On Those Long Travel Days

Categories Adventures in Transportation, Personal Musings, United States

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?”

BTV-DEN

BTV-DEN

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.”

Chicago and cottonball clouds

Chicago and cottonball clouds

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.

Colorado colours

Colorado colours

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.

Bogdan paused.

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.

Denver Sky

A Clear Denver Sky

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.

-Jodi

63 comments to On Those Long Travel Days

  1. Oh my gosh. reading your stories makes me feel bad about my technique of NOT talking to fellow passengers [mostly because i was traumatized on a flight from LAX - LHR where the drunk guy next to me hit on me the entire flight there.] I’m going to go outside of my comfort zone and actually speak to my seat mates on my next flight!!

    • Ha, there are DEFINITELY times when you want to be anywhere but in the seat next to the person on your flight who just won’t leave you alone. Of course it’s not every trip that has great stories like these, but I did want to write about it because people are often so disheartened about long days of travel, so I thought it would be fun to provide a different perspective. Hoping that on your next trip you’ve got someone lovely to chat with!

      • On June 25, 2012 at 1:17 pm Karine Rodgers said:

        Hello,

        Having worked for 11 years in commercial law firms as lawyers’ assistant, I can definitely say that you did make the right choice of jumping into that wonderful adventure. It’s quite at the complete opposite of law firms day life is like. This feeling of living by your rules, the right definition of freedom, no constraints, far away from stress, and hour billing, and budget goals and overtime, no obligations, just being you having fun and seeing the most beautiful places on earth. I travelled quite a bit too, not as much as you, but what I like most is being between two destinations and the thrill and adrenaline of flying. Those long runs I’ve been listening to Sigur Ross while flying over the Norway Alps or looking at the 18 shades of green in the Irish landscape…, the most relaxing moments of my trips, just flying. I feel sat home pretty much where I go, but in an aircraft, I can finally just sit and relax. I wish you do this as long as life will allow you to do it, its the perfect life. Best regards, Karine

        • Thank you for the long comment Karine. I don’t have regrets about choosing this line of work over lawyering, but of course it’s always good to have a worst case scenario in place. Like you, those long flights of music and contemplation have proven very rewarding. I wish you many fulfilling travels as well. Thank you for reading.

  2. Interesting that you post this today. Or that I read it today, rather. I was just talking to my husband last night about how life is currently feeling like a series of tasks. Each day leads me to check off a certain part of my list: clean the house, check; go for a run, check; make dinner, check. It doesn’t feel like life. It feels like a never-ending chore. It’s difficult to step away from that mindset when you’re currently living around millions of others doing the same, but it’s important to recognize it and then stop it. So last night we just went for a walk. It didn’t instantaneously change everything, but I did involve myself more in our conversation and notice more of my surroundings, determined to experience, not just do. And isn’t that really what living is all about?

    • It’s hard to scrub free of that rut-like feeling of routine and only routine. Even when I’m travelling, I do sometimes feel that way – often because I move around, I stick to routines more tightly, to give myself the stability I lack in terms of place. But as you said, it’s important to recognize it and then deviate from it and in the freshness of the new trajectory, many wonderful things begin to unfold. Glad the post resonated with you!

  3. I feel really lucky — traveled so much for work over the past 15 years, but since it was mostly in academia (and then for myself), I could regulate the pace. There was always time to talk to the person seated next to me, if I wanted — amassing similar touching or funny stories.

    I think it’s all about balance, which is why I refuse to work in the pressure-cooker corporate world. Life is too short to ignore the journey. I might not get paid as much, but my quality of life is a lot better. Or so I think!

    Oh, and even though I fly business class most of the time now (or get upgraded to first), the interesting people are in economy :)

    • It’s often about balance, to be sure. I enjoyed many aspects of the pressure-cooker years – it taught me a way of thinking, an ability to defend my thoughts and intellectual choices, and gifted me some long lasting friendships in the colleagues I worked with and loved. But in the end, the freedom to choose where I want to work and the path to get me there has proven instructive and exciting too. To each their own, right? :) Agreed, the most interesting people are definitely in economy!

