I sit writing in the tube somewhere in the depths of London Underground. It’s not until I put my pen and black notebook down—black ink stained on my pinky finger—that I really look at the people sitting around me. It is after nine at night, so the normal working crowd has already made it home.
The closer to the heart of the city my rumbling tube car comes, the more travelers hop aboard. It started with a few teenagers decked out in silver glitter and black trainers, though they were soon surrounded, as I am, by the laborers: the people who make the city move—the people who moved to the city.
A quiet black man dressed in a faded brown suit finds a place on my row of blue plastic-covered seats, leaving one empty chair between us. I hate that empty chair—that chair that signals space for the invisible wall between two people who don’t know each other. But he surprises me by putting a cardboard box on the chair. Its top is open, allowing me to view the contents, like I somehow have a peephole through our wall.
It is filled with boxes of mango juice. What a strange thing to carry around, I think. Given this little window of opportunity, this little clue to a fellow traveler’s story, I ask aloud, “What is all the mango juice for?”
The man turns to me with a wide smile. It isn’t one of those fake smiles he might give to placate someone too curious for her own good—it is a genuine smile of acceptance.
“I love mangoes,” he tells me in his thick Congolese accent. And before I know it, he tells me his life story: how he came to London from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, how he started working at a hotel in the city, why he lives with his brother, why he takes boxes of mango juice to his apartment every week and drinks them so fast he has to buy an entire new case every Friday. He says that mango juice reminds him of his homeland.
And the whole time he is talking, he smiles. It’s infectious, that orange-slice grin. But even his smile is nothing compared to the way his words light up the tube car. Others sitting nearby silently eavesdrop, smiling with their eyes as they listen. A few glance our way every few moments. I’m grateful that I don’t have to hide my joy.
This man’s story fills me with understanding. As I sit talking to my new friend, I begin to learn why I travel. I travel for stories, for the knowledge that comes from others and from experiences I will never have.
When he stands to leave, the smiling man offers me a box of mango juice. I shake my head. I have received more than he knows from his words. He has given me more than mango juice.