Something I noticed in my writing workshop in Big Sur a couple of weeks ago: though Pico Iyer must be one of the most widely traveled, interesting, and highly sought after travel writers, he was reluctant to talk about himself. He had a funny way of turning the conversation away from himself and his experiences and on to whomever he was speaking with. He had a way of making you feel like the most interesting person in the world. It happened to me and I saw him do it over and over again with others.
“Pico, weren’t you just traveling in Ethiopia?”
“Yes, and do you know, while I was there, I met a woman from Redondo Beach. Aren’t you from Redondo Beach? Really?! How fascinating. What’s Redondo Beach like? Tell me more about that.”
It led me to consider that I, like most people, talk far too much about myself and my experiences. Instead of truly listening, I am waiting to tell my part of the story which relates to whatever it is you are saying. This was a tich embarrassing to realize. I wondered how much I had missed out on over the years.
The second thing I remembered was that Janet Fitch recommended going around your home town as if you were a tourist. She promised it had led to some delightful experiences for her. Instead of rushing from work, to the store, to home for dinner and TV, take a bus. Walk somewhere and stop a while to really look, listen and observe that street corner you always fly past in your car. Go somewhere or do something “tourists” would do in your town.
This past week I had the opportunity to try both these things out.
My car had to spend a day in the shop for routine maintenance. The shop had decided not to hire another driver when the last one quit. They decided to call Uber instead. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a cab or a Uber in my town. My driver appeared to be South East Asian and had a heavy accent. I’m an introvert and would typically stare out the window or perhaps respond to a few emails on my phone when faced with a car ride with a stranger. But the driver politely enquired about my day and I decided not to talk about me, but to ask her about her. Had we been in LA or San Francisco, having a South East Asian driver would not be noteworthy. But Santa Cruz is a small, not very diverse, rather expensive and somewhat out-of-the-way place and I was curious how she came to be here. What a story!
The lady was Thai. She grew up poor, and in the country side. Her father built their home out of bamboo and palm leaves and went around to construction projects to collect scraps of wood to cover the dirt floor. At 13, her family could no longer afford to feed her, so they rented her out to a couple who sold vegetables on the side of the road. She worked from 5am till long after dark and made $10 a week which her mother came to collect regularly. I asked her when she went to school if she was working so much and she burst out laughing. “School? How I go to school?” Oh.
I missed the middle chapter of her life, but at some point she met an American man and they married. They lived for two years in Thailand until one day, back in the U.S. his father passed away. He inherited the house in the Santa Cruz mountains (Ah ha!) and they moved here to live. She didn’t speak English, nor could she read or write. She insisted on working and secured a job stocking shelves in a small, local grocery store and signed up for adult education classes where she learned language, reading, and writing. After another five years, she and her husband divorced. The divorce was amicable and they share custody of their little girl. Santa Cruz is a very difficult place to make it on a single income, especially without marketable skills but this lady was making it happen, in part, by supplementing her income as a Uber driver. We came to a stop light where a young man stood in the median with a sign asking for money. She pursed her lips and shook her head in disapproval. “Why he like that? What his mother think?” She leaned over conspiratorially and said “I bet he even know how read write.” I had to laugh and agree with her. She had a point.
A few days later I saw an ad to go out sailing on the O’Neil catamaran. One of my favorite wineries, Bonny Doon would be onboard pouring. On a lark I decided to go and NOT invite any of my friends. What would it be like to go do this touristy thing and go by myself? Maybe I would meet some nice people, but if not, how bad could a sunset sail and a glass of wine be? The day of, I struggled with not going. It’s uncomfortable to go by yourself. What if I stood there like a bump while everyone else mingled and laughed? It was definitely pushing my introverted boundaries.
Once onboard, I started to talk with a woman about my age. She quickly got into a story she was very animated about. She talked with great enthusiasm and her hands flew around gesturing while her wine glass sloshed precariously. All of a sudden, something flew out of her mouth. I followed its arc with my eyes and watched it bounce and roll with a “tink, tink, tink” across the deck of the boat. It came to rest at someone’s toe. I stared and tried to figure out what this tiny white object was. I looked back up at her. I gasped. She had the big, guileless smile of Sponge Bob Squarepants with a big, black gap. She was missing a tooth! I’m afraid in my shock, I didn’t handle it as delicately as I could have. In fact, I might have pointed and shouted, “Your tooth just flew out of your mouth!” She looked at me, momentarily befuddled, then clapped her hand over her mouth and dashed after the errant incisor. I spent the rest of the sail, chatting with her and her friend and occasionally roaring with laughter over the tooth.
The rest of the week, whenever I was having a stressful moment at work, all I had to do was think of the Thai lady and I felt grateful. Or I would think of Sponge Bob Squarepants and laugh till I cried. Good times.