I took the subway back from downtown Manhattan to Brooklyn early this week.
The R train pulled into Union Square but as I was about to step in, I turned and saw the long line of people waiting for the Q express and thought better of it. Sure enough, the Q sputtered into the station as soon as the R departed.
As it turned out, the express train was anything but.
The train stopped between stations frequently, lurching foward and then stopping again. Heavy sighs from the passengers, squished to the gills. All of us crunched together, separate sardines on a commute home.
I looked around me and wondered what people’s stories were in this mishmash of humanity on a late Monday in New York.
I was dressed for meetings in a skirt and silk top and boots; no one giving me a passing glance would think I lived elsewhere, that I had spent the past 3+ years roaming the globe.
One never knows what lies beneath the outer layers.
As the train ground to a halt for what must have been the 20th time, the giant hairy arm of my neighbour knocked over the woman across from me. We were all clustered around the pole on the train, but only he was oblivious. Lost in his music, or simply uncaring, he kept elbowing her in the face as he moved.
Several minutes passed. Five, six.
Still stopped on the Brooklyn Bridge, my neighbour still stuck smelling the arm of the giant to her right.
I turned to her and suggested she start pulling his arm hairs out, one by one.
The man across from us stifled a laugh.
More time passed, but we did not move. Six of us were standing in star formation, each joined together by the metal pole affixing us to our allotted subway places, grounding us for the duration of our ride home.
There’s a funny sort of intimacy that bubbles to the surface when you’re motionless in the subway; you can’t help but actually start noticing details instead of vaguely staring past the person in front of you. Your straphanging neighbours cease being random strangers and start to take shape into real people, with quirks and personalities and stories.
After several service announcements (“broken subway is broken”) and still wedged on the Brooklyn Bridge, the woman to my right cocked her head in my direction and whispered “since I’m not going to pull arm hairs out, tell me – what’s your life story.”
So I told her.
And she told me hers, and then we both raised our eyes to the man across the way, who shrugged and volunteered that he was from Florida, had just moved here to take a job after years of freelancing.
“I thought the train was supposed to be fast?” he asked.
We nodded, commiserating.
What does Traveling “Off the beaten path” really mean?
I often receive emails asking for suggestions about where to visit that’s off the beaten path. People who write to say,“I know you put these places on your blog, but where are the secret places, the ones that no one else knows about?”
Oftentimes these readers are looking for a connection to others that feels special or sacred, something different. A story that we can look back on and tell the story to friends at home. “And then, she invited me to her family’s house and I ate with them, staying late into the night!”
But do we really need somewhere away from all the tourists to get that feeling of sincere invitation or “authenticity”?
Every Sunday in Chiang Mai I took take my motorbike to the night market to get a massage and grilled pork and sticky rice.
It was a routine that made Sundays the best of the week, full of smoky meat and sharp, spicy sauce and followed by an hour of someone beating up my legs and back. And in the middle of the hustle and bustle, the fluid movement of near and far, I always felt like I was in another world from the endless stream of tourists flowing by.
I would go to the same woman every week and while she worked her magic we’d make fun of the random outfits on those walking by, or berate the men working there for teasing the youngest girl on staff.
The song and dance between her and the other masseuses was overstated and comical, slapstick humour and lots of laughs. By the time I left Chiang Mai, I was showered in hugs and given bags stuffed with food to take on my onward journey.
And yet, when people ask for suggestions to Chiang Mai, they don’t want the night market. They want something different, something that sets their visit apart from the others.
Like an everyday commute in New York, you don’t need the social clout of stepping outside the quotidien to have memorable experiences.
Nothing I experienced in Chiang Mai is because I’m special, or because I befriended people specifically. It was simply a matter of genuine, human interacting. You only need to look at the people around you – truly look, communicate, smile.
The rest falls into place.
* * *
Three days before my ride to Brooklyn, I took the subway to the Lower East Side for the Restless Legs travel reading series.
Three Frenchmen were lost, and given that I’m from Montreal, I jumped in to help them figure out where they wanted to go next. They stayed on the platform, and as I boarded the train, a woman next to mejoked that she ought to have learned French in high school. (Let’s just say these Frenchmen weren’t hard on the eyes.) Originally from Russia, she lived in New York for some time. She was surprised to hear of my travels through Russia and Siberia. This initial banter turned into a long discussion about the politics of Russia and Siberia and an invitation to her family’s house for dinner.
None of these stories make me unique, and none are truly outside the confines of what’s normal for everyday human interaction.
So why is it that when I tell people about my new subway friends, their jaws drop and they say “why don’t I meet people on the subway?”
While it’s true that I’ve become more open to these random connections by virtue of my travels, I had similar experiences prior to quitting my job to travel the world. Perhaps it’s the same thing that has me winding my way through cities in search of markets and food instead of sights to see; I’m fascinated the most by the interaction between people.
To those who write to say they’d love to travel but aren’t yet ready to go, I suggest that they get outside of their comfort zone, even in their own hometown.
You want to get off the beaten path? Start small, then take your show on the road.
It’s an excellent start.
And when people write me to ask for isolated places, I do send them a list. But I also suggest that they remain open to the panoply of human interactions as they move through their days.
Yes, I love to get away from the tourists and the many people who travel for travel’s sake, but it’s not always about the most far flung places. In the middle of the busiest cities you’ll find those same connections and new friendships.