Most of my travel, depending on the itinerary, enchants, relaxes or educates. Natural beauty takes my breath away as much as the next person’s; outstanding food and wine are a treat, though fleeting; and meeting locals broadens my pleasure on the road. But none of these explain my serious travel addiction. The extraordinary encounters are at the root of it: those rare moments that make my heart race and tangle my tongue; give me goose-bumps or make me cry.
At sunrise I’m heading alone down the Via Sacra, the ancient road through the Roman forums. I marvel that I’m walking the same smooth stones on which processions marched two millennia before to celebrate victories around the empire. I pass under triumphal archways, admire the Senate building, and gently caress remnants of sun-warmed columns carved by an unknown hand. In time, I stop beside Julius Caesar’s tomb inhaling the scent of fresh flowers that adorn it.
Whispers of Latin, laughter, cheers, marching feet. I feel the air moving past me and a swish of cloth on my leg; I hear the slap of sandals. I spin round but no one’s here but me. Just me. I sit awhile amongst the centuries past, hoping for more.
The Roman forum is one of the special places in our world where the barrier between the past and present is as thin as gossamer; where history is so close, it’s tangible—almost scary. Another is Stonehenge in southern England and it was here that I first encountered the experience. I was eighteen then, and no fences surrounded the prehistoric stones. In a clear dawn in the middle of the circle, I watched the sun break free of the horizon on the summer solstice. The hairs rose on my neck as the universe wove its magic—Druid footsteps, chanting, the crackle of fire.
On a sparkling May morning, I’m in a small boat exploring the Harrison River deep in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. My guide navigates the boat through the snowmelt-swollen waters as I shoot images of the wild river and animals. Smoky mountains hover in the mist, evergreen forests tip steeply to the water, and osprey fish for their young.
Ancient pictograms speak to me from cliffs, connecting me to the first peoples who lived here thousands of years ago. Eons later they faced the first Europeans and died here ravaged by their smallpox. I turn inward, saddened. When we approach the carcass of a paddle-wheeler sunk in the shallows, I see the white men on deck in slouch hats with picks and shovels swinging from their shoulders. They swig whiskey from a bottle passed hand to hand. Voices boast of fortunes to be made in the gold-rich Fraser River further north. Does no one hear them but me?
Sweat drips into my eyes and my camera slithers in my hands—I’m on safari in a scrubby, hilly area of the Eastern Cape in South Africa. A herd of two hundred wild elephants with monster bulls, family groups, and many newborns surrounds my vehicle. One matriarch never takes her eyes off me as I try to photograph her new calf tucked in by her tail. I am so close I can count mom’s eyelashes. Our eyes meet and hold. She curls up her trunk in greeting. There is no fear, just questioning. I smile. She gently nudges her baby forward to show me.
When I’m travelling, unexpected connections like this sometimes happen, but too rarely. I tell myself they are impossible, imagined. But emotionally I yearn for these encounters. When they occur, I’m spellbound.
This one felt nothing short of divine intervention: I sit alone sipping a café Americain in a St-Malo square pondering how to proceed with my research into the town’s destruction in World War Two. My quest is going badly and I’m running out of time. A white-haired lady approaches my table.
“Anglais?” she asks.
“Non, Canadienne,” I say. I’m praying she lived here during World War Two and order her a coffee.
“Oui, I was eighteen,” Heloise says in English.
I gasp. Out of the blue here is my eyewitness, and she also lived through the town’s reconstruction.
Her eyes lose focus as she delves into her memory for me.
“Merci beaucoup,” I stammer when Heloise finishes an hour later.
Smiling sweetly, she gathers up her shopping basket and says, “Mon plaisir.”
Encounters like these cannot be forced. I’ve tried choosing destinations where I’m sure they will happen, but they didn’t. I’ve stood in Winchester Cathedral among clots of visitors, and they did; but mostly they occur early in the day when I’m acutely attuned to place and history, and tourists are few. However, one condition is ever-present—I’m solo.
All I know is that when these extraordinary encounters happen, they send me reeling and instill an insatiable desire to travel more.
Written by Julie H. Ferguson for EuropeUpClose.com