single serving friends

If you’ve never seen Fight Club, then the title of this post might not mean anything to you. I happened to watch it for the first time on the plane from New York to Dubai. Or maybe it was from Dubai to Abuja? Or was it on the way back? I can’t remember. All I know is that I was on a plane watching grown men kick the crap out of each other. Overall I thought the movie was bizarre. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but I’m still glad I watched it if for no other reason than I was introduced to the idea of a single serving friend.

The main character in Fight Club has a theory that while you’re traveling everything is single serving: the coffee, sugar, coke, snacks, toothpaste…even the friends. His theory perfectly describes the phenomenon that, in my opinion, is what makes travel truly worthwhile – connecting with perfect strangers on completely even ground. Imagine this hypothetical situation for a minute. You’re standing alone by the baggage carousel and another person comes to stand rather close to you. Most people squeeze as close to the carousel as physically possible, but not you two. You guys stand a respectful distance away, patiently waiting your turn to push through the masses and heave your bag off the moving belt. You have no idea whether that person is a millionaire or just scraping by. Whether they have a great relationship with their parents or forget to send even birthday cards once a year. Do they have a significant other? Are they good at their job? Do they tip well? How often to they exercise? What do they regret? You know none of these important things. Something about a 14 hour flight seems to even everyone out – no one gets off one of those flights looking very fresh. The typical markers of success, wealth, struggle, and failure are slowly rubbed away leaving a naked human being in their place. All you know is that you’re standing alone by the baggage carousel and they’re standing alone by the baggage carousel and somehow you feel like it would be a terrible tragedy if these two individuals standing alone didn’t somehow recognize each other. Maybe strike up a conversation. Maybe not. But at least turn to the other person, give them a little smile and an eye-roll that says “how freaking long does it take to unload some bags?” and by doing so, give a small nod of appreciation to that which is human and eternal and precious about the total stranger standing next to you. You may not know them, but you recognize that there is something worth knowing about them, so you open yourself just enough to smile or make a light comment about the terrible injustice of having to pay for a baggage cart.

For me, those little moments are the most wonderful, enlightening thing about traveling. Whether it’s merely a glance, the exchange of a few words, or a laughing conversation that ends in a warm goodbye, it is these completely random interactions, unburdened by the biases and judgments we bring to normal life, that prove to me just how wonderful it can be to be vulnerable. Next time you’re at the airport take a look around. Most people go into what I call “bubble mode” when they’re traveling. They stick the headphones in, crank up the tunes, bury themselves in a magazine, or glue their noses to the screens of glowing devices. Rarely does anyone just sit and look around, acknowledging the people sitting near them or walking by, soaking in the atmosphere of going places, connecting with the people making the journey by their side. Am I the only one who finds that so strange? That we all sit together in the terminal or at the gate or in the tin cans we call airplanes, getting ready to travel across the country or across the world side by side, and we hardly even look at each other? It’s weird. It’s disconnected. And I stumbled across a ground breaking not-so-secret about 7 or 8 long-haul flights ago… Traveling for 36 hours straight can really suck. Sorry for not putting that more elegantly, but seriously, the stale air, the airplane food, the uncomfortable airport chairs, the swollen ankles, the borderline bathrooms – it can be really terrible. But the real secret is that it can also be wonderful, nurturing, and so sweet.

Crazy as it sounds, I love those long days. I live for them. And I realized a while ago that my love of travel stemmed from one very simple practice. I strive to connect with the people around me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s extremely important to be careful and alert when you travel, but that doesn’t mean we have to shut everyone out. Whether I’m sitting at a hotel bar, standing by the baggage carousel, eating pizza at 2 am in the airport, riding on a tour bus, wandering a market, gritting my teeth on a bumpy bus, holding my nose through an iffy bathroom experience, standing in line with aching shoulders waiting to check my bag, or sniffling over who and what I’m leaving, I do my best to really see the people sharing space with me and reach out to them if I can. I’ve discovered that even the grouchiest looking fellow travelers are no match for a charming smile and sincere compliment. Without fail, I walk away from every single serving interaction with a smile on my face. It turns out that being nice to people – reaching out with an open hand to say, I see you friend, thanks for being here, it matters – is the best thing you can do for yourself. It makes you feel more human, more connected, more grateful, more aware…just happier. And when single serving friends turn into lasting ones who text you from all around the world giving music suggestions, sharing funny stories, inviting you to visit, and just checking in….well that’s probably the most rewarding, satisfying feeling I have ever experienced. All because I try to look up out of my bubble and really see the person standing next to me.

So here’s to all the people I connected with while traveling recently. Including (but certainly not limited to)…

Mrs. Worrywart and Mr. Ex-Marine on the flight from NYC to Dubai:  you were the sweetest couple I’ve ever met, and the way you treated each other helped me understand what I eventually want from a relationship.

