Monday, January 11, 2010

Traveling Observations

When you're traveling, you venture beyond the realm of the familiar, the expected, and the "usual suspects." Without really thinking much about it, the world is now different on a regular basis. It's all rather fascinating, really, which is probably why people generally enjoy traveling - as a condiment in life and not its main event.

A Chinese priest I once knew, who was a brilliant translator and scholar but somewhat out of it in other areas of life, gave me a great insight many years ago. Every day, for years on end, he would travel the same route between where he lived and where he taught; that is, until they took his driver's license away because he was such a lousy driver. (Parenthetically, I'd read that insurance companies profiled "bad" drivers according to who they were and what they drove, and since this priest was an Asian religious driving a red, convertible sports car, he hit full marks across the board as the poster-boy for who not to insure.) I asked him once if he didn't get bored on that drive, and he said that he would never be bored. Each time he traveled that same route, he would intentionally find something new to see, notice, or pay attention to. And so each journey became a new little adventure of discovery. Traveling was an opportunity for learning, especially when doing so on a familiar route. I suppose that this was simply his scholarly disposition coming to the fore. Scholars essentially do that, paying close attention to something at once familiar, mysterious, and potentially surprising. Sharing it with others is just the icing on the cake.

Having done a bit of traveling about recently, certain things have grabbed my attention. Here are some of them, in no particular order.

1) It’s funny what people eat. Several times someone would walk by, clutching a bottle of water in one hand and a candy bar or bag of chips in the other. Or in a food line, a person would insist on a diet drink while carrying a tray filled with nothing but junk food. Sort of reminds me of the comic who said that he was on three diets at the same time…. He couldn’t get enough to eat with just one diet.

2) It’s funny how people pray. Rarely do you see a person in public pray over their meal before starting to eat. And if they do so, it’s usually done furtively and with small gestures. If you’re going into a church or temple, then it’s okay to pray. But if it’s a public space, then you have to be pretty committed to do so. Recently, I came out of my hotel room and went to the elevator halfway down the hall in order to take it down to the main lobby. When I turned into the small waiting area, I noticed a man in the far corner of the area on his knees looking for something under the table that stood there against the corner wall. Just as I was going to ask him if he needed help, he raised his body back up so that he was sitting upright on his knees, facing the corner. It was then that I realized that he was Muslim and that he was doing one of his five daily prayers, quietly but semi-publicly, and he was facing Mecca. I don’t know if I could do something like that. The assumption in the U.S. of separation between church and state makes it simply awkward to publicly pursue religious practices or attitudes, even if we proclaim religious liberty. Many years ago, G. K. Chesterton said it well: "Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it."

3) It's funny how people drive. In almost all highway driving situations, the slow lane is the fast lane and vice versa. I’ve tested this theory on a number of occasions and it is almost always perfectly true. It helps to know if there’s a major off-ramp ahead, because then the second lane is better. But in most cases, your best bet for a faster journey is to stick to that slow lane. Similarly, I now classify cars that pull up behind me on a wide highway as either "dolphins" or "donkeys." Those who are dolphins figure out how to pass me and do so rather quickly, and those who are donkeys just tailgate forever, even if both side lanes are wide open, waiting for me to move over so that they can go straight ahead. You can imagine which species I prefer.

4) It's funny how people behave. If you’re friendly towards strangers that you meet, they will be friendly in return 90% of the time. This ranges from those met professionally to the providential encounter with a salesperson, or a waitress, or someone on the street begging for money. People essentially want to be “seen” or recognized. Adding a measure of humanity to the encounter provides the kind of grace and depth that, while perhaps momentary, is nevertheless more significant than either person realizes.

5) It's funny how people change through technology. The cell phone may both deepen and avoid human relationships. Lots of people that I hear speaking on cell phones, especially if they’re talking to a family member, speak with real animation (even quite loudly, as if they’re in another world and they don’t know that anyone else can hear them). Their personality shines out in all its splendor. But as soon as that cell phone conversation ends, the mask is on and Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde. Even if you were to try to have a friendly conversation with them, it’s as if the need for it or the talent for it are no longer as necessary as they might have been before cell phones. Now an intimate conversation is only a phone call away, and even as that genuine self-revelation is publicly on display, the talent to do also distances itself further and further from here-and-now opportunities to meet someone new. It’s much more quiet in airport lounges than it used to be, except for the cell phone conversations.

Everyone has his/her own stories and observations about what’s going on around them. These are just a couple of things that have struck me. I don’t quite know what to do about them, but it seems good that at least I’m paying attention, or trying to.