brief encounters

Coincidental travel

by Steve Brock on November 21, 2013

When you step onto a plane, you never know who will be sitting next to you. Unless you’re traveling in a large party together, it is purely a matter of chance as to who sits next to you. Or is it?

Airplane Seats

I’m on a business trip, on a plane in the exit aisle seat. Next to me in the center seat is a man I noticed as he boarded. Everything about him seems precise and intentional: neatly clipped beard and hair, tanned skin, burgundy leather jacket, blue – bright blue – pants. Flamboyant is too strong a word, but what is the right term for his impeccable look?

After we take off, he talks to his friend in the window seat. Periodically, he speaks across the aisle and up one row to two young boys. After that, he periodically checks across the aisle to make sure they are eating the food he’d apparently provided for them.

I’m busy working, so I don’t pay much attention to the two guys sitting next to me. Instead, I make a quick judgment call: Two guys, both well-groomed and dressed and now two kids? I assume they are partners who have adopted these two boys.

Then I overhear them mention something about creating a devotional. Devotional?

One of the boys eventually comes over complaining about the lack of food choices. The guy next to me explains that he has nothing else for the boy and then comes another surprise: He tells the boy to go ask his mother. Off the boy trots up toward the front of the plane.

I’m definitely curious about this situation now, so I put aside my computer and the work I’d been doing and engage my neighbor more intentionally beyond brief comments about kids and picky eaters. We move through a range of subjects and I find out that my well-dressed new friend is a pastor. But not your typical one.

He started as an actor – theatrical! that was the word I was thinking about his outfit, but in a stylish way like a celebrity – on Broadway and then he got into the ministry. Most recently he produced a rock/rap version of The Passion in Jerusalem. Now he travels and preaches across the US. A fascinating person.

We have a wonderful conversation exploring issues of faith, meaningful travel and life in general. As the plane begins to land, we tell each other how much we’ve enjoyed talking to each other. He informs me that he’d given his upgraded seat in first class to his wife (wise move!) and had dreaded having to sit in a center seat. And then he shares a question to explain his delight in being stuck in that particular seat and all that we learned from each other in our conversation.

“Do you know that in the ancient Hebrew and even ancient Aramaic, there is no word for ‘coincidence’?”

As we swap business cards in the hope of some day reconnecting, I think about what his words mean.

If everything is God’s then things like where we are and who we meet don’t happen by accident. Even when we make wrong assumptions (as I did) or think something will turn out worse than it does (as he did), God has a way of bringing together exactly what we need when and where we need it but often in the most unusual of ways.

So next time you experience an encounter on a trip that you think of as chance or coincidence, well, you might just want to think again.



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As with people we meet on a trip, there's more to something as simple as a bottle of water than we initially think...

As we saw last time, relationships that start out based on a monetary transaction don’t have to stay at that level.

For example, for two of the days we were in the Sacred Valley in Peru, we hired a driver to take us to various Incan ruins and local markets. I’ll call him Miguel.

Miguel wasn’t very talkative. Though I tried to converse in Spanish, we sensed that his lack of English made him hesitant to initiate conversations. He’d answer our direct questions about destinations or logistics, but that was it.

On the second day, however, I was more rested which helped both my attitude and my Spanish immensely.

So with renewed zeal I tried to engage Miguel in a deeper conversation. Several attempts to do so either resulted in short answers or ones that exceeded my vocabulary.

Finally, however, I asked Miguel if he’d been to Machu Picchu himself.

A door opened. Our paid driver was now a fellow traveler explaining his own adventure. It’s funny how rarely I think of locals as being tourists in their own country. Connecting on that level, however, changed the nature of our conversation and relationship.

He explained that three years earlier, he, his wife and another couple had visited Machu Picchu. They’d saved and saved for the entry fees (it costs about $45/adult for tourists and while less for locals, it is still expensive). They decided to save even more by not taking the bus from the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu up to the ruins’ entrance.

Guidebooks say it takes about 90-120 minutes to hike the 2,000 foot elevation from the town to Machu Picchu. What they don’t mention is how hot it gets and how steep the trail is the entire way. By the time Miguel and his party made it to the entrance, they were hot, tired and dehydrated for they had forgotten to bring any water with them.

