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It's a Small World (Catch 'em All)
On making friends in the digital era — and meeting an astronaut via Pokémon Go
There’s really no way to introduce the picture below except to just say what it is: Here is a picture of us on our honeymoon, at a high school on a remote Atlantic island, with NASA astronaut Danny Olivas.
There are many things I love about this picture. Obviously it’s cool to meet someone who’s been to space. It’s a souvenir of a truly absurd situation — this was certainly the most-memorable stop I’ve ever made on the way to the airport. And most importantly, it’s a reminder of the serendipitous connections and experiences you can find if you open yourself up to them. Because the story of how we got to this moment is even more incredible than the chance to shake hands with an astronaut.
Before I go any further, there are three things you should know about Pokémon Go. The first is that I still play it. Yes, it’s been six years it came out, and you don’t see crowds of people walking around hunched over their phones the way you might have that first summer. But many people never gave up the game — which, for the record, is significantly better in many ways than it was when it was first released — and I am one of them.
The second key piece of background is that different Pokémon are available in different places. While the pool of catchable creatures is mostly the same everywhere, a handful of Pokémon are region-locked. If you don’t live in their geographic zone, the only ways to complete your collection are to travel to wherever they spawn, or to trade with someone who has. Sometimes the exclusive territory is defined broadly, like a continent or a full hemisphere. Other Pokémon have narrower boundaries, like Klefki in France, Comfey in Hawai’i, or Bouffalant in the Amtrak Corridor.
The third thing you might not know about Pokémon Go is that, despite everyone having their own screens, it is a cooperative game. Legendary raid battles — recurring timed events when particularly powerful Pokémon pop up virtually at a local landmark — usually require more than one player to win. Coordinating with nearby trainers about where and when to battle is essential for beating and catching them. You can also make trades with, battle against, and even send digital postcards to your in-game connections. We’ve made several honest-to-god friends around our neighborhood while catching imaginary monsters on our phones.
All of this is to say that, whenever I travel to a new place with a different pool of available Pokémon, I’ll head to the local Facebook group or Discord server to try to arrange some trades. If someone needs a Pokémon from Philadelphia (or wherever else I’ve been) and they have something valuable to give in exchange, everybody wins! Once I’m back home, the in-game postcards they send are like continuous souvenirs from my trip, and some people even keep in touch outside the app too.
And then there was Luis.
It didn’t take long for Luis to make an impression on us. We met up with him shortly after we landed on the Açorean island of São Miguel. As we made our first trade — if I remember correctly, I swapped a Carnivine from Florida for his rare but globally available Tirtouga — we bypassed the awkward small talk and immediately started getting to know each other. A quick meetup with a stranger felt like an overdue catch-up with an old friend. He was particularly interested in our plans for our stay in São Miguel, and wanted to ensure we experienced the beautiful island to the fullest. When we finally parted ways, Luis insisted that we come back to his neighborhood that weekend so he could take us on a proper tour.
And so, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon on a remote subtropical island, we met our new friend in Ponta Delgada (the Açores’ largest city) and drove around the western thumb of São Miguel.
As every traveler knows, nothing beats the lived knowledge of a local when you’re exploring a new place. Despite anyone’s pretensions to the contrary, there’s only so much you can glean from blog posts or guidebooks. For example, one of the most popular attractions on São Miguel is a miradouro (lookout point) called Vista do Rei — literally, “View of the King.” The summit overlooking the twin lakes of Sete Cidades lives up to its name: it’s a vantage-point truly worthy of a monarch. But after letting our jaws drop for a couple minutes, Luis ushered us a little ways down the road, where the view was even more magnificent.
We slowly meandered down the verdant cliffs, stopping at each of Luis’ favorite miradouros. A short while and some precarious off-roading later — a journey we would never have even attempted without the assurance and direction of our guide — we reached the small peninsula in the middle of the picture above.
We stopped for a cup of local white tea (and a series of Pokémon trades) before making a loop through the whale-watching perches of the island’s western coast.
And while it isn’t worth explaining the full confluence of events that led Dr. Olivas to Luis’s orbit (pun intended) in São Miguel a few days later, when someone asks you if you want to meet an astronaut, the answer is always yes. Or I guess in this case, sim.
When I think back to the time we spent with Luis, the thing I remember most fondly isn’t the magnificence of a specific view, or the creaminess of the gelato he encouraged us to try, or the energizing firmness of an astronaut’s handshake. It’s the warm feeling of making a new friend: Talking about his life, trading perspectives on the world, hearing the stories he told about all the places he showed us. Forging the kind of interpersonal connection that gives us a purpose in this world.
One hallmark of modern life that seems increasingly common in my circles is the rarity of making new friends. Maybe it’s the pandemic and how it broke people’s routines of hanging out aimlessly in public places. Maybe it’s that the more-pervasive work-from-home lifestyle gives you fewer opportunities to bump into people. Maybe it’s a natural step now that I’m married and just turned — gulp — 30. And in my case it’s surely also complacency, the result of my great fortune to have enough loved ones (and treasured Substack subscribers) that I don’t feel pulled to be more outgoing in my daily life. However valid the reasons for your introversion, meeting Luis was a great reminder of what those of us who don’t make new friends often are missing.
There’s a polemic to be written here about the oxymoronic combination of interconnectedness and isolation that defines our modern life. The ubiquity of social media means you’re never more than a couple clicks away from finding someone to interact with through your screen, but the flipside is you have less incentive to actually meet people face-to-face. In a similar vein, the meticulous planning we did before our honeymoon paid off in that we did, saw, and ate some incredible things, but it meant we didn’t save time for other opportunities for spontaneity, like trading a virtual sprite for a private tour of our idyllic surroundings.
Yet for as much as one can bemoan the myopic frivolities of the digital era, it’s only because of them that all this was possible. The silly mobile game that keeps my eyes glued to my phone instead of the world when I’m walking around the city? It sparked an international friendship. (It took an immense level of self-restraint not to title this essay Pokémon Go to the Açores.) A social media platform that has been incalculably corrosive both societally and personally? That’s how Luis and I found each other. Had either of us not been a committed planner we would never have met up for a trade, let alone tooled around Sete Cidades or posed for a picture with an astronaut. The potential for human connection in the modern world is there. You just have to find it.
The other night, I was walking home from picking up dinner when an older man recognized my Brown shirt. (There’s no way to set this scene without painting myself as an Ivy League stereotype. You got me) He introduced himself as a fellow alumnus, and we starting chatting about Providence, our freshman dorms, and which fraternities got banned from campus while we were in school. Even as an unabashed introvert, having a friendly conversation with a stranger made my heart as warm as the tub of drunken noodles in my hands.
The world is a better place when you’re connected to people in it. There’s community and companionship to be found everywhere you look. And when it comes to making friends, you’ve gotta catch ‘em all.
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