For me, they have always started on airplanes. When I was traveling to China, it started on my flight from Hong Kong to Haikou. When I went to Ethiopia, I met Tiffany, Laura, and Geoffrey first thing when I flew, feeling deathly ill, from Dallas to Washington, D.C. I have friendships that have been made in so many different settings, but these friendships, the ones that I have made through mission trips, are different. They are more honest from the very beginning. The best and worst of each other is shown almost right off the bat. There is no honeymoon stage for these friendships. When people are thrown right into a world containing all things unfamiliar, despite their best efforts to be on their best behavior, after a few days, people's true selves come shining through.
In China, my closest traveling companion was Jamie. He was a tall, quick-witted writer from Asheville, North Carolina. He spoke often about sustainable living and music, apparently the only things that the hipster population of Asheville was concerned with. He made the same joke about roosters on an almost daily basis, and I laughed every single time. We went from being complete strangers, meeting on an airplane bound for China, to being colleagues, ministry partners, and instant friends. Chinese food didn't necessarily agree with our American digestive systems, and we both spent hours being sick and wishing that we had an American toilet with a real, actual seat instead of the traditional Chinese "squatty potty". We wandered the streets of China, and we used our broken Chinese to squabble over the prices of dishes and clothing. He introduced me to Jack Johnson (who I am almost certain that we both dislike at this point), Jump Little Children, Pete Yorn, and Sarah Harmer.
In Ethiopia, it was Laura. I knew we would be friends from the moment that I found out she was a fan of the Weepies. When we met, I loved her Southern honesty, everything spoken with a perfectly adorable Texas accent that made even her sarcasm sound sweet. We talked music and movies and boys. We stood guard for one another outside of a smelly outhouse built out of concrete blocks and sheets of rusting wavy tin, even though she eventually passed on using the outhouse. I believe she took kindly took the picture of several of us girls standing outside with our thumbs up, signifying that we had survived the outhouse experience. We rigged mosquito netting around our hotel window so that we could have our window open and still stay malaria-free. We saved seats for one another and endured endless meals where neither of us felt like eating but didn't feel like starving either. We packed and repacked suitcases. We posed for pictures. We sang songs with kids in tattered school uniforms. We held little black hands and gave hugs and repeated our names until we just gave up and let the children call us whatever they wanted to.
These weren't the only ones. There was Rebekah, my China roommate, my translator, and my friend. We hung our clothes and undergarments to dry on lines throughout our apartment, a seemingly personal thing that became so commonplace, that we often didn't think to take them down before people came in. Bras and panties on parade at our place. And Shawn, my Ethiopia friend that played countless games of Scrabble and was the only one to fully appreciate the hilarity of "non fartin fir fir" on a restaurant menu. Linda, the tough sounding New Yorker that shocked us all with her petite frame and sweet spirit and perfect makeup-less face. Tiffany, Kristi, Sarah, Teen, and Danielle... we shared rooms and hairdryers and medicine and two weeks worth of life-changing experiences.
There aren't too many people that I have known for such short periods of time that I am so comfortable with. But these experiences changed me, changed us. Kneeling down on a broken tile floor alongside a virtual stranger and washing and rubbing the feet of former prostitutes can kind of change your perspective about service. There is something unifying about standing and holding HIV positive babies, rocking them and talking in a language they don't understand but in a tone of voice that they do. In those moments, we looked at one another and held back tears and whispered our wishes to take them all home with us. We can talk about our experiences with other people. We can show the pictures and videos and tell stories, but the only people that can truly relate to what we lived were the people who lived it alongside us.
We came back home to America, and we are all back in our own familiar homes and dorms and apartment. We see each other on Facebook and occasionally in real life. Jamie is floating around on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico watching for whales and getting a farmer's tan. He has a girlfriend, and I don't think he is allowed to talk to me anymore. Such is life. Laura is in Texarkana, going to school and planning for her next big missionary adventure, no doubt. Several of these friends have gotten married. Some are finishing school. Shawn has been to Haiti so many times I lost count, continuing the selfless service that he started in Ethiopia. Linda is in New York with her husband and daughter, using her voice to speak up for the less privileged. Tiffany has returned to Africa already without us, maybe twice. I don't talk to them often, really. Distance makes it difficult to maintain friendships the way I would like to. But in an ideal world, I would sit down with them over a tiny cup of Ethiopian coffee with milk and sugar and talk about how their life is different and how it is the same. I love that they are the kind of friends that I could talk to as if no time has passed, as if we are still walking along the dry dusty streets of a poverty stricken village, carrying our cameras and backpacks and taking it all in.