What’s your favorite?
What a deceptively straightforward question. We ask it about food, movies, TV shows, cars, you name it. We ask it so often, yet an answer is rarely easy to find. There is something about having to choose just one that makes us balk, makes us crack under pressure.
I have been fortunate to spend the last few years of my life living abroad and travelling and whenever I go home or see someone after a trip, the inevitable question always come up: what was the best part? What was your favorite?
I am never really sure how to answer that question because I am never really sure what it is trying to ask. The expected answer is one about a particular food I ate that I wasn’t expecting to like, a monument that took my breath away or a story that makes everyone fall on the floor laughing (I have tons of great stories, but still have never been able to have this effect.) The expected answer seems to be about something different—those that ask seem to want to be blown away, to try and feel for just a moment what I felt when I had that experience. It’s an honorable thing since the question really comes from a desire to make conversation and to learn about the experience, but I can’t help but thinking that the question somewhat misses the point.
To me, the things that stand out aren’t the moments that can be caught with a camera or recorded on a phone—they aren’t the foods (as awesome as they often are) or the different smells, sounds and activities. No, to me, the real magic is when all this breaks down—when all these shiny, glaring differences get watered down into nothing more than just experience. True beauty steps in when these things that separate us are not viewed as differences but rather as simple variations of the same thing: life. I have dubbed these simple yet poignant occurrences “human moments” since they remind me of what connects us all. They remind me that we are all people on this Earth just trying to figure out our way.
It is my goal that one day I will be able to communicate accurately my belief that difference is sameness and that change is constant. If we are all unique, no one is unique, if change is the only thing we can be sure of, change is constant. This is a somewhat abstract and counter-intuitive idea that needs further development (please feel free to help me out), but communicating, reflecting and listening are the first steps. This is not to say no one is special, but rather that difference is a mask, a cloud cast over us to block us from seeing what is really there. It may be pretty and take interesting shapes, but in the end, it is just in the way of the warm sun we all want to feel on our skin.
To start this journey, I would like to recount three of the most prominent “human moments” from my time spent traveling. These moments stand out in my life for very different reasons, but all remind me of the same thing: understanding one another is much easier than we are lead to believe if we just take a moment to listen. Let me tell you these stories.
These come in no order other than chronological and have no real connection to each other. I know this post is long so read one then come back later for the others if you don’t have time to go through it all at once. I hope you enjoy and I hope you will share my appreciation for understanding how these simple moments are happening all the time if we just take a moment to look for them.
Human Moment #1—Sahid and the Hotel Jardin
Traveling to Morocco is becoming the “new” thing. As people get more and more comfortable (or tired) in Western Europe and all its grandeur, Morocco begins to look like an attractive alternative. Just a short ferry ride across from southern Spain or a short flight from most of Europe’s capitals, this unique land has lots to offer those looking for different experiences and for a chance to lose themselves in something unlike any other place they’ve been to.
I’d like to pretend that I put this much thought into my decision before I went in February 2013, but the reality is that I had a week off from school/work, not that much money and a desire to go somewhere. Since I was living in Malaga, Spain at the time, the fact that I didn’t need to catch a flight to get to Morocco made this an attractive option.
To put my experience in Morocco into one word: intense. Never before had I been to a place where I so visibly stood out. My white skin and stuffed backpack served as a little beacon like what you might see on top of a character from The Sims. As we wandered through the old towns (I went with two close friends of mine) and their legendary markets, it was like an ambush. Everyone assumed you wanted to buy something and was ready to sell it to you if you showed even the slightest interest. It is almost as if they had a super power. Eye contact=purchase. I trained myself to keep my vision straight ahead and to just absorb the experience instead of looking around—it was too much.
Morocco is certainly one of “those” countries that people always say, “And is it safe?” after you mention you spent time there traveling. Although I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as a safe or unsafe country—most of our fears come from prejudices and from misunderstanding—I still couldn’t help this sensation of having my guard up, of playing defense. We would linger in front of a restaurant to see what was on the menu and a man would jump out saying, “Oh, yes—you are welcome. Where are you from? USA? Ohhh, Obama—yes we can!” (This is an exact interchange I had with someone)
Notice how the first thing he said was “you are welcome.” No matter though, I remember taking these interchanges as a mild attack, thinking that this friendliness was only a veil for trying to sell me something. In a way it was, but I look back and sometimes I am a bit ashamed of how defensive I was. But, like I said, the experience was intense—unlike anything I had ever lived.