  4. Would you believe me if I told you I have a draft post called “conversations mid-air”? I am so glad you wrote this and I love picturing you talking to your seatmates. And at the risk of sounding too woo-woo mushy, I have to say that these interactions are neither entirely random nor entirely coincidence: You put a wonderful vibe out in the world. The least the universe can do in return is reward you with beautiful conversation.

    • Why am I not surprised? Our “twinsies” phenomenon continues. I’d love to see that post one day as I’m sure you captured those moments with characteristic eloquence. And thank you for the kind words. As I’ve said in the past (and here), the open mind part is most relevant to any of these connections; the rest comes naturally when that is in place. Enjoy Greece!

  5. We do travel entirely differently (I never, ever, ever talk to anyone on planes — or for that matter any mode of transport — even people I am traveling with), but I do share your unabiding love for travel and the memories they help create. Can’t wait to get back out there and do some more real traveling soon. Miss those long travel days badly.

    • There are certainly different ways to create those memories, but one that is often overlooked is the getting from a-to-b part. We talk a lot (us travel bloggers) about misadventures in transportation and how chicken buses and leaky boats are the best way to get to know a local culture, but in terms of taking that back to our own countries, we leave it out. But like anything, it’s about an open mind and not about where you are, so I thought these stories would illustrate that :) Hope you get out and get traveling soon. Enjoy your time with Nora!

  6. Yes, the long travel days. I think being in motion activates some hidden spirit of camaraderie and makes it so easy to bond with other people who are also in motion. Perhaps it comes from antiquity and has stuck with us for those thousands of years. While reading I couldn’t help but think of nomadic peoples (traders or something) crossing in remote deserts and stopping to share stories about their native lands.

    This to me is one of the integral parts of the act of traveling: gaining the ability to connecting with others regardless of their background or history. You said food is a connective tissue, but I think it’s also motion that connects us. Nice piece, Jodi.

  7. I really enjoyed this, Jodi–particularly the bit about the automatic conversation in French! I often use flights as a chance to zone out and work–like you, I do well away from the temptation of the internet–but whenever I pull my headphones out, I have brilliant conversations with interesting people. Really enjoyed hearing about all of yours :)

  8. I hope you got the address of that woman’s shop in Texas ;) Lovely post, Jodi.

  9. Great post. Two of my recent blog posts are about some of the annoying people encountered on airplanes, but I’ve also had some flights with engaging seatmates. One of them was even a lawyer like me. Many conversations start with an offer to share food brought on board. On a flight to my father-in-law’s funeral I surprised myself by opening up to my seatmate about feelings—love, loss, family. One of my favorite airplane conversations was with a Wiccan on her way home from her attempt to hike to Santiago de Compostela and ending up in the hospital with a bowel obstruction. If I’m on a non-chatting flight, usually sitting in the window seat next to my fast asleep husband, I find airplanes an excellent place to write, usually long hand.

  10. Aww, I love this post. You meet the coolest people in transit, it’s true. So many different stories and backgrounds.

  11. how right you are Jodi, it is the stories we remember.
    Thanks for another wonderful post.

  12. Travel days are some of my favorite days of travel. Even if I don’t happen upon an interesting conversation – I just love the act of moving, the contraint of not being able to do anything but stare out the window and think…for hours at a time. I miss that most of all about travel – I look ridiculous sitting on the arm of my sofa staring out the living room window for hours – but I do it as often as I can!

    • Drifting off into waking dreams is part of what makes life interesting, agreed! We so rarely build in the time to just think – it’s great to hear you do it even when you’re not moving around.

  13. Due to my big mouth I don’t think I could make it through a flight without chatting with the person next to me. I’ve done some excellent networking on flights with some unlikely people. All have been interesting and all forthright with conversation and divulging details. Something I love in conversation. The secrets you share with strangers are so oft filled with a truth you wouldn’t share with those close you. It is a therapy of sorts for me. Great article!

  14. I really admire your perspective on those long travel days. I have seen them as something to endure rather than a chance to make interesting connections. Well played!

