This article was written by Luni Vermeulen
I’ve always had a fervent affinity for other cultures. The vibrant variety of people, food, colours, themes, languages and noises incites an enigmatic curiosity in me. The more foreign and unknown, the more intrigued I become. This is one of the reasons I love travelling. It is also one of the reasons I love talking to strangers. Anytime. Anywhere. Sometimes these encounters with strangers are lengthy, at other times it’s a brief chat. I find these impromptu interactions mysteriously invigorating.
Every so often these chance meetings take place in the queue of the ATM or with the cashier ringing up my groceries. At other times, it’s an unexpected encounter with a Rastafarian on the beach, a sociable petrol attendant or a heartbroken waiter. Occasionally a mere polite smile shared with a stranger lead to a thought-provoking experience; a scintillating brush of wisdom.
A few years ago, on a visit to Bahrain, I noticed, what ignorant Westerners stereotypically would describe as a quintessential middle-aged, Middle Eastern couple in a hotel’s coffee shop. In a hotel mostly frequented by Western visitors, the couple, dressed in black from head to toe, caught my attention. The man was dressed in a suit and the woman in a black hijab, long black dress and long black overcoat. Since I have an incurable passion for the Middle East, its history, its culture, its food and in particular, its friendly people, I decided to get up from my table and walk over to them. I greeted them, introduced myself and asked if I could take a photo with them. (Here I have to mention that I am not at all part of the selfie generation, but at the moment in time, I simply spontaneously posed my request to them). The man initially eyed me suspiciously, probably wondering what my intentions were and continued to voice this scepticism. Yet, after a few niceties were exchanged, he warmed up and enthusiastically joined the conversation. The woman was from the get go incredibly gregarious and approachable and insisted that I join them at their table.
Another stranger took two photos of the three of us, one with my camera and one with theirs. It turned out that the couple was from Saudi Arabia and visited Manama (the capital of Bahrain), for their daughter’s graduation. It was apparent how proud they were of their daughter. We discussed the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, political relations, family, and the idiosyncrasies of our respective countries’ people.
What stood me by was how similar we are despite our differences. Here was a couple from another part of the world, from a different culture, another religion, and dressing differently from me. Yet, I could relate to them. I could see the same pride and delight when they talked about their daughter that I see in my own parents’ eyes. I felt their kindness and concern about myself travelling alone in the Middle East, much like my own family and friends. I could see a normal middle-aged couple, living a normal middle class life. I experienced the hospitality that I am used to in my own country.
I walked away from this conversation with a heart-warming feeling, realising that my encounter with them was the highlight of my day. Those beautiful moments of shared humanity with them was a soul-stirring gift. We were not created to be small islands in this world. We were built for amity and companionship. If we never speak to strangers, we miss out on the unexpected pleasures and enrichments they may offer; we miss out on beautiful interruptions.