Although I have arrived at that stage of life when my favorite part of vacationing is wheels down in Fresno, I’m still a hopeless travel addict who loves flying off into the sunset. When our weather changed a few weeks ago, I noted Spring Fever and travel-itis running full throttle through my veins.
Without having to spit and send saliva samples to ancestry.com, I knew immediately my inner-gypsy was alive and well. The friendly skies beckoned, and so I wrote this column from Cancun, Mexico, surrounded by sunshine, a cool ocean breeze, crystal clear waters in variegated shades of aqua, turquoise, and sea foam green.
Somewhere between organizing toiletries and deciding how many pairs of black pants I needed to pack, it dawned on me that growing up in Fresno prepared me well for navigating life’s journey, wherever it was destined to take me.
Although I assure you I am diligent about looking both ways before crossing the street, my mother taught me early on about the magic of talking with strangers. This is how I met William Saroyan (my literary hero) and a slew of others whose friendship and influences were life-changing.
In every instance I stuck my hand out and said, “Hello, my name is Armen.” Without fail, they leaned in, reciprocating with words, welcoming facial expressions and generosity of spirit.
If you talk long enough, you find a connection, forge bonds, discover likenesses outweighing differences. This simple strategy holds true all over the world. As my Armenian grandmother used to tell me in beautiful broken English, “People are people.”
I’ve found myself lost on more than one occasion – in Fresno, Fowler, Florence, France.
Whether stranded at a train station in Timbuktu or on an unfamiliar street corner here at home, someone has always arrived to offer support, lend a hand, point me in the right direction, and save the day. Forget Google maps. Human touch and eye contact remain the best navigation tools around.
As years passed, I came to realize none of us would get through life unscathed, exempt of troubled times or turbulence. My father, tall, stern, a man always in charge, assured me life would eventually work out. During a very trying time, one of those moments when I thought I was trapped in someone else’s body, living in the wrong story, he implored me not to give up on myself.
Looking back now, I realize he wasn’t the only one telling me this. Teachers, my best friend’s mother, the neighborhood pharmacist, my piano instructor, and dozens of others pounded this thought into me, promising I could get through anything if I put my mind to it. Championing my self-confidence, they gave me the world. And wings. Which made me want to see (and be) more.
As a result of their untiring belief in me, I ventured outside city limits to explore the world, vowing to give it my best. They gave me something else, too. They instilled in me a sense of trust in the universe – a belief that people are basically good. Because they are.
Admittedly, my grit has been challenged on more than one occasion. In the early ’70s, during one of my first airline adventures, the plane I was traveling on was hijacked. Terrified, I wondered if I would ever see home again. The pilot performed fancy flight maneuvers, apprehended the would-be hijacker, and our plane made a dramatic, emergency landing in Washington.
In the process, I met a Moroccan chef seated next to me named Harva Hachten. He had grabbed my hand during our rapid descent (the kind that makes you scream and pray simultaneously), looked into my eyes, his expression conveying deep regard for human life and a kind of unity transcending nationality, country of origin, religious beliefs, color of skin. Without saying a word, he reminded me we’re all in this (life) together.
Following the ordeal, Hachten sealed our friendship by sharing his family’s secret recipe of one of my favorite Middle Eastern dishes (b’stilla).
His simple act of kindness restored my faith in humanity as well as my insatiable appetite for travel. Years later, Dan and I became regulars at his famous San Francisco restaurant called Mamounia. With every bite, each life experience, the world seems to grow smaller.
Living in the Valley, we learn the rigors of surviving the elements: extreme heat, drought, foggy days with zero visibility. We adjust. One day we bundle up. Another day we surrender, throwing ourselves onto a pile of crisp autumn leaves, just for the fun of it. During summers we find respite from triple digit temperatures by going barefoot and running through sprinklers.
As a child, I wandered the streets dawn till dark, every so often venturing into alleys, lone back streets, neighborhoods deemed off-limits by elders. Enjoying the freedom of play, wanting no more than days surrounded by friends and a sense of belonging, I was often forced to brainstorm my way out of danger, problem solve my way back to safety.
Sometimes getting lost is a sure fire way of finding yourself. At home. On foreign soil. Wherever the path leads.
Throughout life’s travels, I never lost sight that Fresno is my center of gravity. My hub. A reality check and breeding ground for life lessons.
I finish this column, feet buried in sand, happily relaxing, listening to a language I’ve gratefully heard all my life. My friends, family, and community remain, as always, my world. No matter where life’s travels take me, it’s what I’ve learned in my own back yard that saves me every time.
“Why do you go away so often?” friends ask.
The answer is simple.
“So I can come back.”
It is here where I remain both grounded and in flight.
Armen D. Bacon of Fresno is a writer and co-author of “Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship” and two collections of essays, “My Name is Armen: A Life in Column Inches” and “My Name is Armen: Outside the Lines.” Write to her at email@example.com, @ArmenBacon.