I was in Ecuador in March. My days were filled with meetings conducted in Spanish. The information was new, the people were complete strangers, and the altitude gave me a two-day headache.
On the last day, I went to have lunch with the Colombian friend of a friend who I’d never met. I arrived at his office building almost a half hour before our appointment time, so I ducked into a nearby coffee shop.
As I stared at the menu on the wall, an elderly man offered in Spanish, “The hot cocoa is really good. Have the hot cocoa.”
Ever keen to reduce the number of choices I need to make each day, I quickly agreed, and then the man invited me to sit with him.
“But I need to use the bathroom first,” I told him.
“Oh,” the sole employee said, “the toilet isn’t working right.”
She took me to the bathroom and it seemed she was more concerned about the appearance than the function. “I’ve seen worse,” I assured her, and she let me use it.
When I flushed the toilet, water went all over the floor. Embarrassed, I told the woman what had happened and she waved it off graciously. I returned to sit with the frail old man who politely ignored the situation I’d created.
He was eager to tell me about his travels around the U.S., visiting his niece in California and seeing the famous cities of the country. I had to focus intently to understand what he was saying, not because of the language difference, but because he ate a muffin as he spoke and crumbs flew out of his mouth with each syllable. I drank my hot cocoa and listened.
“My wife died three months ago,” he announced suddenly. “It’s terrible without her.”
I asked how he was faring, whether he had children, what his hobbies are. He takes walks with other retired doctors, he said, and his children are in town, but they work, so he’s often alone. The shop employee looked over at him, disconcerted.
He pulled a faded picture out of his wallet to show me, a picture of his wife in her youth, and tears filled his eyes. “It’s terrible without her,” he repeated, shaking his head.
It wasn’t long after that when I had to get to my appointment. We hugged and he tried to give me a kiss on the lips. My empathy has boundaries, so I turned my cheek to him and laughed.
After an energizing lunch with my friend’s friend, whose classic hospitality involved protests about me taking a taxi to my next meeting, I hailed a taxi. The driver seemed glum, or maybe just in a taxi trance from driving for hours. I offered him a piece of gum and he seemed to perk up a little, but we didn’t talk—not like the other Ecuadorian taxi driver; I’d asked him about the craziest thing he’d ever seen as a taxi driver. That’s one of my favorite taxi icebreaker questions.
When we reached my destination, he stopped to drop me off between two giant buses. I imagined myself squished between these smelly beasts and remembered the pedestrian who had been nearly hit by a car in front of me on the same block the day prior. Shaken out of his stupor by my hesitation, he realized where he’d parked and pulled ahead a bit. He smiled as I handed him the fare and got out of the car.
We become accustomed to the patterns of speech and behavior that we’ve known for years. Our language is filled with clichés and our actions are predictable because we surround ourselves with others who think like us. They love the same brands and have the same aspirations and become outraged by the same injustices as us—or at least they should.
I don’t want to live my life as a pattern, but sometimes I feel fatigued from adapting to new places and people. Some days, when you’re leaning into life without reservation, the world is an over-stimulating place. It grabs you by the soul and asks what you’re going to do about it, what you have to say. And your eyes widen and your heart beats faster and your mind races, while searching for the ultimate answer that doesn’t exist.