The author on her bicycle in Armenia.
The author on her bicycle in Armenia.

People are people all over the world

Whatever our language, whatever our story, we’re all just trying to find our way

ARMENIA, 2020 — I try to ride my bicycle at least once a day, and today is a national holiday in Armenia - May Day - so when I would usually be teaching English online, I slipped out onto the roadways hoping for only a little traffic and a splendid ride on this gorgeous spring day. I wasn't disappointed.

I have some rules for myself, since this is not only about fresh air, it's about exercising, and they include making myself spend the first half hour of the ride doing only slow uphills.

It's certainly not hard to find uphill riding in beautiful Yerevan, Armenia, most of which is tucked into a couple of mountainsides. When I ride during a different time of day, I see different people.

We're all on a schedule in this world. And because I'm doing uphills, I ride slowly enough to take in the sights of the different shops, parks, and the people along the way.

Today's humans included a tall, young man with two big dogs. He saluted me, a sign of appreciation since the dogs saw the bicycle and were pulling him every which way, hoping he would allow them to chase me. He had a nice smile.

As a courtesy, I moved farther away from him, and he shouted in Armenian, “Thank you!” I smiled and waved.

Farther up the hill, I met a group of aging women who had just left a tiny market. I'm guessing they were younger than me (I'm 62) but they were wearing the uniform of the older European woman which I've seen in many countries: black stockings, black shoes, black dresses, black coats, black hair piled high on their heads and weighed down with old cloth bags.

I smiled and waved at them, even though we've never met. They raised their collective eyebrows in unison, not sure if they should wave back or try to get me help. I imagined them thinking, “What in the world is that old woman doing on a bicycle? She must be out of her mind!”

I left them in a confused state as they put their heads together, talked, and pointed at me. It was adorable.

* * *

You must bear in mind that this is what I look like when I'm riding: I'm wearing a bright green helmet, a yellow-and-orange safety vest, a huge safety flag flying above my head, black latex gloves.

I have a basket full of rocks to throw at the homeless dogs who chase me. (Don't worry - I try to miss them, it's just a warning shot.) My neon green backpack is strapped tightly to my back in case I see something I feel I need to buy.

That's a whole lot of color moving on the road. And I'm an aging woman, overweight, with red hair flying out from beneath the helmet.

I'm a sight to take in.

* * *

On my daily afternoon rides, I see a small group of men in their forties who are almost always meeting on the same street corner as I go by. They're usually enjoying a cigarette and occasionally a bottle of beer, and they are simply standing around, talking with one another in the sunshine.

They are not sure what to make of me, and they always stop talking and stare. I throw up a friendly wave of the hand every time I pass them.

And then some of them smile - but the look on their faces is always one of serious confusion.

As soon as I pass them as I ride up this steep hill, while huffing and puffing and trying not to change the gears to make it easier, they burst a gut laughing at me. Every. Single. Day.

They just can't help themselves. I'm too strange for them. I'm a cultural misfit, a mind-bending riddle of “Why?”

You know what? I really don't care.

I just continue smiling and waving because I'm about 25 years older than they are, and the cigarettes and alcohol are probably going to kill them before they get to be my age. So I just smile knowing I'll have the last laugh.

I like messing with their minds.

* * *

A half hour later, I hit the top of another hill in a new-to-me neighborhood, and I see a grocery store.

Anything you could possibly want is here in Yerevan, but some things have taken me two years to find and other things I'm still looking for.

I'm happy that there are no big-box stores in Armenia - it's all mom-and-pop shops. I support family businesses, and there is something about the thrill of the hunt, so I always check out new-to-me, interesting places when I'm out and about.

After I explore this new shop, I emerge to find a kind, tiny woman who works as a cleaner standing by my bicycle. I locked it to a metal post along the parking spaces close to the sidewalk, and she clearly has been trying to wipe down the metal railing.

As she was patiently waiting for me to move the bicycle, she is calmly enjoying the sunshine. I apologize in English and put my hand to my heart to show her that I am truly sorry to have kept her waiting.

She waves me off, and says in a beautiful, heartfelt, broken English, “You Russian girls very strong. Good. Very, very good.” And then she pats me on the shoulder.

I chuckle at the thought of being an American and being confused for a Russian woman on this May Day holiday, important for workers worldwide.

We both smile and just stand and enjoy the moment silently. Then she watches as I unlock my bicycle. She stands before me, pats me on the shoulder again, and I take off up the hill.

She watchs as I ride and waves goodbye. I turn and wave back.

* * *

I have only one more big hill to go before I begin going downhill for the rest of the ride. About a quarter mile later, I am nearing the top.

There, with great pleasure, I see a very different group of men in another unknown-to-me part of town. They are all my age or older. No cigarettes or beer - just a bunch of guys who apparently meet on this corner every day near the Metro station.

