Since the beginning of May, I’ve been posing weekly questions as a way of getting at how we travelers experience La Dolce Vita, or The Sweet Life.
Seeking truths by your own lights — that’s what’s known as the Socratic method!
But while my questions thus far have focused on the sensory delights that travel offers — heart-stopping sights, delightful sounds, intoxicating scents, delicate flavors — today’s question is a little different. I want to know about the people you’ve encountered by chance on your travels, who’ve opened your heart and mind to the possibility of living The Sweet Life.
I’ve been very lucky in my life. I’ve met quite a few individuals who have inspired me in one way or another. Perhaps it’s because I’m a big believer in fate; I’ve always thought that everything will play out according to plan, if I just let it.
Not that I sit around and do nothing. Rather, I try to do as much as I possibly can, in the hope that I’ll end up doing enough of the Right Things to shape my life to come. Some of those things will reveal their hidden meaning only years later, in hindsight…
“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”
— American cartoonist Allen Saunders, 1957 (later featured in a John Lennon song)
A couple of early mentors
I owe this philosophy in part to something that happened to me when I was still living in the UK, thinking I was going to become an actor. In order to help my sister, Gillian, integrate into university life, I took her to a kung-fu class. The teacher (or sifu) became more than just a friend to her, he became a spiritual mentor.
What Gill learned passed through to me, and eventually we both attended a personal development seminar that changed our whole worldview. I became more open and generous, rejecting the lessons I’d learned at acting school about clawing my way to the top over the bodies of those less fortunate. My epiphany led me to see that acting was an every-man-for-himself type industry — not exactly good for my soul.
So I gave it up. I went traveling instead. When volunteering in Ecuador, I met Toby, who also helped shape the course of my life. Toby was my boss at the Ecuadorian animal shelter; and, as I recount in my book, That Bear Ate My Pants!, he was confident and capable, at ease in his own skin — just the way I wanted to be.
Toby told me all about his adventures as a professional diver in Thailand, and I began to crave that life as though it was the answer to all my heart’s desires.
He also tricked me into getting my head shaved, the bugger.
A Sheila who suddenly showed up in my life
After three months in Ecuador, I suffered some pretty severe reverse culture shock when I got back to England. I got quite depressed, and wanted nothing more than to leave again. Well, it’s England — can you blame me? (No offense to those who are enjoying the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations while reading this…)
Around that same time, Gillian was traveling in the USA with a bunch of friends she’d met while working for Camp America. I decided to fly out and meet up with them, in the hope that a few more adventures would dispel my unhappiness.
By the time I got there, she only had two companions left, a young Kiwi-Aussie couple called Richie and Krista. We hung out together for a couple of weeks and had fun, and one by one they, and then the two of us, left for home.
Back in England again, I busied myself trying to recapture the combination of excitement and contentment I’d found in Ecuador, but to no avail. In the end I left for Thailand, following Toby’s advice, hoping that another stint of volunteering would sort my head out.
By pure chance, Gill had invited Krista to come and explore England with her; I flew out the same day she flew in, and we met briefly at the bus station. I said my good-byes and was gone. Though my original plan was to stay away for three months, I got kind of caught up in things and didn’t come back for over two years.
The two girls meanwhile, roamed around the UK until their money ran out, and Krista flew back to Australia. Gill promised to return the visit as soon as she could afford to.
In Thailand, I neither knew nor cared about such things! I was having a great time, diving for a living and partying every opportunity I got.
Toby would be proud, I thought.
Until one day I woke up broke. I’d lost a lot of money to fraud and then had what was left stolen from my bungalow. I realized I would never survive on my meager diving wages. My friends supported me for a while, but I knew I couldn’t ask this of them for long.
It was time to face facts; I was going to have to go home.
Hang on, there’s that Sheila again!
By this time, Gill was in Australia, exploring the country with Krista in a knackered van covered in multi-colored handprints. In a series of tearful emails to my sis, I poured my heart out — telling her how much I hated the idea of abandoning all my hopes and dreams and going home.
She wrote back with an offer from Krista: I could come over to Perth and stay with her family! Krista had even lined up an interview for me with a local job agency — I could hardly believe it! I still didn’t want to leave Thailand, but at least this way I could carry on traveling. (Krista and Gill also pointed out that there were plenty of spare seats in their van…)
I flew to Australia without the price of a cup of coffee. I didn’t even own enough clothing to fill a bag. The girls met me in the airport with their crumbling van (nicknamed Rusty!), and I immediately learned a few things about Krista:
- She was prettier than I remembered.
- She was now single.
- She was a whole lot of fun to be around!
Six years later, after many adventures together, Krista and I were married in the grounds of Taunton Castle, in Somerset in England. Her whole family flew out to join in the medieval-themed celebration, and not long after they flew back, we followed them, back to Perth, where we now live.
Of course, it was a LOT more complicated than that.
But as chance encounters go — and in terms of the ones that influence your life the most — well, that one, for me, takes the biscuit!
What about you? I want to know what chance encounters have affected you the most during your travels — leading to new experiences you wouldn’t have otherwise had. And did they ultimately take you closer to The Sweet Life, as in my case?
Spill the beans in the comments below. (You know you want to!)
STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, a tribute to Queen Elizabeth for lasting 60 years on the throne, despite a period of displacedness.
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Images from Tony James Slater’s personal collection: Touring the Grand Canyon with Krista (she is in the green tee shirt), her boyfriend and his sister, Gill; his reunion with Krista and Gill in Perth, Australia, some years later (Tony is driving Rusty); all of this leading to Tony and Krista’s medieval-themed wedding in the UK (this is their “hand fasting”).