I opened my laptop on the short flight from Burlington to Dulles, hoping to edit some photos in the hour or so that I would be in the air and allowed to use my computer. Scrolling through photos in a public place is always an interesting event; we are all so quick to read and adjust to screenshots that a quick glance toward a computer allows us to process what is on it with the blink of an eye. Flights have proven the perfect place for me to get some writing and editing done. Without Internet distractions I find myself more productive than when I’m on the ground, and the background whirring of plane through clouds puts me into a zen-like writing state. My posts from South America in 2010 were evidence of that fact; despite having to visit 6 countries in 3 weeks for a short-term contract, I wrote more than usual along the way, almost always on flights.)
In writing or photo editing from the air, I’ve found an interesting pattern in conversation. Inevitably, someone cranes their head to ask why I have so many photos, and why they are from a seemingly expansive list of places. And then a discussion ensues where I explain what I do and they stare back at me with a vague confusion and more-than-vague incredulity.
“Let me get this straight. You quit your job as a lawyer to write on the Internet?”
“Well, yes….” I tend to respond, trailing off quietly. “But I’m still admitted as a lawyer. So really, if this new career of travel writing and photography does not work out, I can always go back to contracts.”
“I guess so…” they usually reply, mulling career choices over in their heads.
And then: “but what did your parents say when you quit?”
Longer-term readers know that my parents were very supportive from the beginning, confused about why sitting around plastic tables and eating street food made me happy, but nonetheless happy that it made me happy. The people I meet as I travel from one place to the next don’t have that back-story of course, and are confronted with their own preconceptions about how life is supposed to be when I give them that answer. Several have said that they wouldn’t have been as supportive with their own kids, others have noted that they wished they had done the same, back when they had the energy and the time. And a few wanted to know where I’d return, time and time again, or where I wouldn’t.
All of these are fair questions and reactions, but ones you’d rarely encounter in every day life. The beauty of being confined to a giant flying metal canister is that you have a fixed amount of time and a general license to ask questions you’d probably avoid in casual supermarket or restaurant encounters. Many travelers complain about those long travel days, but like any aspect of travel (on or off the beaten path), the hours of transit are a petri dish of interestingness. That initial, tangible skepticism from those sitting nearby often proves an excellent springboard for a more existential conversation about what matters in life and why travel is interpreted so differently by those who undertake a journey.
My flight from Burlington to Dulles was different than the usual.
I opened my laptop and the gentleman to my right shifted perceptibly, trying to get a better view of what I was editing. His laptop was also open, and through the corner of my eye I could see Dropbox and Evernote and other programmes I use every day. A quick shared smile led to the basic questions about where we were headed and why, and then the conversation took a turn for the unexpected. Geoff works as a consultant for mass public transportation systems, and was headed to Colorado and then onto Boston for a second project. However, he and his wife travelled around the world back in 1996, blogging the whole way. (Before it was cool, people. Before it was cool.) They decided they wanted to move to Vermont, and figured they would do so on an extraordinarily indirect route: through everywhere else first. No longer hosted online, Geoff had his blog downloaded in full to his Dropbox, and opened up several pages to show me their photos and their route. Their travels took them to many of the places I have traveled to as well, and for the rest of the flight we chatted about what we loved to see and eat, about the random encounters we’ve had and the gut instinct required to rely on the kindness of strangers when you show up somewhere new. I showed him food photos from my recent travels to Italy, and he did the same from Southeast Asia.
I asked him if he regretted the trip or wished he had done it differently.
“It was the best thing we ever did” he said without hesitation. “No regrets.”
The second leg of the trip to Colorado took me from Dulles to Denver. A packed flight from United, and I was one of the last to board, rushing down the aisle to my seat. Next to me, a woman with perfect posture who looked to be from West Africa. I put my bag under my seat and without thinking said “Ça y est?” (Ok?) in French. Her jaw dropped but she recovered quickly, responding archly in French that yes, the bag was fine, and then wanting to know why I didn’t address her in English. Coming from a month in Quebec, it hadn’t occurred to me not to address her in French; vocalizing this set her off in a fit of giggles. Still choking back a laugh, she explained that while she was originally from the Congo, she currently lived in Amarillo, Texas, where English her daily language.
“A lot of cowboys” she noted, raising a brow “very different from Africa.”
