This essay first appeared on the travel blog Where Is Your Tootbrush?
Time flows differently on the road. When you don’t have a regular job to go to, days of the week become equal. Many times I’ve found myself wondering if it was Tuesday or Saturday.
Traveling, clock time gives way to event time: with the exception of departures, you shift from acting when the clock tells you to when it feels right. You write not for a measly hour before your commute but when the words want to come out. Lunch at noon changes to eating when hungry. A weekend outing becomes a trip whenever you want.
Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming. William James
Wave Time: Koh Samui, Thailand
From my lounge chair in the shade of coconut trees on Bang Por Beach, I watch the green-blue hues of the Gulf of Thailand change as clouds race across the sun. A white-bellied sea eagle circles overhead, higher and higher until it disappears toward the east. Fishing boats and ferries crisscross the horizon. Clusters of seaweeds, leaves, and branches break against a rusted buoy. Waves knead the coarse sand, rolling into themselves like dough, over and over and over. A scattering of vacationers from nearby resorts walk by in silence. As a black butterfly the size of my palm dances into view, I get the feeling I am gazing at the edge of the world.
Somewhere in the world of memory it’s Christmas.
As if you could kill time without injuring eternity. Henry David Thoreau
Subjective Time: It’s All Relative
Time seems to pass more quickly when you are busy, drags when you focus on its passage. A full day feels like it passed faster than a day of clock watching. The 8 months of the yearlong trip have gone by very quickly, but they’re very long relative to my past trips.
Time also seems to go faster as you age partly because units of time become smaller fractions of life’s total. When I was 5, a year was 20% of my life, while at 37 less than 3%.
Events in the past decade appear to have lasted less time and to be more recent than those earlier. We were in Slovakia for a short while just the other day, yet those 7 weeks ended more than 6 months ago.
Paradoxically, to slow down time you must keep your mind engaged in creating new memories. For a traveler, experiencing awe expands and thus slows down perception. Because fright arrests time, another method is to seek out scary experiences. I’m not suggesting you walk into a snake pit, just venture out of your comfort zone. I overcame my fear of heights by scaling every church or lookout tower I met.
Life is but a day: / A fragile dewdrop on its perilous way / From a tree’s summit. John Keats
Peak Time: Kriváň, Slovakia
It’s about a four-hour hike to the top of Kriváň but I measure progress to the 2,495-meter peak with steps falling onto the rocky path, with green path markers painted onto boulders, with hellos exchanged with fellow hikers. During water breaks, I behold the Tatra Basin, a vast, hazy valley that marks the beginning of the rest of Slovakia. When I clamber up boulders in the final stretch, sometimes on all fours, the world shrinks to the next few meters.
Then there’s nowhere else to climb. We hide from the rainbow of windbreakers and sweatshirts behind a rock that shelters us from the biting wind. To celebrate the ascent we toast with tiny bottles of borovička. I watch the tiny dots of raptors circle beneath cloud shadows that scale and descend the ragged, steel-colored peaks, the crevices of valleys, the dark blue eyes of tarns.
We queue behind a guy wrapped in the Slovak flag for a photo with the double cross and brace for the descent.
Time is the longest distance between two places. Tennessee Williams
Experiential Time: How to Slow Down
Put your hand on your belly. You feel your hand there but shortly you get used it and stop feeling it. The same thing happens in life. In the everyday, things become so normal as to blend into the background—time passes at a normal pace. When traveling, everything is new so that every sensory stimulus firing up in your mind accelerates time.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, / All losses are restored and sorrows end. William Shakespeare
Temple Time: Melaka, Malaysia
I stare out of our 4th-floor apartment. Wind screeches in gaps between the windows and frames. A string of Chinese lanterns sways on townhouses that block my view of Ujong Pasir Road, where a triangular red flag flutters from the white-and-brick-red steeple of a new Hindu temple, silent now after the the week-long consecration ceremony, the golden ornament on the shikhara not yet lit. Over to the right, a yellow dome of a minaret gleams in the fading daylight against the roofs and treetops of eastern Melaka. The call to prayer comes and from Allahu Akbar to Allahu Akbar I watch a kite shaped like a bird of prey hover above it all, rising and sinking with the pre-recorded wail.
Then the rain arrives, sudden and serious, and a giant block of sky juice raps on the roofs with a myriad of fingertips. I don’t know how long I’ve been standing here. I open the window and inhale to the bottom of my lungs. The air smells like wet earth.
Do not go gently into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Dylan Thomas