A couple of weeks ago, I had to travel to San Diego for the second time in five days in an odious adventure to get my passport ready for my upcoming study abroad trip to London. I’ve experienced the wondrous monotony the 5 South has to offer, but had never been on a train before, so I opted to take the Pacific Surfliner Train. On top of being able to complete homework while commuting, I thought familiarizing myself with mass transit protocol would be a step in the right direction for my upcoming adventures.
The gentleman in the row in front of me turned to me and asked in a thick Hispanic accent which stop would get him to Downtown San Diego. I told him I was going to the same place and he could just exit at the same time as me. Despite what I’ve heard about mass transit conduct, I took a chance on closing my laptop and taking the headphones out of my ears.
That was the best decision I could have made that day. His name was Leandro Villalba and he was a 23 year old Mechanical Engineering student from Argentina. He’d been backpacking for two and a half months and travelling through Central America to the US. He said he had been saving for over a year working as a Jiu Jitsu coach at his university for $60 per month. He supplemented his income by working odd cash jobs and fighting in different gyms. What might be more interesting is he was able to keep his monetary supply as full as it could be by performing close up magic on the streets of whatever country he was in.
Absolutely fascinated by this man’s tale — and also jealous because I have to wait to scratch my traveling itch — I told him I was going to grab fish tacos and invited him to come along. We continued to talk for the three block walk to the restaurant. I offered to buy lunch for him and after some resistance on his part he humored me. We each sat and enjoyed two massive fish tacos. During the meal we swapped traveling stories and tips. I listened intently to his stories and then regaled him with some of the highlights of my time in Afghanistan.
When we finished, he said he was going to perform some of his famed magic, which was very well received by the other patrons of the restaurant. Leandro first pulled out a deck of cards and astonished the small crowd with his ability to always have the right card.
He poked fun at himself by acting like he messed up his trick by saying the wrong thing in English, when in fact he had performed the trick correctly. He then pulled out a length of string and asked me for my lighter. He held the flame to the string and it combusted completely in a split second, but sent a small, red, foam ball sailing up into the air. Leo caught it and fooled us all with a series of sleight of hand tricks. He even handed me one and said instead of taking it from my hand, he was going to add another one. I saw him only put one ball into my hand, but indeed when I opened it up, there were two.
Alas, I was in this beautiful city for a reason and suggested while I was getting my passport, he should check into his hostel and we would meet up afterwards. My passport excursion was executed without much ado and I returned to the lobby of the hostel where he told me he would be. After waiting for a bit, I got up to ask the man at the front desk if my friend had checked in yet. After spelling the name for the clerk several times, it was clear: he had not. I went back to sitting in the lobby, nervously checking the time and watching the clock race until I had to leave for the train station. That’s when I heard the clerk tell another patron that they weren’t able to check in until 4:00pm.
Maybe that was it! Maybe he just couldn’t get into his room, so he was just walking around, taking in the wondrous views San Diego has to offer. I quickly threw my backpack over my shoulder and went outside. I stood on the stoop of this grand building looking for my new friend. I decided to just go around the block. My mind was fooling me into thinking that every sliver of red clothing was his rucksack. I expanded my search, while simultaneously getting closer to the train station.
Anxiously, I kept checking the time on my phone as I searched the area near Leo’s hostel. In one of these glances I noticed he had accepted a Facebook friend request I had sent earlier. I knew Leo didn’t have cell service, so this notification meant he must be somewhere with WiFi. He messaged me saying he had to find another hostel, but didn’t explain why. His new hostel was about a mile and a half from where I was and I only had twenty-five minutes until my train was due to depart. I, unfortunately, had to reply to him saying I would be unable to meet up again. He thanked me again for lunch and we parted ways.
I wrote most of this on the train back, thinking about how his journey was two weeks from ending and mine two weeks from starting. I’m inspired by this young man’s adventurousness, his perseverance, and his talent. I know the very nature of meeting such people is brevity. I hope I can go to London and beyond meeting the exciting people of the world. If I just take a page out of his book, I’m sure I’ll do just fine. It was truly a pleasure, Leo. Thanks for making my first train ride an unforgettable experience.