Montreal We were sitting cheek to jowl in the back section of a Lufthansa flight from Nairobi to Frankfurt. I was transferring from a Kenya Airlines flight from Kampala to Nairobi and then going forward in hops to Frankfurt, Chicago, and finally New Orleans. The attendants and a percentage of the passengers were German of course as was the airline and the destination, but it was a local crowd going to their newer homes after a visit or going to see family, rather than veteran travelers. Oddly shaped bags, taped up boxes, and carry-ons exceeding any control of the Lufthansa staff were troubling themselves down the narrow aisles with their owners. Impatience was tightly drawn over the taut smiles pasted on the faces of the workers and others as the process continued to slow to a halt in a mixture of normal travel insensitivity baked into the modern airline business model and strained-to-bursting racism.
I sent a WhatsApp message home saying that I could see on the faces that I was watching a vivid real time display of the political issues that were forcing German Premier Angela Merkel out of her leadership post in the backlash over her opening the country to mass immigration in recent years in reaction to the Middle East crisis. As I finished, I overheard one of my neighbors say under his breath, “You would have to listen hard to hear anything nice here.” There was a nod of agreement from the seatmates in this middle row of four. I leaned over, across my neighbor to the speaker and said, “I just sent a message to my partner saying almost the same thing!” We all laughed our heads off, pressed unseen behind the seats, as we whispered out of sight, like elementary school children hiding from the teacher’s stern eyes.
Traveling on airplanes, buses, and trains are not the places to look for friends, but, as a travel tip, I’ve learned that it makes sense to talk to strangers when it counts, and that is usually in the crush of chaos when humanity means the most. In a couple of sentences as we sat on the Nairobi runway, it turned out that the “nice” speaker was originally from Somalia, had been to Nairobi on mission for something connected to the Canadian government, knew about ACORN, and lived in Ottawa. My immediate neighbor clarified quickly that he was originally Ethiopian, not Eritrean, appearances from the Somalian to the contrary. He was on a vacation and now lived in the Scarborough area of Toronto that I knew well as part of the heartland of ACORN in that city. He worked in a warehouse in Scarborough less than thirty minutes away. We had an eight-hour flight and this was enough to make it all work, and we said nothing more until we wished each other well upon leaving.
Every place is a little more a friendly to the traveler if the smallest effort is made to reach out. Help with the errant bag. Fetch the cane from the overhead. Comment on the wait, the weather or question whether the trip is a visit or a return home. Waiting to sit or standing to leave, and underlining the nature of shared experience is a bedrock exchange of human experience that lowers barriers even as it protects boundaries. Talking to strangers at the right time creates wonderful memories, makes the time pass, and reminds us that we are all actually people, rather than simply a mass of blood and bones being herded robotically along the gateways of life between home and away.