30 Day Travel Series: Flying by the Seat of Our Pants - "Julian Style."

Jackson was a trip, because when he wasn't trying to freak us out about how we were going to die and get robbed on the train, he was really hilarious and friendly.

So Julian and I have this dynamic in our relationship where I am in charge most of the time when it comes to things like making travel arrangements, scheduling appointments, and initiating conversations. I don't like to always be in charge of that stuff though. Julian and I talk a lot about how we both would like to change it but it is really hard to actually make that change. Sometimes I cry and say, “I just want be the first mate and you to be the captain. Pleassse.” I know this is what I ultimately want; yet when it comes to actually giving up control, staying quiet, and taking a back seat, I have a really difficult time.

So, yes, I am reluctantly getting in touch with the fact that I have pretty serious control issues. It’s to the point that I will be riding my bike home talking to myself out loud about how when I get home I can’t ask Julian if he made hotel reservations for the upcoming weekend. I convince myself that someone that has truly relinquished control would just let him bring it up, instead of checking in like the “boss.” Then when I walk in the door we’ll hug, talk about our day, and I will be holding my tongue sooooo much that sometimes I will go into the bathroom and look in the mirror and say to myself, ‘Relax. Seriously, just take a deep breath, don’t do that. You cannot change dynamics if you don’t change your behavior.’ But then on the way out of the bathroom, it’s like the question just trips and falls out of my mouth: “Did you make the reservation?”

I am continually frustrated with myself, but I am seriously committed to it, so even if it is by baby steps, I am going to get there one day. I am even more committed to it now that Julian and I have co-founded a project together. It’s not just important to our relationship, it is also critical to the success of our project. So, like it or not, I am going to learn how to truly relinquish control, at least part of the time.

It can be quite a ride, relinquishing control to Julian, because it means you have to go for the ride 'Julian style’. ‘Julian style’ often means going on an adventure flying by the seat of your pants. If you asked my friends, most of them would say I am also a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants style planner, but in my relationship with Julian I am the spreadsheet/worry-about-all-the-details style of planner. 90% of the time "Julian style" turns out all right, though, so I need to figure out how to shut up and let Julian take the lead more.

The other challenge for me with “Julian style” is that he listens to authorities way more than I do. For example, if someone says to us that we cannot enter an event because we aren’t on the right list, he might just try the other doorman while I would pull out all the stops even if that meant leading us through the back door dressed up as caterers. So it is hard for me sometimes not to take over the planning process if things aren’t going our way, because I believe my pushy self could get it done for us faster or better.

But last October, before we set out on our three month trip together to launch the Million Person Project, I made a serious commitment to being a better first mate. Even if it meant sleeping on the streets sometimes, I would let him take the lead. That's why when we planned on going on a week vacation for the Christmas holidays, I stepped back and let him plan it. He decided Monday that on Tuesday he wanted to fly from Durban to Johannesburg and take the train to Cape Town. The catch: we didn't have train reservations or flights.

Holding back all my we-should-have-thought-of-this-earlier-if-we-wanted-to-do-it comments, I told him, “I'm totally along for the ride, let's do this.” I think he could tell I was trying to be a good first mate.

When we got to the Johannesburg airport we introduced ourselves to a taxi driver named Jackson outside and told him we would like to go to the train station to get the train to Cape Town. He took my bag and we started walking to his car. He asked us why we were going to take the train. We told him because we wanted to see the country. He stopped us in the parking garage, stood before us and said, “The train is FULL of black people – FULL!” He hit his hand on top of his other fist, a motion in Africa that means full.

We laughed uncomfortably and said that was okay with us. We got in the car and drove in silence. Then he started up again: “They see you, they see MONEEEEEEEY!” He nodded towards Julian. “There will be so many black people in the station, like ALL black people, it could be dangerous.” Julian said we'd just like to go anyway.

