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.

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and then there was one.

First of all, I’d like to apologize for the nearly three weeks of silence on the blog. Several times I outlined an idea for a post, but the outlines always, obviously, went undeveloped as I tried to soak in Gulu. far my experience here has defied any attempt at categorization. Maybe that’s why I’ve been so negligent about blogging, but there are so many aspects of my experience here that I lack words to describe. Mine is not an uncommon complaint, and I’m still working on how to convey the soul of Uganda and my work. Thankfully though there is one thing I’m prepared to talk about in reasonably certain terms: friendship. It’s such a life-altering gift, I think, and I’ve been incredibly lucky to have found real friendship already during the short time I’ve been here.

My fellow intern, Corrie, left about a week ago now, and I miss her every day. One of the best things about Corrie is her ability to simply let someone else talk, let them air out what’s weighing on their mind. Then, as unassuming and meek as she can be, she’ll whip out a sarcastic remark or wry observation that takes you totally by surprise and brightens the mood instantly. Without her, I would have had a much more difficult first few weeks, and I will always be grateful that I had the good fortune of arriving in time to meet her.

Then there was the unequaled Kristina Lai. Here for only a few weeks, she effortlessly imprinted herself on my heart. Whether it was showing by example the best ways to interact in the local language, taking me on beautiful walks through the countryside, or geeking out with me over life and dreams and hope and future after yoga, Kristina was (and is) easy to be friends with. I’ll miss her greatly, but I know it’s only goodbye until next time.

The most recent departure was that of a group of Belgian medical students. They were here for a month, all in separate home-stays, and I was so lucky to share my new home with Sacha, even for such a short time. Over the weeks, Sacha and I had great conversations on life, love, justice, and God, and he is the best escort I could ask for when it comes to a night on the town. All of the students freely and generously adopted me into their group, and I will miss our lazy afternoons of swimming, playing soccer, and talking as much as I will miss our electric nights at BJ’s. Through that group I met people who made me stronger, who made me laugh, and who brightened my days. They just left this morning, and my heart is still hurting in their absence.

All of these new friendships have left me equal parts comforted and saddened. I’m sad because I’ve had to say goodbye to people that I truly like, respect, enjoy, and care about. I don’t know if I’ll ever see them all again, though it’s impossible to suppress the hopeful side of me that says the universe would never allow such bright connections to go dark. These friendships have also left me comforted and hopeful. They’ve confirmed and strengthened by ability to both give and receive companionship, and the speed at which our bonds formed left me optimistic that I’ll find others in my time here.

I’m also beginning to realize that the human heart has no limit on love, as cliche as that sounds. I have friends at home who are more like family, who are my lifeblood, and my deep love for them isn’t diminished at all by the fact that I’ve made other friends who I also feel great affection for. There’s a lesson in this unique heart-expansion, the boundless ability to give and receive love, that, in the wake of so many departures, I’m going to try to take into my daily work: though I’m often surrounded by difficult stories and frustrating injustices, the human heart is capable of profound and ever-increasing love. If nothing else is going right, there is hope at least in that.

So thank you to everyone who’s come in and out of my life this past month. You’ve taught me about love, acceptance, joy, and hope, and if all of my friendships continue in the same vein, I’m in for a limitlessly rich life. I wish you all safety, happiness, and fulfillment, and I truly hope we meet again. Sooner rather than later.