After travelling though Asia for 8 months my 2 year global trip was coming to an end. I saved the best for last, a 4 month trip through India and Nepal, during which time I decided to go tee-total and vegetarian - mainly because I didn't want to get sick, and I wanted my money to last. By this time I was travelling alone, although I was never alone for long as I met many characters along the way. One of these characters was a lad from Worcester called Richard Stokes. It didn't take long for me to realise that Richard was a bad lad. In fact he was on the run from the police after battering a lad in the face with a glass ashtray. Needless to say when I left Richard a little over a week after I met him, it was with a sense of relief. However Richard was to re-surface again (in conversation at least) some 6 years later in the year 2000.
By the year 2000 I was living in the beautiful city of Leiden in the Netherlands. After a failed relationship, and a spell of living in a caravan on the outskirts of the village of Zoeterwoude, my apartment in Leiden came as sweet relief. But a new adventure was long overdue. Unfortunately my salary did not afford me this luxury, but when a largish tax rebate fell into my path there was only one way that it was going to get spent. I'd heard great things about Guatemala through the traveller's grapevine, so that's where I decided to go. A flight from Amsterdam to Guatemala City, with an overnight layover in Houston, and a return ticket from Managua, Nicaragua a month later would give me ample time to see some of Central America. Once again I was off to see the world.
From Guatemala City airport I boarded a bus to Antigua Guatemala, which I'd heard was stunning. The rumours were not wrong, Antigua Guatemala was incredible. Everything that I'd expected it was going to be i.e. beautiful Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture, set against a mountainous background, with the Pacaya volcano dominating the landscape. After booking into a wonderfully run down hostel, I headed to the hostel bar to sample the Guatemalan beer (Gallo) in case you're interested. Beer in hand I headed out to the hostel courtyard to see who was around. It was here that I met Posh Josh, a well-educated, handsome fella from London. Josh had been in Antigua for a few weeks, and had a solid group of friends in the city, who were there to learn Spanish. We drank a few Gallos in the courtyard before Josh asked if I wanted to go to a DVD bar to watch a film (The Beach), and to meet up with his Dutch friend Marielle. Given that I lived in the Netherlands I enthusiastically agreed.
Marielle was typically Dutch, I'll leave this description to your imaginations. She'd been in Antigua for nearly a month, and had a group of fellow Spanish learning friends who she agreed to introduce me to the next evening.
The following evening a bunch of us met up in a bar called La Chiminea, where we downed an obscene amount of gin. As promised Marielle introduced me to her fellow Spanish learning friends, and one girl particularly caught my eye. Her name was Sarah, and as we engaged in conversation it emerged that she was from Worcester. Remembering my travel companion from 6 years earlier, I blurted out "Ah, I met a bloke from Worcester in India 6 years ago, he was on the run from the police because he smashed somebody's face in with an ashtray!" Sarah stared at me in amazement and said "was it Richard Stokes?" Not only did she know Richard Stokes, but she had a bizarre story to tell me about him, and here it goes.
Sometime prior to 1994 Sarah had been at a party in Worcester, and at some point all the booze had run out. All the booze that is apart from her bottle of wine, which she hung on to for grim life. In fact her desire to have the bottle all to herself was so strong that she hid under the kitchen table so that nobody could steal it from her. As she was selfishly consuming her bottle the table came crashing down on her, closely followed by a poor bloke that had just been hit in the face by an ashtray by none other than Richard Stokes. To add to this, a year or so later, when Sarah introduced me to her mate Polish Dave for the first time, I told him the story of how Sarah and I had met. In another bizarre twist of fete Polish Dave's dad was the dentist that had fixed the poor kid's teeth.
Our lives it turned out we're even further intertwined. Sarah had not only lived in Holland, but had lived in the same village, Zoeterwoude Dorp. There was I thinking that I was the only English person for miles around, and unbeknown to me she was there at the same time. I'd heard a rumour that there were a group of Irish people squatting the old thatched roofed bakery, although I'd never bothered to investigate this further. Had I done this I would have met Sarah years earlier (although she definitely wasn't Irish).
Sarah had left some money in her Dutch bank account and she was eager to retrieve it, so given that I spoke Dutch, and it gave us a good excuse to meet up again.With this in mind we exchanged email addresses. By the time we met she was living in Manchester and studying at Manchester Uni, so it would be easy for her to get a budget airlines flight to visit me in Holland. After spending a week together in Antigua and then in San Pedro (Lago de Attilan), Sarah and I parted ways.
After parting ways with Sarah I met a German girl by the name of Helen. The chemistry between us was laboured, but we were both heading in the same direction, and shared the same musical interests, so we hung out together on the banks of Lago de Attilan for a few days. Amongst other conversations one of the conversations we had was about a rock festival in Holland called Pinkpop. She loved to go and I intended to go in the following year. Well guess who I bumped into the following year, whilst in the swirl of a mushroom high?- none other than German Helen herself (and the chemistry was still shite).
