Friday, February 3, 2012

Friendship from Strangers

Swimming in the Indian Ocean, I notice a man on a raft paddling out to a fishing boat I eyed when entering the water. We exchange waves. He starts paddling over to me while I bob up and down; in turn I swim over to him.

“That is my boat", he exclaims. “You come out and see it. I am a fishermen, those are my workers.” I haul myself onto the back of the Styrofoam raft and he resumes paddling out to the boat. Never mind the fact that his mother tongue is Malayalam, mine American English. Between us, we each speak a few words in Hindi. Even with 25% or less of the conversation getting across, we are communicating with each other.

It’s a nice boat, as big as the fishing boat from Jaws, perhaps a bit larger. He shows me the hold where fish are on ice, I assert I’m vegetarian before fish are given to me. They offer me food, drinks, smokes – what you do with a new friend and guest: hospitality. I politely refuse each, having just eaten, not drinking and not wanting anything else. However, I am touched by the claim of friendship and the generosity of these four men. Kerala has shown this to me time and again by complete strangers; I’m a guest in their county.

It makes me wonder about the way we see and treat complete strangers in my country, the USA. Would we offer to let a stranger in, give them food and drink? Whether I’m the one who’s better off or they are, it doesn’t matter. The offer made is completely genuine.

Travel becomes much more interesting when you step out of your familiar environment and get to know the locals; share ideas about each of your own worlds. Conversations, even limited ones go beyond expectations. Travel changes you in ways you never expect to.

Reaching Out

I’m watching a guest being rude to the staff. I consider the people working here friends. We talk about music, about countries we’ve been to and wish to see, about Jamaica – one has a lighter with the stripes of the flag on it. They bend over backwards to make sure everyone is relaxed and has what they want. The rude man finally goes away and I share some wisdom from Dr. Bob. “There is this saying in New Orleans,” I say, “be nice or leave.” This brings a smile ... if only the world practiced it.

During breakfast I meet a man from Belgium. I had noticed him speaking French last night, so I offer a Bonjour. He comes over to my table and we talk for a good hour. He’s a retired anthropologist, was a medical doctor in the Republic of Congo, during the change of government. He quit medicine to practice psychiatry, then quit that to become an anthropologist. He’s been to Benin, and all over Africa.

We talk about Vodou and Hinduism, religion and spirituality. He says us men can’t really know ourselves without the mirrors of the women we’re with. (Very French Saum says later.) He learned English from American GIs after the war [World War II]. He travels all over Asia during winter, it’s too cold in Belgium. I want to be this man when I’m 70, not him exactly but retain an open mind and adventurous enough to keep traveling. We don’t stop talking until he leaves, days later.

I Dream of a Boat

Travel is in my blood, so is the water. I have this dream, a secret retirement dream. In it I sell everything and trade it in for a boat, one capable of sailing around the world.

In this dream I leave Duluth harbor, sail the St. Laurence seaway and head out to sea. I sail to Europe, down through the Mediterranean, over to India, Australia, up through Asia, hit some south Pacific islands and head back to the USA. I dock in NOLA and reconnect with old friends. Then I sail off to Africa, maybe South America.

It’s quite a fantasy. Would I do this? I’m crazy enough to, but would I go crazy at sea? Could I give up my land, my animals? Would my marriage survive that long in the isolation of just each other’s company? Likely, but who knows.

It is a dream I have, but not one I’m sure I’d like to realize. In the meantime, I’ll settle for visiting as many places as I can – and making new friends along the way.

1 comment:

  1. How you brought out the adventure and growth opportunities of travel is wonderful. I so appreciate your perspective and the clear and direct way to relate it. Thanks for taking on the journey with you.