I’ve had several random encounters over the last two days which have inspired this piece.
Actually, scratch that.
I don’t really think that anything is TRULY random.
In fact, these stories were clearly presented to me for a reason.
Maybe that reason is to get me writing again.
(it’s been awhile)
Or maybe that reason is to simply evoke a deeper sense of introspection with various resurfacing themes in my life.
I want to start off by saying that I’m not exactly proud to be American.
Although, I don’t think this statement will come as a surprise to those who know me.
It might sound harsh, but hey, that’s me- brutally honest to the core.
The sour taste in my mouth about my country showed up about eight years ago, when I left for my first solo trip abroad (to Ghana).
It started as just a minor embarrassment for small things.
Like the shockingly low statistic of Americans who hold passports.
Or, my own ignorance to worldly views and matters, which seemed to be common knowledge amongst the other travelers who I met on the road.
My disconnect grew each time I came back to the States from these experiences.
I found (find) it harder and harder to connect with people- even some of my best friends- as our lives continue to fork in two very different directions.
The final chord was cut when our “justice” system failed me five years ago.
“What’s the point of being here if my voice doesn’t matter? What’s so great about being a resident of ‘the greatest nation’ if I’m silenced and unprotected?”
These are thoughts that ran relentlessly through my mind in the wake of our court system’s failure.
So I left.
And, to be honest, I haven’t really looked back since.
It’s funny, because this occurrence could have inspired a completely opposite reaction, right?
It could have pushed me to be an advocate for the other voiceless survivors living in my very own country.
It could have motivated me to stay put, and seek justice through others’ victories.
But, clearly this wasn’t the case.
I could not have put myself any farther from my born roots that to plant myself on the other side of the world.
Sure, my own experiences of abuse were some of the initial catalysts which revealed a deep sense of knowingness about my path.
A knowingness that told me I’m on this planet to help alleviate other’s suffering.
However, rather than walking my dharma on home soil- I started comparing suffering, instead.
What I mean is, I had this mentality that because there were parts of the world where people lived in unfathomable poverty (unfathomable to a privileged, white Californian girl like myself, that is). Their hardships were greater ours (as US citizens) could ever be.
I know, I know- that doesn’t make much sense at all.
But this was something that I would just have to figure out on my own through my own experiences.
It’s so easy to notices all the differences when you travel.
The contrast in food, culture, looks, architecture- you name it- there’s a whole spectrum of colors and textures across this little blue and green marble we call Earth.
But what about the similarities?
What about all the ways in which we, as humans, are so intrinsically the same?
We all crave love.
We all seek connection.
We all experience loss and triumphs, alike.
We are daughters.
We are brothers,
We are mothers and fathers.
We are a best friend, a soul mate, and an enemy.
We are entrepreneurs, CEOS, and laborers.
We’re all just trying to “make it” in our lives- in whatever way that may be.
We have the same light of excitement in our eyes when we fall in love.
We have the same pit in our stomach when we experience heartbreak.
My travels have taught me how incredibly complex human nature is.
But more importantly, my travels have taught me how simple we really are once we strip past the layers, and actually look at the centers of our beings, instead.
Pain is pain.
Joy is joy.
Nothing more, nothing less.
So, what’s the point of these ramblings? You may be asking yourself right about now.
And, hey, I don’t blame you.
This has been quite a longwinded introduction, after all.
What I’d like to do now is to share a not-so-random collection of stories I’ve heard over the last two days- which not only illuminate the beautiful simplicity of human kind, but also remind us to open the eyes and ears of our hearts in order to receive the wisdom of everyday prophets.
I got to the Pakistan Consulate as soon as it opened.
I was unnecessarily nervous at the thought of my visa being rejected, as I had flown all the way to LA just for this application.
It’s a lengthy and tiresome process to go through in order to assure your credibility, and true desire to go to the country, and this was my last chance before flying out of the States later that night.
As I anxiously wiped my sweaty palms together, the older woman in front of me (the only other person in the waiting room when we arrived) turned around.
“Are you applying for a visa?”
“Yeah. Are you?”
“Yes, I hope I get it,” she replied with a smile that nearly split her wrinkled face in two.
I’m not kidding, her grin was so wide, it was impossible to not to return the favor.
It was also impossible not to let her excitement dissipate my nerves (at least a bit).
