I’m a little annoyed. The seat of my rusty old bike keeps shifting and dropping. And it’s uncomfortable. It’s making for extra hard work as I ride through thick, humid air on the back roads of Anuradhapura, the UNESCO World Heritage Listed city in Sri Lanka. It’s supposed to be the best way to see the scattered ruins, but I’m sweaty, tired, and I have to keep adjusting my rump. These ruins are making me work for it.
But then it happens. I hop off the bike to adjust the seat again and, without realising, I’ve stopped in front of a ramshackle bike repair shop. What are the odds? A kind man, presumably the owner, approaches me and insists on fixing the seat.
As he works away, his young daughter starts making faces and squealing with laughter. It’s completely infectious and soon we are both laughing uncontrollably. I get the camera out and I try and capture her smile. But there’s no need, it will live in my head forever.
“You think these moments don’t mean much, but upon reflection, they mean everything.”
The bike ride back to my guesthouse is an improvement. The seat is stable, at least, but I’m still sweating. With the day drawing to a close, I realise that my brief encounter with the little girl in the bike repair shop was the best part of it.
Of course, the ruins were spectacular, but the joy I felt at the end of the day wasn’t because of the ruins, it because of that beautiful little girl. And it was probably my favourite memory of three weeks I spent in Sri Lanka.
It’s these unexpected moments that make me so excited about travel. We all make bucket lists and often choose destinations based on their drawcards – the temples in Japan, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the big five in South Africa, Machu Picchu in Peru. And they are all amazing and memorable. But what often stick out in my mind are the encounters and experiences you don’t know are coming. The stuff you can’t plan for. They’re often fleeting moments that appear to be minor and random. You think they don’t mean much, but upon reflection they mean everything.
“You can’t will them into existence – they just happen.”
There was that time when the grey skies hovering above the hills outside Gyeongju in South Korea started to rain down on us, spoiling the beautiful temples. We ran to take cover and collided into an eccentric lady in a plastic poncho who begged us to come to her empty restaurant and practically spoon-fed us the meal of our lives.
Or when I sat on a bench in the middle of Santiago jetlagged after a long flight, tired and questioning what I’d done, when an old lady sat next to me and started asking me questions in Spanish. I was so excited to put my newly learnt language skills to use and had the most meaningful conversation on my whole trip – even though we barely understood each other.
These unexpected pleasures are special because they transcend a destination. You can’t will them into existence – they just happen. And they always do. They’ll be the moments you remember the most.