Archive for August, 2011

Travel Is Hell (and 119 Slices of Life There)

August 18, 2011

Buddhism short-circuited whining centuries ago.

Buddhists accept that the brief interval in which our souls exist isolated within mortal biological vessel, must, by its nature, imply suffering, and life proceeds from that premise. This is why sensible Japanese eschew Buddhism for weddings, preferring Christian or, more often, Shinto ceremonies, but console themselves about the deaths of their loved ones by going to Buddhist temples. Given the assumption of inevitable suffering throughout life implies—it must be a relief to die.

As a fully licensed road warrior, a professional who carries a pocketful of frequent flier and car rental cards, I spent my company’s accumulated wealth as I saw fit (while realizing a lot of my expenses might not ever be reimbursed) when I was a CEO.  Now, still a road warrior, but traveling for business mostly on my own account, I depart a Shinto and come home a Buddhist.

A deep sense of relief infuses my body as it enters a cab to Dulles or Logan or Fiumicino airports for the beginning of its next immersion into life as an aerospace missionary. Cut from the umbilical of the clothes in my closet, the toilet articles in my bathroom, and the electronic gadgetry on my writing desk (which has no room for writing covered as it is by equipment, wires, and the power supplies and connectors necessary to make them all cooperate), I am my own universe.

I will survive in nature as a component within the air transportation system. I’ll sleep, not under the stars next to a whitewater river with rafts dragged on shore for the evening and embers slowly dying in a campfire, and not even in a building, but rather—inside giant machines, their turbine engines whining and their seat belt signs turning ever on and off, always accompanied by a Pavlovian bell that induces even a soundly sleeping soul to unconsciously check the long-ago-fastened metal buckles.

Life becomes simpler. Whatever I don’t have, I’ll live without or buy or improvise. This simple life has in fact itself been purchased by contracts that are large compared with my actual salary, or by invitations to be that special speaker who comes right after the keynote speaker, that old guy whom they bring in to say something intelligent. Combined with the nth round-the-world airline ticket, 40 nights in overpriced hotels, several weeks of rental cars, Shinkansen tickets, and elegant meals with inelegant people—within the sea of that banality, a pearl of divinity must exist. Somewhere.

Whatever prep work I didn’t do will get done in a plane, a taxi, or a waiting room. Two shirts and two pairs of pants yield only four possible sartorial combinations. Dressing simply, I’ll live among the natural elements and commune with their spirits, for instance the aroma of Jet-A (aka jet fuel fumes). I won’t be alone; Eurodiesel exhaust mixed with a 6:00 a.m. cold mist will waft through the Parisian streets and alleys and red-light district and path along the Seine with me. I’ll experience life with them, and through them.

When I try to get the defroster to work, the rented red Chevy Cavalier sprays tobacco ashes on me. But it doesn’t matter. Life wasn’t designed to be comfortable. It was designed to pique the senses and test the mind, and that is what nature will do for me and to me for the next one, two, three, four, five, six, ten weeks.

Buddhists love life. They love it through its discomforts, its disappointments, its raw bitterness. The life of the itinerant traveler, lugging laptop, palm top, batteries, cell phones, cigarette chargers, wall charger, thumb drives, brochures, business cards, ear plugs, wallet, passport, tickets, books, magazines, pens and pencils, Ray-Bans, and maybe an emergency ration of Diet 7-Up, all in the eternal blue JanSport backpack, wasn’t built for comfort, or convenience, or sleep maintenance, or great eating, or perfect biking and swimming opportunities.

That life deprives you of those things whenever it can. At home we do not give thanks for an electrical outlet. But the occasional rate AC plug next to an unoccupied seat near the gate of my next flight is the day’s gift, my friend, my soulmate. A yogurt stand with sugar-free walnut flavor is my kill. An empty middle seat is my bed at night.

The struggle against the entropy of the universe seen at an average sustained speed of 60 mph, 24/7, maintained for weeks, with the occasional brilliant victory addict me. Cable TV, which I don’t have at home (actually, I don’t have any TV at home), catalyzes the metamorphosis from Shinto to Buddhist: tuning in to CNN Sports Summary on Flamingo Hotel cable in Solna, just north of Stockholm, watching that one golfer on that one hole, where she sinks the 58-foot putt, is meaningless if you haven’t watched all her missed gimmes. The tie-breaking homer in the bottom of the 13th is just another sailing baseball if you haven’t lived the inning-after-inning-after-inning monotony of a 1:1 deadlock through a steady Pittsburgh drizzle.

That’s the lure of travel, not the friendship of the carpet upon which I sit because the power plug isn’t near a seat by my gate at the airport. The white-hot heat of success is thermodynamically powerful only when coupled with the cold dimness of its frustrations, a few, in fact 90119, of which I’ve collected.

A few preliminary examples: an 80°F, 25m, non-turbulent pool with marked but empty lanes that’ll be open for the next 75 minutes is an everyday occurrence for me in Rhode Island. But I score that victory in Colombo, or Graz, or Kuala Lumpur, and it’s an event worthy of a nine-dollar phone call home. Hey! I swam 60 beautiful minutes in a real pool! The girlfriend, or my dad, thinks: For this he flew 10,000 km and disappeared for a month?

I plan to convene a road veteran’s conference for the purpose of canonizing and agreeing on the numbering of these inconveniences that create the freezing, entropyless cosmic background of travel against which our daily lives are pitted. Then, when we brush past each other in the stairwell of the 16-story hotel whose elevators, all two of them, kicked a breaker and died during the 8:00 a.m. rush to check out, we won’t need to say any more than “18? 15 for me yesterday — in Sydney can you believe it?” And we’ll nod and trudge ever downward.

In the next few weeks I’ll present all 119 of these little inconveniences. Perhaps you’ve encountered the same or similar ones. Maybe your red Chevy Cavalier was a Toyota something-or-other, or a fellow traveler was saturating your aisle with ear spray from open-style headphones in economy, not plus,instead of changing their kid’s diaper in public.

If you’ve had unique and discomfiting travel experiences you’d like to share—and that have helped you toward a Buddhist appreciation of travel as inevitable suffering, from which you have returned a better, wiser person—feel free to share.


Rick Fleeter

author, Travels of a Thermodynamicist