I emerge out of the 33rd and Lexington subway stop Ray Ban sunglasses shielding my face, Kate Spade tote in one hand and a Starbucks venti in the other. People of all shapes and colors swarm all around me like water flowing from an unleashed dam. Wafts from spicy kebabs mingle with the sweet smells of fried donuts at street corners. The narrow streets are packed with sunny yellow cabs led by immigrants- engineers and doctors in their own countries who crossed the oceans to start a new life here. The constant din of screaming horns punctuates the air swollen with smoke. New York City, no place like it. As I walk down the street, I pass a few hundred strangers, avoiding eye contact with all of them. Any accidental locking of eyeballs is met with a stone-faced response. It’s the nonverbal language of the city.
I was 23, newly single and had just moved from North Carolina where opening doors for strangers with a smile and a “Hi, how are you doing?” was a daily dalliance. But here, in the big city bursting at its seams with ambitions, dreams, and knock-off designer handbags, it was clear no one had time for that. And really, at that point, I had no answer if I was asked how I was doing. I was young, free from expectations for the first time in my life and felt both the weight and freedom of making anything of myself that I set out to. The lack of a smile on a stranger’s face was oddly comforting to me; it gave me a certain sense of invisibility that liberated me from how my choices might impact others. It seemed ok to just “do me” for a while. In the absence of smiles was a silent acknowledgement, “OK stranger, you have somewhere to be, I have somewhere to be. Let’s not waste each other’s time with a meaningless exchange.”
Seven years later, marginally wiser and only slightly more aware of how I was doing, I found myself on an island in the Indian Ocean, the golden rays warming both my face and the lush fields I was looking out into. Bali – a haven for yogis, vegans and stag parties from Australia. Fresh out of another heartbreak and craving an escape filled with sun and sun salutations, Bali seemed like the perfect antidote to the chaos in my life. This time, instead of losing myself in a sea of people, I wanted the sea itself to heal my wounds.
I had just made my way to Ubud, nestled in the middle of the island amidst mountains and rainforests. On the advice of half a dozen travel blogs, I hadn’t booked a place to stay in advance of getting there. I planned to wander the streets looking for the little rectangular signs that signaled that the family living in that house was willing to host me for a few nights. I passed a temple, a common sighting in this part of the world, whose footsteps were decorated with canang sari – little palm leaf bowls of offerings – and turned a corner to take me down a narrow side street. A board with the word “room available” invited me into a house. I peek into the compound and hollered over to a petite woman dressed in a printed sarong and a white lace top.
“Excuse me, do you have an open room that I can stay in?” She looked over at me, no doubt taking in my backpack, my oversize pants block-printed with the om symbol and my singlet with the elephant God on it. A decade of traveling had my instincts well-honed for detecting a tourist scam from a mile away. I was somewhere well past pragmatic and into the realm of jaded. Here comes the con, I thought to myself, because she thinks I am a desperate tourist who doesn’t know better.
She signaled over to her daughter, a lanky 12-year old playing with her younger brother nearby. She murmured a few sentences to the girl who then said to me in carefully constructed sentences; “My mother says the room is taken but there is another room which we are setting up. It is not very nice so my mother said she can give it to you for very cheap.”
I turned to glance at the mother who was watching her daughter studiously as she played translator. Then the petite first lady of the household turned to me and flashed a smile. That smile. It took me aback for the mere fact that it asked nothing of me, expected nothing of me, nothing except its acceptance. It liberated me from my self-imposed confinement amidst the sky-high walls surrounding my heart that kept the world at bay. It was more than a woman’s smile, it was the wisdom of the universe being offered to me when I had assumed I had to go it alone. Her earth-colored lips radiated its mirth on to her cheeks, her eyes, her arms, her legs, to every inch of her that stood in front of me. In contrast I felt the heaviness of my own heart, reflecting in my eyes, my cheeks, my lungs, my stomach as I stood mirthless and exhausted from the last three decades on this planet. What ridiculous turns of events had led us to be facing each other at this minute. Where did her smile come from? When had mine disappeared? Somewhere along those walks from the subway station down the crowded avenues of the city to my shoebox apartment, I had reached a profound state of disconnection from the sea of people around me. I had convinced myself the world didn’t have my back and I owed it nothing in return. But here, in this walled compound in the middle of the Indian Ocean thousands of miles away from anyone or anything I knew, I found myself connected in some implicit way with everybody and everything. By the simple virtue of the warmth of a smile, the simple gesture of an open heart, I felt the ice of loneliness in my heart start to erode. I would see that smile over and over again during my time tin Bali. In fact, I have seen it since in many parts of the world. Was it always there and I had just missed it? Maybe, but maybe I wasn’t ready to see it. Maybe I had to go it alone for a bit – disappear into the sea of stone-faced strangers for a bit – before settling back into the warm glow of their smiles.
I think now a lot about that woman, her smile, what it did for me. It wasn’t the yoga, the balmy waters or the mesmerizing sunsets that cured me in Bali. It was the smile plastered on young, unripe faces, old, ripened faces, the faces of people who were strangers and didn’t want to ask me how I was doing. They simply wanted to acknowledge me, my presence, as I was, no questions asked.
What’s in a smile? The power to heal.