Strangers On A Plane
Before the advent of in-flight internet, I looked at plane travel as an unlikely oasis amidst a maelstrom of never-ending human interaction. Earplugs in, bitchface on, book open…paradise.
I secretly relish those flights where the attendants solemnly announce, “Unfortunately, we’re having technical problems today, and the in-flight WiFi will not be available.” Just like old times: no emails, no instant messaging – just sweet, sweet literary bliss.
I experienced this very delightful situation on a recent flight from Los Angeles to Detroit and happily dove into a guilty pleasure book about some dude’s Adventure Of A Lifetime on Mt. Everest. After about a half hour of reading, right as the frosty intrigue kicked in, I noticed that the guy next to me was fidgeting a lot – an extreme amount, really. He pulled the cheap airline blanket high around his midsection, then deciding his ankles were too exposed, pulled it back down. He started reading the in-flight menu, then switched to the in-flight magazine, then finally settled in with SkyMall. The blanket became a shawl, then a scarf. Headphones were strapped on, then whisked off. He went back to SkyMall, and after a few moments spent ogling all of the expensive crappery, he tucked it back into the seat pocket.
Out of options for self-entertainment, the guy in 19B made eye contact and despite my ear plugs, bitchface, and open book, he uttered one of the phrases I most dread hearing when I’m on an airplane:
“So…where are you heading today?”
Optimistic, I pulled only my left earplug out and kept the book open on my lap. “Milwaukee. You?”
“Tomahawk, Wisconsin? Do you live there?” I should mention here that this guy had a very, very thick accent, and I garnered that Spanish was his primary language. Intrigued, I pulled the other earplug out.
“Yes. Sorry – my name is Andrés.” He held out his hand and I shook it, then introduced myself. And so launched two hours of utterly fascinating conversation, Everest adventure be damned. Turns out ol’ Andrés is from Medellín, Colombia and while taking an online English course, began corresponding with a woman from Tomahawk. After a year of talking, she took several trips to Colombia, they fell in love, and they’re now happily married. In fact, she was sitting across the aisle from us and was deep into her own talks with the woman in 19D.
The conversation with Andrés was effortless. We talked about pleasant things like soccer (he plays midfield), television (he loves No Reservations and Man Vs Wild, but hates that horrifying Honey Boo Boo show), and Colombian food (little did I know that aguapanela, a hot sugar water drink introduced to me a few years back by my favorite Colombian, Moníca Inez Teresa Tenorio Nuñez Moya de Herms, is intended as a high altitude beverage!).
Once we started talking about Colombia, Andrés opened up even more. He mentioned a recent jaunt to Chicago, where the sole reason for driving eight hours round trip was to dine at a local Colombian restaurant, to hear the music, eat the food, and be surrounded by the language. “I started to cry,” he explained. “I miss Colombia, but I like Wisconsin, too.”
He shared that when he enters the United States from a visit home, the U.S. Customs officers always rifle through his belongings – they’ve taken suckers from sealed bags and smashed them against the table and have even punched holes in his arepas. I must have looked a bit surprised, because he shrugged, “Drugs – they’re looking for drugs. I guess they do it because it’s happened before. What can you do?”
It’s clear that although he loves his wife and embraces his life in Wisconsin, Andrés loves his home. “You have to go to South America, you have to go to Colombia,” he implored. “My wife cried the first time she saw the Andes. It’s beautiful, peaceful.”
After some more discussion on traveling, we both drifted back into silence. Andrés put his headphones back on and I tried sinking back into Everest. No luck. I sat out the rest of the flight processing the conversation I just had, thinking about Colombia and South America and travel and Andrés.
I also thought about an experience I had maybe a week prior during a camping trip in Yosemite. Exhausted from a day in the park, we circled the campfire with our dinner when an older woman and two college-age girls walked up with folding chairs. My friend Joe sprung to action, inviting them to sit by the fire, explaining that he met them while out walking earlier. The rest of us were fairly quiet – I can only speak for myself, but I was tired, hungry, and didn’t know if I had the capacity for socializing with strangers at the moment.
We engaged in a round of somewhat half-hearted introductions and began to ask a few questions of the trio; turns out they were a grandmother, granddaughter, and her best friend on an adventure to see as many national parks as they could over a month or so. They were easy talkers – the girls were happy to have other people to chat with and the grandmother had some incredible stories to tell, coaxed on by the girls, whose admiration for her shone brighter than the fire that evening.
The questions came faster then – how did you come up with this idea? where have you gone? what’s been your favorite park so far? – and the conversation held a natural rhythm as the sky shifted from a deep periwinkle to black, dotted with all of those stars you never see during city nights.
As things eventually wound down and they stood up to leave, I was sleepy, but so very glad to have met this trio of inspiring wanderers – just like I was glad to have met Andrés. Strangers only remain so until you decide to connect, whether for a minute, an hour, a day – or perhaps for a lifetime, if the moment is right.
Ultimately, the more you open your mouth, the less strangers there are in this world, and that’s probably a good thing for all of us to remember.