It’s flight time and you know the drill. Stuff your carry-on into whatever free space you are lucky enough to find (since the introduction of check-in bag fees, I am continuously impressed by flight attendants’ Luggage Tetris skills), settle in to your designated seat and pop on earphones or open a book to immediately fend off any overly-friendly airplane neighbor. This isn’t meant to be antisocial, it’s more of a survival tactic. Flights can be several hours long and a chattering stranger will not only cut into your nap or movie, he or she will keep you from those precious few hours where you are free from phone and email connectivity and can catch up on anything you please. Half-finished crossword puzzle? Listening to the new Bon Iver album completely uninterrupted? Catching up on the last three weeks of The New Yorker? If Friendly Neighbor swoops in, you got no chance.
Now none of this is to say that airplane flights never produce kindred spirits or even potential love interests. In fact, a friend of mine in DC is marrying a gentlemen she met on a flight several years ago this Fall. I think there is something romantic about the idea that an airplane seating chart can be a serendipitous crapshoot of human interaction. But, like a lottery, your chances of being seated next to your future spouse or new best friend are one in a million.
Last week I flew to San Francisco from Atlanta, about a five hour flight. Drill commenced: open magazine/consumed-by-this-article look on my face. Next to me sat a young man with disheveled hair wearing dirty hiking shoes and lots of earth-colored beaded bracelets. Having over-caffeinated that morning, I had given up hope for a nap and was reading with my earphones on when Bracelet Guy struck up a conversation.
What? I said, taking out my earphones. Clearly Bracelet Guy knew nothing of the airplane earphone code.
Are you flying to or from home?
To. I’ve been in the Dominican Republic for six months. This is my first time back to the States.
My interest piqued, I offered Bracelet Guy some fruit snacks and asked him to tell me more about what he was doing in the DR. He had been working on solar circuitry in impoverished communities for a project to electrify communities with residential rooftop solar panels. Due to chronic energy shortages, the DR experiences frequent blackouts. The solar project addressed this problem by empowering individuals to generate their own electricity in their home. This project and many other similar initiatives are featured on Appropedia.
What’s the first meal you are going to have when you get home?
That’s easy, a Cesar Salad. All I want is salad, we really didn’t eat uncooked vegetables there.
I learned all sorts of interesting things from Bracelet Guy. I learned how to create a soldering iron from a piece of metal and a magnifying glass (copper works best, and you use the magnifying glass to direct sunlight to heat it. Apparently this tool can be more useful than a drill). I learned how to get rid of intestinal worms naturally with an all-garlic diet. I learned about malaria symptoms.
Soon it was time for the plane to land and Bracelet Guy and I wrapped up what had turned out to be a fascinating conversation. He sent me off with some restaurant recommendations and this drawing he crafted on the flight— “to remember me by.” I think my faith in airplane friends has been restored.