“Have you been before?” I asked.
“Not yet. But I can’t wait. This country is so beautiful. I need to see it with my own eyes,” she replied, still smiling, of course.
“Are you going to Lahore? I am. I’m going to see the city for a few days, and then some small treks,” she went on.
“Me too,” I told her.
“I only have one week, but I think it will just have to be enough for my first time.”
“You’re going all the way to Pakistan for a week?!”
I’m always shocked (and somewhat impressed) when people go so far for such short periods of time.
And, I’ll be honest- I was even more blown away due to her age.
“Oh no, of course not! I’m going to Paris first, and Nepal after. I’ll be gone for a total of a month,” she laughed in response to the surprised expression on my face, I’m sure..
“Oh wow, so you must travel a lot?” I asked somewhat embarrassingly.
“I’ve been to over 70 countries, and I’m not stopping until I’m gone,” she answered with a twinkle in her eye.
“Where are you from?” I asked, noticing her slight accent.
“The Philippines,” she replied. “I moved here after the war a very long time ago. But the Philippines will always be my home.”
“I spent quite a bit of time there over the last two years!” I proclaimed, almost proudly.
“Really?! I don’t ever meet people here who have been to my country. That’s so wonderful to hear. I hope this means that things might be changing with young people like you then,” she said with a nod.
“I hope so too,” I said in agreement.
“When I came here after the war, I started a family and I worked hard. So hard. I was a mother and a wife. Now my children are grown, and my husband is….gone,” she trailed off.
“Do your children enjoy going back to visit the Philippines with you?” I asked to redirect her sadness.
“My children don’t understand their roots. They are American through and through. And me, I am a Filipina, but I am also an American. Me, I am the whole world, I think. There is so much to see. We always think we have time, but don’t really. All we have is now, right?”
“Most of my friends, and even my family- they all think I’m crazy for traveling how I do. But, I say, if we want to see the world- then we have to go. That’s how it starts. Just go. It doesn’t matter if it’s far, or difficult or scary. Just go.”
I was on cloud 9 once I got my visa. After a grueling 3 hours of intensive interviews, paperwork, and more questioning- I had it.
I am going to Pakistan.
My heart thumped, and I somehow felt a little lighter.
We went for a walk on the Venice Boardwalk after lunch- stopping to look at shops, laughing at the endless characters, and enjoying the cool breeze coming off of the Pacific.
I went into a sunglasses shop towards the end (my kryptonite).
I finally decided on a pair, and headed to the register to check out with the salesperson who had helped me.
He resized the wire to make sure it wasn’t too big on my face. I explained how I like it a bit tighter because I spend most my time in the tropics, which means I’m always a little sweaty, so the glasses slide down my nose.
He asked where I lived, and I laughed awkwardly the way I always do to fill the pause between my answer and such a (seemingly) simple question.
“I don’t really live anywhere at the moment. I travel,” I explained vaguely.
“Oh really? So you’re just visiting?” He asked with interest. Clearly my answer wasn’t what he expected.
“Yeah, just visiting. I actually came to LA just to apply for my Pakistan visa. I fly out tonight,” I went on with a more detail than I actually meant to reveal. I think it was my excitement seeping through. Apparently I wanted to shout it from the rooftops.
“Pakistan?” He asked as if he hadn’t heard me correctly.
“Yep,” I said with a smile.
“Isn’t that a, ummm, pretty- well, isn’t that a, ummm, basically Muslim country?” He lowered his voice, and his eyebrows damn near raised into his hairline.
“It’s not ‘basically’ Muslim,” I laughed. “It just IS Muslim, just about through and through.” I’m not gonna lie, I was enjoying his discomfort at this point.
“Right, well, exactly. Yes, I mean, I know it’s Muslim. I just wanted to make sure a young woman such as yourself knew that also.” He said, while clearing his throat.
“Yep, I know. I’m super excited to go,” I said, staring him straight in the eyes.
He looked down, and I picked up on something.
“Where are you from?” I asked, somewhat gently. Because I mean, c’mon, you can’t just go assuming someone with brown skin isn’t American.
“I’m American!” He said somewhat indignantly.
“Ah, ok….” I began.
“But I was born in Iran. I came here in 1971,” he went on softly.
