Talking to strangers has never come naturally to me. I have spent the majority of my life dodging small talk and mastering the art of avoiding eye contact. For some reason this fear is heightened on airplanes. I typically shy from all conversation until I have my carry-on in hand and my destination in sight, then smile politely and say, “Have a nice day.”
When we boarded our 14-hour flight from San Francisco to Taiwan, Alexandria and I walked to the final row of the left side of the plane and took our assigned seats. We were processing excitement, swallowing nerves, and laughing over the ridiculous opportunity that came with the last week when a 70-year-old man claimed his place next to me in the aisle way. Both his voice and his features muttered Hallo as he sat down. He wore a light green cap and a wool sweater that was fraying at the hem of his left wrist. His eyes looked tired but full. We exchanged greetings, and returned to our conversation, but I could not help but feel intrigued by this stranger.
We had very little interaction with him for the first 12 hours, only mumbling, “Excuse me,“ whenever we needed to get up, and swapping friendly glances when food was offered. With two hours left in the first leg of our journey, he leaned over, tapped twice on my right forearm, and whispered the sacred words, “Do you mind if I tell you a story?”
He began by saying that he has been a world traveler since the age of 17, and left his home in Berlin to explore different lands through his hobby of archeology. He had noticed that I was watching a documentary on Stonehenge and wanted to share a secret with us. He told us that there are mysteries in each culture and in every part of the world, and the fact that they cannot be solved is what makes life beautiful. He spent half of his life studying the remains of secrets; not to solve them, but to collect more evidence of the beauty of the unknown. After chatting for some time, he paused a moment, gathered his thoughts, and stated simply, “There is far more to life than what is understood.”
He continued on, speaking of human growth, development, and the openness that we are capable of. He wanted us to remember that every piece of history is just an account of the human heart and that our lives are a journey to find our own. He handed us pieces of his life and told us of his acts of bravery through the filter of sincere humility. I wanted to write down every word that he spoke.
We parted ways during our layover, but continued smaller conversations during the second leg of our journey, though we were separated by seven rows of seats. Upon our arrival in Bali, we bid our farewells and extended well wishes to our newfound kinship.
As I begin my first apprenticeship 8,389 miles away from home, I am choosing to carry the words of my new friend in my pocket. The next three months are an area of unknown, but offer something that yields a thrill and a beauty that I cannot quite put into words.
As I venture outside of Canggu into a remote village in Karangasem, I leave you with the wisdom of a young-hearted German man.
“Each of us is born into uncertainty but are called to be brave. The good times are ahead. They have to start somewhere—so why not be one of the few that go for it? We should stop thinking so much.”