The People You Meet Along The Way

Perhaps my favorite part of traveling is the people you tend to randomly cross paths with. I’ve been fortunate to have amazing conversations in some of the most unlikely of places. A few weeks ago in London, I struck up a conversation with a man from France and we started talking about language, and that somehow moved into a conversation about family, and the conversation has actually been continuing via email for a couple of weeks now! I’ve talked U.S./ Vietnamese politics over a lunch of pineapples with Vietnamese locals, and once had a very interesting conversation about why Americans are such sexual prudes with a charming little old lady sitting next to me at a restaurant in Amsterdam.

The one person I met that tends to stay with me the most, though, was Gunter. I met Gunter at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. A friend and I were taking pictures and standing in awe of the power and majesty before us, when he walked up. We were the only three people around, and at first I was a bit nervous by his forwardness. Gunter was probably in his late 70s or early 80s. He was bald, and moved slowly. He was wearing a light blue long sleeved button up shirt and long pants, despite the 85˚ heat.

“You are American?” he said, sternly, with a furrowed, heavy brow. He was standing a bit too close, and his eyes were quickly moving around me, taking everything about me in.

Normally, my “go to answer” in situations like this is to say, “No, Scottish,” in my heaviest faux-brogue. I’ve learned over time, that most vendors don’t know a faux from real accent, and they will come off their prices more when they think you aren’t carrying wads of greenbacks in your pocket. This time, I was honest.

“Yes,” I said.

An enormous smile spread across his face, and he began to talk quickly in thickly accented English. He began to tell us about himself. Gunter was German, and in 1952, he was a sailor working on a boat for the German Navy. His boat arrived in Jacksonville, Florida that year, and it was unlike anything he had ever imagined. He spent days walking on the white sand beaches and looking at the palm trees. He listened to American radio and watched TV. He loved it so much in fact, that he got permission, to take an extended leave. He rented a car and began to drive throughout the United States.

He drove to New York City and saw the Statue of Liberty, and then on to Chicago, and through the Great Plains. He stopped in Las Vegas, and then journeyed through the desert Southwest. He was stunned  by starkness of the Petrified Forest in Arizona, before moving on to Los Angeles. In the end, his goal was to see what spread out just outside of San Francisco: The trees of the Sequoia National Forest.

Gunter began to talk about his time the Sequoias, their enormity, their beauty, and their constant presence. His eyes began to fill with tears. He believed the trees were like America and the American people. They were taller and mightier than others, but they were at risk of being torn down because they constantly were threatened by bad decisions. He then turned to politics, and how too many people in America are quick to rush to war. We often forget the death, the carnage, and the mental anguish, and focus on the victory. Americans, he said are a great people – a people who should set the example and the tone for the rest of the world in all things we endeavor to do. In our own politics we should work together and come to solutions. There are no winners or losers in government, but rather solutions based on discussion and compromise. Gunter then pointed at me, and said that I should fix America. He said that when he was a boy, he watched as the German people looked for someone to fix things for them and it was disastrous. He ended by telling us that he learned “the heart” of America from traveling and meeting its people, and that we should hold on to that, and not let politics and calls for war ever become the loudest voice in the room.

With that, we parted ways, and my friend and I ventured into the park more deeply to see the Falls close up. Gunter’s words stayed with me that day, and have continued to do so. I’ve thought a lot about the state of America and American politics. I don’t think we are a nation that has lost its way, but I do believe we are still trying to figure things out. We are a baby country, coming in at less than 250 years old. In a lot of ways, we have no idea what’s going to work and what isn’t. We focus on the now, with little thought to the future. We don’t worry about the enormous high school dropout rates in America, because those are “poor people,” but those same people with no education are America’s future workforce. We encourage companies to move abroad to make more profit, and tell ourselves that our workforce will become more educated.   We argue over the ideology, and refuse to deal with the practical. We focus on religion and the afterlife, while letting this world fall to pieces.

If anything, we struggle with perspective. We are too young to have perspective on much of anything. That is something that comes with distance and age. Gunter, a elderly German, had both. He could see us, and our country, for both who we are, and who we want to be. Gunter gave me much to think about, and maybe, our crossing paths wasn’t so random after all.

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Categories: Africa, My View of Things, North America, Stories

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