So this mentality is what brings me to Sahid and the Hotel Jardin. We had just spent a few nights in the desert and had made an impromptu switch to continue on to Fes instead of returning to Marrakech. Doing this meant arriving in Fes without any sort of accommodation reserved. Adventure or idiocy?
Anyway, we arrived and immediately began wandering around looking for a place to stay. We had met some people that were supposed to give us the name of the hotel they had booked, but we couldn’t get Internet and then when we did we found out there was no space left. So, the search began. Remember what I said earlier about the flashing beacon? Well, when you don’t have a place to stay I think the beeping mechanism with GPS tracking kicks in. Within minutes we were swarmed by men whose job it was to bring people to guest houses, which would lead to them collecting a small commission if we ended up staying. We avoided them for a little, saying we didn’t need help, but eventually got lost (the medina in Fes is a maze like none other) and asked them to escort us to a few places. After one hotel that had bugs on the sheets and another that was equally as gross, we decided to ditch our “guides,” get out of the main area, regroup and figure out a plan. Wandering around aimlessly was getting us nowhere and in the dark the worry of not finding something was looming larger and larger.
We stood at the entrance to the medina and sent a few people from our group to find an Internet café to look up a place to stay. I and another friend decided to walk up to a hotel we saw just up the road as sort of a last-ditch effort. The place itself looked a little like a dump from the outside (we would later learn that this is pretty traditional in Morocco as your home is reserved for you and is not displayed for the pleasure of others), but at that point it didn’t matter.
Inside was dark and the floor was tiled with colorful mosaic that made it look like we were walking on a piece of art. The door opened up to a long corridor that ended with the reception desk. When you peered around the corner you could see the stairs leading up to the rooms as well as a separate dining hall where a few people were enjoying a glass of tea. We turned to the man at the front desk and the usual conversation began:
“Hi, we’d like a room. There are five of us.”
“Yes, yes, you are welcome. Where are you from?” (Notice how my initial question was totally ignored)
“We’re from the U.S.”
“Ahh, very nice. Yes, you are welcome. My brother lived in the USA for many years.”
His English was broken and slow, but understandable.
“Yeah? Nice. So how about that room?” I remember being slightly impatient, bordering on rude.
To be totally honest, I didn’t believe for a second that the man had a brother that had been living in the US for many years. Not that it wasn’t plausible, but rather that I’d heard so many stories used to try and relate and then eventually sell me something that I was, like I said earlier, just playing defense. What came next, though, really threw me for a loop.
“Where in the US are you from?”—this voice came from behind the reception desk but not from any of the men sitting there. As I looked up I saw a man dressed in typical Berber clothing, the hat and long shirt that almost looks like a dress, speaking to me, but honestly my eyes and ears didn’t make the connection. His English was flowing out of him like someone who had lived there his whole life. He went on to explain to us that he had “won” the U.S. Green Card lottery (yes this exists) twelve years prior and had been living in New Jersey until recently when he decided to move back to Morocco to be with his family.
This man’s name was Sahid and his appearance on the scene immediately changed how the rest of the trip played out and then how I would reflect on it once it had finished. For absolutely no reason at all other than just to be a nice guy, and perhaps because he was a little bored, Sahid decided to show us around the city and share a little of himself with us. He took us through the medina and into a few of the buildings we could go into (many of the mosques are only accessible to practicing Muslims) and explained aspects of life in Fes like the perception of the king amongst the people and his concept of family, which extended much further than just those he called brother, mother, father or daughter. Looking back, there are so many things I would have like to have asked him, but that I didn’t know I wanted to. I should have inquired about the transition from life in Morocco to life in New Jersey, how he felt as an immigrant in the US, what he thought of our cultures, values and beliefs. Lately I am seeing more and more just how different we are and how incompatible our way of life is with many others’, and I would have liked the chance to know what he thought of this.
However, Sahid’s kindness did not end there. The next day he went out of his way to pick up ingredients from the market to make a homemade tajin (the staple Moroccan family mealtime dish) for myself and my friends. He had mentioned this the day earlier, but no one expected it to happen. We were taken aback by yet another unprovoked act of generosity.
