due to a physical limitation, or because he simply, for whatever reason, didn’t want to speak. I always assumed the latter.
However unconventional he might have been, his first question was anything but. In English, he wrote down the staple opener among travelers, a question I’ve heard more times than I bear to recount:
“Where are you from?”
I answered, after which he switched to writing in German. Based on the flawless grammar and spelling, it was reasonable to assume that German was his mother tongue.
In addition, he possessed some surprising knowledge about St. Gallen (and its university), a town very close to where I grew up, one that pretty much nobody outside of Switzerland has ever heard of. This prompted me to ask him where exactly he was from, but as I soon realized, extracting a straight answer from this man was no easy feat.
He simply ignored my question and, inspired by learning about my background in finance, went on a tangent about some derivative financial products and the stock market. The fine line between genius and insanity showed in his somewhat rambling, but still coherent, discourse. It wasn’t nonsensical, but certainly far out there, and I failed to see its relevance.
Now, keep in mind that all of this took a considerable amount of time, for writing is obviously much slower than speaking. After some time of laboriously reading out aloud his monologue, sometimes painstakingly trying to decipher individual letters, my patience had reached its limits and I took initiative to change the course of the conversation.
I asked him what his name was. He was taken aback by my use of the informal “Du” (you) in German, which perplexed me, given his appearance. Asking him again with the formal pronoun, I pressed the issue, giving him no chance to derail. This time, I actually got an answer, albeit not one I expected:
“I am the origin of the center of the universe.”
Excited to have struck upon this, to me, much more interesting nugget, I tried to expand on it, by exclaiming:
“But so is everybody!”
He shook his head with sincerity, like I had gravely misunderstood. I tried to explain my point of view, but it quickly became clear that this was not open for discussion. He took the lead again, asking me:
“What is your function?”
Finally, we had gotten serious. While I was formulating an answer, slowly coming up with the right words, it was very important to him that I maintain absolute eye contact while I was talking. Every time my eyes would habitually dart away, he’d wave his hand or lightly grab my shoulder to make me refocus on him. Being fond of eye contact myself, I didn’t mind all that much, but it was unusual and challenging nonetheless.
When I had given my answer, of which I was quite proud, he intently looked at me for some time, weighing my words, before lightly shaking his head. As he started to write something down, the imbalance I perceived in our conversation, the undertone flowing between us that he had all the answers, like a teacher grading exams, aroused a faint feeling of annoyance, and made me interrupt him by turning the question on him:
“What is your function?”
He looked up at me for a second, and seemingly missing my jab, wrote down the following:
“That which does not move becomes the center.”
I had no chance to let that sink in, because before I knew what was happening, he had drawn my attention by grabbing my shoulder, something in the way he held it signaling the importance of what was about to follow.
Looking at him, he just sat there, looking back at me, doing absolutely nothing. I wondered what was going on, until, after maybe five seconds, it began to dawn on me. He was showing me.
His eyes had an amazing depth to them, yet they were completely, utterly empty; two apertures as clear as a freezing winter morning, with absolutely nobody behind them. The longer I peered into that mesmerizing depth, the more I began to fall into it, falling up.
My awareness began to change, lightening, unloading all ballast. Unburdened, I, it, floated up, up and up, until, with a pop, I surfaced. In a world that was the same, and yet it was not.
Sounds were different, richer and crisp, with sharper distinctions between them. The rippling of a fountain. The laughter of a group of teenage boys. These everyday noises suddenly almost magical, arising out of a silence, a silence that usually goes unnoticed, but which now was full, tangible. All of it coming together to form a sort of symphony, as pleasurable as an outstanding piece of music.
At the same time, my feeling and relationship with space changed. Instead of the everyday feeling of being an independent body, something separate, I, staying perfectly still, staring into this man’s eyes, started sensing the space around me as something more, something intimately connected to myself, like the soil is to a deeply rooted tree.
And indeed, there came a flash, the brief hint of a sensation, an inkling of being at the center, of everything circling around us like an immense, immeasurable whirlpool, stretching far beyond what my mind was capable of processing.
The feeling being too much, almost threatening, like standing at the edge of a bottomless abyss, I looked away, snapping out of it. All of this happened in the span of about thirty or forty seconds; seconds of unbroken eye contact, not even blinking.
