It’s just been 24 hours into my third visit to Iran and I am reminded of why this lovely country keeps pulling me back again and again. The warmth, hospitality, and smiling faces of the people just overwhelms any visitor. You get invites from people you are standing in queue with to visit their homes, food stalls force you to take food (and refuse to accept payment), people go out of their way to help you. Everyone thanks you (with obvious sincerity) for visiting their country. The Iranians are heart-warmingly nice to visitors from an outside world that only treats them with suspicion. – A. Chatrath
1. POMEGRANATES & CAVIAR:
I met Mr. Chatrarth in the mind-numbing heat of Ho Chi Minh City in May of 2014. I had been traveling through Vietnam with the same group of strangers for 11 days, and now it was time to say goodbye to a few. Farewells and hugs were exchanged over breakfast, my new friends becoming e-mail addresses and faceless pen pals. You meet people and you say goodbye to those people and the world keeps spinning.
There’s a bus heading to Cambodia and we’re on it. The friends we left behind replaced with new faces, I’m wondering how these new faces will fit into our already established cliques. Listen, nothing brings people together like close-quarter-bus-travel in exotic countries and squat toilets. We all became fast friends. So it goes. A week later Mr. Chatrath and I are staying up too late drinking beers at a rooftop bar in Bangkok, speaking about future travels, pre-eulogizing a life altering trip. The next morning were sharing a taxi to Suvarnabhumi Airport. I’m going home, he’s moving on.
Mr. Chatrath is from Delhi, a quitter and a wanderer, a traveler to the grave. I don’t know him well, but I’m curious. I think he’s in his mid-thirties. His passport is packed with Visas Americans will never have to apply for. We keep in touch. He says he’s eventually going to go home to find a new job, but then he pops up in Ethiopia, I see a selfie from Patagonia, now he’s in France. As I write this he’s finishing up his third trip to Iran. Yes, that Iran. That country seemingly populated by faceless terrorists that want to destroy the world.
His name is Anurag. He has friends in Iran. I met him in Vietnam and now I have a friend in India. Where is everybody?
2. NINETY MILES TO CUBA:
In the quiet early days of October 2012 I went to Cuba and it was everything I wanted it to be and it was everything I was told it wouldn’t be. I had been dreaming about Cuba for years. So close and romantic and dangerous and completely irresistible, it was just right there. I thought about flying to Mexico and going illegally, my friend Paul and I wrote up a business plan to export cigars post-embargo, but I went on a people-to-people trip and I’m so glad I did.
I’m here in Miami, our gateway to Latin America. Our long running embargo and diplomatic silence is mostly due to the political pull of the elderly Cubans that live here. They’re in power and they get the votes. Some of my friends here weren’t too happy that I went there, they were angry. The trip I took was heavily regimented but it put me in direct contact with the people that actually live their lives there. I came home from Cuba more confused and excited than before I left. People-to-people travel works.
The vast majority of Cubans living in Cuba are perfectly happy. We’re told it’s a prison island, but it’s not. It’s just different. Some build rafts and risk their lives searching for a better life in America, but most are completely content. They don’t have money and they covet foreign goods, but they’re living full lives, doing the best they can. There are actual humans in these countries we isolate.
I went to Cuba with a group of endlessly curious Americans. I saw everything I could see in 11 days. I drank rum with the locals and I remember them all, I hope they’re happy and doing well. Where is everybody?
3. MEETING PEOPLE IS EASY:
One long restless night in May of 2011 I drank a bottle of wine, blindly bought a ticket to Guatemala and promptly fell asleep. That’s the night I woke up. I was off on my first real trip. Alone.
I met amazing locals and expats in the town squares and cafes of Antigua. You can meet like minded people everywhere you go. I felt safe. Anurag has been to Pakistan and Iran, I’ve been to Cuba, we have friends there, friends we’ll have for life. It’s the same everywhere you go, people are people. We think about the governments of these countries and their skewed public personas far too much, we forget about the people, this is all about the people. If more Americans realized Iran is a country of 80 million warm-blooded humans and not 80 million hard line politicians, well…that would help. The world would be a better place.
I’ve been to backpacker bars and I’ve stayed in nice hotels. I’ve been alone and concerned, isolated and content, always surrounded by people. Where is everybody?
4. A SORT OF FERMI PARADOX:
At some point during a typical mid-work lunch in 1950 the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi turned to his peers and asked, “where is everybody?” His lunch mates confused, he was talking about aliens. The thinking being there’s been so much time, so many opportunities for life to happen. It makes no sense that we have no evidence of intelligent life in the universe.
There are all these countries and cultures out there, why are there none like us? Is it our relative newness that makes us feel exceptional and isolated? Why don’t more Americans have passports?
We’re violently brought into this world and we hope to leave it peacefully. We have all this time in between to try to make it worthwhile and good. Everyone is just doing the best they can. That’s about it. The world is not a scary place but it’s better when you have people around you. It could be your wife, husband, sibling or friend – it could be someone you met on the road, a future pen pal, some person out there in the world that shares your belief that this planet is a big, beautiful place that demands exploring.
Where is everybody? They’re right over there and they’re just like us.