14 April 2014

Travel tales: talking to strangers

People watching - The Bean in Millennium Park, Chicago.

One of the best things about travelling is meeting new people. Some have and will become good friends, and many others are nameless. I usually talk to people on public transport, much to the fear of some of my international friends. Being from Australia is a good talking point - everyone wants to travel to Australia. A few people have asked me about geography, and a few others have quite a good knowledge of our current government. Two waiters wrote me some travel tips for New Orleans. People are so generous when you spend the time talking to them.

I really love observing people and talking to them to draw out brief stories. Curiosity comes with being a writer - everybody has a story. If I was a fiction writer I could weave some of these encounters into the story.

Here are some of the people I've met along the way so far.

The taxi driver who took me to my hotel in Auckland told me about his marriage. He described "an arranged marriage not a love marriage". He told me that his parents decided on who he should marry, and matched her with a girl in New Zealand. It took nine months to get to know his wife. "I would prefer the love marriage", he told me. "Because you should know each other perfectly." I asked him if he's happy?

"It's alright. She's alright but sometimes she doesn't agree with me."

I got chatting with my friend's roommates while she was at work. We covered so many things - education, career goals, the cost of living, meeting men... When I told one of Larisa's friends I'm Australian she immediately asked if I know Darren Hayes and I squealed and said of course I do! She quoted some lyrics and I told her about talking to Darren on his podcast last month.

My flight from San Francisco to Chicago was very early in the morning. I left the hotel at 3.30 am - catching a shuttle bus. I was scared of waiting on the street as the Tenderloin district was so dodgy (I think of pounded meat and quivering loins when Tenderloin is mentioned). But it was fine - the concierge waited with me and the driver helped me with my bags. I did not encounter anyone dangerous on the street. As usual, I struck up conversations with my fellow passengers - even so early! Some weren't as willing to talk as others. I met a couple from Atlanta who really want to visit Australia. The woman was talking about her skin condition, and her husband said the questions about it got so bad that he said to people "just don't come to my house". We didn't see each other's faces until the drop-off point, but it was amazing how a short conversation on a bus in the dark could produce conversation about such a big commonality.

I also caught a shuttle bus from Chicago airport to the hostel. There were only two of us on that shuttle - me and a woman who was about to run a marathon. We talked the whole trip about running and her work and I told her about my blog. She said she's started a running blog which is here. We will keep in touch.

The hostel serves a free basic hot breakfast every morning. I sat at a table with a young guy from Michigan, a Spanish traveller and a man from Germany. I got talking to the German man - his eyes indicated he might be blind, and he later confirmed he was. When I told him I'm going to the art gallery, he joked, "not a place for a blind man". He's been in America for six months, working as a volunteer on a reservation (a community of native Americans) in South Dakota. He told me that the adults on the reservation live in poverty - receiving $300 a month, and are homeless, unemployed and uneducated. Alcoholism is rife. I asked him if he thinks volunteering there helps the community get out of the cycle. He doesn't think so, saying that it's a historical culture that is hard to shift. He said he doesn't fix problems, instead exchanges skills with the community - doing something for the community and the people within do something for him. He wants to live in Russia in a trailer park, so he's free to travel and not tied down with a mortgage. What an interesting man!

I met an older lady on the bus to downtown Chicago who was all dressed up on her way to lunch. She was refreshingly progressive. She talked to anybody - she told me she was on her way to lunch, and have me some tips about the art gallery. She pointed out a beautiful church and said that even though she's Jewish, she visits that church at Christmas and celebrates too. "We all pray to a god you know. It doesn't matter that we're different."

The woman next to her asked me how I burnt my face. I said I didn't, and she continued asking more questions. I said I was born like this and there's no need to ask so many questions to a stranger. The older woman told her off, saying "its not nice to ask strangers about their appearance". She then said to me "the lady next to me told me I had lipstick on my teeth and now is commenting on your beautiful face. Of course, she's perfect." It was a great comeback and I thanked her for speaking up.

People speak their mind here. A woman on the bus in Chicago behind me yelled out to a stranger standing up: "your shoes look like shit. Is that a tiger?", and followed her off the bus to criticize her outfit further. The driver through his arms up and let out a hearty laugh, and is passengers laughed and were horrified all at once. It was a priceless moment.

Do you people watch? Do you talk to strangers? Isn't it fun?

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  1. Talking to strangers is one of my favorite things about traveling. It is so interesting just to interact with people who live in a different area. About a year ago, I was in San Francisco and met a guy who was renting our family kayaks. He lived up the mountain and drove and old beat up truck. My mom was talking to him and brought up the weather, he was not aware of any future weather and responded with "I live my life one day at a time.". I thought it was so interesting how he lived a simple life with no stress and where as most people are always using the weather as small talk, he was just living in the moment.

  2. Hi Carly! Hope your travels around the US are going well. Thanks for the shout out on your blog. I'm enjoying reading about you.

  3. Loved reading this! I am intrigued by people, love to people watch and sometimes I love to think I know what they're about although I may be really off the mark. Gets the mind ticking :-)

  4. It is the only way I travel - of course, they have to come to me...

    Finally over here to check out your trip - working backwards.


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