  15. What lovely encounters! Wow, I am usually so keen on minding my own business when on a flight, and hoping not to disturb someone, and hoping people around don’t disturb me too much – but I must admit that interaction with people, particularly at the start of a long haul flight, does make you feel like you are all in this together, that the world is a big and small place all at the same time, and usually reminds you how amazing people are!
    These short encounters are so serendipitous and special!

  16. You must have better luck with your airplane seating than I do :-)

    Jokes aside, an enjoyable story about stories.

  17. This is beautiful in all ways, Jodi:)

    We remember the stories and the visual beauty…touching our hearts in different ways and allowing for expansion if we are open to it :)

    And, we can honor such ‘travel’ regardless of our external circumstances.

  18. Jodi,
    You definitely made the correct decision. My uncle offered me a summer trip to Europe when I graduated high school and I foolishly turned him down. A move I have regretted all my life. As a buyer with an amusement park I visited 14 different countries in Asia and am going to see whats left of the world in retirement. In the last year I have been to Ecuador and Japan and had wonderful “Travel conversations” similar to yours on both trips. Never look back!

  19. Great post Jodi and all so true. I am exactly the same about loving my ‘office in the air’ – I am so much more productive up there so I love travel days just for that alone. But inevitably I chat up the person next to me and love finding out about them. Most recently: a Turkish dentist living in San Francisco, an actual dinosaur expert and consultant to Jurassic Park and also this cool Brasilian guy that was coming to Chicago to study architecture all summer. Hope he emails me soon so I can treat him to some Chicago eats and hospitality! And, of course, I’m in touch with most of them.

  20. Loved this. I’ve always found that the interesting encounters outnumber the yukky ones, at least depending where you are traveling to I think! I had one, particular, unforgettable encounter, and I wrote about it for some competition last year, and since it didn’t win I keep thinking to dig it out and put it on my blog. I always seem to get great taxi drivers too! The only problem then is usually that the journey is too short!

  21. Your post is a perfect example of why it’s so wonderful to travel alone. I get involved in great conversations when I’m traveling alone, but when I’m with someone else I’m more likely to direct my attention to them, to worry about how they are experiencing the trip, etc. I’ve noticed other travelers doing this too.

    • I think that’s very true. I’ve certainly made connections while traveling with friends but far less frequently than alone. It’s natural to want to share moments with your co-traveler, but there is value in branching out, to be sure!

  22. You are my hero, making all those connections. Aren’t people fascinating once you get past the small talk. As I have a food blog, too, I’ll have to remember to use that to get the conversation going about food in general next time I’m racking my brain about topics of conversation.

    Keep writing…

  23. Awesome post Jodi. For me personally the (unexpected) encouters with interesting people always are the things that I remember longest. It’s so fascinating to meet people from all over the world, and learn from them. It’s what traveling is all about. However, I never really talk to people on planes. I don’t know why that is, but after reading this I might have to start doing that!

    PS: It’s funny that your story started in Burlington. I just got there a week ago. Absolutely lovely city!

  24. On July 1, 2012 at 11:35 am Randy Johnson said:

    “What did your parents think?” Guffaw! Great article. Really illustrates how ones expectations color their experience. BTW…You’re so kind. I think I’d have to say something like “Oh they were in an ashram in Goa practicing tantric pleasuring, they didn’t mind.”

    • Ha, you’d be surprised at how many emails I get from people telling me their children are leaving to travel and how they think it’s irresponsible. And then “what did YOUR parents say?”

  25. I am usually very anti-talking on airplanes and make it clear that I’m not interested, but stories like these almost tempt me to break out of my routine. Almost :)

  26. Great story Jodi! I’ve met so many interesting people who are sitting in my aisle (though I’m definitely the chatty type). Everyone has a story, it’s great you both got to share yours with each other.

  27. I love this post. There is nothing like collecting stories to make a long day of travel feel like something more meaningful than simply getting from point A to point B. It always makes the world feel so deliciously and cozily small to me. Your stories are beautiful, love your blog!

