My Cafe Doble Nica was hitting the spot nicely and the covered courtyard of Cafe Libelula – Dragonfly – was filled with the lively buzz of various languages layering over each other in the hot, humid air.
The more latin lilt of the Nicaraguan waiter was pitched against the lisping Castilian Spanish of a couple from Madrid: there was some French from the Midi in the corner with it’s unmistakeable ‘demaing’; a quartet of Germans in the far corner were competing with a Kiwi couple; an American was asking the ‘way-der’ for some ‘war-der’; and we were suppling some classic neutrally accented English. The whole world seemed to be in Leon drinking coffee.
Grace and I were celebrating our first anniversary of being out on the road and were looking back at where we had been on the 24th of every month for the past twelve. An old man with a kind face who had been sitting at the next table got up and came over to us.
“You might like this”, he said dropping a paper napkin on our table.
I picked it up and saw some words in Spanish and a neat little sketch of Grace and I sitting at our table. We thanked him and invited him to sit with us which he did.
“It says ‘a perfect profile obscured by your partner'” he said smiling, “I was trying to draw her beautiful profile and you kept getting in the way! I hope you don’t mind me saying that. At 81-years of age I like to think that I can flirt and not risk getting thumped”.
I assured him that I wasn’t a thumper and would never take offence if anyone flirted with Grace. In fact I’d take more offence if they didn’t. We all laughed and introduced ourselves. Tom Jones was originally from Michigan in the US but had moved to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico in 2000 with his wife who sadly then had the misfortune to die on him before they could fully enjoy their retirement there. He said all this matter of factly and without bitterness. We discussed life in Central America, our mutual travels, and his adult children still in the states and thriving. He had a wonderful calmness and sense of peace about him: just happy to be sitting chatting in a cafe with two complete strangers.
After twenty or so minutes he got up to go.
“Have a wonderful journey”, he said warmly, “What a great thing to be doing while you are still so young, I wish I’d done more now that I know how hard it gets later on. A pleasure to have spent time with you both”.
And with that he shuffled quite slowly out of the cafe and was gone, just the napkin left on the table to show that he had ever been there. The napkin and also a very lovely memory of having just spent time with a very human human being. A man in the very dusk of his time on earth but who still liked to travel, to sit and draw sketches, to offer them to the subjects and was then happy to sit and chat about whatever came to mind.
I am a huge fan of unexpected encounters and travelling seems to provide them more than everyday life perhaps because one is more attuned to the random opportunity whenever it arises. During all the travels I have undertaken, meeting people from all walks of life and learning from them, has been one of my greatest joys and achievements. Nobody can ever be discounted as unworthy of at least a few minutes idle chat because who knows what may emerge? Whatever, these moments are always a huge pleasure, and especially so when the company is as charming and mildly flirtatious as 81-year old Tom Jones.
Postscript: Later that same day the carnival ‘Alegria por la Vida’ was in full swing in the main plaza with bands, dancers, stilt-walkers and numerous other costumed extravaganzas and excuses for deafening noise. Escaping to a quieter and darker side street we were picking our way through the crowds when all of a sudden there was some shouting and everyone began to run in our direction. Looking back I saw no obvious explanation but was nonetheless jolted into action. Holding Grace firmly by the hand I quickened our pace, kept close to the wall and headed for the end of the street whilst taking the odd look over my shoulder. Turning the corner into a more brightly lit street it all seemed to subside, the runners dropped back to a walk, the sense of panic subsided. A needless alarm – which we later learnt had been a brawl and a smashed window – but one which had turned an otherwise normal moment into one tinged with a sense of fear. After recent events I think we are all on a higher state of alert and there are enough revolutionary reminders here in Leon. And it also made me think that in any one day one can have encounters of all kinds, good and bad, beautiful and terrible. There is no knowing what will come.