A smile playing on my lips, I looked at him after my eyes went back to normal. He was already back to scribbling something, in my opinion, completely unrelated, but I didn’t mind. I had just gotten what I wanted, what made me listen when he was rambling before, what I had sensed about him from the first moment I saw him. This man had knowledge about, really lived, what I was most interested in at the time.
Shortly before what turned out to be the end of our conversation, he told me about two stones. He described their qualities and differences before taking them out of one of his pockets, and, one stone resting on the palm of his right hand, one on the palm of his left, made me choose between them.
I went with my gut, instantly pointing to the one that seemed more interesting. He silently chuckled, a fatherly expression on his face I read as: “Of course” I couldn’t help but feel like I had made the wrong choice. He told me the stone was worth an immense amount of money, citing an oddly specific number that ranged in the millions. (The number had come up before during his discourse on finance.)
He went on to explain that I could not give the stone away unless for the aforementioned price. There was, however, one exception: I could give the stone, for free, to an exceedingly special person. He described that person with a long list of adjectives, of which the chosen person had to be better at or more of than me. I understood that it was my task to find that person, and in the same instant I knew that I already had.
I told him so, which surprised him, and he wanted to know more about the person and the story of how we met. After telling him some of it (which I won’t here, that’s a story for another time), he seemed intrigued, but didn’t push further, for I sensed that by his occasional glances at the clock tower that he was running out of time.
Before he left, he invited me to, in his words, “come and continue the work” at his place. He gave me an address and handed me the booklet, a memento of our conversation.
Just like that, I was left with a small stone, a booklet about birds, and a strange feeling. What had just transpired felt incredibly real, and yet dreamlike at the same time. Nothing like it had ever happened to me. I sat there, slightly dazed, trying to wrap my head around the entire thing.
As it turned out, I wouldn’t get far, because soon afterwards he reappeared, this time in the company of a petite middle-aged Asian lady in a wheelchair. He pushed her next to me, and they both looked at me for a moment. I, once again, had not the slightest idea what was going on, and sheepishly smiled at the woman. She was eating chips, offering me some.
Waving my hand, I politely refused, which elicited the following response from her:
“He says they are good for me because they don’t have any fat or sugar.”
I couldn’t place her accent, and, ignoring the factual inaccuracy in her statement, peeled my eyes from her, looking at him.
He was taking sips from some sort of flavoured yogurt drink, which he also proceeded to offer me. Declining again, he seemed irritated, and after trying one more time, let it go and started to leave. The Asian lady waved me a goodbye, her face dominated by an uncanny grin, implying something I could not decipher. Mechanically, I waved back, until they disappeared in the crowd.
During the following days, I tried to make sense of what had happened. There was something bugging me about it, about him. Of course, the entire thing was weird, but that wasn’t it. Neither was I afraid of him, or felt like he was dangerous in any way. Yet, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something about this man wasn’t quite right, of there being something ominous lurking in the shadows, peering out at me. If anything, this sensation made me even more intrigued.
I looked up the address he had given me, and not only was it real, it was five minutes away from the hostel I was staying at. I went there to check out the building, not sure what to expect. I found a regular building, nothing special about it. But it was there, it existed.
Even the doorbell presented itself to me: Apt. B1, the one he had written down. Seeing that doorbell somehow gave the entire experience more weight, opened up possibilities. After I confirmed it’s existence, I knew, without the shadow of a doubt, that I would be ringing it at some point, the force of the last domino stone falling propelling me on to knock over the next. There could be no other way.
It is in the afternoon five days after we first met that I stand in front of the building, finger on the doorbell. I hesitate for a second, then press the button. Nothing’s going to happen anyway. He’s not home. He doesn’t even live here, it was all a joke. My thoughts trying to calm my nerves, failing.
It doesn’t take long for them to be interrupted by a buzzing emerging out of the heavy front door. Using my body weight, I push it inwards, entering the long, generic hallway, carefully scanning it. It feels like I’m intruding, like I’m in some place I do not belong in.
