Nothing bonds people more than stuffing them together in a tight space for an extended period of time, surrounding them with stale air, feeding them tasteless food and making them altogether powerless.
No, I’m not talking about jail. This is traveling, at least the part before you get to where you actually want to be, the part when your life belongs to engine mechanics, security scanners, weather conditions and baggage handlers, not to mention drivers, conductors, pilots and attendants.
Like jail, these moments in transit are prime opportunities for human connection — quiet conversations with safe, objective listeners who’ve been partnered with us by circumstance and whom we’ll never have to see again.
On each journey you can find a hundred different people, a hundred different stories, a hundred different priorities and a hundred opportunities to connect.
If we’re paying attention, we may find a fleeting companion along the way, someone we can talk to about the changes, expectations, responsibilities or hopes that drove us onto that plane or train or bus. We’ll eventually arrive, wish each other well and scatter back into the real world: to a baptism, a funeral, a work meeting, home…
Here are some simple memories of individuals whose paths I have crossed while trying to get from A to B.
“Turn that off! You could bring down the whole plane,” she said to me when she saw me take out my phone.
I was sitting next to a stiff American woman whose anxiety was palpable.
“It’s in flight mode. That’s allowed.” I answered flatly without looking at her.
A few tense minutes later she apologized. “Sorry, I’m really stressed out. I’m flying to my wedding.”
“Congratulations!” I said, willing myself to forgive her.
“It’s not a normal wedding. I’m remarrying my ex-husband. We’ve been divorced for 10 years. I hope it’s the right decision.” She laughed nervously, ordered a glass of wine and proceeded to tearfully defend her decision, justifying it more to herself than to me.
I still wonder how her marriage worked out the second time around.
“We’re Uighur, not Chinese,” I remember one of them correcting me during the course of our conversation. “There is a very big difference. Look around. Chinese trains are loud and dirty. Uigher trains are quiet and clean.”
His observation seemed a bit harsh, but I could see what he was talking about as clearly as I could see the resentment in his young face. We were on a 24-hour train ride from Turpan to Kashgar. The compartment was full of students making the three-day journey back from Beijing for the holidays.
He explained to me that Uighurs reside in the Xinjiang province of China and are largely Muslim, speaking a language similar to Turkish. Tensions between this minority group and Han Chinese run high and often lead to violence.
In an attempt to unite minorities with the Han Chinese the government has imposed student programs that have children studying in the country’s major cities, where they learn the Mandarin language and Chinese tradition.
Throughout cities and towns in Xinjiang you’ll find garish government monuments, statues and other reminders of who is really in charge.
As we continued discussing what he called an oppressive Chinese system I had the sense that he saw me as his mouthpiece to the wider world, a future advocate for his cause.
Older generations of rural Laotians didn’t grow up taking buses. For them buses are a thing of the future.
As we savored the view on the stretch from Luang Prabang down to Vang Vieng, the sound of retching was hard to ignore. This is the sound of a changing world, I thought, pleased with my wit.
It was a vivid illustration of how much the world had transformed around them.
I tried to focus on the scenery and not the damp smell of puke that was slowly overtaking the cabin. What surprised me was that the violently sick locals didn’t seem too bothered, in fact they were fairly relaxed given the circumstances. They chatted in between bouts as if it were a normal part of traveling.
An old woman in traditional clothing sat next to me, puking discretely into a plastic bag. She was so tiny that her feet barely touched the floor. I handed her my packet of wet wipes. She bowed slightly and gave me a huge smile before going back to the business of emptying her stomach.
She must’ve been warned that this would happen. I wanted to ask her where she was going, what made it worth it and what she thought of the world today.
After spending five days hiking the Langtang trek alone in Nepal I returned to town feeling peaceful and independent. I roamed the streets trying to find a ride back to Kathmandu but no transportation was running that day so I accepted that I was stuck.
As if my prayers had been heard, a bus materialized at the end of the road. I got closer and quickly realized that the passengers filing on were 1) American, 2) incredibly cheerful and 3) Christian.
Before I’d finished explaining my predicament, they’d welcomed me on board to join them for the six-hour ride back to Kathmandu. I hadn’t showered or talked to anyone in almost a week, a further testament to their generosity. In contrast, they were radiant and talking a mile a minute with their friendly southern drawl.
In the span of a day I’d gone from being alone in the Himalayas to being on a magical bus full of gospel-singing Americans. It was so surreal that I’m open to the possibility that the bus ran on God’s love rather than normal petrol.
I asked them how I could repay them. They said it was free of charge but suggested I make a donation to their organization, which I never did now that I think about it.
“Shut the window! Jesus!” One of the Dutch girls yelled at the driver. There were eight of us crammed into a van. Every time they would yell at him, he would respond in Thai and close his window, only to open it again later. This game went on and on.
In her skimpy outfit it was no wonder she was cold.
“What the hell! Are you stupid?” They continued to verbally abuse him and he grew visibly stressed. He shut the window. For the first time I noticed that this was causing the windshield to fog up. Every few minutes he had to wipe the glass and hunch down in order to see the road ahead.
He looked exhausted. They jumped on him as soon as he opened it again.
In my anger I decided that they symbolized everything that’s wrong with tourism: two bratty, rich, European students yelling at a middle-aged Thai minibus driver and making absolutely no effort to understand his decisions. I guess this shouldn’t have come as a surprise since they weren’t even willing to adapt their wardrobes to the region’s climate.
Don’t worry. We eventually called them out on their rudeness. Not all traveling interactions are rosy.
It was almost midnight and I had to pee so badly that I was seeing yellow, but I didn’t want to be the one to make us stop. A Chinese tourist in a khaki vest sat next to me drinking beer. We connected immediately, smiling in lieu of speaking.
Later in the journey he started talking and wouldn’t stop, seemingly unconcerned that none of us spoke Mandarin.
I ignored him, focused on my bladder. He grew louder and more frantic until he was yelling and waving his arms around violently. I thought he was trying to tell us a story. We watched him in confusion. He seemed hellbent on keeping us all awake.
Finally something clicked and I said the magic word: “Toilet?”
“Ya, ya, ya.” He nodded enthusiastically.
“Toilet!” We told the driver excitedly. He pulled over. The Chinese man and I ran out into the bushes and peed to our hearts’ content.
As we walked back to the van we couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity of the last twenty minutes and our completely dysfunctional attempt at communication. We climbed back into our seats and gave each other nods of acknowledgment for our moment of shared suffering and resolve.
Yoga tells us that transitions from one pose to another are poses in and of themselves. The benefits are there no matter how subtle. Traveling is no different.
I could go on but I won’t because I’m nearing three pages. I could mention that crowded bus ride when a passenger who’d started the trip standing casually sunk until she was sitting on my knee. I spent four hours on a bus with a Nepalese woman I didn’t know sitting on my lap as if I were Santa Claus.
I could talk about a chance meeting between two people on an airplane that led to love, marriage and the birth of yours truly…but I won’t.
When people ask me for recommendations of where they should visit I almost always answer with this: take public transportation and you’ll see it all. It’s the journey, not the destination, that is the real meat and potatoes of any trip.
Or should I say it’s human connection that is the meat and potatoes of any meaningful experience.