An Interview with Patrick Eaton -- Lead Character in Chaturanga
Less than one month after completing a dramatic journey across Central Asia, fourteen-year-old Patrick Eaton could easily be forgiven if he were still struggling to readjust to life back home. After all, he had spent nearly three months immersed in a land and culture vastly different from his own. But earlier this week, when I caught up with him in the cafeteria of Central High School, it appeared Eaton had already transitioned back into a typical American teenager.
“I couldn’t find my khakis this morning,” he said with a sheepish grin, arriving at our meeting in a wrinkled t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. He sat down across from me and lifted a threadbare baseball cap to reveal the shaggy hairstyle so popular with adolescents these days.
Having worked with teenagers before, I replied that it was okay; this was not a job interview. Besides, I added in a pitiful attempt to relate, it must be tough settling back into the cruel world of young adulthood. He just smiled and shook his head. “Actually, I just slept through my alarm this morning.”
Looking him over, I started to wonder if I was in the right place. My editor had hooked me with the tale of an American boy who accompanied his father on a business trip to Azerbaijan, and was then whisked along a hair-raising adventure on the Silk Road. Trekking across deserts and visiting far-flung oasis-cities, he had learned about the wider world and his place in it, surviving difficulties and dangers, and growing stronger and wiser as a result. Could this be that same boy?
“Tell me about your summer,” I continued, reaching down to fish around my jacket pocket for a notebook and pen. When I looked up again, a startling transformation had taken place. The boyish grin was gone. In its place was a cool smile and eyes that radiated energy as they focused on mine. Leaning forward, he intertwined his fingers on the table between us and cleared his throat. When he spoke, his voice bore the composure that I expected of a seasoned explorer.
“Central Asia is beautiful… and complex,” he began quietly, and I knew in that moment that I did, in fact, have the right Patrick Eaton. “It’s an ancient land, occupied over millennia by conquerors since Alexander [the Great], and the birthplace of its own great conquerors.”
He went on to explain that he had known virtually nothing of the region before last summer. “In school, we studied the big empires – the Greeks, Mongols, Persians, and Chinese. But I had never heard of Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan. I didn’t even know where Central Asia was before I went there.”
As he continued his story, my brain worked to recall where these places were. I couldn’t, but I nodded along anyway, not wanting to reveal my ignorance to a kid wearing flip-flops.
“It seemed like an accident that I went to Baku in the first place.” As he spoke, his thoughts seemed to drift away from our table and out the cafeteria windows. “I had planned to spend my summer playing baseball and video games. Instead, I ended up learning about caravanserais, the oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea, and the Soviet Union’s expansion into the Caucasus – that’s the region to the west of the Caspian.”
As he emphasized this last point, his voice sounded almost paternal. I wondered if he had sensed my poor grasp of geography, or if returning to a high school cafeteria was tugging at my own strings of insecurity. But his expression was sincere and friendly, and I realized he was just excited to share what he had learned.
Eaton then pulled a well-worn map out of his backpack. Over the next hour, using his finger as a pointer, he led me across the Silk Road while recalling each of the places he had visited. He described what he had learned along the way, shared some of his favorite memories, and discussed particular moments when he had felt enlightened, scared, or inspired.
“I remember standing in this beautiful, ancient tomb, in a city that was all but forgotten, looking up at the sky and thinking about how many millions of people had stood in that very same place century after century. It really hit me how old this part of the world is, and that people like myself don’t really know much about it. We think it’s all deserts and nomads, full of wars and poverty. But there’s so much more to it! Central Asia has an incredibly deep and rich history and culture. I mean, they had such large, diverse, sophisticated cities – visited by travelers from all over the world – at a time when people in France or Britain were still living in wooden huts!”
I nodded and scribbled away in my notebook, forgetting that I was talking with a teenager.
Were you ever scared? I asked. “Oh, yeah, lots of times.” He leaned back, breathed deeply, and rubbed his hands together. “Scared in different ways.” How did you cope with this? “Well, for one thing, I was with my dad, and he’s like one of the bravest people I know.” His face lit up at this. “And I was also surrounded by friends who cared about me and wanted to see me persevere. So I relied on their guidance, as well as others who I couldn’t see but that I could feel were there with me. Along the way, I began to see that courage is not about being fearless; it’s about keeping going when you’re most scared.”
With my respect for this young man growing exponentially, I asked how he felt being back in the States – and back in school – after his experience abroad.
“It’s nice,” he replied, nodding slowly. “It’s good to be around my friends again, to get back into my routine, and to enjoy some of the comforts I’d taken for granted before… like knowing how to get to the local supermarket, or getting a reliable internet reception on my cell phone, or just sleeping in my own bed without having to worry about scorpions or sandstorms.”
What does he miss most about last summer?
“Probably spending time with my dad, I guess. That – and the friends I made along the way. I met some really amazing people – really smart and kind people – who each shared perspectives with me, taught me something about the world, and helped me learn about myself, too. And I miss the excitement of exploration and travel, too – never knowing what might happen, who you’ll meet, and what you’ll see, do, and learn along the way. Traveling helped me learn how other people live, relate, and understand the world. I think it made me a better person.”
Now that he’s home, how does he find that people relate to his experience?
“It’s been interesting,” he answers, laughing softly. “Everybody seems to connect with a different part of my trip. For example, my friends are mostly interested in whether I found any lost cities, or if I got arrested or chased by spies, or climbed a mountain peak, or met any girls – stuff like that. My dad’s friends want to hear what I think about the energy business, and how I see falling oil prices affecting those countries. My mom’s a lawyer, so of course she and her friends are interested in the region’s politics – how the people of Central Asia relate to each other and their own governments. And my teachers mostly want to know about the culture, the history, the arts – those sorts of things. But everybody’s different. Everyone I talk with wants to hear about my summer through their own interests and biases.”
He looked at me for a moment, and I got that uncomfortable sensation again that he was able to read my thoughts. “And some just want to know about me – how I’m different as a result of my experience.”
I took the bait and asked him how his summer changed him. “Well, for one thing, I know that I want to do more traveling!” His eyes danced with excitement. Back to Central Asia? I pressed. “Definitely. But other places, too. I’ve learned that we live in a really big world. There are still plenty of frontiers left to explore.”
He glanced across the cafeteria at tables full of talking and laughing teenagers. “And I’ve learned that appearances can be misleading. The people we are most afraid of or prejudiced against can end up our best friends. Sometimes, those we trust can break that trust for reasons which may be unclear or difficult for us to understand. Traveling really helped me appreciate that everyone’s different, but that we also have more in common than we realize. You know what I mean?”
I certainly did. We spent another half-hour talking like old friends. Despite my initial misgivings for interviewing a teenager about his summer vacation, I began to realize that I’d fallen victim to my own prejudices and was just as guilty of having been deceived by appearances. Eaton may look like your ordinary teenager, but he’s also an incredibly thoughtful, smart, and open-minded young man.
More than that, he seems to possess a special charm – a genuine desire to learn about and relate to others – which makes him incredibly likeable. At one point, I caught myself sharing thoughts and opinions that I hadn’t spoken aloud in years. When I realized this – and apologized if I’d talked too much – he just smiled and shrugged, saying something about how his great-grandfather possessed the real charm. Patrick was just a guy trying to find his place in the world, he said, just like everyone else.
After meeting him, I can say that Patrick Eaton is certainly not the same as everyone else. But then, none of us are. On the other hand, sitting in his high school cafeteria – a place that could even make a seasoned journalist feel anxious – Patrick reminded me that if we look beyond appearances, we will find that we have a lot more in common then we think.
– Andrew C. Katen