Friday, January 24, 2014

Oh The People You'll Meet!

Generally travelers set off with lists of important places they want to see while on their journey. The famous cathedral, monument, natural landscape or oddity, or well known restaurants or bars. We rarely intend to collect conversations as part of our travel memories, yet those always seem to be the things I remember most from my travels. I return home impressed with who I met and what I learned from them.  

In addition to the embassy worker and the Qatar flight crew we met a lot of smart, inquisitive people, and everyone seemed to have an opinion they wanted to share about one thing or another.

The Brits and Australians at dinner sounded a lot like many Americans you talk to. They are tired of their governments backing our government in military actions and paying the price. They are pretty sure only the craziest of their citizens are running for office. They are convinced whatever is being shown on the news isn't close to the real truth.

We found an amusing trend among pub patrons and cabbies. There was a lot of hostility toward people in other cities. In Dublin, we were told by the collection of men at the bar that if we were on our way to Glasgow, we'd better be damn careful, because it was a rough city and we'd be mugged. We were also informed that Margaret Thatcher "single handedly ruined that city. Glasgow use to be a beautiful city." A couple of days later in Glasgow residents were amused. "Of course people in Dublin would say that."  My husband shared the mugging prediction with a couple of policemen. "Aye. Have ya been mugged yet?" Of course every city has parts it would be safest to steer clear of. We chalked up this kind of talk to that.



At dinner one evening we sat with a couple who were celebrating their 52nd wedding anniversary. He was American and she was Mexican. They'd met when she was visiting a cousin in Southern California who lived next door to him.  The woman smiled as she told the story. "I didn't speak English and he didn't speak Spanish." Of course, my female curiosity had to know how they fell in love under those conditions. The man chimed in "When she went home I bought a Spanish dictionary and taught myself Spanish so I could write her letters." They had written each other letters for 3 years--"he wrote 3 for every 1 I wrote"--until he drove to Mexico city with several members of his family to marry her, arriving the week before the wedding to meet her family. They had 7 children all of whom were doctors, lawyers, or engineers and scads of grandchildren. They looked like they'd had the happiest life.

In the hot tub one afternoon I struck up a conversation with a man and his wife. He was a professor of business ethics at a university in Santiago, Chile and she was a "head hunter" for several major corporations. Our discussion quickly started with the lack of long term thinking among corporations and governments and covered several other topics until I finally asked what he thought the largest problem was. "Population. Specifically people living in cities." I was intrigued and remembered Dunbar's Law, which says that humans can only have approximately 150 real relationships. I asked if this was part of what he was speaking about. His eyes lit up. "Yes!" He gave a lengthy lecture on the effects of it. (It all seemed familiar somehow. :)) His basic theory was that once people moved into large groups and away from villages where everyone knew them from birth to death they gained a sort of anonymity that greatly affected their behavior. Decisions stopped being made for the good of the group and the self was exalted. Once that happened the short term thinking about what would be good for a single person became more important than long term thinking. He explained that he found the same thing happened in corporations the larger they became.

When he got all finished I asked what the solution was. As the words came out of my mouth his wife smiled a cryptic smile. He said, "Oh yes, my students ask that all the time. But there is no solution. This living in groups will kill us eventually most likely by a plague (he asked if I'd seen the movie, Contagion) and this he felt sure would happen in the next few decades.

Some other people entered the tub and broke our conversational spell but it was nearly time to get ready for dinner anyway, as stepped out of the tub he said "Enjoy the rest of your cruise, our species is going to end soon."

One of the things that impressed us most on our trip was just how genuinely kind people seemed to be, particularly in Scotland. My husband played a round of golf on the "wee course" (meaning 9 holes) and after we went to the clubhouse for a pint and a snack. The chef came out to chat with us and when we asked if we could use the phone to call a cab he insisted on driving us back to the ship himself. "It's 5 minutes out of my life, I'm not doing anything right now." We explained that after changing our clothes we wanted to catch the train and asked where it was. "I'll just drive you over to it so you  can see where your are going. It's 10 minutes out of my life."

A regular occurrence even in large cities was that if we were asking directions from someone 2 or 3 other people would stop to find out if we needed assistance and if they could help. Everyone was nice but the Scots seemed to be willing to go the extra mile.

We had lots of other random encounters. There was the Israeli dairy farmer, the woman who taught international folk dances as a profession, our bar tender who owned a rubber tree farm in Thailand, and an old guy who walked up to me at a bar in Belfast while my husband was in the bathroom and said "How long have you been sitting here waiting for me."

I told him it had been a really long time and I was beginning to wonder what had happened to him and that I thought maybe he'd changed his mind.

His two friends he'd come in with had the most priceless looks on their faces. :)

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