So why is this a human moment? Why does this stand out? The kindness, obviously, but looking back I realize that Sahid did something so much more powerful—he took my guard down. Up until that point I had been playing defense, guarding myself against something I didn’t know simply because I didn’t understand. Sahid showed me that this was nonsense, that these people wanted nothing more than what I wanted—to make a living, to be loved, to be respected. So perhaps their manner of doing this is different from mine? Perhaps compared to mine it seemed a bit abrasive? So what? This is what makes things interesting. We may be all the same deep down, but if we did things exactly alike we would be boring. Sahid taught me, indirectly and perhaps not in that moment but later on in life, to embrace this excitement, to bask in it because you never know when difference can turn upside down and become nothing more than a colorful veil for humbling similarity.
I won’t pretend that my short trip to Morocco brought me any closer to knowing what life is like there and I will not make comments like “I loved Morocco” or “Morocco is awesome.” Experiences, whether traveling or not, are defined by time and perspective much more than place and are molded based on how we reflect upon them. Looking back this is quite clear, and this tiny and otherwise insignificant experience with a complete stranger has helped make this a guiding principle in my life.
Human Moment #2: Postcards 4 People
Anyone familiar with me and my story likely already has an idea as to what Postcards 4 People is and how important it has been in shaping my perspective on life. In fact, I could easily say it is the single most influential action in terms of personal growth that I have taken in my 25 short years on this planet. But, to try and highlight the significance of this and how looking back on it now I can clearly identify it as one of the most human moments I experienced on the road, let me take you to the final days of the project…
After about a month selling personalized postcards and raising money for Big Brother Mouse, a Lao publishing company that tries to combat illiteracy by making it easy and fun to read in Lao, Aitana (my girlfriend, business partner and best friend) and I were able to purchase around 150 books to distribute to remote villages and to children who are removed from many of the resources available to urban residents. We did this somewhat sporadically to be totally honest. We traveled around the country and found small schools, entered them, tried as best we could to explain who we were and what we were doing (language was a challenge), and then left behind a supply of books that best fit the age of the children. These moments were unforgettable; children ran to us and stuck their hands out at first sight of the Big Brother Mouse books and congregated in circles to look at them once they had been handed out. In many ways we left with a strange sensation; we felt great for having delivered these books out of the blue, but we felt like we could have done more. How awesome would it have been to give each child his or her own book to read?
However, the moment I want to bring to you came towards the end of this process. We had rented a motorbike in Pakse, Laos for a two-day trip out towards the stunning Tad Lo waterfalls. This once again led us through many remote and forgotten villages. On the way back, we still had about 10 or 15 books that we had held on to because they were either for very young children or older students and we hadn’t come across an adequate place to donate them.
Pakse was our last stop in Laos so we wanted to take advantage and make sure these books got into someone’s hands before we left the country.
It was a cold, rainy afternoon and we were slowly making our way back towards the city. Being on a motorbike meant we were victims of the elements and found ourselves shivering intensely most of the way back. When we were about two hours outside of Pakse, we passed through a tiny village—I am talking maybe 20 wooden, floorless “shacks” congregated together on both sides of the road. There was a group of young children playing in the muddy puddle off to the side of the road and Aitana and I silently both understood this was the moment. I stopped the motorbike and we opened up the seat to pull out the books. By now the children had noticed us and were wondering what was going on. We started to walk over and as we got closer they clearly saw we were carrying Big Brother Mouse books. They stopped what they were doing and raced towards us, accepting the books the moment we met. No one knew how to communicate, but they grabbed them and were quickly opening them up to see what was inside.
Across the street, we saw another child with her mother looking on. I grabbed a book and walked over to them to give it to the little girl. At this point my heart is swelling—I can empathize with these people but cannot feel what they feel or think what they think. My contribution was so small and so trivial, but yet all signs pointed to this not being the case. However, the human moment was still to come.
I walked back to the other side of the street. At this point, a few adults had come out of their houses to see what was going on and were examining the books. We had just a few left, some longer, more-advanced books with English translations. We handed these to the adults and they graciously accepted them. What happened next, I’ll never forget.
A man, who spoke some English (let’s not forget how incredible that is), introduced himself. He then asked a question so simple and so pointed that the moment he asked it is still burned into my memory.
“Why? Why are you doing this?”
