“Flossie died playing cards.”
Like any good snoop and all-around Nosy Parker, my ears perked up as the unseen woman in the booth behind me spoke. Eavesdropping doesn’t get much better than this.
I heard indistinct mumbling. Damn it, speak up! I silently urged her lunch partner, as my head strained so hard against the leatherette seat back I was in danger of popping a cervical disk. Without losing my concentration, I let my left hand search through my messenger bag for the notebook I always carry. The effort paid off; I opened the notebook, clicked the pen attached to it, and waited.
“Flossie’s daughter nudged her when Flossie’s turn came around. She was dead, sitting straight up in her chair.”
Lunch sat, getting cold, as I scrawled across the page in a Thomasville, Georgia diner on that sunny, mid-May day in 2012. On a solo road trip to a family wedding near Apalachicola, Florida, I’d decided to forgo the chain restaurants and opt for a local spot in the hopes that lunch would be something other than ordinary. When I got the news about Flossie, ordinary flew right up the kitchen vent hood; aside from a vague memory of roasted pork, I couldn’t tell you what I ate.
Eavesdropping and random conversations with strangers are a traveler’s favored activities, whether we’re in Indiana or Indonesia. It’s a fantastic way to pick up on what’s happening around you, hear how the locals speak, and occasionally, you even cadge a drink or a meal invite.
Snooping in on conversations is more difficult when the language isn’t your native one. My foreign language skills are, to put it in the nicest possible way, crappy; almost nonexistent really, though I do make an effort when I travel to speak and understand words which help me to be polite (please, thank you, and Yes, I’ll have a glass of whatever he’s having). I also memorize numbers for currency, and words for foods I want to try. Fortunately for me, there is nearly always an English speaker or two around to listen in on. And if not, I can practice understanding the local tongue.
Like, for example, the time Brian and I were in Guanajuato, Mexico, standing outside the Museo Iconográfico del Quijote. While we consulted our map to decide on the next spot of interest, two young men near us spoke fast and furiously, punctuating their stream of Spanish with phrases like, Las Piratas. Pirates? How exciting! Wordlessly, we moved closer to the conversation, pretending to be absorbed by our map of Guanajuato’s plazas and streets. We understood nothing more about the pirates’ plans until we heard the word béisbol.
Aha! The Pirates were a baseball team. Maybe not as exciting as swashbuckling, blood-thirsty, high seas-type pirates plundering this mountain city in central Mexico, but hey, we like baseball as much as the next muchacho. A local baseball game in Guanajuato sounded like a fun way to spend a few hours. Listening to the guys chatting, we got the low-down on where and when the game would be played, and congratulated ourselves on the awesomeness of our Español language mastery.
We left the museum and the young guys behind as we strolled back to our posada for lunch and a cold cerveza before the game. I knew we had plenty of time, since the game didn’t begin until 2 o’clock that afternoon. Brian, on the other hand, was pretty sure we had to make a quick meal of it because there was a double header at noon.
Say, what? How did we get that confused? While trying to recreate the men’s conversation to figure out the correct game time, we realized that neither of us could remember where the game was being played, so the time no longer mattered. Ah, well. It still made for a silly memory that has stuck with us for 25 years. After all this time, if we recall something in different ways, one of us will say, “Was it a 2 o’clock game or a double header at noon?” and it brings back details of that lovely day in Guanajuato: our visit to the Quijote museum, the plazas we strolled, even the slant of light through the trees.
Public transport provide loads of opportunities for eavesdropping and chance confabs. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve had my share of religious experiences on buses and trains. Often, the choice (some would say risk) to take the local bus or train gets you closer to God than any church. Especially if the driver at the wheel is tossing his beer bottles out the window as we wind along narrow mountain roads in the middle of the night. But even during the day, with a sober driver, while on the MAX blue line train in Portland, Oregon, I learned who among us Jesus is coming for, and who ought to run as fast as they can to get a good seat in hell, because, according to the lady across from me, most of us are headed that way anyway and Jesus is pissed off.
Jesus isn’t the only religious figure riding along on public transport; Muhammad is there, too. During a bus ride in Morocco from Marrakech’s central square back to where our camper van was parked, we discovered a side of Ramadan one afternoon that we hadn’t seen before.
Ramadan is a month-long period observed each year by Muslims worldwide as a period of fasting to honor the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. The fast goes from dawn until sunset each day, during which Muslims refrain from eating food, drinking liquids, smoking, and having sex. Muslims are also meant to avoid sinful behavior, such as false speech (insulting, cursing, lying, and slander) and also fighting. Food and drink is served each morning before dawn and again after sunset. Ramadan comes from an Arabic word meaning dryness or scorching heat. Put a day-long fast together with a semi-arid climate and a ride home on a public bus crammed with other guys who have also been fasting all day, and I don’t care how devout you are, or how dedicated you are to avoiding sinful behavior, someone is going to blow a gasket.