Julian and I were both laughing because he was so animated and yelling so much. He continued to explain that at some point we'd have to sleep on the train because it was a 23-hour ride, and then black people would steal our stuff. He wouldn't stop.

You know when you are in one of those horrible situations where people are saying things you don't feel like you should be nodding your head to? This was sort of one of those. Normally, I’d get into an argument with someone who was saying racist shit like that, but since we were in a different country and I had no idea how my comments would come across, I just sat and stewed and tried to think of something appropriate to say.

Jackson was a trip though, because when he wasn’t trying to freak us out about how we were going to die and get robbed on the train, he was really hilarious and friendly and told us all about growing up in Johannesburg, asked us about our project, and cracked jokes about South Africa. But he would pause sometimes mid-sentence and point out the window and say, “Look though, there are so many black people and they are not used to you just walking around, taking trains and stuff.”

From the backseat I said, “Excuse me sir, do you know that he is black?” I motioned towards Julian. He quickly disregarded that, “Yeah, yeah I know, but he’s not that black and he is with you.” He turned his head all the way around towards me and tapping his cheek he said, “Black is this color. When people see me, they see a black man, when they see you or him they see MONEEEEEEEY!” He continued on explaining the dangers of the train.

When we got to the station he wouldn't drop us in front. He insisted on going in with us to make sure we got tickets. Julian and I exchanged looks; Jackson was far out but I totally trusted the fact that he wanted to help us. So we left our bags in the car and he went with us to the ticket counter. The lady behind the counter hit her hand on top of her fist and said, “Sorry, full! It’s the week before Christmas, we’ve been full for a month.” Jackson said, “See?” and started walking away. We asked him to wait a couple more minutes and we got in the back of the line to speak to the ticket lady again. When we got to the front, we asked if she could double check that there weren't any seats. She said, “No seats,” without looking up. We continued standing at the counter. Julian, who usually stays quiet in this type of situation, spoke up and asked with the utmost sincerity, “Anything changed in the last thirty seconds?” She looked up, “Oh, maybe. Stay here,” she said and got up from her desk.

Julian waited for her to return and I - worrying Julian might not be aggressive enough with her, but remembering my commitment to be his first mate - walked back over to where Jackson was standing. Together we looked at the line of people waiting to board the train. The station was packed. Yes, there were only black people in the station; Jackson was right about that. I pointed out that everyone looked like they were getting ready for Christmas – families carrying bags of presents and boxes of candy, kids running around, tugging at their grandparents’ arms. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, these train riders actually look all right today,” he said.

Julian came over, victorious, with two vouchers and said we had to go wait on the platform to see if they had a sleeper car for us. If not, they said they'd try to squeeze us in a seat. We got our bags and Jackson escorted us to the platform and waved us off.

I watched the train manager going back and forth on the platform. If I wasn’t being first mate, I would have been running up and down the platform with him, reminding him we were there, trying to charm him and saying we were flexible. I used all my might to sit next to Julian calmly as he waited for the train manager to come to us. The manager finally came over to us and said in a hushed voice, “I have an option for you but it is not allowed so just listen. You will sleep in a junior cabin in the staff quarters for half price.”

We smiled, gave each other high fives and he showed us to our room.

In the room, as Julian was making our beds, he looked up and said, “You are a good first mate.”

I smiled and said, “Yeah, thanks, this is so much fun.”

This is one of 30 untold stories of launching a global project (with my boyfriend, Julian) about love, story telling and connecting change makers.

Read all 30 days here: http://www.smithmag.net/community/people.php/HBOX

Throughout Vietnam, South Africa, and Uganda, we engaged with 650 everyday people working to make the world a better place to share their stories. Inevitably, there were parts of our adventures we couldn’t tell while on the road, because we were a start up trying to prove our merits as a serious social change project or because of nervous families monitoring our journey. But the truth is while we worked passionately to bring our dream project to life we also had an adventure of a lifetime. Here are the stories behind the stories of the Million Person Project: http://www.millionpersonproject.org.


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