Spots of Time

August 12, 2003

Talk To Strangers

I noticed him right away. Standing across the street from me and waiting for the same downtown traffic light to turn green. His oversized arms were effortlessly carrying an enormous swag (a canvas outdoor sleeping bag and tent all rolled into one) and a duffle to match. His huge back dwarfed the tiny daypack he was carrying, making it look child-sized. He was wearing worn blue jeans, a tall hat and a belt buckle that shone in the sun. I was sure this man had not worn a suit to work a day in his life.

He strode across the street to the bus stop, dropped his gear to the ground on either side of him, swung one leg over the swag and sat down. Elbows to knees, hands hanging freely, he surveyed the cosmopolitan clutter around him through a sun burnt face and squinted eyes. He looked exactly like my picture of a true Aussie outback bloke. Which made me wonder - what was he doing in downtown Perth? Who was he? Why was he here? And, most importantly, where was he going?

"Don't talk to strangers." It's not something that children instinctively know, so parents and other tall people are constantly reminding them of it. If you have ever watched two little ones eye each other across a crowd of grown-up knees, you see the natural curiosity that draws children (humans) together. When one is five years old its easy to walk up to another five year old and say "Hi." Odds are, you'll be running around the playground moments later, best of friends. But, the older you get the harder it becomes - then one day you realize it's no longer adults that are telling you not to talk to strangers - its the voice inside your own head.

I crossed the street, still watching the stranger. I walked within two feet of where he was sitting, hesitated a fraction of a second, and then kept walking. I walked for about two blocks, telling myself to go back and talk to him and then almost immediately talking myself out of it. Then I remembered a tale that a travel columnist friend of mine had written several weeks earlier - the basic premise being that travelers should approach travel like a travel writer - ask questions, be curious, follow up on your thoughts. I stopped walking, took a deep breath, turned around and walked back.

"Excuse me, can I take your picture?" I said, fully expecting him to say no. This wasn't the opening was hoping for, but that was what popped out.

"Sure," he said smiling easily. "What for?"

Hugely relieved, but not wanting to look foolish, I hesitated. Then I decided what the hell - one of the great things about traveling is knowing that if you really make a fool of yourself it doesn't matter because you'll be moving on soon enough.

"Because you look exactly like what I thought an Australian outback man would look like before I got to Australia." I said hesitantly. He laughed - one of those giant belly laughs - and that made me start to laugh too.

"I'm Roy," he said, as we shook hands and introduced ourselves. "Where are you from?"

"San Francisco - you?"

"Alice Springs."

After I took his picture, I asked him where he was going. "Heli-mustering cattle up north for a month," he replied. Heli-mustering? "It's like herding cattle - but you bring them in with a helicopter instead of a horse - a Robinson 22 from America to be exact." A Robinson 22? And, so began our conversation.

The next thing I knew, I was learning all about heli-mustering from a man that - up until a few moments before - had been a complete and total stranger.

Roy worked for a heli-muster company out in Alice Spring and was frequently "loaned out" to large ranches in various parts of Australia. His job? To fly a tiny one-man helicopter around a large ranch and bring in mobs of cattle - anywhere from 300-3500 cattle. Days can be long - 12-14 hours - and the work is hard. "You don't stop to eat until you're done so sometimes all you've got in you in a cup of coffee," he said. And, since ranches in Australia are so large, it sometimes takes several days to muster all the cattle.

Where do you sleep, I asked, even though I already knew the answer. "This here's me bed for the month," he said, slapping the swag on its side. He pointed to his duffle and said it held his work clothes for the next month - up to three months if need be. Heli-mustering is seasonal work, he told me, so he was frequently on the road. When I asked about his family, he said he had a wife back in Alice Springs - but it sounded like a new arrangement. "It's a lot easier when you're single - I've been home 6 months of the last 18," he said.

After a while, the conversation had run its course and I figured Roy's bus would be coming soon. I stood up to go, saying "Roy, its been great talking to you." He agreed and we parted ways. I thought a lot about Roy and his life as I continued my walk toward the water. How different it was from my own. Yet, it had been so easy for us to talk to each other. After the initial awkwardness - which was mostly on my part - the conversation had flowed freely. I think Roy was pretty jazzed that someone was interested enough in his life to ask so many questions. And I was thrilled that he was willing to answer them.

The more I travel, the more I realize that traveling is about the people. You can go to a beautiful place and leave disappointed if your interactions with the people - travelers, locals, whatever - is unfulfilling. Or, you can go to an average place, meet some wonderful people, and leave raving about your experience.

Traveling around Australia these past 9 months, I have found that I usually meet more travelers than locals. Backpackers are catered to so comprehensively, that unless you make a conscious effort to talk to locals or just non-backpackers, you won't get the chance. And that is a huge mistake. The core of any country, any culture, any place - is its people. Not the people that come to see the country on a two week or ten month escapism holiday, but the people who live there day in and day out - like Roy - because it is their reality.

As James Mitchener wrote, "If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home."

I heartily don't forget to talk to strangers.