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An adventureous night in Vancouver led by serendipity and the kindness in strangers

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Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

As we started approaching customs, the short time frame I had to decide whether or not I wanted to start a conversation with these two strangers was coming to an end. It was now, or never. I took a deep breath and asked the simple question, “How far is the airport from downtown?”

Before I continue to explain how this one moment carved the path leading up to a night of several serendipitous events, I should start from the beginning.

Two weeks ago on May 24th, 2015, I was leaving from LAX Airport and flying to Shanghai, China with a 13-hour layover in Vancouver, Canada. After eating dinner in the airport, I headed towards my gate. When I neared the gate, I scanned the area to find a place to sit. Two blonde girls that appeared to be my age or slightly older were sitting and chatting. I noticed a few open seats in the row across from them and decided that if I sat there, I might make a few friends.

I dropped my bags and sat down. The conversation between the two girls seemed to have faded as they both were reading when I looked up from my seat. I decided to join the reading party and pulled out the intriguing book I was currently reading called Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts(*I highly recommend it! It’s about a man who escaped from prison in Australia, fled to India and worked in the slums, black market, and fought in the war. True story).

A significant amount of time passed and the reading party continued. Then the Air Canada desk attendant announced over the loudspeaker,”Any foreign passengers that are not Canadian citizens must come up to fill out a form before boarding the plane.” I pulled my nose out of my book and realized the message was directed at me, as non-Canadian citizen. I went up, grabbed a form, then returned to my seat and proceeded to fill it out.

“Sir? Excuse me.” The younger-looking blonde girl with the tattoo of a feather behind her ear who was sitting directly across from me asked in a tone that voiced her doubtfulness with choice of “sir” to address me.

I looked up with my own form of uncertainty. “Is she calling me sir?” I chuckled to myself in my head. My choice of attire most likely influenced her word choice. I wore brown dress shoes, simple khakis with a brown belt and an azure-colored polo tucked in.

Once we made eye contact, she continued, “What is that you’re filling out?”

“This? Oh, it’s for U.S…” I stopped short.

“Citizens?”

“Yes” I laughed.

“Oh, okay good.” She said smiling back.

A sign of relief washed across their faces. I assumed they must be Canadian so they didn’t need to fill out the form.

Both parties returned to reading their novels. A few minutes later, I overheard the other blonde girl say to her friend, “Sir is a little bit formal.” I smiled, looked up at them and chuckled, “Yeah, it was a little formal but I guess I’m not sure what else you would use?”

They laughed. The blonde girl in front of me added, “Yeah, ‘dude’ or ‘guy’ would have been weird.” I smiled and laughed. That was the extent of our conversation before we boarded the plane. Unfortunately, I didn’t sit next to them on the plane either. However, the first serendipitous moment happened soon after.

During the 3 hour flight from LA to Vancouver, I simply minded my own business and read. The two older women next to me both put in headphones either to prevent any conversation between us or to create a white noise to ease resting during the flight.

When the flight landed around 10:45pm, I realized I was going to be spending the next 13 hours in the Vancouver Airport…I thought maybe if the city were close enough, I would go exploring but the research I had done prior to flying was so preliminary that I felt uncertain whether it would be a good idea or not to leave the airport. I certainly didn’t want to risk missing my flight.

Since I figured I would be spending the next several hours in the airport, I decided to take my time getting off the plane. The combination of not being in a rush to make a connecting flight or go anywhere, plus the fact that my large backpack was in the overhead compartment and would take a good amount of time to take down convinced me to wait until a large amount of people had exited the plane before I get off.

While waiting for a gap in the line off the plane, the two Canadian girls I had spoken to briefly smiled  and said bye as they walked past me. Then, the gap I had been waiting to seize appeared. I took advantage of it. I loaded my large blue 48L Osprey backpack on my back and my medium-sized black 25L REI backpack on front then exited the plane.

And this is where the story picks up from where it started. I was about 5 feet or so behind the two Canadian girls- just enough to be able to start up a conversation.

The two girls looked back at me and the other one who I had not spoken much to said, “Downtown? It’s not too far. You can take the Canada line straight there (similar to a light rail). It might take 30 minutes or so.” My simple question broke the dam created by society stating that we “should not talk to strangers” and a river of conversation finally flowed out.

I learned that their names were Katie and Kelsi and they had spent the weekend in California for fun. They went to Disneyland, the beach and had a wonderful time. Both were 22 years old and studying at a university in Vancouver. Katie was undecided and Kelsi studied sports sciences.

Before reaching customs, they both convinced me to take advantage of my layover as an opportunity to explore downtown Vancouver. We stayed together, chatting through customs till I went to the kiosk to scan my passport and realized I had ended up in the line for Canadian citizens.

I hurried over to the line for foreigners then proceeded to the customs agent when a window was available. After lots of intimidating questions such as why I’m in canada, where I’ll be staying, who’s paying for it, etc. I entered into the great country of Canada.

