It happened again.
I’m sitting in the lounge at the airport in Panama City, Panama, waiting for my flight to Ecuador. It’s very hard for me to concentrate on writing, because my ears are straining to hear and understand every conversation going on around me. With my high school Spanish, I struggle to piece together stories. A couple traveling on to Brazil. A woman who works for Proctor & Gamble in Albany, Georgia. A group of businessmen who don’t care for Rihanna’s music. The cacophony of voices seems so much louder than usual, my sense of hearing heightened to a new level.
I realize how often I walk around hearing nothing.
When I travel within the US, it is so easy for me to tune out what people near me are saying. Their words altogether too familiar to me, I just don’t pay any attention. Similarly, I can ignore the chatter in cities where I don’t have any knowledge of the language spoken. In Bangkok, or Brussels, the conversations become just a vague buzzing noise, like that of bees flying around nearby in a swarm, too far away to cause any alarm or require any action. I can stay in my head, alone; no one else makes their way in.
But toss in a few words I actually understand, followed by many, many more that I don’t, and my brain does not know how to proceed as planned. It allows everyone in, crowding out my thoughts and trying to process theirs instead. Suddenly I’m present in a way I didn’t realize that I hadn’t been before. And now I see it, my eyes functioning at once as well as my ears now do.
I learn many of my most valuable life lessons in airports.
In Los Angeles, I learned how to be less judgmental.
In Newark, I learned about how to pay attention, when I carelessly tied up a handicapped bathroom stall, changing my clothes, for five minutes, only to emerge and see a woman in a wheelchair being forced to wait because I had been on my phone, and not noticed the sign on the door. I also learned how important a genuine apology and a little humility are, when I was seated across the aisle from said woman minutes later for six hours on our cross-country flight.
In Vegas, I learned about love.
In Albuquerque, I learned about kindness and compassion when I watched a mother struggle to travel on her own with two young, ill children, and resisted the previously typical urge to pray that I would not be seated near them. I learned that offering to help rather than just saying, “not my problem” is one of the most rewarding things we can do.
In Ho Chi Minh City, I learned that asking for help (oh, and a little preparation), can aid you in being less terrified in the middle of the night outside a closed airport halfway across the world.
In Tokyo (well, in the air above Tokyo), I learned that a person can watch a flight map on their personal television for nearly ten hours straight. Okay, that’s not really the lesson. I learned that what makes us happy is a deeply personal choice, and sometimes involves staring at an image of a small virtual plane flying over a static map for hours.
And tonight, in Panama, I learned how to hear–rather, to listen–and be present.
As I make my way to the flight that will join me with my friends in Ecuador, before we head together to a week-long Thanksgiving adventure in the Galapagos Islands, I am grateful for this particularly timely lesson in Panama.
My ears are open, attuned to any language I may overhear. Ready to make sense of the symphony of sounds that nature and animals always provide–or to appreciate its beauty if I cannot really understand it. Excited at the music of laughter, and tears, and awe, and gratitude that awaits me.
Determined to stay present.
Signing off from Panama!