My fellow Breakfast Club members: though it was annoying to have to finish our Starbucks so quickly, huddling together in the corner sharing stories before proceeding through security made the 2:30 am flight so much less jarring.

Frank. For being brave. Also Chris, Ada, and Joy. For making my one day off so lovely and full of laughter and for teaching me the language of Nigerian car horns – an invaluable skill to be sure.

All the seriously kick-ass filmmakers, photographers, and artists I met at the African International Film Festival in Calabar, Nigeria, especially Bobby, Domilolo, Chile, Dayo, Msuur, Olive, and Koko. You are inspirational, beautiful human beings who also really know how to party. You’ll never know how perfect your timing was.

Brandon from the hotel bar in Dubai: You made those five hours pass faster than I thought possible. For the White Russians, music suggestions, stories, laughs, moments of clarity, motivation to stay the course, and proof that people are wonderful more often than not, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ll never forget you. Alles gute zum geburtstag, my friend.

And of course all the people I worked, lived, laughed, cried, sweated, itched, wondered, dreamed, and planned with while in Nigeria. Especially Onenu, Ochala, Fr. Peter, Sabastine, Daniel, Lawrence, Margaret, Fred, Genevieve, and Elizabeth.

You’ve made me better.

You’ve made me happier.

You’re are the real reason I travel.

I hope I see you again someday.

and my Acholi name is…

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve only been in Uganda for 4.5 days. It feels more like a year, but I’ve discovered that tends to be the way of it when you’re in a new place and constantly bombarded by new sights, sounds, and smells all day. Meeting new people is more tiring than you’d think, and when those new people have an entirely different culture than you, complete with a different way of speaking, greeting each other, and interacting, you find yourself on constant alert. You try to soak everything in and learn it all at once so that you can interface with people as naturally and appropriately as possible. Add starting a new job on your first full day in a new city, and you’ve got me: tired, worn out, slightly shell-shocked, and blissfully happy.

20130829-111346.jpg

It would be difficult to describe to you how I came to feel so at home here so quickly. Indeed, looking back, it’s difficult to explain to myself. It might have something to do with how people greet each other here. Whether you’re a stranger or an old friend, it’s very much the same. People clasp hands, or arms, or hug, and they maintain the contact for at least a full 60 seconds, all the while inquiring about your health, family, travels, and work. I’m learning Acholi greetings right now, and there are a ton of them because people are constantly greeting each other and asking after each others’ health. When I walked into what would be my home for the next six months for the first time, I think I heard “you are most welcome” about 50 times. That routine was then repeated on my first day at work. People say it all the time, to everyone. When I came home from work today, I was greeted with “Emi! Hello, you are welcome.” For someone who is as comfortable with personal connection and loves hugs as much as I do, this is heaven.

20130829-111435.jpg

It might also have something to do with the people I’m living with. Pamela Angwech is the matriarch of the household, the executive director of GWED-G (where I work), and a total bad-ass. She’s one of the strongest, warmest, most capable people I have ever met. She has a way of making you totally terrified of her and 100% comfortable around her at the same time. She inspires incredible loyalty. Her nephew, Prince, who lives with us, is the most charming 5 year old you could ever meet, with just enough mischievousness to keep life interesting. The people at work act like a family. They play and joke and laugh and support each other constantly. The are the best of friends, and the club isn’t exclusive. If you’re there and you work hard, you’re included. The best part is that they aren’t just family, they are an incredibly talented family. Everyone is so wise and skilled and experienced that they leave me in awe. I’ve already learned a huge amount, and I’ve only been to work for 3 days. I think my head might explode from the awesomeness after 6 months.

20130829-111526.jpg

20130829-111601.jpg

Then again, it could be the physical beauty of my environment. The red earth and all-encompassing green go together in perfect harmony. Long-horned cattle graze lazily by the side of the road as I walk the 5 minutes to work. People pass with a gentle “apwoyo” (casual greeting), and the sun sheds a soft light over the whole scene. It takes my breath away. The office is settled in a spacious courtyard where people are always coming and going past the baby blue gate.

20130829-111614.jpg

Pamela has selected an Acholi name for me in honor of starting my culture and language lessons tomorrow. I am Aber, pronounced “abey”, which means ‘beautiful one.’ It’s fitting, I think, because I feel beautiful here. Happiness and fulfilling work coupled with the best of company and good friends is always a recipe for someone who radiates joy. I won’t act like there weren’t a few moments of discomfort or awkwardness. There were times I felt very alone without my traveling companions, and I was nervous. But overall, that’s how I feel these days, radiating. Uganda has that effect on me, I guess.