One of my favourite things about being human is that you can share a tiny connection with someone and have it resonate with you longer than a split second ever should; feeling as though you met for a reason, for example, or having a sense that even a complete stranger just seems to get you. These connections are a fundamental aspect of being human, a way to feel as though we belong in places we shouldn’t or don’t. Traveling is an endless opportunity to create and build those connections – to share something with someone who doesn’t even speak the same language, to turn simple moments into images that will play in your head for a lifetime.
I have a striking memory like this a from few years back in China that has stuck in my mind more and more, it seems, as time has passed. I was waiting to catch a train from the small canal town of Suzhou back to Shanghai. The day had been long and the traveler cranky; I had been making my way around China for nearly a month. My patience was starting to wear, my taste buds growing tired of soup dumplings every day and being a blonde white girl in a sea of dark-haired Asians, I was tired of being gawked at, stopped for photos and trying to keep a smile on my worn-out face. Although the gardens that were the objective of the day’s excursion were incredible, I felt ready to just hide in my small room for a while, blanket over my face and a familiar salad or even (God forbid) a Big Mac in my hand with a cup of Tim Hortons.
I felt the bustling train station threaten to overwhelm me completely with its packed walls of people coming and going, dirty bags and travelers. Sitting hot, sticky and tired at my platform, I looked up to see a grandma across from me. She was a village woman, you could tell from the piles of bags behind her and her worn clothes. Between her leathered hands and upon her lap sat her grandson, his hair tussled and the split between his pants (a tactic allowing poorer families to be free from buying diapers) visible from where he bounced. I caught his eye and couldn’t help but break into a smile as his grandmother watched. Suddenly, she stood and shuffled over to sit at the empty chair by my side. Bending my head towards her, I listened to her Mandarin, heavily accented compared to the city dialect I’d been hearing in Shanghai, and we both gestured widely as we tried to make our points. I still have no idea what she said but it didn’t matter. Our efforts soon had us both smiling and laughing comfortably.
Eventually, she gave up and wandered back to her bags and her family where she continued to sit and watch me wait for the ever-delayed train to the city. I looked up from my book and she was again standing beside me, this time with an orange in her outstretched hand. It was slightly battered from its journey in the hefty bags that her family carried upon their backs and was one of the larger of the pile they were digging into across the way. I looked at her with astonishment – I couldn’t help but wonder if this was some of their only food for the journey to wherever they were headed. Stretching farther, she insisted and the orange rolled carefully into my palms. I felt the weariness of my day melt as we again broke into bright smiles while I butchered the Mandarin words for “thank you” and peeled the orange. Here, in a place of millions of people, a grandmother who I couldn’t even converse with wanted to share something with a girl who didn’t belong amongst the people of the bustling station and hectic country. For all I knew, the bundles and packages she carried made up all of her possessions. And yet, from her outstretched palm, I accepted the modest offering of an orange.
It was a moment that defined something about being human and travelling and connection. The more I visited the memory in my mind, the more humbled I became by this gift. I slowly began to realize that my draw to travel isn’t just about finding new places and seeing beautiful things. Instead, it comes from a desire for exactly this: connection. Where something so simple and humble as an orange creates a moment so powerful and so human that you know you will never forget it. You travel for the feeling of being found when you are convinced you are lost and that is what those connections provide.