My flight landed early at the airport so I wondered if my driver would be there yet to pick me up. As I walked out of the baggage claim I quickly glanced through all the signs of hotel and company names, but saw nothing. Then at the end of the row, I saw a man standing with a folded piece of paper wearing the uniform I was told to expect. I walked over to him and I said, "I think you're here for me." Looking confused he responded, "I don't think so..." and unfolded the paper to show me the name.
I quickly realized it was not mine, but then let out a little chuckled because it was a name I recognized. It was my friend from boarding school who I hadn't seen in more than 8 years!
The level of coincidence might not seem too out of this world until I tell you that this took place at the airport in Luanda, Angola. Even if you have heard of Angola, you can imagine that it is not a well visited country. Largely given to its perceived dislike for any foreigners not involved in extracting the country's vast oil reserves, Angola is notorious for denying visa requests. Even the most seasoned travelers have had difficulty entering, not to mention a relative lack of interest in even trying. It's simply not on most people's itineraries, not even close. So running into a friend there is somewhat surprising.
And yet, I didn't connect with only one friend in Angola. I had 3 friends who overlapped with my short visit. It all sounds serendipitous but really it is what I've come to expect in my global life.
I'm incredibly lucky to have friends who are not only from all over the world but who, like me, traverse all over the world. My family is international and often travels, I went to incredibly global schools, the United World College, NYU, and NYU Abu Dhabi, my professional life was focused on issues of worldwide business, and now I'm part of the community of avid travelers on social media. So at any given time in almost any given place, I know someone.
These circumstances are the single most important catalyst to my travels. In over 50 countries I've stayed with a friend I knew before. I ate and slept in their home, meeting their families, seeing their real lives. In countless others I either traveled with friends or was given lists of firsthand insights and recommendations before I arrived. I almost always feel like I get the local perspective and assistance.
This global network aids my travels. It makes it easier, having less logistics to figure out, not worrying about language barriers, and enabling places to quickly feel like home. Most importantly, having this network makes travel fun. It makes it why I do it. I travel to understand a place, to analyze and compare the societal and economic aspects, and there's no better way to understand than through conversation with and perspectives of those who live it.
So back to Angola. Although surprised to see her name with the man I assumed to be my driver, I wasn't entirely shocked that she was there. I was actually told that morning that she'd also be in the city for her job in global development. One of our other classmates is from Angola, and living there now, and we had both separately messaged her to meet up, so we planned a big reunion. The driver was there because another friend, a traveler who I've connected with on Instagram, works in Angola and had sent him as we were meeting that night for dinner and I would be staying at his friend's home.
Having all of these friends in Angola really made the trip what it was. Not only did I feel comfortable and enjoy being with them, but I was also able to ask all the questions about the country, to learn about it and see dynamic views on it going far beyond a tourist perspective. Furthermore, having friends like these, not just working where I'm visiting but, like me, involved globally, makes for thought-provoking and entertaining conversations. All three of these friends are intelligent, active, interesting and interested. It motivates me to engage in the world on a deeper and impactful level.
And maybe that's just it. Having friends all over the world makes the world seem small and being connected to them makes me feel connected to it. It makes it feel personal. It eliminates differences and highlights the similarities. To me, that is what travel is about, understanding the world in order to help it somehow. I love that not only do I think this way, but also do so many others in my life.
Of course, there are many ways to have a global network and internationally-minded friends. You don't need to have gone to specific schools or worked abroad. Many of the friends I interact with now I've actually met through social media and traveling groups. And you also don't need to already know locals to have a local experience. You can meet them; as a host wherever you're staying or just by talking to people on buses or at bars.