I quickly picture them as teenagers, and imagine they have been hanging out here for the last 50 years. I imagine them retired, their wives at home slaving away to make them coffee and breakfast while they slip out to greet their buddies.

I am unprepared for their greetings. I am still doing the uphill, huffing and puffing, sweat pouring off my face, in the throes of my highest pulse rate, trying to make it to the top of the hill. I'll be damned if I'm going to downshift if I can avoid it.

“Hey!” one of the older men yells with both his arms up in the air, waving as though I might not otherwise notice him.

As I pass them very slowly, he yells, “How are you?!”

And I throw them all a wave and yell, “Good morning,” my voice halting as I pull in my belly for some fresh air.

They begin to applaud as I pass them, and I burst out laughing, slowing until the bicycle almost stops.

“No! No! Keep going!” one yells.

“You ride for us all!,” yells another.

“You will live forever!” yells the third as I push on.

They are all laughing, but in a kind and caring way. I am, too.

“Thank you,” I yell back with a big smile in a burst of speed as I hit the crest of the hill. “I love Armenia!” I shout as the applause gets stronger.

The waving continues, and I slip over the hill, out of sight.

* * *

If there were a non-governmental organization out there that wanted to pay me to ride my bicycle all over the world and stop and interview people to write their personal stories, it would be my dream job.

A bicycle allows for slow, haphazard connection that few other sports offer. My increasing age makes me more available to passersby - much more than a younger, fitter, faster cyclist could.

People are people all over the world. And in my experience, having now lived in eight countries and visited another 40 or so, 99.5% of them are the salt of the Earth.

I got to thinking on the downhill home how much I love talking to and meeting these new and different people.

* * *

Many years ago, while at a conference in Dallas, I got lost while exploring the city. I asked a huge, young, burly, tattooed, gold-chain-wearing drug dealer for directions to the correct bus stop.

It was so clear to me that this guy needed people to be afraid of him, and I was killing that image. He was kind enough to walk me to the bus stop, but he told me along the way that my wholesome face and age wasn't good for business, so I wasn't to thank him or linger when we got there - I was just to get on the bus and leave.

Most importantly, I wasn't supposed to smile - and would I please stop doing so now?

Then he asked me a surprising question.

“Why did you ask me, of all people, for directions? Why aren't you afraid of me?”

It was a stunning inquiry, one I had to think about carefully before I answered, noticing the big knife in his back pocket and imagining that he might not take too kindly to the wrong answer.

I thought about it for a moment and then I said, “Because everybody gets lost now and again, and we're all just trying to find our way, right?”

It was a cryptic answer, one that he was still thinking about as he took my hand and helped me up the stairs to the bus.

But I also had a question for him before I put my money for the ride in the coin holder. I turned back and asked him, “Why did you help me?”

He never answered. He just shook his head and turned it downward.

I thought I saw a tiny smile escape his lips as he turned and left me. As the bus pulled out, I saw him walking back to where he'd been, hands stuffed in his pockets, head down, shoulders hunched over, looking tough, alone and - yes - quite frightening.

* * *

Once a man in Haiti spat at me as I was walking past him near the hospital where I was working. My interpreter stopped and angrily told him not to do that.

He wanted to walk away after he said his piece, but I wanted to stay and have him explain his feelings to me. Through the interpreter, he said that Americans had money and that he felt like a monkey in the zoo being watched by rich tourists and he was poor and sick of being poor.

He said that if I was visiting Haiti, I wasn't poor, so I could never know how he feels.

The interpreter told him, without asking me, that actually, I wasn't a tourist, that I was there to give free medical care to anyone who needed it in the weeks after the massive earthquake in 2010.

I watched the man's face melt to a kinder place. He shook my hand and apologized. Then we chatted a few minutes about lots of different things.

* * *

In northern, rural China, I met a young woman with her toddler as I was riding back to my apartment after a day at school. She was struggling with some packages, while trying to hold her wiggling child.

I remembered seeing her in my building and realized she was a neighbor. So I stopped, and with only hand signals and limited Mandarin, showed her that I'd take her bags, put them in my bike basket, and leave them by the door to our home.

Reluctantly, she put the parcels in the basket, and was still eyeing me carefully, weighing out her desire for help against the potential for my stealing her things.

Sensing this, I stopped to play with the baby for a minute, which helped her to relax. Then I rode around the corner, put her bags by the entrance, parked my bike, and waited for her to walk that way far enough to see where her bags had been left.

She smiled and waved, and I went inside the building.

* * *

People are people all over the world. Take a chance. Talk with a new-to-you human today.

In these changing times, it's the most important weapon we have to deal with the divisiveness that wants to take over everything, from our health to our politics.

You can do it with a mask and gloves on, and you can do it at a distance, too.

But please - do it.

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