Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Strangers, My Favorite People

Last week, I was whisked away to Costa Rica on a work-related trip to visit farmers; it was heavenly. I learned a ton about sustainable farming, economic incentives and Costa Rican birds, bugs, food and culture, but I re-learned something else very valuable:

Strangers are my favorite people.

Me and Scarlet with our Pina Coladas. Our friendship is 48 hrs. old here.
Don't get me wrong. I love my family deeply and my friends are treasured and unique but there is something magical about meeting a stranger and realizing, within seconds, that you know them and that within minutes, your relationship - though embryonic - will grow to full term.

There are those who fear people they have not met and loathe talking to someone new. 'These strangers, the nameless others, who are they? More importantly, who do they think they are? What makes them think they can enter my personal space with all their anonymous doings? I wish they would go away so I would not have to risk a conversation with a total stranger.' 

A father and his two sons we met in a bar one time in Denver. It was the oldest son's (far left) 21st birthday so Kirk and I gave him plenty of life advice. They were awesome.
As a constant traveler and (now) perpetual houseguest, I find this outlook sad and ridiculous. I have lived in three states, visited 29 countries, held numerous jobs and generally cross paths with gobs of nameless folks and the success rate for them being quite nice and interesting is incredibly high, around 98%. Occasionally, my life intersects with a boring human or a rude asshole but very rarely, and when it does I simply walk away, cross the street or change seats, if possible.

"Steve" in New Mexico - so smart and interesting.
Travel only intensifies this philosophy due to how quickly informalities melt away. Last week's group (6 journalists, 3 Rainforest Alliance staff, 2 drivers) quickly became family-esque. There's something comfy about sharing your life report with a person who has no pre-conceived ideas or expectations about your role in the world. Since most of us were writers, articulation was constant. (I'm certain the drivers, Alonso and Mauricio, were relieved they did not speak English.)

By week's end, we were giving romantic advice (especially to the one male writer in the group), career counseling and echoing back what we'd heard. ("You keep mentioning how much you miss exercise, sounds like you need to make it a life priority.") Someone even birthed the idea of us branding ourselves as one group so we could be taken on other media trips. ("We're already broken in!")

During the week, I confessed feelings I have been struggling to say aloud for years. After all, how would they know the difference? It's why I have no qualms about divulging my darkest secret to whomever may be seated next to me on an airplane. Because when the plane lands, they will head off into that swirl of humanity, never to be seen again. This is why fame looks so unappealing to me, because anonymity equals bliss.

While in New York getting a pedicure, I had so much fun with these two. I was the only customer and we spent hours talking about culture differences, food and music. I introduced the young man to Johnny Cash and he was captivated. Success!

I have realized this truth time and time again and am teased about my strong belief. Once, I whined to my friend, Rachel, about moving to Colorado and how I would not have any friends there, she offered no sympathy:

"Yeah. Those first 15 minutes are going to be pretty rough for ya..." she said, rolling her eyes.

Every person I meet is a potential friend with a very high success rate. Perhaps the friendship only lasts while airborne or bumping along on a bus or train but it is real, nonetheless. The spark of a connection is spontaneous, an organic miracle in human relations and it comes from halting amidst your own reality and truly seeing another person and recognizing their existence in this harried, fragmented world.

This is Warren. I slept in his house and he gave me a tour of Pierre, SD. We met via couchsurfing.
One day, I found myself in Portland's airport, waiting at the gate. As per my usual, I was reaching for my gum. (I'm about to board a giant metal tube of humans, fresh breathe is a courtesy to my fellow passengers.) I found one last stick of Big Red - it was old and the foil was glued to the gum. With embarrassing precision and focus, I proceeded to painstakingly peel off the foil with my too-short fingernails. After all, I did have time to kill.

After several minutes of this, an older African-American man in the row across from me finally shook his head said, "Man, you sure do want that stick of gum! Mmm-mmm-mmm. Lordy, lordy." I turned red, he laughed and then handed me a fresh piece. We laughed again, he teased me further and we giggled again whenever we made eye contact after that.

The man was my friend, see? He stepped into my world, observed my life, teased me about my ridiculous ways and then, offered a better solution. This is what friends do, folks.

Met this little girl on a train to Chicago. I couldn't believe she was making potholders with a mini loom - EXACTLY what I used to do. So charming!

I'm excited about the new friends I made on this trip, whether I see them again or not, I care about their well beings, their lives and the success of their dreams. And again, I've learned that travel isn't always about the outer scenery changing, it's about opening up and letting in a previously undiscovered friend.

I know I am always the richer for it.