I’m writing this from seat B, aisle 19. I’m wedged between a middle-aged Dutch woman and an older American man. This is all I know about them and all I am likely to glean. We’ll sit next to each for the next 11 hours and we won’t say anything to one another besides the obligatory, “excuse me” as we crawl over each other and shuffle seats.
The best part of traveling is meeting new people, playing traveler’s roulette, gambling on who you might end up sitting next to, so many stories to tell, so many to catch. So why has it become the norm to sit next to someone for nearly half a day without exchanging one word more than is necessary? Does anyone else find this disconcerting? That we’ve become so habituated to heaving ourselves through security, racing down airport corridors, before finally wedging ourselves into an uncomfortable seat with no intention or plan beyond watching as many B-grade movies as humanly possible that we forget to be curious?
Is there such a thing as traveler’s fate? Arbitrarily thrown together, seating at random, maybe there is something beyond just trying to get through the flight without making eye contact with the person next to you or upsetting your coffee in their lap. Maybe part of being a traveler is breaking down the barriers that say we have to sit next to each other without saying anything. Trying to be polite, I stifle my curiosity, but I have so many questions.
Travelers are fascinating. I want to know where the man next to me is going and where he has been? What provokes him to travel and is he excited or sad to be heading home? Is he afraid of flying? Do we have anything in common? Of the places he’s been, where does he recommend? I want to know more about him than that he prefers the chicken to the pasta dish and he drinks beer with dinner.
Traveling is about discovering yourself in the people and places around you. It’s about embracing and living the journey, relishing the exchanges along the way, grabbing bits and pieces of everyone and everything around us. Sometimes we need the space to lose ourselves, the quiet seclusion we find when we pull out our journals and hide behind the music of our headphones. I relish this as much as the next person, but I think it’s time to stop making it the default position when we board a plane or train or bus.
Yes, there’s the chance that you might annoy the person next to your or, worse, get stuck on the receiving end of a 15 hour monologue, but that’s the risk we take in reaching out. It’s part of the gambling game called traveling.