Chance encounters are the travel experiences that will change your life

This isn't the story of my journey into mindfulness. It's the story of Joe. Because Joe has a story.

I meet him at a wine bar in downtown Lisbon, on a balmy night when bongo drummers are busking in the nearby square, where crowds are out strolling the streets and drinking in the fun and the perfection of a European city in summer.

I'm out by myself because my partner and I are taking turns – one night, I stay home to look after our baby son while she goes out for dinner; the next night, we swap. So I'm free and easy tonight, eating dinner for one at By The Wine, one of the slew of nouveau eateries in the trendy Portuguese capital.

"That's your seat at the bar just there," the waitress says, pointing to the one empty stool. "And you have a friend too. He speaks English, like you."

The guy I will soon come to know as Joe smiles. "Hey man, what's up?" He's got far too many shiny white teeth; a healthy tan; an American accent. No wonder he's friendly.

And so begins one of the more entertaining evenings of my recent travels, one that will go long into the night, that will end at a speakeasy bar in some outer suburb at three in the morning, that will involve wine and cocktails and Ubers and cover charges, that will go deep into discussions of life and death and God and meditation, what we're all doing here and where we're going next.

But first, to meeting Joe. I love this stuff. I love the thrill of the unknown when you're travelling, the idea that you never know who you're going to sit next to, that you have no clue what you'll be able to uncover from a complete stranger, the knowledge and the ideas, the anecdotes and opinions.

This is what travel is all about to me: people. Endlessly fascinating, strange, thoughtful, quirky people.

Joe is a mindfulness guru. I mean, he's actually a salesman of high-end dental equipment. But he's also a mindfulness guru, the self-published author of two self-help books and a speaker at conferences and events. This takes about 10 minutes – a glass of wine, a perusal of the menu – to discover.

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Meanwhile, I've sent a quick text to my partner, letting her know I got to the bar OK, and that I've found myself next to a mindfulness preacher. "Have you run in the opposite direction?" she replies. I've thought about it.

But that's not what chance encounters on your travels are about. They're about hearing people out, about teasing out their stories, about hearing new perspectives and making your own decisions about things. So I stay and we talk.

Joe's wife died a few years ago. She died of cancer in her early 30s. It was a long and heartbreaking episode, one that changed Joe's life from the one he imagined and always wanted to the awful one he never expected but was forced to live.

And so, he travelled. He's been travelling the world almost non-stop since.

He bought an old Land Rover in Costa Rica and drove it home to Chicago. He paid bribes to cartels and cops along the way. He briefly considered fighting a group of Mexican schoolgirls who laid spikes on the road in front of his car and demanded payment. "But I kinda thought," he chuckles, "that even if I win, even if I get away, I'm the guy who beat up a bunch of schoolgirls."

On his journey, his new journey, he's discovered the power of meditation. He's learned to focus on why he's here, instead of why his wife is not. He's changed his idea of God and religion from the traditional Christian one to something that includes reincarnation and a soul's endless quest. He's discovered, too, that he gains a sense of purpose from passing on the knowledge that only incredible grief can bring.

I'm not a potential convert for Joe. I don't meditate, I don't practise mindfulness, I don't believe in God. And I'm happy with all of that.

But I'm also happy to listen, happy to hear someone's tale. And that tale takes us from the wine bar, where we end up sharing a few bottles and – eventually – a few plates of food ("The only reason we get upset about having to wait is expectation," Joe intones. "Take away your expectations, and you're happy.") to a far-off speakeasy, where we sit in a dark room and sip whisky cocktails and solve all the world's problems, and maybe a few of our own.

I leave to go home, eventually, totally energised, charged by Joe's charisma, inspired by his daring travel tales, loving the fact that you can go out in this world knowing no one, with no goal in mind, no plans or expectations, and still meet the most interesting people.

That's something we should all be mindful of.

See also: They drink, they smoke, they live longer than everyone else. Here's their secret

See also: The freedoms Europeans have that 'uncivilised' Australians don't

Have you met any interesting characters on your travels? Anyone who's changed your life or how you look at the world? Is there any way to make sure you have these encounters?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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