After a few steps, I spot his head poking out of one of the doors on the left. I smile, one part of me relieved, another horrified. He smiles back. When I reach the door, he opens it to let me in, which is also the moment I notice that he’s completely naked. Without skipping a beat, I accept that as fact, let it go, and enter.
He guides me to a comfortable sofa placed against the wall opposing the entrance, on which we both take a seat. Covering his lap with a newspaper, an awkwardness briefly envelops us. It surprises me to see that he apparently still, to some degree, identifies with his body, and was thus capable of something akin to embarrassment. It doesn’t last long though, before he abandons the newspaper, and we both embrace the situation, moving on as if nothing is amiss, because really, nothing is.
He starts to rifle through a stack of books, looking for something, which I use as an opportunity to take a look at the room laid out in front of me.
It is small, narrow, the distance from sofa to entrance not much more than the height of a tall man. On either side a door, half open, thick shadows spilling out, leading to rooms I would never see. Later, he will tell me that the Asian woman is sleeping in the room to our left, occasional noises drifting out of it through the shadows.
The room is cave like, dimly lit by a single standing lamp in a corner, bathing everything in a deep, pleasant orange. The lack of any windows makes it difficult to tell much about the outside world; one analogue clock ticks along audibly, merely reassuring that time is still working, hasn’t stopped altogether.
It is full, brimming with books. Stacks upon stacks of books on the floor, on the table, in the corners. A stuffed bookshelf almost takes up the space of an entire wall. It’s full but not messy. All the stacks are neatly done, books with similar sizes piled on top of each other. It has system, a certain order, even if it’s an order only he understands.
Going hand in hand, there is an energy filling the room. The air is charged, so dense I feel heavier than before, as if it has weight; a weight which presses down on me, into me. A silence is webbed into the very structure of the place; demanding, almost loud, claiming me, bit by bit, with every breath. It’s him. It’s his room, his workshop, his space; a manifestation. I feel slightly sick.
He finds what he was looking for, shows it to me. It’s a book, filled with his handwriting. It’s written in multiple colors, sometimes going in spirals, sometimes around the edges, sometimes going off the end of one page to continue on the other side, sometimes not following any discernible pattern at all. Each and every page is incredibly full, no space left. Looked at it from afar, it could pass as art, maybe a mandala. It’s beautiful, terrifying. I realize it’s his diary. Another step into his world, into him.
He’s going through the pages, looking for a specific entry. He finds it, shows it to me, his index finger guiding me through the diary, through his thoughts. I read it out loud. It’s about our first encounter. Nothing remarkable about it, more so a matter of fact description of events. After we reach the finish, I’m determined. I want answers. Who is he. What’s his story. Why did he invite me.
Over the course of the next three hours, I slowly, laboriously uncover bits of information, like an archeologist digging up the remnants of an ancient civilization. With each additional piece, my picture, my idea of him, grows, and with it does my opinion, steadily diminishing my ability to stay open, unbiased.
He tells me about a boy, 18, he took in as a student not so long ago. The boy, having run away from home, stayed with him for six months; doing what, I don’t know. I understand that this is what I could do, stay with him, become his student. I understand this is what the Asian lady is doing. I understand this is what he is; a teacher, of sorts.
At some point, he tells me about a student, a woman, he once had in India. About how she wanted to live like him, how she was “consistent”, something I’m not. How she put off her shoes and walked bare feet like him. How they used to have sex, sometimes together with other people, sometimes selling themselves.
At some point, he tells me about the Asian woman, about her lack of “consistency”, that she doesn’t want to spend her money. At some point, he tells me about the boy, how after six months of living with him, the boy got down on all fours, begging to be fucked by him. He tells me, with a smile on his face, that he didn’t, because he doesn’t like men. I feel nauseous.
In part because of the things he’s telling me, but not really. What truly disturbs me is the way he’s telling them. So casual, so detached, as if he was talking about the weather. So without any sense of what is right or wrong.
I unwillingly combine these fragments of his past with the ever so slightly toxic, abusive dynamic between us. Him telling me I need to be more “consistent”, playing at some of my weaknesses, which he identifies correctly. In the next sentence, him telling me:
“We can make it, together.”
