Sunday, October 27, 2013

Chance Encounters

Murder is the result of chance encounters involving transportation in Alfred Hitchcock's world. Fortunately the same is not true in my world!

Just a little over a month ago I boarded a Delta Airlines flight leaving Atlanta, Georgia for Johannesburg, South Africa. As a member of the last group to be called for boarding and having witnessed the amount of carry-on luggage that preceded my walk down the gangway, I immediately started scouting overhead storage space once I got onboard. It is my experience that most air travelers treat the overhead space the same way lots of homeowners treat trash pick-up. That it, once its on the curb, it is someone else's problem. Similarly air passengers simply strive to get their bag stored; in most cases without regard to efficiency or economy. This, despite the constant reminders by the flight attendants to put wheeled bags in wheels first. I would eventually score a space for my bag across the aisle from my seat after a significant amount of shifting and juggling of another passenger's luggage.

After finally dropping into my seat, admittedly a bit cranky from reaching and tugging luggage, a woman across the aisle smiled, said "Have a sweetie," and handed me a lovely caramel candy. We chatted for the remainder of the boarding process. I learned during our conversation that Rona, a Johannesburg resident, had just spent six weeks visiting her only child, a daughter, doing post-doctoral work in South Bend, Indiana. I laughed and told her that South Bend was a mere two and half hours from my home in Zionsville, Indiana. I shared that I  too had just left my only child, also a daughter, at university in New York City, and that I was going to South Africa to work with the Legal Resources Centre. Rona was quite concerned that I knew no one in Johannesburg. At the end of the flight, we scrambled to find paper and pen so she could give me her phone number. She urged me to call her if I needed anything or wanted to get together.

As I traveler, I never turn down a chance encounter. Last summer my family struck up a conversation with a gentlemen on a bus in Dublin. He got off at our stop, escorted us through a lovely city park. All the time we walked through the park he explained the various statutes and sculptures and shared stories with us. Eventually he would leave us on the doorstep of the not-so-famous off-the-beaten track museum we were trying to locate and continue on his way to his office. My traveler motto is "Adventure is just one conversation away!"

So last week I called Rona to inquire if she would like to meet for lunch or drinks. In the end, Rona and her husband, Alan, invited me to their home for a late lunch. We met at a filing station near the Gold Reef Casino so I wouldn't have to work out how to find their home in Chrisville, a modest suburb on the southwest side of Johannesburg. I spent a long afternoon with them. We sat on the front veranda enjoying the sun, the breeze, and the distant view of the city centre. They told me the names of the plants in their garden, showed me pictures of their daughter and her academic awards, told me family stories, and introduced me to their cats, Fred and KitKat (previously feral, now rescued and loved).

When we moved into the kitchen for lunch, the conversation wound this way and that as we talked about South Africa, its history, and their thoughts on its future. Rona and Alan are of modest means; both were retrenched (laid off) in recent years due to company closures. Despite being near or at retirement age, they retain their entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic as they continue to investigate employment options.

As the day started to fade, I was hugged and walked to my car. I was also reminded to lock the car doors, keep the windows up, avoid hitchhikers, and to call when I got home. On the drive home, I marveled at the fragility of life's experiences. If Rona hadn't offered a candy to a frustrated fellow traveler and if I hadn't accepted the offer I would have missed out on a wonderful experience.  I'll see them again in the coming months as I've offered to carry holiday packages to their daughter when I go home for the Christmas and New Year holidays. The opportunity to spend time with Rona and Alan enriched my understanding of South Africa in a way that no amount of news or reading ever could and I look forward to our next meeting.

Travel provides us with so many venues to meet new people. Yet today's airports, Amtrak stations, bus terminals, and even the planes, trains, and busses, themselves, are filled with people looking at a screen instead of looking outward. What would happen If we disconnected from our devices and opened ourselves up to possibilities of human interaction more often? My guess is that if we take the time to talk and connect with someone we would soon learn
 that the world is a small shared space waiting to be discovered just beyond the screen in our hand.


  1. What a wonderful story! I am enjoying catching up on your blog posts. Your adventure sounds amazing.

  2. Thanks for reading my humble thoughts. It is truly an amazing place -- full of interesting side/by/sides; yesterday I saw a woman walking up a hill talking on an iPhone -- not that unusual until you add in that she was wearing traditional dress and balancing a very large bundle of baskets on her head as she walked.

  3. This post will be very useful to us....i like your blog and helpful to me....nice thoughts for your great work

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