September 11, Lake Baikal, Russia
I awoke with the sun around 4:30 this morning and figured that today, a natural day for reflection, would be as good a day as any to look back on this trip from its origin. On July 23, I left London in an American school bus bound for Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. 10,000 miles, 25 countries, 922 hours, and 5 blown tires later, we arrived on August 30. After bidding my team farewell, I headed south to Beijing and am now slowly making my way back to Western Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
After shaking off the covers and exposing myself once again to the chilled Siberian air, I did my stretches, fixed myself a pot of tea and a bowl of noodles (bonus point to me for buying a hard boiled egg at the station in Novosibirsk to liven up my breakfast), made up my bed, and now I sit at my desk-cum-kitchen table, the early morning sunlight casting a deep shadow across my cabin as my pen moves across the page.
Many people talk about how small the world is. It’s not. It’s enormous. Six and a half billion people inhabiting an intergalactic rock whose magnitude is beyond comprehension for any of us. We are separated by oceans that are larger than the lands we inhabit and not one of us will ever be able to truly engage with more than a minuscule fraction of the cities, towns, and villages that dot our planet.
It this leaves you with an empty feeling in your stomach or a knot in your throat or any other malady elsewhere in your body please do not despair. There is good news coming. That Earth exhibits significant mass is hardly groundbreaking and was by no means the upshot of my terrestrial journey across Eurasia and back.
No, the major takeaway from this trip so far – and I’m happy to report that it validates the optimistic hypothesis I began with – is that while we may never meet or see the vast majority of people and sights this planet has to offer, we can take comfort knowing that humankind is similar in far more ways than we are different. Furthermore, our differences (religion, ethnicity, taste for cuisine, the arts, etc.) are largely superficial while our similarities (what makes us laugh and cry, fundamental values, interpersonal relationships) are the building blocks of what humanity. I do not mean to say that religion is a superficial concept, only that our customs for practicing religion, from the names we assign to God(s), our houses of worship, and our holiday rituals are only skin deep. The root of WHY we worship – spiritual guidance, belief in greater power, the afterlife – these fundamental tenants remain unchanged from St. Pauls’ to Hagia Sofia to the last remaining synagogue in Bukhara. Similarly, while our dress and culinary delicacies, and appreciate for the arts differ based on where we happen to have been born, there is a universal respect for Quality that underpins and unites what appear on surface level to be different tastes.
There were certain events that made me come to this conclusion. More often than not, these events were not grandiose gestures of human kinship but small subconscious actions that wove a quilt of human camaraderie across my travels.
On the Uzbek/Kazakh border I witnessed a border guard try for 20 minutes to fit a wholesale box of diapers into the trunk of his car. While checking my passport ten minutes prior, he had seemed like a menacing bastion of authority, his uniform blocking any sort of compassion or reliability I may have otherwise had for him. But there he was, hunched over in the same starched uniform, no longer an obstacle I needed to pass through but just a father recreating a scene I’ve seen time and time again at Stop & Shop in Westport, Connecticut. There was a docile frustration on his face as he tried every possible maneuver to fit this massive box of diapers in his trunk that cut through the superficial differences between us. I no longer labeled him as ‘Kazakh Border Guard No. 3″ but rather as a father and a husband who was having a difficult time helping his wife out with the groceries.
And then there was the Mongolian tattoo artist I paid a visit to. In 6 inch patent leather combat boots, fishnets, a corset, and not speaking a word of English, I mistakenly viewed her as someone with whom I had nothing in common. I had to laugh five minutes later when she was sitting at a computer updating her Facebook statues and looking at a pair of pants on Zara’s website. She could have been my sister.
The examples go on and on. The guard on the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border playing minesweeper on his computer but quickly hiding the window when his boss entered the room, the prostitute in Turkmenistan who drops a dumpling on the ground and quickly dusts it off and blows on it before popping it into her mouth, the nervous smile of an Uzbek boy as he waits to see if we enjoy the watermelon he bought us (we did), the primal serenity on the face of the Istanbuli car mechanic who lights his first cigarette after sundown during Ramadan, the four 60 year old Japanese men on the train who tease and poke fun at each other in the same way my own father and his friends do, and the DJs in London, Sarajevo, Istanbul, Baku, Almaty and Beijing who all play the exact same songs while girls dance in the same black dresses and high heels and guys stand aside with the same “I want to appear as if I don’t give a damn but I’m actually having a really fun time” looks on their faces.
To me, these subconscious moments provide more insight into people’s true persona than any list of attributes ever could. Title, ranks, and words that claim to make up our “identity” just isolate us from one another, sweeping over the intangible similarities in all humankind with useless jargon that gives us an excuse to hate and fight one another. Time and time again my mind raced back to the famous 1914 Christmas Truce during World War One, in which German and English soldiers came out from the trenches to exchange gifts and play a game of soccer.
While we are told that “they don’t understand us” and we are told that “they hate us” let me assure you that “they” are more similar to “us” than you could ever imagine and, by and large, “they” hate you no more than you hate them. Whether it be the North Korean waitresses at Pyongyang restaurant in Ulaan Baatar or the group of Iranian men we spent hours with at the Turkey/Georgia border or the plethora of stories I could lay on your from my prior travels to Cuba and Syria/Lebanon/Palestine, at the root of every interaction is not a nationalistic hatred but a genuine desire to find common ground. When you wipe away politics and color and creed, you are left with an undercurrent of two human beings seeking to relate, like two streams flowing from a common source.
Of course there are some bad people out there, but are just as present “here” as they are “there.” What a shame it would be if these few rotten tomatoes spoiled an infinite harvest of love and compassion and friendship for the rest of us. The world may indeed be quite large, but it will never seem lonely when you can overcome this hurdle that we are all different and not to be trusted.
Not having faith/trust in humankind is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you ask a question of a stranger while clutching your purse and constantly looking over your shoulder, you are bound to be greeted just as coldly. But if you can lower your guard, rid yourself of whatever preconceived notions may exist and greet this person as if they were your brother or sister, I think you’ll find a complementary greeting returned. Sure there is some nominal risk to this method of interaction, but I will stick to it time and time again.
Personally, I am sick of being told that we are so different from other groups of people, and I am tired of hearing that these differences cannot be overcome. I am positively done hearing that events which occurred exactly ten years ago have changed the world in such a way that it’s no longer safe to go out there.
So I leave you with a test. Go somewhere you’ve never been that scares you. Could be across the world or across town. Get yourself lost, pick the first stranger you see, look beyond the superficial differences setting you apart, and ask him or her for directions home. I think you’ll be surprised what you see.