“Really?! I’d love to go to Iran! I’ve heard incredible things. Hopefully next year,” I said trying to catch his gaze again.
“Is that right? You know you would have to cover your hair there? This doesn’t bother you?” He looked up.
“Not at all,” I replied simply.
“Well!” His face transformed, as that imaginary barrier between us dissolved.
“When you come to my country, you’ll see real beauty. And I mean true, stop your heart beauty. People think all we have is the desert, but no! We have mountains and forests. And the coast, The coast! Every shoreline is different there, you know?”
“Is that right?” I responded with a tone that gently encouraged him to continue.
“Ah yes! You must see! But, you also must be careful when you swim because we have more things living in our waters than you’ve seen anywhere else in the world. I can promise you that,” he went on proudly.
“Really? Like what?” I entertained.
“Millions, I mean MILLIONS of jellyfish. And sharks so big, and so fast you don’t even know they’re coming until it’s too late. When I was a boy, I was on a fishing boat with my father. I stuck my feet overboard because I was hot, and he yelled at me to put them back in the boat. He told me stories of how sharks stole little boys from boats that way, and I never did it again,” he laughed with a childlike expression on his face, and a far off look in his eyes.
“Well, I won’t be swimming then. Duly noted,” I replied laughing with him.
As he finished packing up my glasses, he held my gaze once more.
“I hope you go to Iran. My country won’t disappoint you, I’m sure of it.”
“I’m sure it won’t either,” I said, taking my new package from his outstretched hand.
“I think you’re brave. I don’t know if people tell you that all the time, or not. Sorry if they do, and I’m saying it again. But I just wanted you to know, because I’ve never met an American- an American WOMAN, no less- who wanted to see my country,” he said, shaking my hand as our exchange came to an end.
“Thank you,” I replied simply.
“Plus, if you go all the way to Pakistan, this means you HAVE to also see Iran. You decide which one is better for yourself. Although I think you’ll agree with me that nothing compares to my country. Especially Pakistan,” he said with a friendly wink and exaggerated eye roll that made me laughingly roll my own eyes right back.
I forgot to fill the gas tank of my rental car before I turned it back into the dealership.
I rushed to the closest station (where fuel was a whopping $5 per gallon!) before I planned to return the car, and then head to the airport to catch my international flight.
My card was unexplainably declined three times at the pump, so I stomped my way into the store in a huff.
“I’m just trying to fill up my tank,” I said impatiently handing the cashier my card as if it were his fault.
“Ok, madam. No problem. How much would you like?” He asked calmly.
“Full please. Number one,” I replied hurriedly.
“Certainly,” He said with a nod and slight bow as he accepted my card.
I went outside and filled up the tank, tapping my foot while I pumped as if that could actually speed up the process.
As I started to go back inside to get my card, another woman cut in right before me. Once I got inside, I saw another guy at the counter- making me third in what like a nonmoving line.
“I just need to get my card,” I wanted to say as an excuse to cut to the front. But I bit my tongue, and stuck to my foot tapping method instead.
The cashier was carrying on friendly conversation with both customers in front of me, and I took deeper and deeper breaths.
Finally, I got to the front and reminded him about my card.
“Certainly,” he said with his obligatory nod and bow.
I couldn’t help but crack a smile.
“Are you going back to your country?” He asked while waiting for my transaction to process.
“Excuse me?” I asked, confused.
“Your country. Are you going back there now? Is that why you’re in a hurry?”
“Oh no, I’m from here,” I mumbled. I swear his eyes glinted mischievously at the sight of my cheeks growing warm with embarrassment.
“Is that right? I thought you must be from some European country. I saw your big bag, and I know Europeans like to travel. Not Americans,” he said with a chuckle.
“Ah, I see,” I couldn’t help but laugh at his reasoning, as well.
“You must not be from Los Angeles though?” He asked, nodding at my attire (I may or may not have looked like a bag lady).
“Nope, I’m just visiting,” I replied, still laughing at his transparency.
“Great. And what do you think of this place?” He asked, sweeping his arms wide as if he were the proud mayor of Los Angelas in the flesh.
“It’s a little crazy for me,” I said honestly.
“Me too,” he laughed.
“So where are you running away to then?” He went on.
“India,” I answered with a smile.
“Where are you from? Are you from there?” I trailed off somewhat awkwardly. After all, he looked and sounded Indian- but with my luck, I’d be wrong.
