Earlier this year a close friend of mine took a break from the rat race we call “furthering our careers” and set off to explore the Indian landscape on his newly acquired Royal Enfield. I envied him. I still do. He travels all over the country, taking pictures, meeting people, relaxing in different places – the usual travel stuff. But little did I know that running away to a far away land to “further my career” would not leave me trailing behind very far. Yes, I’m not atop a mountain sipping tea made by a chaiwallah who gets the leaves from shrubs in his backyard. But I am also meeting people of various cultures. I get to talk to people from different countries and enjoy conversing with them. So this post is dedicated to all those short encounters I had with people at airports, train stations, mountain hikes, etc.
I have always enjoyed conversations, more so during journeys. These conversations become more interesting when they are with people I have never met before. It is fascinating to hear their stories, their takes on life, hear about the things they’ve seen and experienced and share a couple of stories from your life too. Of course sometimes the conversation happens entirely in my head because I am too intimidated by myself. I don’t want to come off as a creep or as being intrusive. But if the situation leads me to it and the other person/persons don’t seem too abhorrent by my verbal advances, why the hell not? You’ve gained yourself a new short-time acquaintance that you probably will never meet again.
So the first such encounter that I can recollect, as I write this, was at a train station in North India (I forget which city it was). Our train was inordinately delayed and everyone in my family was super tired. We were sitting in the waiting hall, half asleep, half brain-dead, too bored to do anything at all. An old man sat next to me and greeted me with a smiling “Hi!” Now as a kid we’ve all heard this from our parents, “Don’t talk to strangers”. They say this out of concern. The big bad world out there isn’t always friendly and isn’t always what it portrays itself to be. But being the gregarious and rebellious teen that I was, I struck up a conversation with him. We spoke at length about my life, what I was studying, what I liked and disliked about science, about my vacations (my dad has ensured that I have at least 2 every year) and a lot more. The old man spoke about his time in the merchant navy, his mountaineering expeditions with his wife, his daughter in Europe studying medicine and how the merchant navy was much more fun than their military counterpart. I found out that there was such a thing as the merchant navy only that evening. I boarded the train wondering whether I wanted to join the navy or whether I really wanted to continue being the nerd that I was, stuck in science classes, listening to lectures about DNA and protein synthesis.
My second such encounter was at the Chennai airport. I met a young lady who (till date) beat around the bush when I approached the topic of asking about her occupation but seemed like an interesting enough person nonetheless. We spoke at length about ourselves and it surfaced in conversation that I was going to Assam for my vacation and that she was from Assam herself. She ended up giving me her number and suggesting places to visit in Guwahati while I was in Assam and we still keep in touch, I guess :P (if double-tapping her Instagram posts counts as keeping in touch).
Soon I realized that all it took to strike up a conversation with someone was to figure out whether they want to talk to you or not. Few people will label you a creep when you try to start a conversation with them. But of course, this didn’t make my inhibitions any easier to handle. I still restrain myself from walking up to that stranger or even someone new in my dormitory and saying, “Hi!” I’m too used to completing conversations in my head. Maybe that will change? Who knows?
Anyway, I have had many such encounters since – the young entrepreneur at Delhi who walked me to the metro station, the old Swiss grandma who helped me find my tram, the Russian girl I met during a very difficult hike up a mountain, countless people I have met at parties, airports and classrooms - the list goes on. The most recent of such experiences was a flight I shared with a German couple who were going back home after their vacation at Sri Lanka. I would’ve kept to myself, engrossed in music, sleep and the in-flight movies, if it weren’t for the gruesome hour’s delay at the Muscat airport. I was in the plane, in my seat, seatbelt buckled and asleep, 5 minutes before the scheduled departure of the aircraft. I wake up 45 minutes later, sweating like a pig, dehydrated and groggy from the sleep. But hey, I picked a window seat so that I could enjoy the view when I had nothing better to do while I waited to get to Zürich. So I look out the window and I see Arabic font declaring to me that I was still in Muscat.
What the hell? I look around and quickly realize that the airplane was still on the runway, probably waiting for clearance. The journey from Muscat to Zürich was painful as it is. 7 hours in an airplane isn’t really the most exciting of prospects. An extra hour on the clock, inside the cabin, doesn’t make the journey any more fun than it already is. I look over to my left and see this guy reading a German version of what appears to be a Stephen King novel. Before my instinctive, “Will I creep him out?” kicked in, I spilled my grouse at him, “Do you know why we’re still stuck here?” He closed his book and looked over and gave me a shrug. Okay. “No conversations today” I thought to myself when he suddenly said, “I just wish my dad doesn’t have to wait at the airport in Zürich. Parking is bloody expensive there!” From there the conversation carried on. We spoke about everything from hawkers in Sri Lanka, judging people’s moods, to the weather in Freiburg and the best place to find a particular type of bread in Italy. It seems he was a bartender at a theme park in Germany (which he claimed was the best place on earth) and his girlfriend (or was it his wife?) was some F&B manager at the same place. Suddenly I didn't dread the 7 hour journey. Time flies when you're engrossed in discussing the intricacies of the German language and how irritating its grammar is. We spoke for about 5 hours and watched our respective movies in between.
Without getting into the intricate details of the conversation, I can assure you that it was added to my list of ‘Random encounters with strangers who I will never meet again but still enjoyed talking to’. So, seemingly joining the rat race didn’t hinder my opportunities to meet new people and find out about different cultures at all! Ha Nadit! Ha! I’m not missing out on the fun altogether! :P
So if you see me somewhere and you’re as bored and agenda-less as I seem to be, just come over and say hi! I can’t promise to be the most interesting person on earth, but I can promise to keep the conversation going!