I was on the coast of Vietnam, standing alone under the palms. Already I had taken a picture of two Buddhist monks clad in orange as they walked away from the beach. Now I stood thinking of the next shot to take.
That's when I noticed her out of the corner of my eye. Not wanting to disturb me, she seemed to be waiting patiently for me to finish my picture-taking. After another minute or so, I put the camera down and turned toward her. In a distinctly English accent and with a delightfully cheerful tone, she asked, "Have you any pictures of yourself?"
I had first noticed Emma half an hour earlier while I was walking along the beach. She stood out for three reasons: not many people at all were on the beach, her bikini revealed the whitest skin around, and she made eye contact with me and smiled. Believing that genuine smiles are in short supply in our world, I immediately smiled back. Our encounter had lasted all of one second, and as with most people we pass in a day, I thought I would never see her again.
But now as Emma took a picture of me leaning against a palm tree, I found joy in the simple gift of her presence. When Emma handed back my camera, she said with a contagiously peppy voice, "I hope you will like it."
"Thank you," I replied. "I'm sure I will."
We both were planning to bicycle back to Hoi An now – about four miles away – and she asked if, before we got on our bikes, I'd like to have a cup of tea.
We walked to a cafe across the street, where Emma ordered her drink in Vietnamese. I was impressed at how much language she had picked up in just a few weeks of travel. I asked where her journey had taken her so far. "I've apparently been to many of the places you have," she said, "because today is actually the third time I've seen you."
I was very surprised to hear this.
My surprise persisted when she said, "So I hear you are trying to write a book and that you read a lot." Emma, I came to discover, had two weeks earlier sat at a table adjacent to me in Hanoi, 18 hours to the north by bus. I had been sitting with a Swedish man who had written a book about his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. She overheard some of this conversation and then later found herself sharing a dorm room with the Swedish man, who then told her more about our conversation.
A week later, as Emma was walking with a friend in Hue (five hours to the north), she spotted me once again. This time I was at a popular backpacker hangout called the Mandarin Cafe and on my table were several books and a notepad. She told her friend, "I saw that man in Hanoi. He reads all the time."
Emma and I shared stories from our lives, talked about our hopes in travel and at home, and simply had a very pleasant time together. She wore a perpetual grin on her face and was very witty. I had never asked this question before, but it came to mind during our conversation: "So what does one think when in passing but never speaking? How would you describe me?"
Emma thought for a moment and then looked me in the eye to say, "One would think you are the kind of guy who, if a young woman went up to your table and said, 'Hey! A group of us is going out tonight and we'd love to have you join us,' you would then reply, 'Thank you, but I have a book I need to read tonight.'"
I thought about what she said for a moment, and I began to laugh.
The hardest part of a solo journey, I often think, is the return home, when you come face to face with the fact that all you've experienced was not shared, at least not with people who know you long term. And for this reason you may even at times wonder, "Is my life a series of events that never really happened?"
Emma's words, however, affirmed that my life really was happening. By reminding me that I was being observed by others in the places I was passing through, Emma was in effect – even if she didn't intend it – telling me that I was not completely alone on this solo journey. True, there is a significant difference between being noticed and actually interacting, but somehow learning simply that I had been "seen" in two cities had already begun to subtly alter my memory of those places, and of myself.
I was laughing now, but I noticed Emma's face had taken on a worried look. With concern she added, "I didn't mean what I said in a bad way, of course."
"I didn't take it that way at all," I replied.
No, not at all, Emma. By making my world a little more whole – even in such a very modest way – you did so much more than just take my picture.