“No no! Me? I’m not Indian! I’m Sri Lankan!” He said with pride.
“Oh right, of course,” my cheeks burning again.
“India is a very nice country through. Very, very nice,” he continued with that same twinkle in his eye confirming that he was not offended by my assumption
“It is,” I agreed.
“Have you ever been?” I asked, even though the my payment had long since cleared, and I was holding my card in my hand again.
“No, not yet. It was so close to me before. So close. I could have gone then. But, it was so important for my family that I come here to work. Now I’m here, and it’s far- so far. Just like my country.”
“Yes, it is quite far, isn’t it? It’s going to take me almost three days to get there!’ I told him with exaggerated proclamation in an effort to un-knit his brows bunched together with sadness.
“I will get there some day,” he said with assurance.
“I know you will,” I agreed.
“For now, I work here every day. I work for my family. I work for myself. And I work so that I can also travel one day like you, madam,” he said somewhat shyly.
“It sounds like you’re a hard worker,” I told him with a smile.
“Of course! Why should I be here if I don’t work hard? I know my friends may think I am lucky to be here in America. But the truth is, there is no luck. I am here because I tried. I really, really tried.”
“I can tell,” I told him honestly.
“Do people tell you that you’re lucky too?” He asked.
“Yes! All the time! They think that I travel because I’m ‘lucky,’” I said using my index and middle finger to make air quotes.
“And this is not luck either. You tried, madam. Even I can see that,” he observed.
“Thank you. I have tried,” I agreed.
“I hope you feel like me, and you feel proud. Maybe it’s this,” he said tapping his temples. “This power we have in our minds which other people mistake for luck.”
“Maybe it is,” I said, softly pondering the idea.
“Well, you should go! You have a flight to catch. If you fly over Sri Lanka, please wave to my country from the plane,” he chuckled.
“If I’m not completely delirious or sleeping, then I most certainly will,” I told him jokingly.
He leaned over the counter and dropped his voice as he said, “Greet India from me. Make sure to let Her know I’ll be there when it’s my time.”
“I will,” I promised, mimicking his same conspiring whisper.
And I walked out the door.
Although I’ve been traveling for 8 years now, somehow I still struggle with telling time and catching the right flights.
Yeah, doesn’t make any sense, I know.
But sadly, it’s the truth.
This is my embarrassed way to explain why I was taking an Uber AWAY from the airport on Monday night.
Because, if you’ve been following along, you might remember I kept saying my flight left Monday night.
Turns out it didn’t leave at 12:30 am, but actually 12:30 pm on Tuesday.
Which brings us here, to my Uber FROM the airport back to a friend’s house at 11 pm.
I don’t have a US sim card, so my phone relies on Wifi to function.
The airport was PACKED, so the Wifi sucked.
It was good enough to order an Uber, but it would cut out soon after. Meaning, I couldn’t see which car was mine, the license plate, driver, etc.
I managed to find the pick up area for Ubers and Lyfts (I say managed to find, because I have an incredibly horrible sense of direction which only gets worse when I’m frazzled).
Since I didn’t know much of anything about my ride, I just went up to the window of everyone who pulled up with an Uber sticker on their windshield.
One guy pulled up who didn’t have a sticker, but a makeshift sign reading UBER in the same lower left hand corner of everyone else.
I walked up to his window, and pointed at his janky little sign asking, “Uber?”
“Yes. You need ride?” He replied in somewhat broken English
“Yes, I do. But I already ordered one. For Kayla? Do you know?” For whatever reason I started speaking in the same fragmented sort of sentences.
“Yes, I can take you.”
“No no. I already ordered. For Kayla,” I repeated, leery of hopping in the only car without the proper sticker who was offering to just ‘take me.’ Especially in sketchy ass LA.
“Sure, I can take you,” he said again, smiling.
“No. I already have a ride. My name is Kayla. Do you have this order?” I don’t know why I kept repeating the same thing, clearly he wasn’t my driver.
“Yes yes, I take you, Kayla,” he said as he opened the door and took my heavy pack from my back.
“But wait, are you my driver? Or are you just taking me?” I asked suspiciously furrowing my brow at his politeness.
“Sure, I take you.”
Yeah, this clearly wasn’t going anywhere.
