Whether it was that woman on the train who told you her life story, or that tour guide who revealed more about that town than you ever anticipated, or that taxi driver who recounted the history of the city and recommended the best local meal, we all have various encounters while traveling that have shaped our own journeys.
One of the best ways to hone in on writing a great travel story is to focus on narrating the experience of a meaningful encounter.
Who did you meet that changed your perception of a place, or an aspect of yourself?
Usually this type of encounter has some kind of reversal attached to it. Most often, the narrator starts out somewhat skeptical of this person, but learn something important from them in the end. Since stories worth telling are most often about opening up to experience rather than having them close down, this reversal works well as a story structure.
A good example of this type of story is The Accidental Hitchhiker by Celeste Brash, from World Hum. In this story, Celeste is visiting Samoa, and searching for Pulemelei Mound, a place she’d always wanted to visit. Lost, she picks up a hitchhiker, a giant of a Samoan man, who claims he knows the way.
Throughout their subsequent journey to Pulemelei Mound, Celeste is unsure of this hitchhiker and his motives, and assesses her thoughts about him as well as their interactions throughout their journey.
By then end, she describes how her feelings about this man change throughout her short time with him. Through this story Celeste proves that a simple encounter, where you meet someone for just a few hours, can turn into a moving a story.
Another example also comes from World Hum, in Candace Rose Rardon’s story Drawing Connections in Mostar. In it, Candace is visiting Bosnia, busy sketching a scene in the city of Mostar, when a woman approaches her and asks where she’s from. At first, Candace only wants to work on her sketch, and not be distracted by this woman and her subsequent offer to have coffee.
But when Candace does accept, she’s able to learn so much more about the city and its recent history. That one chance meeting shows Candace a whole other side to Bosnia and the city of Mostar that would have been absent otherwise.
So, what are the encounters that changed you? Start jotting down some names and places. Follow along with these tips to write your own story about a meaningful encounter:
1. Describe the meeting and how you reacted to and felt about the person.
2. Describe their physical appearance and gestures, and use dialogue to reveal more about their personality.
3. Continually reveal your thoughts, feelings and observations about this person, as the story moves forward.
4. Show the change that you’ve undergone in both your understanding of and relationship to this new person, as well as your understanding of and relationship to the place you are in.
And for a whole book of great travel memoir stories about meaningful encounters, check out OxTravels, Oxfam’s compilation of famous and emerging travel writers telling their stories of connection.