What if…

What if I hadn’t gone on exchange?

A few weeks ago, I was on a red eye flight to Toronto for a conference over the weekend. I was set on getting a solid 4 hours of sleep on the plane which is why I didn’t bother napping before heading to the airport.

I was seated in 18B which was unfortunate because being in the middle meant I would probably fall asleep on someone else’s shoulder. Beside me was a middle-aged lady, comfortably seated with her travel sized bag in her lap.

She was poking at the small TV screen in front of her, trying to get the map to show up. Unsurprisingly, the cursor was completely out of sync and I heard her mumbling in something that sounded like Spanish. I decided to try and help her get the map out and somehow successfully got it to work. Out of sheer curiosity, I asked her “hablas español?” (Honestly, to this day I never know when to use the formal or informal conjugations and I was terrified of offending her.)

Her eyes immediately lit up, and I’m pretty sure she was surprised that a random Asian girl could speak (very broken) Spanish. I found out she actually lived 3 minutes away from me and was taking English classes at my old junior high school. She was on her way back to Colombia with a layover in Toronto.

I ended up getting about an hour of sleep at most because she was telling me all about herself, her family, her frustrations. It was simultaneously bizarre and amazing — the beauty of having a complete stranger confide in me some of their deepest thoughts and feelings.

The beauty of having a complete stranger confide in me some of their deepest thoughts and feelings

Getting off our flight, she had no idea where to go to catch her next flight. We walked together, suitcases behind us, and asked for help. In my sleep-deprived, coffee-deprived mind, even I had trouble understanding English. I looked over at her after someone told us where to go, and she had that glazed over look we all have in French class.

Finally, we did find where she had to go (Gate E80 — I still remember because of how many times I said it in Spanish). We exchanged phone numbers and still stay in contact through WhatsApp. She actually sent me a photo of her grandson a few days ago.

So, what if? What if I hadn’t gone on exchange? What if I hadn’t gone to Mexico? What if I had just gone to Mexico — but not for my exchange. These thoughts plague my every day life, but in a good way.

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