I recently just finished reading Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods which is the story of him attempting to walk the Appalachian Trail. As is true for everything of his that I have read, it is a complete page turner.
Sometimes he finds himself just stopping on the trail, looking around in wonder and saying to himself, “I am doing this.”
I can’t tell you how often I have done that myself on this trip.
One of the points he makes in that book is a point I had been thinking about quite a lot, even before reading him: the appreciation of very small pleasures. He is basically on an extended camping trip in the book and so when he occasionally comes upon a town, he has a renewed appreciation for cooked food or freshly cleaned clothes or a non-leaky shelter for the evening.
Some of the biggest joys of travel aren’t the big things, but the small things that you experience every day in your normal life.
I have always enjoyed a cold drink on a hot summer day, but I have never appreciated a cold Sprite as much as I did on the third day of our truck trek across the Sudanese desert. Two and a half days with everything you touch, eat or drink being hotter than your body temperature will make you appreciate when you can find a cold drink.
Those Sprites (I bought two and chugged them both down in under five minutes) were some of the most memorable drinks of my entire life.
There have been a lot of moments like that for me on this journey. When I was in my taxi from Acaba to Petra, we were driving on the King’s Highway in Jordan. It was a completely modern, divided highway. I looked at my companions in the cab and said, “I think this is the first modern highway I have been on in more than four months.” I never thought I’d appreciate something like that in my life – or appreciate it that much.
A bus seat that reclines to somewhere around 45 degrees. A free plug to recharge my iPod. The view of water, with a cold beer in hand. Finding a good, or at least acceptable, book in a book exchange in a hostel. Air conditioning. An honest cabbie. A hot, or at least lukewarm, shower. An email in your inbox in the morning from someone that you look forward to hearing from. A good map.
I have absolutely loved some of the big things on this trip – Kilimanjaro, Manchu Picchu, animals, on safari, Lailbella, Petra – but I would have a hard time saying that I have loved them more than the small things. Just not sure on that question yet.
One of the small pleasures I have always appreciated is a good, straight-edge razor shave after a haircut. Hell, even without a haircut. There is something great about feeling a barber run a straight edge razor over your face and shave you so cleanly and crisply that it doesn’t even feel like you ever possessed facial hair in the first place.
And the sound. You can hear each and every hair of your beard being cut. It’s a rasping sound. But it actually sounds clean. If clean could be described by a sound – I think this would be the one.
On the day I was leaving Damascus, I shouldered my bag and walked over to one of the old parts of town for lunch. My train wasn’t due to leave for a few hours, so I had some time to eat and wander a bit. As I walked down one of the alleys, I saw an old guy – a really small old guy – in his tiny barbershop giving someone a shave.
Barber chair reclined. A fully lathered up face. And this tiny barber shaving away with the finesse of someone that had done it for decades – as no doubt he had. I was starving, so I have to delay my gratification until I could scarf down some kabobs and rice.
Well, I had to delay my shaving gratification – the food was pretty gratifying also.
As soon as I was finished, I went back down, dropped my backpack on his sofa and got mentally ready for a big smile that was certain to appear just minutes in the future.
He spoke about ten words of English, but there isn’t much need for communication to make this effort a success. I made the pantomime motions for a haircut and a shave, he nodded vigorously, sat me down in the chair, and started wacking away. After the haircut, the shave. It was just as expected. Wonderful.
The only slightly disconcerting thing was that he was the friendliest barber of all time. Every single person that walked by his shop got a wave and a ‘hello, how are you?’ in Arabic, out of him. It was hard to tell how often he actually looked at my face, but even if he was doing it my pure muscle memory and touch, it was great in my book.
Sometimes it is the small pleasures.