In transit

Avoid dead time, the recommendations go. Time in airports, time in train stations. Spend that time adventuring, seeing one more temple, eating one more meal. Never eat on the plane. Never drink on the train. Spend the time walking, and then rush to the gate, to the platform. Be the last one on board. See more, and wait less.

This advice is not wrong. The airports of the world are more similar than the cities, the restaurants, the temples. Train platforms are empty things, born of functionality and passenger capacity. Security lines are massive multiplayer experiments in patience, and in humanity’s ability to trust the unseen. A single hour sitting in a Ho Chi Minh City food stall is worth a dozen in Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport Terminal 1. An hour in Edinburgh more valuable than a dozen in JFK’s Terminal 4. Time waiting can’t be reclaimed, and hours spent in the Shaoxing train station can never be turned into great stories.

Except for the arcade game in Shaoxing station, a drop the claw and pick up a prize style box, the glass enclosure filled not with plush toys but with foil-wrapped packs of cigarettes. Except for the hours spent with old men sitting in the halls of high speed trains, watching the Chinese countryside blur past. Except for the feeling of a long tail boat pushing off from an island beach in Thailand. Travel is dead time and it is watchful time.

In between our house and our office are two chapters of a novel read on the train, a podcast, a phone call, an album. In between where we are and where we are going are a couple of accidental interactions with people we had no intention of meeting. Multiplied by hundreds, thousands, and our lives are suddenly full of strangers, filled with observation and the opportunity to learn. Would we be richer without all our time in transit? When asked what super power I’d want, I immediately wish for teleportation; the ability to eat dinner with my grand parents and then watch the sun set on the Pacific, the chance to play ultimate with friends in all corners of the globe on the same day, and the opportunity to see hundreds of thousands of places I will probably never see specifically because of transit time. Until recently I have never considered what I’d be giving up.

Airports can be hassles, security mind-numbing. Busses can be too bouncy to read on, or smell of urine. Trains can be filled with people eating food on our seats and smoking cigarettes in our air space. And yet are we better off without that time? Are we better off without each other?

On a flight back from Haneda to SFO I look around at my fellow travelers, each with their own destination and their own purpose. We are crammed together in this flying tube far above the Pacific, uncertain of the hour or day, trusting our pilots, watching movies, and dreaming of places far away. For a few hours we are free from all interruptions from the world outside, obligated only to each other.

We could all do worse than these hours expended in motion.