Not sure where to find the Canada line or even what to do downtown, I sat down near baggage claim and attempted to find a wifi network to connect to. Unfortunately, none of them were unlocked or free so I sat there looking a little helpless. Lucky for me, Katie and Kelsi grabbed their bags and then offered to help me.

They walked with me over to the storage center then offered to walk me to the Canada line upstairs. They wrote directions to arrive downtown via the Canada line on an old receipt from a Nike outlet store. I told them I could figure it out with the directions they gave me then hugged them and said goodbye. The fact that they were total strangers yet demonstrated the kindness of a friendship  that had lasted for years amazed me. I felt extremely grateful for their help and the serendipity of the situation.

From there on, the serendipitous moments continued as if someone had planned the entire night for me.

I took the escalator up to the Canada line and went to the machines to buy my ticket. Not sure exactly how much fare to purchase to get downtown, I stood in front of the machine for about two minutes before a kind man in a green vest approached me.

“Are ye lost?” he asked me in his thick Canadian accent. I told him I wanted to go downtown. He told me exactly what stop to get off and even handed me a map. At this point, I think to myself, “Gosh, the Canadians are so friendly. I should just stay here.”

I got off at the City Centre station nearby and found myself in downtown Vancouver with no plans or knowledge of the city.

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I started walking down a street that looked busy and found myself a small pizza shop that sold slices for $2.75. I bought a supreme slice, sat down at a table and munched away that evening’s dinner. Luckily, there was wifi so I could look up places to go. At first, I decided to google pubs and bars in Vancouver but then I thought, “Why am I sitting here on my phone when I could easily ask someone or just go to a random bar see what happens?” I finished my slice of pizza and headed out to continue the night’s adventure.

I recalled Katie and Kelsi mentioning a bar called the Roxy somewhere downtown. I wasn’t sure exactly where it was so I just decided to walk down the street and see what I could find. I went down once then went back up the same street and decided on a place called The Roxyburger. The outside patio was full of people drinking beer and chatting. Inside, there was a bar and tables where people were eating food. I sat at the bar and ordered a beer. I laughed to myself and thought, “Okay, I’m here but now what? How does one go about meeting people without intruding on a group?” I sat there for a good 15 minutes, people watching and enjoying not knowing how the night would unfold. A guy and a girl came up to the bar and looked over at me momentarily. They were ordering shots I guessed and the bartender told them to move over to the empty seat next to me. He poured them two shots of an alcohol that I didn’t recognize.

“Have you ever tried a buttery nipple?” The girl turned and asked me.

I was startled for a second then laughed and replied, “No, what’s that?”

“It’s sweet. They’re really good. Take one with us! We’ll wait for you!”

I thought, “Ah, sure, why not.” I ordered one, took the shot with them and then said, “That wasn’t too bad.”

“Yeah, we like them,” the girl replied as they started to get up to return to their table outside.

“Hey, could I join you two? I’m here because I have a layover and obviously don’t know anyone.” I laughed in self-pity.

“Of course you can! We’ll introduce you to our friends!” The girl replied and the guy smiled at me.

And then, the next section in the night began. The girl’s name was Emily and she was from Oregon. She had traveled from Oregon with two friends to see Milky Chance in Vancouver and they decided to stay in Vancouver for a little. The guy’s name was Daniel and he was from Australia. He was traveling in Canada for a little. They introduced me to the rest of their group which included a few Germans, a few Australians and a few Canadians. Everyone was between 21 and 25 and very friendly and welcoming! They referred to me as “Joe from Arizona” or with a few, just “Arizona,” which I found rather amusing.

I chatted and hung out with them for a while before a group of Canadian guys in college from Manitoba, Canada who knew Emily, invited us to go on an unofficial pub crawl with them. We all agreed to go and then we headed out. In total, there was about 12 of us.

One guy that stood out the most from the group was named Brady. He was Emily’s friend and from Oregon. We connected really well. He was friendly, genuine and outgoing. He studied photography at a small college in Oregon and was the one who bought the tickets to see Milky Chance. Emily, and her friend Peyton, both had known Brady since high school and asked if they could go to the convert with him. At each of the two bars we went to, he offered to buy me a drink and then we had an interesting conversation about who we were and why we did the things we did.

Around 3:15am, the group of international travelers I had been spending most of the night with decided to head home. Brady offered for me to stay the night at their hostel but then remembered they checked everyone’s keys so unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. I said my goodbyes and then remained at the bar till about 3:30am when they kicked everyone at. A server at the bar gave me directions back to the Canada line station but said it wouldn’t start running again till 5 or 6am.

Out of plans and ideas, I decided to walk back to the station anyway and figure out a plan there.

When I got there, the gates were locked and it was closed, just as the server had warned me. I sat on a bench and contemplated my options. Well, it was dark near the station and I didn’t know if the area was dangerous so I decided to head back towards the pizza place and the Roxyburger.