They soon discovered that the only source of drinking water were small bottles for sale at the lone snack bar just outside the entrance to Machu Picchu. Each bottle cost about $4.

That seemed pricey to us when we were there two days earlier. But we had the financial means to purchase the water. $4 per bottle for Miguel was like $100 for us. But they had no choice. All the money they saved on the bus fare now went toward two bottles that the four of them shared for the entire day.

Miguel hadn’t counted on having to buy water that day nor the exorbitant cost of it. But as he explained the experience, two things became clear.

First, I had thought he’d have this deep cultural connection to his Incan roots there. Maybe he did. But what came across in his story was how much fun they had in large part – and counter-intuitively – because of the effort it took just to get to Machu Picchu and the preciousness of those two bottles of water that they shared.

Second, as Miguel explained his story to me, something changed between us. We were no longer just paid driver and paying customer but two travelers who understood each other a bit more. I could appreciate from my own experience how sometimes the bad, unexpected things on our trips can make for the most meaningful memories.

After this, we had additional conversations during our time with Miguel that went beyond the transactional. Can I say, however, that Miguel became a friend? I wouldn’t go that far. Even without the underlying transactional basis for our relationship, friendship usually takes more time than that.

And do I now know or understand what daily life is like for Miguel in Peru? No. We barely scratched the surface.

But as a result of our moving beyond the transactional basis of our relationship into something more I do know this:

I have not looked at a bottle of water the same since.

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How meaningful can a relationship be when that relationship is based on a transaction, some form of monetary exchange? That’s a question that haunted me at the end of my trip to Peru.

I realized on the last day of our trip that every significant conversation I had in the week we were in Peru was with someone that I either paid or that wanted me to pay them. Drivers, waiters, hotel staff, guides, vendors, airline employees – all of these people who showed great interest in me had reasons to do so beyond my witty charm or compelling repartee.

Limited time in a highly traveled area made it difficult for us to meet local people who weren’t somehow tied to the tourist trade. As a result, I had a number of interactions– some brief encounters, some extended conversations – with people who, in a sense, were paid to do so.

Sort of cheapens the value of those conversations, doesn’t it?

Or does it?

Some encounters were, of course, strictly monetary exchanges. Take the two women, small child and lamb in the picture. That photo set me back about US$.70 (two Peruvian sols), the going rate in the area. Paying people to photograph them isn’t something I normally condone. But in this touristy area, it’s an established practice that preserves the traditional dress and provides income in a region of high poverty. Tipping them may thus be culturally acceptable, but it doesn’t make for a meaningful relationship.

Another source of interactions that intrudes on you there are street vendors who constantly assail you like swarming mosquitoes that you shoo away only to have them approach you moments later from a different angle. The closest any of these came to even a quasi-deeper-level encounter occurred outside the cathedral in Cusco.

A woman street vendor – probably the 70th of the day – approached me, attempting to sell various handicrafts. I gave my usual answer in Spanish: “No thank you. I don’t need any of those.” Most vendors usually leave me after that or make one last effort to convince me otherwise. But this one just stopped and said in broken English, “You good tourist.”

That caught my attention, so I asked her why in Spanish. Now in Spanish, she replied, “Because you said, ‘Thank you.’ Other tourists like that lady there just say, ‘No.’ You looked at me. You said ‘No, thank you.’”

I smiled at her and said appreciatively, “Thank you very much… But I still don’t need anything.”

She returned my smile even more broadly. She then nodded and walked off repeating as she left, “You’re a good tourist.” And that was it.

Not a meaningful relationship, but it was, at least, a human encounter.

Sometimes on short trips, those are enough.

So back to my original question: Can encounters with people you meet on a trip be meaningful if they are based only on the exchange of money?

I think the secret lies in that word, “only.”

You may meet someone such as that street vendor who may initially see you only as a potential source of income. You in turn may see her only as an annoyance. But when you both begin to see each other as fellow humans and move beyond the starting point of the transaction itself, something wonderful can happen…even if only for a moment.

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What gets left behind

by Steve Brock August 24, 2010

When it comes to people we meet on a trip, we always leave some of ourselves behind. Each encounter is an exchange, a sharing of a little bit of us with a little bit of them. We will always leave a part of us with those we meet. The question is what will that be?

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