Editor’s note: One of the first lessons you can learn about traveling is that the people you spend your time with are even more important than the destination itself. Think of how a good friend can make hours on a cramped bus feel like minutes, while a constant complainer can turn a trip to even the chillest of places into a chore.
These 15 portraits and stories, sourced from the community at MatadorU, are of relationships that, for at least one traveler, felt as iconic as any landmark and had the ability to define an entire country and journey.
This was shot at Khalsa College, Amritsar. I was visiting the building as part of my architecture school's field trip, but instead of clicking the grand college so often confused with a palace, I noticed this old man cocooned in his blanket at the entrance. As I started having a conversation with him, he told me he has been the watchman of the college for more than 70 years. He was just a young boy when he took up his post, and had the most interesting stories to tell. He described in detail how he saw the young princes and princesses attend college in horse-drawn carriages during the British Raj.
Photo: Sarthak Chand
Let’s face it, having kids is an adventure in itself, but traveling with them is like getting a second chance to see the world through innocent eyes full of wonder. Looking at this photograph of my son brings back many happy memories. In his smile I see the joy in the simple act of traveling, the feeling of freedom, and the openness to explore.
Traveling has always been a part of my life, and now it is a big part of my children’s lives too. There is no better (or more enjoyable) education than travel, and I look forward to exploring with my kids by my side.
Photo: Cassandra O'Leary
This is Mohammad. The 32-year-old Jordanian guide spent ten days with me and a team of fellow photographers as we explored Jordan and volunteered with The Giving Lens. He is amazing. He shared his passion for his country and culture so well that we all fell in love with Jordan. He is the perfect illustration that, like he told us, “Life is not about material things. Life is about relationships.” Then, at the end of the trip, he added: “No matter where you go, remember that you now have family in Jordan.”
Photo: Sebastien Beun
This was taken in Shantiniketan during Durga Puja. I didn’t feel wholly comfortable capturing this image at first. It felt like a ‘Poverty porn’ shot. Soon after, I realized the scenario. The boy was looking at us and we, all dressed in brand new clothes, were enjoying the festival.
Photo: Aveek Mondal
I met this little girl when I visited Bali, Indonesia. I was visiting the Besakih Temple near Ubud and, as usual, I came across many people who wanted to sell numerous things to me. But this little girl was probably the most persistent salesperson I have ever come across. She did not budge, spoke perfect English, and had solutions to all my reasons (or rather, my excuses) for not buying. After I told her “I do not have small change,” her reply was, "Oh! That's not even a problem. I have all the change in this world." The most amazing thing is that she was only 7. Woah!
Photo: Arpit Malik
I met Abdullah on my way to a mosque in the city of Van in Eastern Turkey. He couldn't speak a word of English and I could only say “hello” and count to ten in Turkish. After a brief chat in the international language of hands, we went to an internet cafe and used Google Translate to continue the conversation. I learned a lot about the city and made a new friend in one of the most culturally rich places on Earth.
Abdullah and I still keep in touch, and although communicating via Translate is difficult, there is one Turkish word I learned the meaning of: kardeşler, brothers.
Photo: Javed Adam
May is one of the tour guides that I met in Sa Pa, Vietnam. We sat next to each other in the van on our way back to the hotel after a day trekking in the rice terraces. She's from the Black H'mong tribe. The people from this tribe wear black, but May told me that sometimes she wishes she could wear another tribe's clothing, clothing that wouldn’t take a whole 20 minutes just to put on.
Most of the women in the Black H'mong tribe marry in their late teens. May, who is only 18, is single. She told me she’d rather marry in her late 20s, as she wants to make the most out of her youth. The reason why I had fun talking to her so much is that I can relate to her despite the fact that we both come from very different backgrounds.