He was in complete and utter shock. The books were obviously very graciously received, but the man couldn’t understand why two people would stop in the middle of the road to give them to him and the children of his tiny village.
I honestly don’t remember the exact answer we gave, but it was something along the lines of “Why not?” We had the books and it only made sense to us to give them to those who wanted them.
So why is this a human moment? It is relatively obvious, but if I had to draw one thing out of the experience it would be: there is no action too small. It is very easy in this large, overly-complex world to fall into the trap that nothing can be done, that the things we would like to change are out of our control. In many ways this is true, there are systems in place that create and perpetuate vicious cycles, but the way out of this is to focus on the small, the tiny and the beautiful. Our act of delivering books to these children is insignificant by all means, but what if these tiny insignificant moments could be repeated over and over again? What would this world look like? Postcards 4 People has taught me this and has reminded me of one of the quintessential truths to this world: we humans are simple creatures and simple actions can make a world of difference.
Human Moment #3: International Holidays
Whenever I talk with someone from home or get to know someone new, the fact that I live in Spain, my sister in Germany and my mother in the US always comes up. My family is divided geographically as my sister and I wade through the first half of our lives, looking for our places. However, in the meantime, together, we have had the chance to do something (twice) that in the moment I didn’t see as significant, but looking back I can say without a doubt has had an incredible impact on who I am.
Over the past three years my family has spent Christmas with a German family and New Year’s with a Spanish one (oh yeah and two USA-Germany weddings!). In an effort to bring everyone closer, my saint of a mother has traveled across seas to be with her children and the families of those they have come to love. My mother and I speak no German and my sister and mother speak no Spanish. It’s true that my sister’s in-laws speak impeccable English, but I cannot imagine what it must be like for my mom to make such big moves to spend valuable time with people so unlike herself.
But, at the end of the day, isn’t this the power of love? My sister and I have found people that are uniquely special for us, that bring out who we are and allow that person to flourish. This makes my mother automatically love them. It is rather shocking how unconditional love can be. So long as this person does no harm to us, she will love them without question because of who they are to us. I could see how easy it would be to be resentful towards these people, to hold some sort of a grudge because perhaps on some level they keep us away from her, but not once has this been an issue, not once has my mother said “you shouldn’t be with this person.” Instead, she has welcomed them with all her heart and has opened herself to people so different from herself—something we tend to try not to do.
The human moment here should once again be rather obvious: love cuts through all. I’m sorry for being altruistic or idealistic, but there is no emotion more powerful than love. It is inside each and every one of us, but we sometimes forget this or allow ourselves to be distracted away from it by believing in certain images of what love is. Love is an emotion, it is communication, it is understanding and acceptance. While careers, backgrounds, cultures and so many other things might seem important, they are just barriers constructed by ourselves that love can crush if given the chance to flourish. Understanding the prominence of this human emotion has changed my life; it has caused me to focus on things that are truly important and forget about those that are not. Money, jobs and other typical stresses are nothing more than distractions, nothing more than obstacles standing in the way of what truly matters: the love we have for one another.
Have you had any Human Moments?
Surely yes, but could you share? Leave a short comment below about some moment you remember that stood out as being particularly human. I think we could all benefit from hearing that these things go on all the time and that you don’t need to do what I did (travel to all different parts of the world) to experience them.
If you’ve made it this far, I want to sincerely thank you for reading. Doing so means you believe that sharing, reflecting and listening can really make a difference in this world. The Human Revolution is trying to find its focus—it launched in the wake of some dramatic events and the sharp, pointed edge of the content has perhaps driven people away. The new theme is directed towards celebrating the human experience. The idea is to share amongst ourselves the little things, the stuff we as people do all the time that embody the world we want to live in. We tend to forget that the little things are what really matter and I would like to get a conversation going rejoicing this simplicity so that we can work together to understand how our daily actions can make radical changes in how our society functions.
Please do not be afraid to pass this along. I am working to try and build a small community so that we can collaborate and work together on building a stronger and healthier world based on compassion and connectivity instead of individualism and greed. Share on Facebook, send it in an email or just hand your tablet or computer over to the person sitting next to you. With your help, little by little, we can grow this Human Revolution, turn words into actions and make this world a better place for everyone.
Next week I will be coming back with “3 inhuman moments: turning being treated terribly into valuable learning.”
Looking forward to hearing from you and thanks for your time.