On my way back, I peeked my head into the Burger King that was still open. “Should I go in, order food and just hang out?” I contemplated to myself. I decided not to, thankfully, and headed to the pizza shop.

I was in luck. It was still open.

“Hey look, it’s the guy from Best Buy,” one guy joked as I got in line for pizza. I then realized there were no longer serving pizza. A girl and a guy, who looked to be my age, started talking to me. They both wanted pizza and asked if I wanted to join them to buy pizza somewhere. They didn’t seem to be dangerous or suspicious and the guy who joked about me working for Best Buy was with them so I said “Sure, why not?”

We walked up and down the streets looking for restaurants still open at 4am in the morning on a Sunday. They asked me why I was there, what I was doing, etc. and we made small talk. They were all friendly and seemed like genuine individuals. Their names were Jordan, Morgan, and Ivo and they were all 23 years old. I told them I had never been to Vancouver before, let alone Canada and then told me they would take me to the best spots and hang out with me until the Canada line opened back up.

The only food place we found was a 7/11 that serves taquitos- you know, the ones you think “Hmm, those could be good” but then you second guess yourself and say, “No, what am I thinking. Who knows how long those have been out?” Well, that was the only hot food available so I bought two. They weren’t delicious but they did the job and kept my hunger at bay.

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They brought me to Yaletown, which is this pier with lots of large yachts and boats. We sat down and talked about life until about 6am when the station opened back up. Ivo even offered to take the Canada line with me to the airport to make sure that I returned with no problems. After having talked about culture, he also offered to introduce me to ice caps which is a coffee slushie that he said was really popular in Canada, or at least Vancouver.

I said goodbye to Ivo and thanked him for helping me. Then grabbed my bags and curled open on the ground to take a 4 hour nap before heading to my gate around 10am. As I lay there and reran the route of the all-nighter in Vancouver, I realized the night took itself in directions I could never have imagined. I feel extreme gratitude for the kindness all those I encountered treated me with during my long adventure in Vancouver. It reminds me that there are lots of good people out there in the world and one of best thing we can do to make sure those good people don’t disappear is to be kind to all.

Life reveals her inner beauty when you simply surrender the desire to control her and you let her sail you which ever way she decides to blow the wind.

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Update: To make this story even crazier, the guy I met named Brady is a dating a girl who went to high school in Oregon with one of my really close friends at the University of Arizona. The world is so big yet it’s so small.

Sharing Arizonian culture with SUSI exchange students from South America

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[Photo of Thomas on the left and Joel on the right from cultural presentation]

Tomorrow, Joel and Thomas, two new friends, along with 18 other exchange students from South America will head to the East Coast to and to Washington D.C. for two weeks after having spent the last three weeks learning about the culture in Arizona and attending classes here at the University of Arizona.

The 20 students are participating in a program called SUSI(Study of the U.S. Institutes) for Student Leaders. They come from Bolivia, Peru, and Paraguay and range in age from 18-26. None of them knew each other before coming here and they all come from different places.  The programs are sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with the purpose to “promote a better understanding of the people, institutions, and culture of the United States among foreign students, teachers, and scholars.” The University of Arizona regular hosts these programs twice a year. The students visited Nogales, Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, Sedona and a few other parts of Arizona, I believe.

I happened to find the opportunity by chance during winter break when I received an email from one of the directors of the program here at the U of A who was looking for mentors. I remembered I had signed up for the Latin American Undergraduate email list and that was the reason the email landed in my inbox.

I received a spot as a mentor and was paired with Joel from Bolivia and Thomas from Peru for the three weeks that they spent here at the U of A.

We hung out together a few times in Tucson, maybe once or twice a week. I introduced them to friends here one night and brought them to my dorm one evening to show them what it’s like living on campus.

My favorite part was showing them around Phoenix last weekend. Since my car is broken, my dad let us drive his Polaris Ranger. I brought them to my high school and my elementary school and also around that neighborhood to show them where I grew up as a kid. I think they really enjoyed it because they could compare what they saw in movies to real life and see what an “American” high school and elementary school actually look like.

I also introduced them to Arizona burritos(an extremely delicious fast-food burrito from Federico’s), horchata(a sweet drink made of rice), AND Girl Scout cookies-specifically “Thin Mints” that take your tastebuds to heaven. My mouth waters just thinking about pulling one out of the freezer at home and munching on it-MMMM!

From participating in this program as a mentor, from my own experiences and from what I’ve learned at the university, I have realized that the media misrepresents the United States and other countries around the world, which is why first-hand cultural experience is so important and valuable. By learning about a culture for ourselves, we deconstruct the generalizations and presumptions that we hold within ourselves as a result of listening to the media, or one story.

I hope the U of A continues to host these types of exchange programs so I can contribute to improving the cultural experience for the students to come. I also recommend to anyone, student or non-student, to check out the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Exchange Programs website because there several ways to get involved with these programs or to even visit another country as the exchange student. It’s a great way to open up your mind and even learn a little bit more about your culture and yourself 🙂

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