Soccer in Malawi

Travel in (Dis)Comfort

“…Physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. Then you fasten on to whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn’t mean much.”

– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This, to me, sums up the experience of travel – and life – perfectly.

It reminds me of my first trip to Malawi; the one in which I handed over my heart to Africa.

Suddenly, I remember it all.  14 adults, four babies, and three chickens, all of us packed into a 30-year-old minibus built to carry nine people. It’s no use trying to get comfortable. We’re on a three-hour journey that spans the entire 75 miles across Northeast Malawi in the summer heat.

An iron bar jutting through the dilapidated seat cushion nudges my tailbone every time the worn suspension faces off with another rut in the road. And I can’t move. As with most of the transportation on this continent, I don’t fit—I’m literally twice as big as most Malawians.

I’d heard this road was supposed to have been paved. Amid all this discomfort, I should be miserable. I should be annoyed the conductor tried to charge me Mzungu (white person) prices.

But I’m not. Nothing can wipe the stupid grin off my face.

Malawi Minibus

I take it all in; the breeze I catch when the road curves just right. The small towns we pass, each with businesses painted as advertisements in either red (for mobile carrier Airtel) or green (for arch-rival MTN). The vendors selling groundnuts through the window at each stop. The music blaring through blown-out speakers—hip hop today instead of gospel. Thank God.

I’m aware of everything around me. Curious where the mother and her two babies in the second row are going. Wondering if the young boy sitting in the conductor’s seat (while the conductor hangs out the window) makes this commute to and from school every day.

I wonder what it’s like to be from here. What are the hopes and dreams of the people I’m pressed against? This country had Uber Pool figured out years ago.

But now… now I’m on the second flight of the morning out of San Diego. I’m heading north to Oakland to work for the week. The entire commute is seamless and efficient. Almost too easy.

From home, a Lyft driver picks me up three minutes after I tap the button on my phone. TSA pre-check has me through security in under five minutes (with shoes still on). Everyone on this business-travel-heavy Southwest flight knows when to line up. We depart on schedule. I’m startled awake when the plane touches down. I open Lyft to get a ride to the office. Within moments of walking outside the airport I’m in a car.

I make the whole commute from my door in San Diego to the office door in the East Bay in less time than it would take to drive from San Diego to Los Angeles in normal traffic.

I should be in awe at the efficiency of it all. It’s so smooth I barely need to speak if I’m not in the mood. But that’s the problem. My mood is all wrong.

Instead of bumping against a broken-down seat, I’m banging against the walls of my own head: Shouldn’t this Lyft driver pay better attention to his map? What is this person doing in the wrong security line? It says pre-check. No, go ahead, you take the armrest. Why is the line at starbucks so long? They burn their coffee. Everyone’s on their phone too much. Fuck. I’m on my phone too much.

I need to get out. On this trip, what should be comfortable travel is anything but. It’s torture compared to suffering through numb limbs in a hot, African minibus.

Africa Travel

It’s the difference between traveling where you have to versus traveling where you want to. And it can change everything you think you know about comfort.

That’s the beauty of travel. It has taught me that I’m happiest when I’m uncomfortable. Not because I don’t like ease. But because I know that discomfort is growth.

If you find yourself uncomfortable, examine your mood instead of your surroundings. What is it you’re bumping up against?

Is it something tangible in your environment? Or is it in your head?

Would your mood be different if you were having the same experience somewhere else?

Examine everything.  And heed the advice of yet another Pirsig quote:

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”