He was an older gentleman, maybe in his mid-to-late 40’s. He was dressed in a button up shirt, a silk tie, and shoes wafting an air of business. He was not adorning a sports coat, yet it looked as if he would be wearing one shortly. The contrast to my filthy body, sporting the same clothes as the previous day, topped with disheveled hair from a sleepless night on an airport floor, was uncanny. Yet, this contradiction did not halt nor inhibit the gentlemen from accepting my invitation for conversation. The physical disparity held no weight over the shinning similarities which linked two strangers on a sky train in a foreign land; the medium of conversation toppled societal pretensions.
One stereotype often cited for the infamous American abroad is that we have a hard time slowing down. In the US, life is rushed. Seeing as we marketing the idea of “on the go,” us folks from the states aren’t always known for savoring the moment. Traveling at high velocity, though, is one of the biggest mistakes ANY traveler can make whilst abroad. The truth is, while attractions and activities may be the initial pull to a destination, the most impactful aspect of travel doesn’t exist in guidebooks. It is conversation, and it is free. To find it, one needs only to take a moment, settle in, and let their guard take a much needed vacay.
Having just left India, I had almost forgotten the potential and enjoyability of random conversation. It isn’t to say that Indians don’t indulge in conversation (in fact, I can’t remember ever being silent in India). The sad truth is, many Indians who I was approached by only saw conversation as a tool to get money. I found myself moving quickly, keeping up a much needed coat of armor, and doing my best to discern friend from hustler trying to lure me into an incredibly uncomfortable situation. Arriving back in Bangkok (thanks to the aforementioned gentlemen from above), and more importantly, Chiang Mai, I was quickly reminded (through Lanna hospitality!) why slowing down is so important.
While realizing I had no agenda, I found myself eating a local Thai restaurant. As my meal arrived, a soft spoken, elderly, Thai monk asked if he could share my bench. Still reeling in new found hardness from India, I reluctantly obliged. He asked me where I was from, and I responded, “the States.” He asked again, I responded, “Colorado.” Again, he asked, so I told him “Boulder.” Once more, he asked the same question, and I said “Arapahoe and 7th.” He replied in broken, yet intelligible, English, “Oh bottom of Hill, much more quiet than where I lived on College.” I stared in disbelief. He laughed, and then proceeded to take us down the path of the most epic tale I’ve ever heard from any holy man to grace this earth. Sharing stories of stints of homelessness, failed inter-racial relationships, guided meditations, “pushing” 880 pounds of “fronted” weed, and preparing for a 6-month meditation job in LA starting in December, I found hours of my time had been wisped away in the most desirable manner. I also realized my mind was blown. I don’t know what attracted this man to my table, but It’s not every day you meet a monk on the opposite side of the world with whom you can joke about the merits and demerits of “The Bus Stop" (Google it if you aren’t from Boulder).
Whether it be talking with another westerner about psychology on top of your favorite waterfall, or sharing a table with a drug-dealing Thai monk, conversation is the most sacred and treasured facet of travel. Like any precious commodity, finding ones that shimmer, shine, and endure the elements isn’t always easy. With some practice, sifting through the silt becomes easier. While preparing for your journey, remember to leave your rushed existence at home, and leave room in your bag to pack in as much human connection as possible. You never know who is waiting down the road to change your life with their words.
Photo courtesy of MIT