By the time Trish McFarlane stepped off a plane in Amman, she was exhausted and a bit disoriented from the 15-hour flight from Chicago to Marka International Airport, the bustling Mideast hub just outside Jordan’s capital city.
McFarlane, a human resources consultant who travels extensively for work, was on her way to Dubai for a major industry conference. The business trip was the Missouri native’s first to the Middle East, and she had by chance arrived on the same night as the 2015 Paris terror attack, which had ratcheted up tensions around the globe.
As McFarlane walked through the terminal, she saw the images from the tragedy on television screens. The fear of the unknown from arriving alone in such an unfamiliar place loomed large. “I was very anxious and overly tired,” she says.
McFarlane was still frazzled as she grabbed her luggage and headed to the ladies room, where she immediately encountered an older woman working as an airport custodian. They were the only two people in the restroom, and the stranger — whom McFarlane describes as “grandmotherly” — seemed fascinated by the Midwestern American who had just walked through the door. Neither of the women spoke the other’s language, but they did their best to communicate. “We were just trying to figure each other out,” she says. “I think she could tell I was nervous.”
Then something remarkable happened. “She just walked up and hugged me,” McFarlane says. “Really hugged me — like your grandmother would hug you. And I just let her. I normally wouldn’t do that.”
McFarlane says she’s not sure whether her own anxiety and fear of the unknown were so transparent that the woman felt the need to comfort her in an overt way, or if the woman was just extremely friendly by nature. Regardless of the motivation, the woman’s gesture helped put McFarlane at ease and move beyond any fear about how she would be treated traveling alone in an unfamiliar region of the world. She thanked the woman, who was smiling and nodding as McFarlane left.
“It gave me such a great start to my trip because I went into the rest of my trip and had a wonderful time,” she says. “People on the whole trip couldn’t have been more wonderful to me. I was so paranoid about what other people thought about Westerners and it wasn’t that way at all. Everybody I met was so warm and welcoming to me. But I feel like it all started with her.”
McFarlane says that beyond easing her immediate concerns about that trip, the moment was pivotal in transforming her approach to travel and allowing her to open herself up more to the idea of making connections with new people in unfamiliar places.
“I realized you can be really nervous about something, you can be really apprehensive about something, but you just have to remain open in the moment,” she says. “We’re really not all that different. You don’t have to speak the language, but you can make a connection with someone on that basic human level. It’s changed my travel outlook when I go anywhere now. I’ve been to a lot more countries since then and I’m always really open to those encounters and not afraid. She just changed me as a traveler. She was their best ambassador.”
McFarlane, who while growing up near St. Louis traveled only to Florida every year for family vacations, now sees her trips as an exploration, as well as a chance to cultivate connections and build relationships with people from different cultures and backgrounds, experiences she relishes after having been raised in what she says was a “sheltered Midwestern town.”
“Whether you’re going to London or Hong Kong or New York, you’re meeting people from all over the world and everybody fits,” she says. “I think that’s what I like the most.”
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