I heard the woman’s American accent as she asked questions of the airport assistant. She returned to a row of seats next to mine. Gate 19, Zurich Airport. Next flight: Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
She was en route to Nairobi.
I never got her name. Didn’t matter.
In that lovely way that travelers connect all over the world, she and I embarked on our own trip. Turns out she’s from Tampa- barely fifty miles from my home town of Winter Haven. Turns out that before that she grew up in New Jersey, where both my father and BF are from.
We had a lot to discuss. She was perhaps in her fifties. I’m right on the outskirts of 66. We laughed about Florida politics, pollution and red tide beaches (which aren’t funny, but you learn to cope). We agreed about the soulessness of cities, at least for us, as we both vastly prefer green all around us. Punctuated by blue, whether ocean or lake.
We chuckled about high school reunions and balding quarterbacks and chubby cheerleaders. American rituals.
Most of all we just connected. The long wait for the flight flew by.
I never got her name. I did, however, give her the names of two of my friends in Tampa, one who operates a lodge in the Peruvian Amazon, and another who is my writing coach. Both live in Tampa, at least part of the year.
You learn early on to be generous to those you meet on the road. They have a lovely habit of showing back up in your life in remarkable places.
I learned long ago that such casual and rewarding conversations are increasingly hard to come by, at least in American culture. My Tampa friend didn’t have a phone, and neither did I. Mine is a brick awaiting an African sim card.
That made us both available. And that makes all the difference.
In Western culture, and increasingly all over the world, the divisive infection that is our addiction to cell phones often prevents the kind of sweet, instantaneous connection that opens up new worlds. New friendships. An education in our collective humanity.
Last night as I stood in the long, long line to get my visa, the young man standing next to me turned out to be from New Mexico. He works for a national lab. I used to, as well. He and I discussed biological warfare (I’m ex-military and used to work in the area of nuclear waste management) and international security. He was very bright.
I gave him the name of my safari operator, as he plans to bring his family to Africa on a future trip.
Then a tall Tanzanian man in a Western suit wanted to know what I thought of the American mid-terms. We discussed Robert Mugabe’s career, and the cost to his once-rich African nation of Zimbabwe.
You never, ever know.
The upper 1% forces the rest of us to focus on what makes us different: age, religion, color, creed, culture, education, a myriad of potentially irritating and sometimes deadly differences that distract, divide and tear us apart.
Meanwhile they make money on our wars, the media we buy to abuse each other, the walls we build to keep each other out. Because, after all, they’re “other.” Not like “us.” Of such ignorance and hate, genocides are made. Plenty of proof around that.
I beg to differ.
I have stood on line in Istanbul next to ancient men in turbans and found a myriad of things that connect us. (By the way, I went on an extended horseback ride in a desert not long ago. The young Western men with us, who disparaged the “towel heads,” were all wearing turbans by the time we finished. They had learned there was an excellent reason for them. This is how we puncture the lies of our prejudices.)
Spoken to Sudanese women in an African market and found a myriad of things that connect us. Cooking, kids, collective concern about the size of our bellies and the caprciousness of our men. Oh my god the laughter.
Met a young woman in rural Kazakhstan, where an abacus is used in lieu of a cash register, and discovered she had a Master’s in Archaeology from an American University. There was a myriad of things that connect us.
I know how to say thank you in at least twenty languages. It’s remarkable how one simple word, even if that’s the only word you know, will crease the most angry face into a welcoming smile.
Every time I travel, my phone stays home. The only reason I have one with me is to make local connections, reach my guide or handle an emergency. What I left behind is behind. I am here. Right now. The last thing I want is a phone in my face or glued to my ear in the universal “stay away I’m busy” signal.
My god, the people I might never have met. The adventures I’d never have had.
When I return to America after a month on the road, it’s invariably a culture shock. Not only the fifteen hundred different varieties of perfumed tampons at any Walgreens. It’s the increasingly closed-off world of our society. It’s nearly impossible to start an impromptu conversation with anyone anywhere. People don’t wanna know.
Except for whatever carefully curated pap they’ve decided to inhale off their Facebook feed, or Fox News, or whatever.
That’s their sacred right.
That’s precisely what the 1% wants. Because when you and I talk, learn, and get comfy with our “other-ness,” see how alike we really are, how badly we all want the same things for ourselves and our families, it’s remarkable how quickly the hot air escapes from most arguments.
I find myself all over the world. Sitting on the wood slats of a shaman’s hut in Myanmar. Standing in the doorway of a hostel in Cusco handing my laundry over after a hike. Discussing politics and world events with a woman from Peking. Listening to the dreams of a young man in Uganda as he finishes his university education.
They are me and I am them and we are all us. There is no “other,” but for whatever Koolaid we allow to poison us. With our permission.
Sometimes my best life lessons are handed to me by a 20-year old guide from a village at the bottom of a big mountain. Sometimes my best adventures arise from a casual “hello” in the women’s bathroom. Reaching for the same ripe peach at an open market and bumping hands, then laughing, then saying “you take it.” “No, YOU take it,” Then you buy it and split it, and eat it together, juice running down your chins. Laughing.
A taxi driver named Zaw became a friend, introduced me to his family, then spent five days driving me all over Myanmar from elephant sanctuaries to massive Buddhist temples.
A Dutch woman in Bariloche, Argentina, invited me into her house and her life, and I have ridden horses with her for hours on end. Awakened in the high country to condors circling overhead.
There is a Thai woman who runs an antique market in Chiang Mai, right across from a hotel where I stayed. We spent untold hours talking. I hope to see her again. Smart, funny, bright, courageous. Paintings of elephants by her son are on my office wall. A gem in my necklace of friendships all over the world.
Of such small miracles, a smaller world is made.
Wherever you go, there you are. I take the whole world with me. Where will you find yourself today?