Posted on | May 6, 2012 | No Comments
Last May I walked into a little guesthouse in rural Uzbekistan. The grandmotherly proprietor briskly showed me the rooms she had available and then, after we agreed to take them, she only hid her excitement at having guests with difficulty and fussed around us getting out typical Central Asian welcome fare: tea, fruit and sweets. In the midst of this she stopped short and stared: “Your eyes, they are so blue. All of you.” She reached out to caress BigB’s face and pat CAM’s hair. Embarrassed she busied herself off to get the rooms ready. It was a funny moment. Even though we’d just spent most of the past two months as the only pale-faced, blue-eyed people in sight (backpacking through China and Central Asia) during all that time I had been too busy looking out to really appreciate how different we looked to the people around us.
As I settled in my seat on my Emirates flight from Seattle to Dubai yesterday I caught exactly the same stare from the Arab grandmother sitting across the aisle from me. In her black, bejeweled jilbab and traditional hijab scarf, when I caught her staring, she grinned at me with a broad friendly smile unabashedly showing off her missing front teeth. I smiled back.
Later in the flight she started to talk to me but, sadly, I had no clue what she was saying. Her traveling partner, a grandson most likely, translated:
“She wants to know if you’re cold”
I shivered and nodded in assent.
The grandmother patted my arm companionably and knowingly.
I bet she was thinking: “If you were dressed like a sensible Muslim woman, you wouldn’t be so cold”.
I had just as little common language with my seat-mate, a Pakistani grandfather (my guess based on his clothing) but that didn’t stop him endeavoring to chat. I would have been more eager had he not been spilling way into my seat and legroom and completely preventing me from getting any sleep. At one point I tried, unsuccessfully, to arrange myself with my head leaning on the seat in front – at least that way I could avoid his elbows. Inwardly I fumed with my head down feeling very uncharitable. My fuming was disturbed by pillows being energetically thrust at me by my seat-mate. I accepted with a wan smile, he looked pleased with his helpfulness and returned to his sprawling snooze. You can’t be mad at such unprompted kindness.
An hour out of Dubai, as the flight tracker showed us over Iran, my Pakistani friend persisted with our no-English, no-Urdu conversation. It’s amazing how much you can learn with simple words. “Home”, “Son”, “Family”, “Pakistan”. He lamented that I’d never been to Pakistan. I congratulated him on his three sons and two daughters. He tried to look impressed at my paltry two boys – although I think he liked the photos I shared. He seemed genuinely worried that I had a 10-hour layover in Dubai.
Being a transit gypsy does not lend itself to building deep relationships but I crave these casual encounters with people I would never meet in my daily life that happen when I travel. They humanize and normalize people of tribes and cultures that we typically hear about in sensationalizing news reports. They reinforce my belief that people are good and that human connections matter more than politics.
Today I continue on to Zambia. I’m nervous. I haven’t been to Southern Africa before. My guard will be up but I’ll be working to bring it down and learn more about the people I’ll be meeting there.