Continuing in French, we started sharing our life stories bit by bit. She left the Congo in her mid-teens (in 2000) after her mother died and came here following her high school boyfriend (also from the Congo) who was a nurse. They were married at 18 and she now lives in Texas, running a store for imported African spices and food. On the side, she also started a hair salon. She travels to find items for importing to her store, or to visit her brother who lives in France. With a core of steel, her determination to provide her two young kids with a solid foothold on life is evident in every sentence. Working on asylum cases as a lawyer I often saw the same in my pro bono clients, that unshakable desire to do right by the next generation. I asked her about the tension between first generation immigrants and their resettled parents, the uneasy conflict inherent in the pressure to succeed.
Another big smile and a dip of the head.
“I will take my children to far away places so they understand how hard it was to get them here, but also so that they love what they have, and what they have not yet seen.”
We exchanged cards on our exit from the flight and then, just as we were about to run separate ways (her to the connecting Amarillo flight, me to the baggage claim), a giant impulsive hug and kisses on each cheek, her shouting as she whipped her head around to depart “so great to meet you!”.
Around me, fellow passengers looked confused. “Wait, you just met? That was a great goodbye for someone you just met!”
I smiled widely.
“It was the stories.”
The stories from my travel day didn’t end there. Upon arrival in Denver, the shuttle to town was a full hour wait, which was an issue as I was already late for a meeting with G Adventures. The woman behind the SuperShuttle counter came around to ask anyone in line if they were headed downtown, and next thing I knew I was splitting a cab with a man from Mexico City named Conrad. (I immediately emailed Andrew, my contact there who was already downtown, to note that I would be sharing a cab with a random man named Conrad from Mexico City and “If I am not there in an hour, you know why.” He said the email made him spit out his cider at the table, so that was an added bonus.)
Of course, Conrad was extremely nice, very interesting and not creepy at all. A veterinarian originally from Peru, he was in town for a conference about public health. We chatted travel and geography, tacos and spices and were both silenced by the glorious views of a golden sun setting behind the mountains.
I arrived to Denver exhausted but satisfied. A long travel day full of other people’s stories and smiles.
The return to Denver airport at the end of my time in Colorado marked a start to another long day. The shuttle from Keystone was at 645am, a seemingly ridiculous time for what was a very civilized 12:37pm flight. I expected a packed minivan and a long wait at the airport. What I got was Bogdan from the Ukraine, quiet and observant, and a luxury SUV that happened to be picking up passengers at noon, surreptitiously providing me with a much more expensive ride for the price of a minivan.
As the only passenger, I sat in the front, immediately asking him where he was from. When he mentioned the Ukraine, my thoughts turned to food, peppering him with questions about the Ukrainian version of adjika, a pepper and chili sauce popular in Abkhazia, Samegrelo, Georgia and other parts of the Caucasus. (Note: For a great read about adjika, see this piece from Roads and Kingdoms)
His eyes lit up.
“We just started making our own. 30 jars worth, very fiery and hot, the way I like it”.
Food, the perfect connective tissue. My initial inquiries about adjika led us to a conversation about food and community, about ancient recipes and patterns of immigration and I explained that I tried to see the world as a place where food and geography and history intersect, where people migrated and their foods came with them, trailing behind traditions, cultures and tastes.
“I grew up in a border town, right near Romania. Over the years many different groups of people came and took it over, and with each they left behind their traditions, evident always in their food. Our town’s food is a history lesson itself; every meal is not just a meal but many centuries of meals, all on one plate.”
The weather was picture perfect but I paid very little attention to the scenery whizzing by; I was too engrossed in a discussion about food and politics in North America.
When I was working in New York, I often complained about travel days. Time was money, and travel days corroded my time like little else. I could be doing a million more productive things than chatting with the person next to me. However, once the confines of six-minute billing increments were removed, my anxiety about the inefficiency of A to B dissolved. I do wish I had this lesson before I quit, and that I asked for people’s stories on the long trips to and from business meetings. All that learning, squandered, because I was too preoccupied with the end result.
I know, too, that many of my readers are working in one place (as opposed to my full-time-but-spread-out-around-the-world version), and that the stress of work often supersedes the desire for stories. But hopefully this piece might inspire to turn to the person on the next flight and ask what moves them to think the way they do. I’m always surprised and pleased by what I learn in the process.