As many of us are enjoying our summer holidays, some traveling abroad, others staying closer to home, I have a suggestion. The idea came to me as I was jet lagging on our first night in Bangkok last summer. Inspired by Humans of New York Brandon Stanton’s incredible images and stories from Pakistan and Iran and of Syrian refugees last year; the comments of millions around the world about how their impressions of a country and a people were changing as a result; and the respect and compassion developing in a virtual space for strangers in far away corners of the world. Also inspired by something our daughter Saanya said on our flight to Thailand, a country and a culture new to our family. “I feel at home in every new place I visit; the more different it is from what I’m familiar with, the more at home I feel.” For her, travel is about finding another part of herself, another piece of her puzzle – she travels ‘home’.
If HONY can evoke such strong feelings in us just by our seeing images and reading stories of people we may not know much about, imagine if we are the ones having these interactions ourselves; and capturing and sharing these stories so our world seems a little smaller, a bit more like home. We tried to do that during our trip last year, and we’ll do it again this summer.
Every place we travel, in our local or global neighborhood, imagine if we take a few minutes to channel Brandon (and Saanya) – look at a new place not as foreign but as part of our whole, connect with the people we encounter even for a moment, allow a person’s story to reveal a country’s humanity.
In a HONY comment, someone had the perfect name for his international postings; I think it applies perfectly to this idea as well.
Travel HOME — Humans of Mother Earth.
Here are a few photos and encounters from our trip to Thailand.
She was four foot something and full of spunk. She approached us at the gate of the Grand Palace in Bangkok and said she could give us a private tour; we hesitated at first, but agreed, as it was hot and we were tired, and happy to have someone lead. She pulled out bright red elephant-adorned pants from her bag so Zayd could cover his legs, marched to the front of an hour-long cue to secure our tickets, and led us around the magnificent buildings with the command of a general and the familiarity of a friend, stopping to make us pose in just the right spots for the most spectacular photographs. At 52, she’s been doing this for 16 years, saying she’s too old for an office job. It was her feisitiness and spunk that we all fell in love with; she had such an infectious positive energy, there was no way you couldn’t feel good in her company. I asked her what makes her so happy: “No matter happy or sad, life go on. Remember, sad is like windy, it go by.”
We got into his taxi at the Chiang Mai airport. The first thing you notice about him is his laugh — well, perhaps first his ponytail peeking through his baseball cap, but then definitely his laugh, punctuating every sentence. We talked to him about what we wanted to do in Chiang Mai. He said he could drive us; we said we’d call him. It would be safer to rely on the hotel’s recommendation for a driver or to use a tour company, Arif and I discussed. But our cabbie had already made an impression and we followed our instinct. The next day, we piled into his taxi for one of the most memorable days of our lives – to an elephant conservation camp in the mountains where we were transformed into mahouts (elephant trainers) to learn how to work with gentle pachyderms, to bathe them in rivers (of dung!), feed them bananas, ride on them through jungles and feel their giant ears flapping on our knees, and hug and kiss them to our delight. Along the way, the story of our joyous cab driver unfolded: he had been in the Air Force for 26 years and used to fly F-16s and earned the rank of Colonel; he spent time trouble shooting jet engines in Connecticut; he got married and had a son (“my boy”), then divorced; he could be flying commercial airliners but nothing can keep him away from ‘his boy’, now 16, and clearly his pride and joy. (Also an injured tiger cub that he nursed to health used to sleep beside him on his bed!) I wanted to understand what made our friend laugh so easily. “Don’t worry about tomorrow. If anything happen, you go home, to the land.” The sense of home. What could possibly be so bad or go so wrong when there is always a home to return to, in the mountains, on the land, with your family.
From each place we travel, we bring back something for our home – hand painted sinks from Mexico, carpets from Turkey, pottery from Morocco. Our house is an eclectic mix of memories. From Thailand, it’s … cutlery! We needed a new set, so my eyes drew instantly to the shiny display of forks and knives and soup spoons at the night market in Chiang Mai. But it was the bright smile of the lovely shop owner in hijab that sealed the deal. We said “Assalam Alaikum”; her smile grew wider. She was born in Chiang Mai, a mother of four, and manages two shops on the main street, selling flatware and Kashmiri textiles. Her husband organizes tours for Muslims visiting Thailand. She asked about the situation for Muslims in the U.S.; her brother had gone to Indianapolis, but after 9/11 her father asked him to return home, fearing the situation. She said there was no problem being a Muslim in Thailand: “For me, this is the most wonderful place in the world.” It hardly took a few minutes for us to form a bond of friendship. We exchanged emails; she gave me a beautiful silk Kashmiri scarf as a gift. I’ll remember her smile, each time we sit down to eat.
We went off-roading in the mountains of Koh Samui; it was our first time, and some of us were nervous. Our guide was a French man from Paris who came to the island in 2000 to teach diving, and never left. He fell in love with the island and started an ATV business two years ago. Each day he takes a dozen folks from around the world for a thrill of a lifetime. He rode along side us on his motorcycle, extricating some who managed to climb up trees on our ATVs and make sure the rest of us didn’t fall off high cliffs. I asked him what in particular made him stay in Koh Samui. He turned to look at the lush green valley below us, brimming with banana trees and wild orchids, melting into a vast blue sea, which kissed the bluest of skys: “this is my office.”
Happy travels everyone. May we greet each other with new eyes. Perhaps we’ll realize that underneath any facade of fate or faith or country that may separate us, we are all very much the same.