I snapped a photo of his license plate, and reluctantly got into his car still unsure if I was making the right decision.
However, I was also exhausted and annoyed at my own stupidity for getting to the airport an entire day early.
I just wanted to lay down.
So I stayed in the car.
He came around to the driver seat after packing away my things, and closed my door.
As soon as he got in the car, he must have sensed my leeriness.
I’m not gonna lie, when I put my guard up- it’s nearly tangible. Even to complete strangers.
“Do you want to check your phone to make sure I drive you?” He asked carefully.
“My phone only works with Wifi, and it’s not working out here,” I replied curtly, as if this were somehow his fault.
“Ah ok. I can turn on my hotspot for you? You can check that way?” He continued generously.
“Ok, sure,” I answered, narrowing my eyes at his kind offer.
“Yes yes, no problem at all. You can use my hotspot. We’ll wait here until you check,” he said, fiddling with his phone uncomfortably.
“Thanks,” I replied in the same short tone.
“Let’s see, Kayla you’re going to…” he went on to repeat my friend’s address.
“Yes!” I exclaimed with a sudden rush of relief.
I laughed a bit, wondering why he hadn’t just said that from the beginning.
“Okay, Madam Kayla. My hotspot is on, you can check.”
“No, no I believe you. You know my address. I saw the order on your phone. It’s okay,” I answered, softening the hard edges of my previously harsher tone.
“I insist, Madam Kayla. Please,” he begged, making eye contact with me through the rearview mirror.
“I believe you,” I said, patting his shoulder. “It’s okay, let’s go.”
“Okay, Madam. Thank you,” he smiled.
We drove in silence for a few minutes.
“So, how long have you been driving for Uber?” I finally spoke to break the residual tension in the air that I’d created.
“Only one year.”
“One year, that’s nice. Do you like it so far?” I asked, trying to engage him with interest as if this feeble attempt might be a substitute for an apology or something.
“Yes, I do. I’ve only done it for one year because that’s how long I’ve been here. One year, exactly. To this day, in fact,” he said somewhat proudly.
“Oh really? So you’ve only been in the States for a year? Or in LA?”
“In the States. Today is my one year anniversary.”
“Wow, that’s awesome!” I said encouragingly. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Egypt,” he answered tentatively, shifting his gaze up to meet mine briefly again in the mirror.
“Have you ever been?” He then asked with a chuckle, as if he already knew the answer.
“Not yet, unfortunately. But, I’m planning to go next year. I can’t wait!”
“Really?” He almost did a double take with my response.
“Yes, of course. I’ve been wanting to go for awhile, I just haven’t prioritized it I guess. But next year, it’s definitely happening. I’m really excited.”
“Wow, okay. I haven’t met anyone here who wants to go to my country,” he said wistfully.
“Really? I’ve know quite a few Americans who have been, or are planning to go,” I answered with reassurance.
“Is that so, Madam?” He asked with raised brows. “I haven’t. I don’t usually tell people, unless they ask. And even then, people don’t always like the answer.”
“Well, people can be ignorant. I’m sorry.”
It wasn’t much to offer. I was at a loss for words.
“This is true, I know. But it still hurts my heart. My country has some issues, but it is still my favorite place in the world. I wish people could see this beauty through my eyes.”
“I can imagine,” I said gently. “Do you still have family there?”
“Yes, my wife and my son. They are still there, and I miss them every day.”
“Oh wow, of course you do!” I said, sympathetically.
“I get to go visit them next month since I’ve completed my first year here,” he went on happily. “And soon, I’ll have saved enough to bring them over here with me.”
“That’s great! Have they been here before?”
“Not yet. We won the visa lottery, you see. So we can all come, but we thought it would be best if I came first and saved enough for us to be comfortable. It’s difficult to be apart, but when they come it will be worth it.”
“So is this your only job? Or do you do other things to save more?” I asked, curiously.
“This is my only job, but I go to school at night. I’m getting my degree for engineer.”
“Wow, really? That’s incredible. You work very hard,” I complimented him. “What did you do for work in Egypt before you came here?”
“I was an engineer,” he said simply, as if it were common sense.
“What? Then why are you getting your degree here?” I asked, confused.
“Because no one will recognize my experience or credentials from Egypt when I’m here,” he shrugged.
