Mastery of the Small


I realized by the second international trip of my life, with an uncle and aunt who had graciously invited me along with them to Peru to hike to Machu Picchu, that I loved airports.  I loved the tenseness and the hurrying, the sense of being in a crowd where everyone’s immediate purpose was evidenced clearly, but where no one’s deeper purpose was at all clear, removed as they were from their everyday.  And, as the trip unfolded, it was not just airports I realized, but train stations, ferry ports, and even the odd dingy bus terminal.  I read a travelogue at some point on that trip in which the author wrote lucidly of the feeling of potential, and nowhere-ness, of travel hubs.  They’re something of an exclusive mixing ground, a place of incredible diversity, bound by a common activity, isolated from the world of place.

Imagination is very involved in travel.  It’s required simply to plan the trip, to imagine the events you’ll need to anticipate while packing.  What will I need to pack for eighty degrees and lots of rain for a week?  But for many trips, it also serves as motivation, illuminating the thing you go to, which for now is not near enough, not concrete enough, to see or completely understand without the help of imagination.  Both sorts are exciting, though I think the former sometimes gets short shrift in much travel writing.

Those simple things require not only imagination, but adaptability, and ultimately, a skillset all their own.  From learning basic skills like how to use a rancid squat toilet on a moving train in Asia or a bulkhead lavatory during some inflight turbulence, to brushing your teeth without water or sleeping on a short bunk with no blankets, there are a hundred ways you can (and likely will) be put “outside your comfort zone” while taking even the most luxurious trip.  That’s saying euphemistically, it’ll probably be uncomfortable.

In my experience, though, doing something uncomfortable often just means you’re doing it for the first time (though sometimes, after repetition, I’ve discovered it’s just plain old uncomfortable).  Unfortunately, as I get older, I find myself only tolerating discomfort if the payoff at the end, the skill I’m putatively acquiring, seems really cool.  Often that just means someone else who’s done it has convinced me it’s cool.  I haven’t, however, seen many movies I like featuring a compelling scene with a dirty blockhouse shower in rural Laos.

I’ve found these skills to be far more gratifying than some of the others I’ve picked up, though.  Feeling a sense of craft in what you do, a competence that stands on its own (since you won’t be impressing anyone with many of these skills), and the quality – and sheer texture – it adds to travel, is awesome.

I was back in Peru years after my first trip there, and standing back in the same airport.  The sun-bleached tile and still air tangibly reminded me of my original excitement being there, and it put in perspective how far I’d come.   Last time, I almost missed the connecting flight – I didn’t have a clue how to navigate an airport, and mainly just followed others, hoping they knew the way.  Now, I can usually get directions quickly in almost any language between some key phrases, and a sense of what pantomimes and hasty sketches in my notebook will quickly convey my need and my gratitude.  When I had to go to the bathroom, I knew how to juggle my luggage and my fly, and when I needed a meal, I didn’t gag at the unidentifiable thing placed in front of me with a smile.  And when I did all these things, I knew how to keep getting better, to keep finding more nuance to explore.

This approaching mastery of the small things in travel is when I realized that travel is not just a means to an end, not just an escape, not just a necessary evil, but a craft.  It’s an activity which interfaces with much of the world, with an incredible depth of practice and an incredible number of consequently related skills available to the diligent practitioner.  And just like many crafts, which can produce something of beauty and wonder accessible to just about anyone – from a beautiful piece of furniture to a great piece of music – a well-crafted trip, built upon all these tiny little skills and appreciations, is sublime.


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