Unconditional Strangers

Today I walked into a shop looking for souvenirs for friends and family before I leave Pokhara, Nepal. Same, same, but different as usual. I did end up buying a small wooden elephant figurine, but I left the shop with much more. The shop owner and I entered in a very lovely conversation about life, religion, and how to navigate the world as it is today. This particular interaction left an impression on me because of how intuitive he was. He was able to explain the thoughts and feelings I had about my experiences in traveling before I even said anything. A complete stranger!

Now, when we think of having a deep connection with a stranger we often equate this experience with romantic ideas of love at first sight. Ha! A narrow concept indeed. No, it was more beautiful than that. Connecting with strangers is a way of life in which you navigate through the world with a confident heart. A heart that is open to love in all forms, wise to guard from those with ill intentions, and accepting of inevitable suffering. The love I’m referring to here is the kind in which you can accept a stranger for the exact way in which they exist and they accept you in this way as well. A mutual respect for each other that is rare to come by.

One of the first things that intrigued me was his reaction to my hairstyle which is currently a natural brunette buzzcut. There are a lot of very common reactions depending upon that persons preconceived stereotypes of women with buzzcuts. The most common are that people assume I am a lesbian, I am a man hating feminazi, or that I have low self-esteem and psychological traumas. Interesting though these stereotypes may be, the shopkeeper’s reaction to my hair actually caught me off guard. He just said that my hairstyle was a protective guard against negative attention. We had a mutual understanding without words that this attention he was referring to was male attention. He was correct. Not only was his statement intuitive, but it was also made with an air of complete comfortability. In other words, the intent behind his statement was without judgement and his kindness was without ulterior motives. When was the last time someone whose name you did not know did not try to judge you or put you into some kind of category? When was the last time a complete stranger simply accepted who you were exactly in the form that you presented yourself in? What a special moment. That was unconditional love (non romantic) in its purest form.

Upon offering me to sit and have conversation with him, he asked me what made me choose to come to Nepal. My explanation was that Asia as a whole has always intrigued me because it is so alien to western culture. I also wanted to compare what I have learned about culture, religion, and politics in Asia with the reality that people actually live in. Yet there is an element of travel that gets a lot of attention these days. “I’m just, like, a totally changed person” after an extended vacation in Thailand. Personally, I didn’t feel like a different person when I traveled abroad the first time and I don’t feel like a different person now. I feel as though I view the world differently, I am more trusting of strangers, and my BS radar is more accurate. My habits have changed slightly, but my identity is in no way altered. In so few words, the shopkeeper was able to explain it as leaving your home unhappy and unappreciative, yet returning as your same self with the same lifestyle but with an appreciation of your home. He himself had left India to build a life in Pokhara, which he considered his home now.

The last and most powerful topic we exchanged was that of religion. As I’m sure we are all familiar with what a dangerously personal topic religion can be. More often than not, one or all parties of opposing religious beliefs can wind up deeply offended and emotionally inflamed. Not to point fingers…but Americans are the absolute worst when it comes to discussion in politics and religion. This, however, was not the case with the shopkeeper and I. For the first time in my life, without either party identifying their personal religion, I had a completely rational discussion about religion. Woah. What a mind blowing concept I know. From Buddhism and Hinduism, to Catholicism and Islam, we covered it all. We did not point fingers, we did not judge, and we did not blame any religion at all. No, we accepted that every individual lives their own truth and that we all coexist as a part of the world. Religion is a tool in which to navigate the world effectively, to love your neighbor unconditionally, and to emanate understanding from the inside out rather than the outside in. Religion as a tool for destruction and control is a social construct. These things we could wholeheartedly agree on.

Before leaving the shop, I thanked him for such a fulfilling conversation. I can’t help but wish that interactions with all strangers could be this fulfilling, but I suppose I would not have appreciated the experience so much if that were so. I wanted to share this interaction because I feel that it is unfortunately rare to be able to interact with strangers in such a peaceful way. So I will leave you with a simple statement from the shopkeeper. I hope that it inspires you.

“We all laugh with joy, we all cry the same tears, we all feel the same suffering.”

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