  28. It’s funny, because all my life I was known as the guy who would talk to anyone. I would start conversations with people on planes, trains, busses.
    I was never annoying, but I just knew how to strike up conversations by being genuinely interested in the stories of others.
    Then I grew up, got caught up in the work at a big company and that part of me sort of died off.
    I’m still very personable and a great conversationalist at many times, but I think the daily grind that adults get in just kills the free spirit and fun of just floating through a day like a kid would.
    I miss that spirit, that attitude that each day is a journey and simple things are fascinating.
    Like a baby that sees something shiny. I want that curiosity back. That’s why I look towards a near future where I can travel, experience and see life in this way again.
    Outside of the confines of an awful office that doesn’t do anything for productivity and the people in it pretend to be experts on lives they have no experience living.
    I’ve also noticed that many of your pictures are of the sky and clouds.
    I noticed one day that it has been a very long time since I laid in the grass and looked at the sky. Or looked up and just gazed at the clouds while walking.
    People start looking down, and hunching forward, and staring a cellphones instead of looking into each others eyes and looking around.
    After college, during nearly a year in Europe, mostly in London, my friends and I spent every weekend just laying in the park. It was an event to just lie there and talk. And meet others in the park.
    That is life.

  29. Very nice perspective, I don’t know how I ever survived without a laptop or tablet all those years ago on coast to coast flights. I use to have to travel 20 days in a month.

    Nice photos and kudos that you worked pro bono

  30. I have often found conversations on airplanes to be among the most satisfying of a trip. Summaries, new places to return to and memories all help frame a trip.

  31. Great post Jodi! I am really enjoying your blog, your writing is brilliant and I particularly love the layout (as a new blogger I am trying to “learn”). I too have spent a lot of time on planes going between Virginia and Singapore numerous times in the last 2 years, often via the UK to see my Mum. I always get that little nervous tingle in my stomach before a flight wondering who will be in the seat next to me. So far nobody famous – You!? – Lynn

  32. Hi Jodi! Just catching up on overdue reading. I love this piece and the way you fade from scene to scene, the way you share those moments of wonder at overlapping lives. My favorite is the tale of the Ukrainian driver and the adjika-spawned conversation about food and community and patterns. Just lovely.
    Thanks for sharing your world. -B

  33. Thank you for such a wonderful post and a beautiful reminder of the importance of human connections. You never cease to inspire!
    - K

  34. Hi Jodi,

    Nowadays people are so preoccupied with their techno gadgets. The joy of having a conversation with complete strangers makes the trip more exciting. I really enjoyed reading your post especially this one. Wish you good health, so that you may continue to share your travel experiences. Ciao!

  35. I really enjoyed reading this post as it brought back some good memories and conversations from folks I’ve met on planes. It seems more often than not, I don’t end up sitting next to someone whom I strike up conversation with but when I do connect and share stories, it’s always so great and empowering!

    This post gave me goosebumps!

  36. On October 8, 2012 at 11:47 am kristalsoldier said:

    Hi…

    Just stumbled onto your blog. Fascinating posts! But this particular entry makes me a wee bit sad. I used to love, indeed I continue to love, aeroplanes and flying. But recently, I find myself struggling to maintain my composure during even short-hauls. In fact, I try – almost always unsuccessfully – to avoid flying. Why? Because I feel intensely claustrophobic – sometimes…quite often actually. This sense of claustrophobia, which has suddenly gripped me accompanies me like a dark passenger. Where previously, I used to insist on the window seat, now I insist on the aisle seat! I have no idea what went wrong, but there it is. Chatting on flights also used to be fun, but now I try to read or to otherwise distract myself from that claustrophobia! Damn! I miss the joy of flying and wish I could get it back! Good work with the blog!

  37. I love what you say in the beginning when people ask what your parents think and said when you quit. I get that question ALL the time.

  38. jodi:
    i really respect your courage for quitting your job and travel around the world.
    i plan to do the same in 1.5 years.
    i am originally from vietnam so i will start somewhere in southeast asia.
    thanks for writing such great articles.

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