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.

how to eat an elephant.

For all of you who read the title and gasped, have no fear. I don’t condone, in any way, eating elephants in the literal sense. So you can relax, tell your heart to start beating again. I rode an elephant in Thailand and think they are some of the most amazing, intelligent, sensitive creatures on earth.
The type of elephant I’m talking about eating is actually a big project. We’ve all run into them before: assignments, jobs, tasks, goals, etc that just seem absolutely overwhelming. Well let me just say, when I’m done here, I’m going to be able to give one hell of a talk on how to take on projects you don’t feel ready for.

I should have expected it really. I know myself well enough to know that I’m a master at biting off more than I can chew. A perennial over-achiever. Addicted to the thrill of not knowing whether or not I can pull something off. Committed to being over-committed. A professional at fitting 10 lbs of sh*t into a 5 lb bag (as my dad would say). So I really shouldn’t be surprised when I look around and find myself hip deep in a project of proportions I’ve never before attempted. It’s definitely the biggest elephant I’ve ever tried to eat, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little scared.

I remember being a sophomore in high school – just laying the foundation for what would become a lifetime of being over-involved. I was in the car coming home from school, and my dad was driving because I didn’t yet have my license. Sitting in the passenger seat, I distinctly remember suffering the first waves of stress and anxiety: am I going to be able to finish all my homework and go to basketball and manage the new member list for International Outreach and get in my service hours for IB/Service Club and on and on….Honestly, I don’t even remember the things I was stressed out about. Undoubtedly, they were mere shadows compared to the bigger and more vital things I’d take on later in college and life, but to me at the time, they were of huge importance. I was scared. Just like I am now. And my dad gave me advice that rings as true now as it was then: start with one thing. Focus on it. Complete it. Move to the next thing. Move from task to task until you’ve done all you can do for tonight. Then go to sleep.

I’ve never gotten better advice on how to deal with a big project or problem. It helped me deal with the stress of beginning to take personal responsibility for life and my place in the world when I was in high school, and it’s going to help me now as I attempt to craft my life and career into a message that’s worth the world’s attention.

Step 1: Make a list
Step 2: Make lots of lists
Step 3: Make sure you break down your list items into quantifiable, complete-able tasks
Step 4: Then start checking them off, baby. One by one.
Step 5: Sleep**
Step 6: Repeat

(**This step may, in extreme circumstances, be replaced by a high coffee intake, thought this is not advisable too many days in a row…It could lead you to do things others will find questionable, like balancing pillows on your head while parading around your apartment in your underwear saying, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Not that I know from experience or anything.)

I’ve come to accept that the type of fear I’m feeling now – when you’ve got a lot riding on your shoulders, and you’re pushing yourself outside your comfort zone – isn’t my enemy. It’s what drives me to make those lists. It motivates me to be creative, innovative, and persistent in checking off those tasks. And when I can go no farther and fall into sleep (hopefully), it’s what gets me up early the next morning to start again. I might be scared of what I’ve begun. I’m afraid that I won’t have what it takes to complete it successfully. Am I too young? Too inexperienced? Too naive? Maybe. But one thing is for sure, they’ll never be able to say it’s because I didn’t work hard enough.

So I’m off to make lists. I’m off to answer emails and read curriculum and design M&E. I’m off to write grants and network and plan. To make timelines and budgets and workplans. Then I’m off to sleep before I get up tomorrow and do it again. And again and again and again, because the people I’m working for are worth it and the good things that could come of my success are too great to not give it my all. I might be afraid, but I’m going to try to bring fear along as my friend instead of desperately trying to leave it in the half-unthought thoughts of near sleep. Together, we’ll make it.

Have you ever faced a project like the one I am? What strategies did you use to combat the anxiety and self-doubt that comes along? I hope that my philosophy sounds like a sound one. I’d love to hear your input, and if you’re busy eating your own elephant, know that you’re not alone in the struggle. We’re all together in that one thing at least – the ways we strive to make ourselves better people and the world a better place. We all get scared sometimes, but that shouldn’t be enough to stop us from dreaming big.

Dream on. Struggle on.