Once upon a stranger: My most exciting encounters during my travels

Updated on Jan 03, 2021 08:13 AM IST

A luxury and travel blogger picks out five delightful people he has met during his travels

The Sultanahmet area of Istanbul and the Blue Mosque abuzz at sunset
The Sultanahmet area of Istanbul and the Blue Mosque abuzz at sunset
Hindustan Times | ByRiaan George

Being a content creator in the travel space affords me a host of unique experiences. But the best part is the people I have encountered. I’ve had some of the most random, unexpected encounters on my travels. Here are some of my favourites.

1. Desi Aunty in Istanbul

It was my first ever trip to Istanbul and I was excited to explore the city. I was alone and had no idea what to expect. As soon as I checked into my hotel and settled my bags, I got a call from the reception that the tour bus I had booked for the afternoon had arrived. I got into the bus and was surrounded by families from around the world. I seemed to be the only solo traveller.

Then I noticed a Desi Aunty, clad in an elegant salwar-kameez. She must have been well in her 60s. “Are you Indian?” she asked. We got chatting and she told me she was a retired school principal from Kanpur. Her sons were arriving on a business trip to Istanbul two days later and she’d decided to explore the city before they arrived.

On the Bosphorus cruise, Aunty offered to buy me a coffee, since I hadn’t had the time to exchange currency, yet. We spent the afternoon chatting and I found her the perfect companion with whom to explore a new city.

At the end of the bus tour, we decided to meet the next day to explore the city on foot. We strolled through the Sultanahmet quarter, tried local delicacies and exchanged travel stories. A 30-something journalist from Mumbai and a retired school teacher from Kanpur explored Istanbul together for the first time. So random, yet so unforgettable. I am still in touch with her.

Ortakoy is one of Istanbul’s most popular neighbourhoods by the Bosphorus
Ortakoy is one of Istanbul’s most popular neighbourhoods by the Bosphorus

2. The Island Crooner in Mauritius

One evening, I found myself in the vast lobby bar of a luxury resort in Mauritius, where guests gather every evening to sip evening cocktails while a local band strums along.

Being fond of live music, while the others in the bar gave little or no acknowledgement to her soulful singing, I was humming along, singing, swaying and enthusiastically applauding her music. “Bonsoir,” Stephanie said to me, between her set and, “Merci beaucoup for having encouraged my music. Few people acknowledge the musician.”

“On the Bosphorus cruise, [the Indian] aunty offered to buy me coffee, since I hadn’t exchanged currency!”

Stephanie was thrilled that I was able to communicate with her in French and we hit it off instantly. Following her sets, we sat down and she told me about her island life, her favourite spots, her tiny village, her husband and family. A quick exchange of numbers and a Facebook friend request later, Stephanie and I were friends. We remain in constant touch, even today.

3. The visitor’s new clothes

When I went to the stunning French ski resort of Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc to shoot content and write a story on my first ever ski experience, on invitation from the French tourism board, I was absolutely mesmerised by the blankets of white snow that covered everything – this was a veritable fairytale town.

But given that it was my first experience in a snow-covered ski resort, none of the fancy coats and shoes that I had packed for my trip to Paris was enough to protect me from the cold. So, my local guide, Cecile, from the Chamonix Tourist Office, and her team began an epic mission to dress me appropriately for my first tryst with the ski slopes.

Riaan taking a selfie with the Galata Tower
Riaan taking a selfie with the Galata Tower

In Cecile’s son’s ski boots, Claudine’s boyfriend’s puffer jacket, Angelique’s husband’s ski pants, there I was, the first time Indian skier, in Chamonix, all kitted out. At the end of the day, Cecile and I enjoyed a glass of mulled wine and fondue in a traditional chalet, and laughed about the day gone by. “The visitor’s new clothes,” she called it.

I went back to Chamonix a couple of years later and caught up with Cecile again. We remain in contact occasionally.

4. The super inked tour guide

Exploring the historic Dutch fort of Galle, Sri Lanka, for the very first time, I was researching a heritage walk. I chanced upon the website of a person called Shanjei and booked a walk.

Shanjei showed up at our meeting point, looking straight out of a superhero comic – muscular, tattooed, long beard and a fedora hat. What’s more, he sported a cool sarong and had decided to bring his dog along for the walk. We hit it off instantly.

When the tour ended, Shanjei treated me to a coffee at the iconic Peddlar’s Inn Cafe and then some gelato, evenings drinks at the Dutch Hospital courtyard, followed by dinner. It was like I had found a long lost friend. I continue to catch up with Shanjei every time I visit Galle.

Riaan with Stephanie, a singer, who he made friends with in Mauritius
Riaan with Stephanie, a singer, who he made friends with in Mauritius

5. Inspiring people

Once, on a flight between Mumbai and Paris, I sat next to a Mumbai-based lady named Neeta. We got chatting and I found out that she was almost 70. I dug deeper to find out why she was going to Paris alone. Turned out she was always passionate about learning French, which she did as a 20-year-old when she lived in Paris as an au pair. But she returned to India, got married and had children and never went back to France.

Now at 70, children gone away and, sadly, recently widowed, she had decided to go to France for three months. We spoke endlessly: exchanged tips on what to do in Paris, the best châteaux to visit in the Loire valley and also how to make a cool day trip to Chantilly. We continue to remain in touch.

Riaan George is a luxury and travel content creator based in Mumbai and Colombo.He also teaches French and is learning Italian.

From HT Brunch, January 3, 2021

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