On that noteworthy day, the bus lurched as it pulled away, causing one young man to fall into another guy, which made that guy step on someone else’s shoes. Ordinarily, getting your shoes stepped on while riding a Moroccan bus is pretty much expected and not cause for fisticuffs. But, on a hot afternoon in Marrakech during Ramadan, it turned into a brawl. (To read another tale about Morocco, click here.) Mercifully, the bus driver was alert to these sorts of shenanigans and immediately pulled the bus over, yanked the brakes on, and slammed the lever to open the door. That gave the few people who weren’t interested in encouraging the fight a chance to step out onto the road. Brian and I stayed aboard, both out of cultural curiosity and because we were trapped in our seats by swinging fists. Our steadfast bus driver bullied his way through the crowd to the combatants, took each by an ear and skillfully tossed them off the bus. The rest of us cheered, the driver took his seat, the bus lurched back into traffic, and off we went. An ancient gentleman in a worn, ill-fitting suit leaned over his seat to assure us, “Don’t worry, it’s only Ramadan.” He then pointed out a guy sporting a black eye and bandaged gash across his nose. “Ramadan nose,” our fight guide explained. Thus ended the religious instruction for the day, and a bus trip on the threshold of boring became a short bit of excitement.
Occasionally, eavesdropping illuminates the ugly side of humanity while you’re busy chopping vegetables. In a distant universe called ‘Down East’, aboard a 64-foot yacht in a quiet Maine harbor dotted with lobster pots, I managed a charter yacht with my husband, Brian for a summer; I was also the yacht’s chef. Our guests one particular week included a couple from the horse country of Virginia, their son and daughter-in-law, and a couple of grandkids. Minding my own business, chopping red peppers for a lobster paella, and humming a sea shanty about drunken sailors and what one can do with them (not much), I sensed the conversation in the cockpit overhead shift a notch as the family discussed a boy who’d grown up in their neighborhood.
“I believe that boy is afflicted,” the older woman drawled.
My knife stopped its chopping. In the cockpit, silence followed. Afflicted? What could that mean to a 20th century, fairly young, upper-middle class grandmother from Virginia?
Well, it turns out she meant the young neighbor kid was gay. Like I said, sometimes overhearing people throws a light on the darkness. You might even see that light reflected in yourself. Allow your mind to open and change. Someone might be listening.
Sometimes it’s not eavesdropping, but being invited to a conversation that brings a new friend into our lives, if only for the duration of the chat. While traveling solo in Ireland last summer, I rode the train from Cork to Midleton on a quest to become a whiskey expert. A few Jamesons-and-gingers later, my whiskey-tasting expert certificate in hand, I boarded the Midleton to Cobh train, with a plan to spend the afternoon at the harbor. As always, I had a book, my notebook and a pen in my bag. The four year old boy traveling with his grandmother, seated across the aisle, had no intention of letting me read or write. After a few conversational false starts, here is our heart-to-heart, verbatim:
Boy: I’m going to the big kid school soon. Will you miss me?
Boy: I thought you would.
Grandmother: Oh, Jaysus. Leave the poor lady alone.
The grandmother and I exchanged winks, and the boy sat back in his seat, satisfied that his new American friend would be thinking of him in the fall.
Now and again, the sound you hear isn’t a conversation at all, it’s just a sound.
Such as hearing the distinctive ‘plonk’ of a bottle tossed into the harbor water in Cannes, France. Leaning over the side of the motor yacht we crewed, we spotted four South African sailors who’d won a bottle of one hundred year old wine earlier that evening. They had opened the bottle, each tried a swallow of the wine, spit it out, gasped, re-corked the bottle and tossed it in the water. Once we heard their tale, we hopped in our dinghy, searching in vain for the bottle, certain that it was salvageable. We never found the wine, but we did find some new friends, went to a pub that night, and…well, I don’t recall much else that happened. (Read more about friendships made while traveling. Plus vodka!)
Among the lessons you learn from traveling: Misadventure usually leads to adventure if you follow your ears (and your eyes, and even your nose) to wherever the path leads you. So snoop away, fellow-travelers. You aren’t being nosy, you are just doing the undercover work necessary for your next adventure.
By the way, in case you were wondering, I also heard, “Flossie had a good hand.”