Meeting Strangers in Times of Social Distancing

Anne Bonfert

Stories from the airport and other places in the world

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Credit: Anne Bonfert

I had such a good time. Socializing in times of social distancing. I’m coming from the bar with two drinks in my hand. All tables are taken. One lady is sitting on the table in the corner.

May I have a seat?

Luckily my American friends explained to me the difference between “can I” and “may I”. Because this woman is British, she says yes. I’m sitting down next to her. A few minutes later a Swiss guy asks the same question. He is sitting down opposite us. We’re exchanging a few words. A bit later a French guy sits down next to him. Here we are. A cultural get-together. While we are all supposed to avoid social contacts. But this small airport is packed. No space for social distancing.

Connecting with strangers at the airport

Just about five minutes later we are involved in a deep conversation. Talking about our life stories. Why we are in Namibia and where we are going to. What we think about covid and and and. I’m telling you. What an amazing exchange of cultures, ideas, and life stories. We’re laughing together. Watching the immigration officers at the bar (for your information there is a ban on the sale of alcohol in Namibia since the lockdown started end of March, but apparently not inside the airport). And I’m enjoying it. That is what I love most about my nomadic lifestyle. Travelling. And meeting different people. From various countries and cultures. It’s so interesting. Inspiring. Their lifestyle. Their story of life.

People won’t tell you what they do in life when you meet them in a supermarket. But this British lady just told me that she works on a yacht in the states. For four years now. It’s (sometimes) good money, but you don’t have a life. She just got married to a Namibian and travelled with him for four months from Namibia to Uganda. In a landrover. And she didn’t break down. I don’t believe that part of the story. She says Namibia is still her favorite country. But I asked her about Uganda. Uganda is now on my travel list. Thanks, Emma. (At least I think that is your name. I am bad like that.) She wants to work in Namibia. But there is no work for us right now. For foreigners. She would love to work as a teacher. But she has to leave the country now to earn money. She won’t see her husband for five months. I will probably not see my partner for about a month. Or more. But she makes it look less bad. Because she knows already she won’t see him for that long. Oh, and you know what? I just met her. We just opened up to each other. Because we’re on the same flight. That’s all. Crazy, right?

Then there’s the Swiss guy. He’s just going back to Switzerland to work for four weeks so that he can afford to live another year in Namibia. That’s all. That’s all we have in common. We keep returning to Namibia. But we leave the country to earn money. Because you won’t earn the big bucks here. Most people don’t. But people come back here because they are happy. They are happy in Namibia. All Namibians want to leave. But all foreigners keep on returning. Because of the vibe. Because of nature. Because of the people. Because of the whole package. A package of happiness. If you can afford it. Or you have the money.

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Our common ground

Either way. All four of us agree on it. Namibia is a happy place. All the country needs right now is to open up the borders and let tourists back in. So that it can show the world it’s beauty again.

With better quality in customer service than what Air Namibia is presenting right now. Because I know they can. They can do better. They have countless beautiful lodges. Well trained tour guides. Lots of space for social distancing. The most beautiful landscapes. And a stunning variety of wildlife. That is Namibia.

And that is why we all come back here. And will come back. But right now we’re leaving. Together. Because we need to earn money. Which we can’t at the moment. Not here.

The Swiss guy bought a bottle of red wine. For the four of us. Because we are having such a good time. We are forgetting about the flight. It’s take-off time. Still no announcements. So what. I still have a few questions to ask. Because I am curious. About their lives. Their stories inspired me. Because they have a similar lifestyle like me. They don’t have a “real job”. They have a modern lifestyle. A nomadic lifestyle. Because they do what makes them happy. They work for it. They work to have a life somewhere where they are happy. Isn’t that awesome?

I love travelling. Because of conversations like these. Because of connecting with other cultures in situations like these. These meetings are inspiring. Entertaining.

Nobody cares about your accent. But they do care about your heritage. Your past. And your future. They are curious about your plans for the future. Maybe more than some of your friends. And they actually become friends!

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A meeting in Malaysia

I once sat down in an Indian restaurant in Malaysia when a Turkish guy asked me to join his table. I don’t remember the names of the people on the table. Or their nationalities. But we shared our food together. Tried lots of different dishes. Exchanged travel tips. And secret hidden gems.

It was just a shared dinner. But it was so much more than that.

It was people who understood why you were travelling alone. As a woman.

It was people who didn’t care about your skin colour.

Everyone had to talk about his country and where he has been travelling to. So many stories. We had to order more food because the food was finished but the stories weren’t.

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Travelling alone does not mean you are lonely

And this is why I love travelling. Alone. Not that I don’t like travelling with my partner. I love it. But it’s always different when I’m alone. You meet more people where you travel alone. You interact with more people. Just so that you aren’t that alone. Not at all.

Travelling the world alone is everything else but lonely.

Back to the story

Coming back to my table of wine. And the mix of cultures. These cultures are all more organised than me. The German. They have train rides booked. Or connecting flights. They have letters from the embassy saying they are allowed to transit through Germany in order to travel to their home country. Apparently, you need that these days. And what about me? I booked my flight. That’s it. Didn’t book a train ticket because who knows when this flight will really take off and arrive.

“Spoiled first world country girl” my partner would say.

Because I can just book a flight and go to places. And he’s right. Because it’s true. I can just book a flight and travel anywhere. There are very few countries in the world where I can’t just enter the country or get a visa on arrival. I didn’t know how spoiled I was with my German passport until I met him. Or let’s say until I decided to travel with him. I’m telling you, it’s a mission. Because he needs to apply for a visa for everything! And everywhere. And countries actually deny visa applications because of „your nationality“. It’s not a joke. I had that piece of paper in my hand. That piece of paper that said, „we will not grant you the visa because of your nationality“. I thought a friend of mine was pulling an April’s fool with us. I mean that can’t be true. That is racist as f***! But no, they can. And they did. And worst of all it was the embassy of my home country. How could you not be more ashamed than I was at that moment?

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The privilege of having the right passport

Why is someone privileged to travel just because of where he or she is born? That is just ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense to me. Not at all. But unfortunately, it is the reality. The reality we live in. The reality we deal with. And the reason why I am travelling alone right now. He wasn’t even given a chance. He cannot come with me. Because he can’t apply for a visa. Not even if we would be (or are) married.

It’s frustrating. And emotional. I’m struggling with the situation a lot. Not with the fact that we are separated now. But more with the fact that I am so privileged in life and he is not. Just because of where I was born. I’m feeling bad for the privilege I have. And others don’t have. It’s just not fair.

Spending quality time with strangers

But back at our table. All of us have one more thing in common. We’re all privileged. Because we all have a European passport. And after hours of sitting together, drinking wine, and chatting we actually found a lot more things we have in common.

“It was really nice to chat to you.”

Maybe, one day, we’ll meet each other again. Somewhere in the world.
The same way I met a South Korean girl on a tropical beach on Zanzibar, East Africa, and then months later again on a dune in the middle of the desert in Namibia, Southwest Africa. Because the world is small. For travellers. And nomads.

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“Travel the world. Understand different cultures. Be inspired by beauty everywhere. Make friends all over. Be a citizen of the world.” — Alex Rawat

Have you had some interesting interactions with people from different cultures since the lockdown started? Tell me about it in the comments. Please share your story!

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I am a traveler. Photographer. Writer. Teacher. Skydiving instructor. Adventure enthusiast. Nature lover. And fell in love with the African continent. My stories go around travel, nature and all kinds of adventurous activities.

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