Every day we encounter hundreds, maybe thousands of people. We walk the streets, stepping in time with faceless foreigners, sit shoulder to shoulder with strangers on public transport, wait while unnamed hands prepare food, make coffee, take money, tear tickets. We smile when we pass too closely, apologise when our bodies touch. We slip though a sea of souls and stories, caught in our own world of wonder and crises.
We’re completely oblivious that behind all of those strange eyes, nameless hands, cloaked bodies, is a whole other world of experiences, challenges, stories – a history and life as complex and beautiful and heartbreaking as ours.
It’s the unspoken problem with modern life, the malaise of our everyday existence. And it’s only when we break free of the everyday, when we stop walking the same streets, catching the same train, visiting the same cafes, that we’re forced to look up and actually see the world and its people again. To look up and feel the sun, hear the chorus of horns, songs, prayers. To look up and experience the smells and sounds that perhaps go unnoticed on familiar turf. But more importantly, we suddenly look up and into the eyes of a stranger.
When we travel we’re compelled to make friends of strangers, to ask for help, to connect. And in doing so, our world opens up. Suddenly empathy and compassion come easy. We learn quickly that everyone has a story. And it’s often those that you least expect that have the richest and most amazing stories of all.
In my travels I discovered it was the loudest, most obnoxious, free-spirited Dutch girl I met in Italy who had suffered the most devastating separation and heartbreak. It was the fastidious, spend-thrift, whinging 65-year-old woman who cried the most heart-wrenching tears when we reached Gallipoli. It was the vein, superficial young woman I met in France who had a Masters degree and was working abroad to feed her children back home in America. It was the cheeky Kmher boy that had lived through the most vicious atrocities.
‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’. It’s an adage we’re taught from birth. But it’s only in living it over and over, meeting people from every walk of life, culture, creed, race, religion, people that challenge these shallow assumptions, that these words become imprinted on your heart and mind. Don’t judge.
And in hearing a little of someone’s story you inevitably learn more than just their context, their history – you learn about their every day. You learn what drives them, what makes their heart ache, what fills them with joy. And you quickly realise how incredibly similar we really are.
You realise that everyone falls in love. Food may be scarce in some places, political tensions high, but love is universal, and heartbreak is universally soul destroying. You learn that in the end everyone wants to belong, everyone wants to feel part of something.
We are constantly barraged with tales of woe and dissidence. Of foreignness and difference, we’re separated into right and left, black and white, rich and poor, Colllingwood and Essendon (Manchester and Everton, Red Sox and Yankees). But when we travel, when we look up, when we see beyond the blank stares and nameless hands, suddenly those differences become pretty small. Suddenly faces become familiar, smiles infectious and walls fall down. Suddenly the world becomes kinder, smaller, more connected.