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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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March 2009 Archives

Being Away, Missing Out?

A friend I often travel with has an unusual gift: the ability to tune out when things get tense. Once, on a hair-raising drive through Turkey, when our driver wouldn’t go less than 100 miles an hour and I was white-knuckled with fear, Jim fell asleep. Just blissfully took a nap, while the traffic blurred by around us.

“How could you do that?’’ I asked him later, amazed.

“Nothing else to do,’’ he said mildly.

In other words, he knows how to let go – something my yoga instructor advises before every class. Let go of the tasks on your mental list, let go of the day’s frustrations, let go of your fears, and concentrate only on the present moment.

It’s great advice, but I only manage to do it when I’m trying to twist myself into another position with a Sanskrit name. Or when I’m on a trip. Travel, more than anything I know, demands staying in that good old present moment.

I thought of this in late September, while I was in Scotland, traveling with friends. We’d been mentally off-line for a couple of weeks, as far as news from home was concerned. True, we had heard a few snippets about the economy – the DOW losing 775 points one day, more the next – but it seemed mercifully distant. The news we were really hungry for was about the presidential race.

One evening, in the living room of a snug cottage we’d rented near Loch Ness, we all settled down to watch a late-night re-broadcast of the final presidential debate on BBC-TV. We set out crackers, cheddar and wine and reached for the remote.

But that was the day Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a 700-billion-pound bailout, essentially nationalizing several major British banks. BBC-TV scrapped the American debate to deal with more pressing economic news on the homefront.

This put my own homefront in perspective – reminding me, as traveling always does, that we Americans are just part of a larger picture, not the center of attention at the world’s party.

A month later, I got another taste of travel-mandated non-involvement. While my fellow Americans prepared to go to the polls, I went to the airport, en route to India for a travel-writing conference. I’d cast my vote for president before I left, knowing I’d be on planes or running through airports from mid-afternoon on November 3 until I arrived in Calcutta at midday on November 5.

I had expected that the pilot of whatever plane I was on would announce the results. Wouldn’t every passenger want to know? Apparently not. Aboard Air India, it was as if the whole watershed event wasn’t taking place at all.

I didn’t know that Barack Obama had been elected until I got to my room, turned on the TV and located an Indian broadcast in English. The station’s self-possessed, beautifully spoken anchorman nearly wept with joy as he announced the new president’s name.

I was sorry I’d missed all the suspense and excitement. But I’d also missed the stress and agony of all that suspense and excitement. Travel had just forced me to do what my friend Jim does naturally: let go. When things are beyond your control, it’s a genuine relief.