Once my Central American trip was over I emailed Sarah, and thankfully she replied. Over the next few weeks the emails started to become increasingly more frequent, until a point when we decided to start ringing each other. When ringing was no longer good enough Sarah decided to come and visit me in Leiden, under the pretext that I would help her release her money from the Dutch bank that held it. Her trip was successful on all fronts. We managed to liberate her money from the bank, and our relationship became firmly cemented. Over the next year Sarah would fly over to Leiden many times, and we would meet up several times in the UK.
One of my good mates in Leiden was a Scottish fella by the name of Del. At the time Del was living in a tent on a campsite, so I used to let him come to stay at mine from time to time to watch some television, and generally chill out on my sofa. One day the door bell rang and when I went down to answer it, there was Del with another lad that Del introduced as Max. "Hi Andy, this is Max, do you mind if he comes up and watches some TV with us?" Of course I didn't mind, I love to meet new people, because as far as I'm concerned new people mean new stories. So Del and Max came up to my apartment, and as I often do I hit the new guest with a barrage of questions. The answer to his first question totally aroused my interest.
Me: Where are you from?
Max: I'm from Worcester.
I bet you can see where this is going, can't you?
Me: Really! My girlfriend is from Worcester!
Max: What's her name?
Me: Sarah Blake.
Max: You're kidding me! Is she small with blond hair?
And, yes she was, but Max didn't know her from Worcester. No, things are never that straightforward! Max had only met Sarah in a hostel (The Office) in Tel Aviv Israel. Sarah had been working there a number of years earlier, and Max had been a long term resident. I couldn't wait to tell Sarah about this. This is off the scale nuts. She was coming to visit in a few days so I waited till she got there. Somehow in the midst of the excitement of her being in Leiden I totally forgot to mention it to her. That is, until we were in the Albert Heijn supermarket in Leiden centre. As we weighed some apples in the fruit and vegetables section I suddenly remembered about Max. "You'll never guess who I met in Leiden last week!" I said to her. And when I told her she couldn't believe it. Max it turned out was always drunkenly half in and half out of bed, as Sarah (the Chambermaid) attempted to clean around him. So she's telling me the story of how she knew Max, when we turn around to go and pay for the apples and lo and behold there is Max at the other set of scales weighing his own apples. Now if that is not bizarre, I don't know what is!
Well, actually I do... and here it is.
After a year of our long term relationship I decided that I was going to move back to England. Sarah had convinced me that I was never too old to do a degree, and I somehow managed to get myself onto a Geography degree course at Liverpool, John Moores University. I say somehow because I left school with an embarrassingly low amount of qualifications. But anyway I digress! After 5 years in The Netherlands it was almost time to go back home. Sarah decided that she would get one more trip to Leiden in before I left. It was going to be a sad farewell to Holland. I'd come there for love, and I was leaving for love, some 5 years later. It must have been sometime in April 2001 that Sarah came for our final weekend together. On the Sunday afternoon I caught the train with her back to Schipol (Amsterdam airport), and as we were getting off the train I experienced the most weird feeling I've ever felt. It was as if I'd been plugged into the electricity supply. My whole body started tingling and I felt hyper alert. It was a feeling that I'd never felt before (nor ever again), and I knew immediately that there was somebody that I knew in the airport. I have no idea how I knew this, I just did. I turned to Sarah and said "there's somebody in this airport that I know, I don't know how I know them, or why they are important to me, but I just know that there's somebody here." Sarah (who was in a rush), said "Yeah, whatever I really need to get this flight." So we rushed through the departure lounge and I kissed her goodbye until the next time we met up in England. You're never going to believe this but as I was making my way back through the airport to the train station, who should I meet but Marielle the Dutch girl that had introduced us in Guatemala- spooky, or what! Spooky it may have been, but it all made sense.
But that's not the end of the weirdness, the final part of this very strange period of interconnected times came a year later whilst Sarah and I were in Dahab on the Egyptian, Sinai peninsula. I'd been to Dahab back in 1989, and how it had changed since then. When I went there originally it had bee nothing but a small village with a few guesthouses. When I went back in 2001 it was a fully developed resort. It still retained and element of charm, but it was definitely not the hippy hole it had once been. That was OK though because we were there to scuba dive. Sarah was doing her dissertation on coral erosion, and given that she was a dive master, and I was open water qualified we were able to hire equipment and dive without any further supervision. We were there for around 5 weeks, diving, drinking, eating and partying. This was to be my swan song before knuckling down to some hard academia, so I was eager to make the most of it. It was whilst we were out partying in a ship themed bar called Tota that I suddenly hear a voice from my past. My head spun around to eavesdrop on a couple who were sat at the other side of the bar. I've know idea how I managed to recognise the voice because I'd only met him for a week at the most in Adelaide back in 1993, but there he was Sander the Dutch man, and the name I told you to make a note of earlier. It took a lot of explaining for him to recognise who I was, I must admit, but then again I'd actually had some hair back in 1993, and my belly didn't look like Homer Simpsons. But in the end he fully remembered who I was.
So it seems that it is true, you are only ever 6 steps (or less) away from somebody who knows you. I'm unsure why these SWE's seem to reveal themselves to me more than your average person, but maybe it's because I travel so much, ask lots of questions, and generally throw myself into many situations.
But in any case I hope that they continue to happen.