By Alex Marino, Staff Writer
One of the bonuses that comes with the travel lifestyle is often finding yourself forced into an awkward situation in which you share about four feet of space with a complete stranger for ten grueling hours, and at 30,000 feet traveling at around 700 MPH there is no escape. I’d like to share a real-life sequence of events that recently took place within this context that may seem somewhat cynical at first glance, but bear with me and the positive light of my experience will eventually shine through. A lesson to keep in mind as you read is that face-value perceptions can skew our understanding of culture if we fail to dig beneath the surface.
Let’s begin with an explanation of the boarding process I routinely use. The battle over the two to three inches of “neutral” arm space territory ensues almost immediately after taking your seat, and if you’re not consciously aware that you should be preparing to stake your claim, you’ll risk spending the rest of the day with a loud-breathing individual oozing over into your precious four feet while you sit with your elbows uncomfortably hung in your lap. Now, once you’ve established the non-verbal positional dominance, the next step is to quickly find something important to do such as intently reading the Economist or Financial Times while pretending to jot down stock tips, or simply putting your headphones on and closing your eyes. It doesn’t really matter if you’re listening to anything or actually sleeping, but the combination of the two puts you in a safe position to ignore your neighbor if he starts yapping and tries to engage you in “casual conversation” about the facts of life for the next ten hours.
The key to this process is to avoid eye contact at all costs. Every movement you make must appear to be a critical process with intent and purpose until you are in the safety “sleep” zone. You might think I’m being a bit antisocial and rude suggesting you have this process thought out before getting on the plane simply to ignore your friendly neighbor. But for innately introverted people the thought of engaging in a draining conversation about someone’s upcoming gall bladder surgery or why you should vote for Donald Trump is an exhausting act of mental exertion in and of itself. Remember to identify your exits at the front and rear of the plane before takeoff in case the situation warrants emergency departure.
Now, since officially becoming a Thunderbird one year ago, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to travel extensively to six different countries spanning over 30,000 miles round trip. Covering that kind of ground also means that I’ve been crammed on to around twenty-five plane rides, some for extensive hours and all in coach seating. So, naturally, I’ve gotten my avoidance routine down pat along the way. But as you’ll soon see, I’ve found that sometimes extroverted personality types meshed with positive vibes flowing from a deeply rooted cultural experience prove too strong despite best efforts to convey a disinterested demeanor.
Flying from Antananarivo, Madagascar to Nairobi, Kenya was the first of a quadruple-flight journey stretching over a 40-hour duration and extending halfway around the world. As you can imagine, I was eager to reserve my energy and focus. I was hoping for a better co-passenger draw than my initial flight, in which my friendly neighbor proceeded to get sloshed on gin and white wine and then repeatedly apologized each of the eight times they “surprisingly” had to ask me to get up to use the facilities. Luckily, however, they were courteous enough to share the wine, TWICE spilling it all over both of us.
Patience dwindling, I boarded the plane and unenthusiastically approached the assigned seat ready to pass out, or at least pretend to be asleep. I got to the seat and almost instantly broke the golden rule as I locked eyes with a doe-eyed, hefty Pakistani man with rosy cheeks, a bushy beard, and welcoming smile stretching from ear to ear. “Oh great,” rang off in my head as I quickly broke eye contact and sat down to get organized. Ok, here we go: carry-on all the way under the seat in front, tray table and seat back in upright and locked position, seatbelt securely fastened, headphones in and eyes closed with no reason for interruption.
Wait…something doesn’t feel right; my intuitive senses are tingling with that feeling that something is demanding my attention. Every inclination in my head is saying “don’t open your eyes,” but that sensational intuition wins over as they involuntarily pry open to see my Pakistani neighbor observing me with the same wide-eyed smile that grows bigger at the realization that I’m actually awake. “Hello! I’m Araf Muhammed!” You know that emoji with the wide-eyes and red cheeks used to communicate shock and awe? That’s how I look at this moment.
Araf and I engage in casual conversation mainly about what brought each of us to Madagascar, and then, despite my attempts to avoid religious and political conversation with strangers at all costs, we dive deep into the principles of the Quran and political situations in Pakistan and the United States. Araf enthusiastically explains his current 60-year life journey and the anticipation of his second life journey at a volume that echoes throughout the whole plane; I listen intently. I share my anti-religious perceptions in a way that ensures Araf I respect his right as a human being to exercise his own belief system, but the language and cultural barrier stifle the conversation.
I ask Araf what Pakistanis think and feel about their government and how they perceive the American government. He responds with the sentiment that bad government policies and representatives on both sides create false pretenses through media indoctrination that intentionally disconnect the common people from one another. But, under the surface, people are good. Those are mostly my words, but they reflect what he was trying to say. I couldn’t agree with you more, Araf, and this is the exact same enlightened ideology I experienced in the Cuban culture earlier this year. So wait…Pakistanis and Cubans like Americans? Looks like George Carlin was on to something when he said, “the media is literally exploding with bullshit!”
At this point I’m thoroughly intrigued with my conversation with Araf, and all previous desire to put my headphones in and go to sleep has left. We begin to talk about our families. Araf is surprised when I tell him I’m 27 years old, unmarried, and without children, mainly because he was married at seventeen and currently has a growing family of nine children, three of which have children of their own.
In the midst of all my protectionist flight routines breaking down, I have a bittersweet realization that man-made barriers such as political systems and invisible borders disconnect people at such a deep level that when they finally do interact the natural inclination is to open up to one another. Unfortunately, very few “common people” have the unique opportunity or desire to break through those barriers and put themselves in a seat next to a complete stranger from a distant culture 30,000 feet in the air for several hours. But when they do, something innately human naturally takes place with each of these interactions: we see one another simply as people. The political and religious brands lose relevance, and faith is little by little restored in humanity.
Araf left me with a large bear hug and a promise to ask Allah to give me the best journey possible as I go on my way. Now, I’m not saying I will abandon my pre-flight antisocial antics altogether, but the experience was a lesson in the power of face-to-face human interaction at changing the energy and perceptions we carry through the world. So trust your instincts and let them guide you to new experiences that continue to break away the false systematic barriers imposed on our minds, and in the end you will only remember the importance of people.