Putting me down first, then offering a helping hand, salvation. I think of the boy, picture him living like this for months, being driven to that point. I think of all his students, of all the people being drawn to him.
I get progressively more angry, let it show. I get angry because he’s not insane, he’s not just some nut job. I get angry because this man has real knowledge, real capacity to teach, to change lives. He sees people, can sense them, could help them.
He tells me things about myself, things which are true. One of them hits me like a truck with the force of its truth, so much so I still sometimes think about it today. At some point in the conversation, he tells me to start thinking time- and selfless. I get angry because there’s so much beauty in that, so much beauty in so much he talks about.
My resentment grows. I start challenging him, his position as teacher, master, guru. We stare at each other for some minutes straight, like two roaming males meeting at bordering territories. There’s nothing there now, nothing like the first time, just my anger, my frustration, my resentment.
I should leave, but don’t. He, of course, notices all of this, asks me why I came. I’m forced to face an ugly truth. That my motivations for coming were questionable at best, would always lead to conflict. That I don’t accept him, never wanted to.
And that’s not his fault, that he has, if you think about it, done nothing wrong. Even after everything he told me, I don’t feel threatened by his presence. He’s not malicious, never forced anybody into anything. He’s the way he is, a man singularly focused, devoted to his path. But those words don’t do justice, because it’s not focus or devotion, not really. It’s something far more profound, something that can’t properly be put into words.
It’s that this man has arrived at a certain point, has peeled away many of the layers, done away with many of the illusions, lives largely beyond any ego, beyond any identification. And at that point, when seemingly nothing is left, everything comes rushing in, an integration of sorts happening, a fusion of “me” and “the world”, or rather the shocking realization, the felt understanding, that it was never any other way.
Then, it’s not about focus or devotion to one’s path. Then, there exists nothing else than one’s path, no other alternative, reality finally being experienced for what it always was, always is, always will be.
Today, I understand that this man lives in that way, what the Chinese may call “self-so”. Like a tree can only be a tree, this man can’t be anything else than what he is, like all of us. The difference being that he doesn’t struggle against his nature, is one with it, and in that way beyond so much of what the rest of us would deem right or wrong. Because in his world, no such thing exists, there just is.
And I, during the last few minutes we would spend together, was the only way I could be. Angry, confused, defiant. At him, at me, at it all.
Then came, necessarily, the straw that broke the camel’s back. He asked me about that special person again, the one I would give the stone to. He wanted to know some rather personal things, and I just flat out refused to tell him, phrasing it like that. That’s when it was over, when he kicked me out, literally.
He started kicking me with his foot, strong enough to hurt but not injuring, forcing me to get up from the sofa and making me realize we were done. After I had slipped into my flip flops and was about leave, he handed me the book. The book his part of the conversation was written down in. I refused to take it. And that made him very, very angry.
The next moment, I found myself running down the hallway, being chased by him. When I had reached the front door, I tried to push it open, pull it open, but it wouldn’t move. Growing up in a small town in Switzerland, I’m not used to these front doors they have in some cities, where to get out from the inside you have to press a button first. In my panic, I forgot about that.
Looking back, I saw him coming down the hallway towards me, still naked, long hair down his sides, rage filling his face. It was like something out of a horror movie. When he had caught up to me, I didn’t know what was going to happen, thought I might actually have to defend myself. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. He just opened the book, wrote down “OUT!”, and left the book on the floor.
Calming down, I was able to make my exit. Overwhelmed and slightly traumatized by the entire thing, I rushed back to the hostel, got the booklet about birds and the stone out of my backpack, returned to his apartment block, and left them in front of the door. I didn’t want anything to do with any of his things, with him.
Today, I wish I had kept them.
Thank you for reading. Writing this proved to be important for me. What started as an idea to tell the story of an unusual experience turned out to be crucial for me to fully understand the things that transpired, to forgive him and myself, and to get closure.
Please also take the following into consideration: All of this happened more than six months ago. Memory being flawed thing in the best case, this story can hardly be called a perfect depiction of reality. While nothing in this story is made up, the exact order of some minor happenings might not be accurate, some things I deemed unimportant or simply forgot have been left out, and the tonality of the second part is made to be a bit darker, in order to provide for a more immersive reading experience.