When I stepped outside the house for a last smoke, right after midnight, I caught sight of a shadow on the sidewalk. A young woman was standing there, looking in my direction. She started to walk away but turned around again a few seconds later and stood there, waiting for me to catch up:
— Taking a midnight walk?
— Just going out for a smoke.
— I’m looking for a walk partner…
— I usually go this way, I replied, pointing at the mailboxes at the very end of our street.
We walked side by side in the dark, enjoying the still summer night. We talked a bit too: yes, she was living around here, yes I was French, yes the summer had been wet but the hopefully we will have a nice Indian summer.
A few blocks later, I finished my cigarette and told her I’d be going home to sleep. “Good night then“, she said. And spontaneously, we hugged and said goobye. I didn’t get a good look at her face because it was dark, and I’m not sure I will see her ever again. But I will probably remember the late night walk girl.
I met a lot of people for a day, for a night while traveling. I remember them.
I remember Maxime.
In 2002, Feng and I arrived in Flores-Santa Elena, a small town in Guatemala, only famous because it’s a base to visit the nearby Tikal ruins, lost in the jungle. We had been traveling all day from Belize and between the missed bus connections and the erratic border crossing, it was already late by the time we arrived.
Exhausted and hungry, we walked around the dusty town, looking for a bank or some kind of ATM, since we didn’t have Quetzals. The banks were all closed. The only ATM we found didn’t accept our credit cards. And there was no one around to exchange travelers cheques. We were fucked.
Feng had some US dollars which we used to rent two beds in a dark hospedaje. The place was grim and dirty. We climbed the few stairs to the room, dreading the state of the beds. We pushed the door, and walked into a tiny room with three beds. On one of them was a guy, lying down, staring at the ceiling. “Hola“, I said.
I recognized his accent as soon as he replied: French. Well, from Belgium, actually. I sat on my own bed (a camp bed which springs could be felt poking through the mattress) and we started chatting. I was frustrated with everything that night: we were hungry (no money to eat), sweaty (no water in the shower), broke and tired. On top of that, communicating with Feng was hard for me at the time, since my English was so limited. We had only been traveling together for a couple of weeks. I was glad to finally speak French with someone.
I told our misfortunes to Maxime, he told me his. He was from Belgium but was working in Switzerland, in some kind of modern-age hippy community. He had somehow won a trip to Cuba, but once arrived at the custom, the border officers had turned him down. Can’t blame them: his only luggage was a big army duffel bag and well, he did look like a hippy with his long messy hair. He had been put on the flight back to Europe immediately, but they had a two hours stop-over in Cancun, Mexico. He had escaped from the plane, went through the Mexican customs and had made his way to Guatemala. And here he was, as broke, as sweaty and as dirty as us (although I was guessing his last shower had probably been days before mine).
We climbed on the hotel roof and talked all night. I have no idea what we actually chatted about but it was deep, meaningful and quite fun. Better than staying in the ant-infested room anyway.
The following day, Feng and I decided to go to Uaxactun, a small village lost in the jungle. Maxime stayed in Flores-Santa Elena and we said goodbye at the bus station.
A few weeks later, we arrived in La Libertad, a small beach town in El Salvador. Our first day there hadn’t been that good, for many reasons. At night, I slouched in the hammock outside the room and smoked. Suddenly, I heard footsteps behind me. “Encore toi?“, said the shadow. I sat upright, surprised to hear French. “Maxime?“, I asked, incredulously. Himself. He was standing behind me, hair still messy, the same old teeshirt and the same jeans with holes everywhere, carrying in duffel bag on his shoulders.
“What are you doing here?“, I wondered aloud. Well, same as us, it turned out. He had eventually traveled through Guatemala, like we did (although he had hitchhiked and we had bused) and had wanted to go to El Salvador. And as it turned out, we had checked into the same hostel. We spent another night talking and the next morning, we left to San Salvador, the capital. I’m not sure where Maxime went. We didn’t meet again, and we never thought of exchanging email addresses.He is just a memory, a nice memory.
I met a lot of Maximes when traveling. A bunch of girls, guys we would meet in hostel rooms, bus stations or at the border control. I remember Lluis, with whom we played chess in Belize and met again in a church in Guatemala — he still emails me every new year. I remember Nick, the “polite” English backpacker in Melbourne, Australia, who would ask for permission before smoking his lat joint in the hostel dorm. I remember a Shaun in Sydney with whom I shared a bottle a bad wine (in all fairness, he drunk it mostly by himself) in the dark kitchen. I remember a French chef in New Zealand. The Aussie who sold us his car in Auckland. A Brazilian photographer in Rio de Janeiro.
So many people, so many late night chats, so many blurred faces — I have never been good at memorizing faces. Hell, I can’t remember people’s names, half of the time. But I remember them. Meeting people is easy: just open your eyes.