In my first piece, I argued that travel is fundamentally about experiencing life in the shoes of others. That means that those who seek refuge in airline lounges and western hotel chains fail to experience the essence of what it means to travel, right? Absolutely wrong. Here’s why:
This story takes places over one day, as I traveled from India to France. I was staying at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai, just a few minutes from Mumbai Airport. What a way to “experience” India, right? Nothing like becoming “cultured” from an American chain airport hotel (said no one ever)! But while eating my western food from the friendly confines of the hotel’s club lounge, I struck up a conversation with an Indian businessman from Delhi named Sanjeev. He was in town to check up on a plant that made tires. We struck up a conversation when he saw that I was taking pictures of the lounge food (for my Live and Let’s Fly blog) and was curious why.
Sanjeev was a Senator on Lufthansa and had his sights on HON Circle, Lufthansa’s top-tier status that requires either living on plane if buying cheap fares or several very expensive tickets in order to qualify. Travel is the great ice breaker among cultures and after exhausting miles and points he moved on to Indian politics and griped about his son marrying an “impoverished gold digger” (his word choice was actually coarser). This was a pretty connected guy and over the process of about an hour I got an inside look into Indian national politics, the caste system that lingers on, and an idea for how upper class Indians approach marriage. It was a fascinating conversation and Sanjeev was keen to learn about how I approached marriage and my view on a number of political issues. It was a deep and substantive talk that gave me more insight into India and Indians than when I toured the sights of Mumbai or even had to during deal with the enervating custom suit touts during a previous trip.
Later that day I took Uber to the airport, where my driver began talking about his strong Roman Catholic faith. We ended up in a spirited theological discussion for the 45-minute, 2.5 mile journey to the airport (you’ve got to love Indian traffic). Not what I would have expected. The first time I stepped into India was 2009 and I had assumed that the whole country was Hindu. Nope – who would have thought there are Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists in India as well? Not me. But now I know better. Even an Uber trip to the airport helped me understand the great diversity of this land.
I was flying from Mumbai to Paris via Doha on Qatar Airways, the controversial flag carrier of Qatar that some argue subjects its workers to almost slave-like working conditions. I am not so sure, because every time I fly Qatar I make it a point to talk to as many employees and they cannot possibly all be lying to me about how great working for Qatar is. Qatar is no North Korea…
In the Al Safwa lounge in Doha I met a chef in the dining room who was one of the most enthusiastic people I have ever met. He was so happy to do his job and so happy to work for Qatar Airways. Originally from Sri Lanka, he shared of his ability to travel the world and listed off several exotic destinations he had recently visited.
But then the conversation got deeper.
He was part of the persecuted Tamil minority in Sri Lanka and began talking about the oppression he escaped in coming to Qatar. Giving up his passport and living in what some describe as a concentration camp (charitably a “company town”) of fellow workers, he vividly described his life in Colombo and that his own brother had been killed. Wow, this conversation just got deep.
And you know something? I suddenly had more insight, true insight, on a geopolitical situation without ever setting foot outside the opulent lounge.
Finally, the connecting flight to Paris. First Class with Krug, a fancy a la carte menu, and FAs fawning all over me. That was fun, but what was interesting was the conversation I struck up an Iranian FA (paradoxically?) serving as bartender in the onboard bar. She was incorrigibly friendly and after another corroboration that working for Qatar may not be heavenly but that the good far outweighs the bad, I got to hear about growing up in Iran as a woman, the religious pressure (actually, lack thereof in her family), and about the close-knit family life that seemed almost idyllic. I was invited back to Iran and promised that she would sponsor my visa and I could stay with her family (and in case you are wondering, she told me to bring my wife as well…).
So there you have it. One trip, one example, but a prime example of how the notion that luxury travel is not real travel is actually a sophomoric and flawed presupposition.
From a business perspective, writing about these epiphanies come at a great opportunity cost as time is limited and people prefer to read about the first class lounges and seats than about conversations with airline employees. But do not ever let anyone get away with saying you cannot experience life in the shoes of others from a first class seat or hotel lounge. I just did. You just have to talk to the people around you.