Photo: Bernice Beltran
No way is Beny like the bookish, quiet, nerdy Panamanian bird guides we were used to. His giant smile overtook his face and his laugh could be heard for miles. He was the funniest, most jovial bird guide we ever had, which is why we wanted to have him guide us to the birds again when we took our second trip to Panama. But alas, he was booked with another group. And then, while we were birding in the remote area of La Fortuna, who was that on the side of the road looking through binoculars? Why, it was Beny! Birds of a feather…
Photo: Lisa Boice
Smiling and prancing, the little one approached me, seemingly just to say hello. We talked about her favorite things. I asked her, “Do you live here in San Cristóbal de las Casas or nearby?” She just said, “Mami hace casa” (mommy makes the home). Ten minutes in, she hadn’t even attempted a sale so I asked her what she had in the basket. She proudly showed off her bracelets, and my heart quickly turned to goo. I ended up buying all 15 of them.
I then saw her go lie down with her mom. They were homeless. I wear the bracelets every day to remind me who I’m fighting for, and this photo serves the same purpose.
Photo: Caetano Laprebendere
We met each other in Spain, on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, in April 2009. Today, we have a two-year-old baby boy named Tiago.
Photo: Thaís Chalencon
I love experiencing deep bonds with people after just meeting for the first time – it’s like you know that you have known them for countless lifetimes.
I met Craig while I was staying at a surf hotel a few months ago in Playa Guiones Nosara, Costa Rica. The first thing I noticed was his shining, bright eyes – they inspired me right away. Over that week I learned a lot about his adventurous travels back in the days when there were hardly any tourists, let alone surfers. He has spent life traveling, teaching yoga, and surfing – a beautiful being to meet.
Photo: Nat Kuleba
This Vietnamese lady spotted me on the busy streets of Hoi An and ushered me towards her fruit and vegetable stall. She sat me down on a little plastic stool, pulled off her traditional straw hat, and plonked it roughly onto my head. Clapping her hands in excitement she exclaimed in broken English, "Photo! Photo for pretty lady!" I had no choice but to hand over my camera to my dad who snapped the photo.
I went to stand up but she put her small arm around me and said "With me now!" I laughed at her eagerness and smiled for a photo once more. Before I could try to stand up again, she swiftly removed the hat from my head, put out her hand, and said "Okay, 10,000 Dong." I shook my head in disbelief and handed over the money. That sneaky lady!
Photo: Jess Buchan
Her name was Van, but we called her Vinny. On first impressions she was quiet, softly spoken, and shy about speaking English. Still, she was very accommodating to us weary travelers staying in her modest concrete home outside Ninh Binh in Northern Vietnam. The first night, Vinny and her mother greeted us with a home-cooked meal bursting with fresh produce from their garden. The next day, we took a day trip to experience a “charming” pagoda.
My impressions of her drastically changed when Vinny’s fiery yet polite stubborn goddess exposed itself. She could not be swindled into buying admission tickets from an insistent and pestering street hawker, and vocally stood up for me as a foreign traveler against a small mob of angry pagoda “guides” trying to get me to pay even more money for the visit.
Our time together ended suddenly as Vinny had to rush back home to catch a bus; she jumped onto the back of a motorbike and the driver zipped through the crowded streets, disappearing immediately. It was quite a privilege to spend two full days with the smiley and bright Vinny.
Photo: Bethany Coan
This is Jennifer Gall. I had actually met her friend first – a free spirit named Imogen who I met in Rome.Imogen introduced me to Jennifer at the Trevi Fountain, and we all made lots of wishes together. Three years later, Jennifer and I met to celebrate our birthdays in Valencia after a long day at the tomato fest in Buñol. The night before the tomato fight, we shared a tent…and our life story – family, relationships, where we wanted to be three years from now.
Photo: Zoe Hatton
When I lived in China, early mornings meant "Get up and go exercise." Many people gathered at the parks or other open spaces to do Tai Chi Chuan, dance, run, or just walk. One of the walkers would be out there every morning to say hello to my Tai Chi partner and I. We never knew his name. We called him "Chairman Mao's Soldier.” He had on his CCCP jacket and pants from an earlier era. Plus he wore, with a great deal of pride, a badge bearing Chairman Mao's face. Always smiling, he was an everyday fixture.
We left for the summer and when my friend and I returned, we saw Chairman Mao's Soldier once. He looked tired and haggard. He told us he was 86 and not feeling so good. We never saw him again. I cried like I had lost a family member.
Photo: Carole Milstead