“Seriously? How long have you been in the industry?” I asked, incredulously.
“I was an engineer in Egypt for 36 years before I came here.”
“Thirty six years?! And you still have to get a degree here?!” I was (perhaps ignorantly) shocked.
“Yes,” he shrugged again.
“That’s horrible,” was all I could muster. I felt irrationally angry at his injustice.
“Is it?” he asked.
“Is it horrible?” he repeated.
“Yes. I mean, I think it is.”
“Because that’s been your career your whole life, and you come here and no one even recognizes the experience you have. You have to start completely over.”
“Sometimes starting over isn’t a bad thing. Starting over means I’m learning new things every day. Challenges force us to learn more quickly than comfort,” he replied easily.
“I guess that’s true,” I said, although I was unsure.
“Starting over may be difficult now, mostly because I miss my family. But starting over also means I have this new chance that so many people want. Not just people in my country, but people all over the world. They all want this chance that I got. Me. How could I win this and not be willing to make some sacrifices? I know Allah has blessed me with this chance, so I must take it. I must have faith that He knows what’s best for me,” he said adamantly.
I sat silently, sensing it was on a roll, and not wanting to interrupt his free flowing thoughts.
“My faith gives me comfort in the discomfort. My faith gives me strength when my heart hurts without my family. My faith guides me, and holds me when I’m alone. I trust this faith,” he said, touching his heart with his right hand.
“I think that’s a really beautiful way to live,” I finally interjected softly.
“I think so too. Faith is the most beautiful part of every day. Even on the days when I drive people who are angry, and mean, and hate me because of my accent or the color of my skin. I just believe even these people are my teachers. I’m always learning, you see. Whether I’m in school or not, I’m always learning. We all are,” he reminded me.
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” I agreed as my vision got blurry with tears at the thought of strangers being so unexplainably hateful to such a kind man.
“And tonight, you are my teacher too, Madam Kayla. You have reminded me that it’s still possible to find people here who will listen, and who won’t judge me for being from where I’m from. You have made me feel proud of my country, and proud of my work. Which is something I didn’t even notice that I’ve forgotten,” he touched his heart again.
“No, thank you for your grace with my impatience. I’m sorry I was rude earlier. I was just a bit nervous to get in a car with a man…”
“I don’t blame you, Madam. That feeling you have here,” he cut me off, pointing to his stomach now as he spoke.
“That feeling is usually the right one,” he went on. “Don’t forget that. Especially you, as a woman. You women have this powerful connection to that feeling. Even more powerful than man! Can you believe it? Yes, you must always listen to your stomach first, then your heart. This will carry you far.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed.
“You stomach, your heart, your faith. This is all you need. I think I can even promise you that to be true,” he said smiling as he pulled up to my friend’s house.
“Thanks for the ride. Best of luck on your studies. Enjoy your family during your visit next month,” I said, as I got out and began collecting my things.
“Good night, Madam Kayla. May God be with you on your travels,” he replied with a smile and slight bow of the head.
I closed the door, and he drove off into the night.
I took an Uber to back to LAX in the morning.
My driver was Indian.
He was so excited when I told him that’s where I was heading for the next 7 weeks.
When I asked him if he still went back to visit his extended family there, his answer was so beautiful, it made me smile and tear up all at once.
I found so much truth in his words.
It made my heart ache for my own family- as these last three weeks of nonstop togetherness have been exactly what I needed.
The hardest part of my lifestyle is missing the ones that I love most.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing the right thing when I miss so many poignant moments.
His words made me think about this concept even more.
And maybe his words will inspire that same introspection for you.
“Of course I go back to see my family every year. I cannot live without them, otherwise I am just a machine.
You know, American are like this. Like machine.
They turn on their switch in the morning & go go go all day. In the evening they turn off their switch & they are done.
Is that a way to live?
To me, that’s no life at all.
In India, we believe in joint family. Everyone is together. We live together, celebrate together, we grow old together.
If you lose your job, another one can support you. Another one can pick you up when you fall.
In America, when you lose your job- you’re alone.
Everyone is working too hard to have time for others. Even their family!
If you fall, you stay down.
If you lose a job, you stay empty and alone.
This country can dry you up if you’re not careful.
We must remember to come back to the reason we have life.
Without them, man is a machine.
And no one wants that.”