Paying Attention To Detail

I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my bucket list.

This statement always makes my mind spin with dreams of travel. From the exotic spice markets of Marrakech where the colors and smells overwhelm you with delight, to the limestone karsts of Southern China where lush jungle vines and ethereal fog appear to be the only things holding up the precarious rock formations. I love to travel. It’s a drug I can never get enough of. I pump it into my veins as often as I can. I’m a junkie looking for the next high.

I haven’t been everywhere, but I have been a lot of places and seen, and experienced, amazing things. Occasionally, especially when you have been traveling for extended periods, that voice in your brain whispers to you, “This place is great……but it’s kind of like that other place. It’s kind of the same ol'”.

I hate that voice. It’s the voice of distraction. It’s the voice of a tourist, not a traveller. My goal is always to experience a place with all of my senses, not just see. I want to soak in every details of the place: the sights, the smells, the feeling, the people. Everything.  Of course, that is easier said than done.

Last year, I was hiking the Camino de Santiago. I’d been hiking across the Meseta with another pilgrim, Bobbi. For hours, the clouds were the color of lead, and just as heavy. It threatened rain, but never delivered. I often find this is far worse than if the sky broke and poured down from above. At least then you can stop waiting for the rain. It’s the suspense that puts you on edge, like a horror movie. You are tense. You know the knife is going to come eventually. Just get it over with!

The knife never came. We arrived in a small town, the church tower our guiding star. Beside the church, we stopped for the night at an albergue made of rough stone bricks, covered in sand colored cement, chipped and faded looking as tired as we were. I’d been hiking for over two weeks. All albergues were beginning to look the same: Four walls, a bed, and a hot shower if you were lucky. That voice of distraction began to buzz around me; a gnat I couldn’t swat. We walked through into the courtyard, our hopes as low as the clouds above. We walked  into an oasis of artwork. Murals covered the walls in bright hues of  green, red, blue, and yellow. Sculptures of iron, and carvings of wood, clutched at the sky begging the eye to linger on exquisite details. And fellow pilgrims, from all corners of the world, sat relaxing, enjoying everything travel has to offer. The gnat buzzed away. This place isn’t the same. It may look like it at first glance, but that’s the distraction. You have to look at the detail. You have to pay attention.

At night, the clouds cleared and the sun dipped below the horizon to the west. We joined the other pilgrims in the communal hall for dinner. Crunchy, thick pieces of bread and hearty bowls of soup, steam vapors trailing upwards towards the wooden beams of the exposed ceiling, were brought to our table. The bowls painted in sinewy lines felt like an extension to the murals outside. On long hikes, food is everything.  We sat opposite two middle-aged men. Both of them had short cropped beards and hair of grey. I remember the soup we ate –lentils, but I don’t remember their names. As much as I try, the nat of distraction is often present. I always thought it is who I am. Some of us have good attention to detail, others don’t. I was wrong. Attention is a learned skill. It takes training, practice, and a willingness to stay present.

We sat, eating, talking, and drinking wine. Halfway through dinner, one of the gentlemen looked at me and asked, “Do you work in computers?” I nodded, “Yes I do.”

He turned to Bobbi, “And you, you’re an artist of some kind?” She nodded too. “How did you know?”

He smiled that knowing smile of wisdom, “Back home, we are detectives. The way you talked give me enough clues, but it was your hands that made me sure. The hands never lie. There is always details in the hands that give you away. Yours,” he said to me, “hover, bent slightly like you are ready to type something. Your fingers are thinking. And yours”, he said to Bobbi, “they are different. They are more supple and always in motion. They are not for thinking, they are for expression, for feeling. We can’t help it. We are trained to pay attention to every detail.”

After dinner I never saw the two detectives again. Every now and again, when the nat of distraction comes buzzing, I remember this story and smile. I look down at my hands. They are always hovering. He was right. Travel is the same. You can hover in distraction, or you can pay attention to the details. That’s why I love it. Travel changes you. Every adventure is unique. Every place is unique, and most certainly, everyone you meet is unique. You just have to pay attention.