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Always Talk to Strangers

Making Friends—and Memories—on the Road
Written by Barbara Rodriguez.

Illustration by Michael Witte

I was in Tucson’s international airport circa 1984 on my way to Mexico to join a press trip being hosted by a new beach resort. I was young and delighted to be earning something close to a living writing about food and travel.

I had recently cut my hair into a spiked Mohawk and dyed it platinum, a look completely on-trend somewhere in the world, even then.

And I was about to miss my plane.

Flying in from Houston, I knew the connection was going to be tight. If I missed that flight, the next one wasn’t until late afternoon the next day. I began to run. No one should run in Tucson in July, ever. Even in the air-conditioning I was sweating, and then I discovered I was in the wrong terminal. I sprinted outside. There was not enough gel in the world to keep my hair standing on end when I felt a drop of perspiration roll into my eye, but perhaps the anxiety was doing the job.

Suddenly a woman I hadn’t seen before was pacing me, step for step before surging ahead. She glanced back. She was very blonde, too, but much more sanely dressed for travel than I was. She looked to also be bolting for a plane, but with a sort of calm assurance that she’d make it.

I immediately noted that she had a luggage trolley. I had been traveling professionally for years, but was still too foolish to have condensed packing to one manageable carry-on. What I would come to call my ninja traveling wardrobe — black, stretchy, and immensely versatile — had yet to evolve. (I would like to note here, however, that I have never given up traveling with at least one pair of red shoes.) A luggage carrier was a whim I had not yet indulged.

“Where are you going?” She tossed the question over her shoulder. “Guaymas, Mexico,” I shouted back.

“Me, too. Throw your bag on my carrier!”

And like that, a friendship was born that has lasted to this day.

That’s the thing about travel, the lasting memories aren’t always about the destination, famous sites, or the food. Sometimes what you savor after you get home — sometimes for the rest of your life — is a moment shared with a traveling companion or a relationship, however fleeting, struck up over a cup of coffee, in a ticket line, or completely unexpectedly.

How could I ever forget the young boy who appeared along a Rio Grande acequia one day to ask me what I was doing, his eyes wide at the site of my binoculars. “What are those?” he asked in Spanish. I explained that I was birdwatching. The amusement factor of such a pastime completely eluded him until I handed him the binoculars and helped him focus in on a chachalaca, then a green jay. I was fairly certain I was never going to get my binoculars back when I told him about pygmy owls. We visited for maybe twenty minutes before he moved on, but sometimes before I drift off to sleep I revisit that day. I like to think that somewhere, a now grown man remembers the wonder of that day. Maybe he’s a birder with a life list.

On another journey, I hitched a ride through South Texas in a rickety van with shocks that had seen better days. The “border taxi” bounced and battered me through a series of backroad pick-ups. Once we lurched to a stop to pick up an elderly woman, more spirit than flesh. Many seats were empty, but for some reason the abuelita climbed atop the luggage I had slung into the one next to me.

These were the days when the Sony Walkman was cutting edge technology. Perched slightly above me, the old woman stared at me with curiosity. I offered her my tape player. She put the headphones on, then grabbed her chest. "It makes my heart pound," she said, smiling. At the next stop she asked, "Cuanto lo debo?" — "How much do I owe you?" — then disappeared in a cloud of dust, the reggae beat of UB-40 reverberating in her head.

When I think about her, I wonder if she took that memory with her to heaven, as I expect to.

These are just a few of the hundreds of reasons why I always talk to strangers when I travel. And I am grateful that, all those years ago, Marita spoke to the wild-haired stranger that was me. She told me later she was a little unnerved by my look, but forever grateful that she nevertheless invited me to throw in with her that day. It was the first of many adventures we’ve shared.

I owe her a phone call. We need to plan a trip.

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