The Art of Waiting

17 July 2011

It’s 17:01 and I’m waiting for the bus. I’ve spent the past eight hours making my way from a conference in Colorado Springs to a friend’s home in Seattle. For much of that eight hours, I’ve been waiting.

I’m on the last leg of my journey now — waiting for the bus to take me from the train station to Nicole‘s house. Apparently I missed the five o’clock bus by seconds. I rounded the corner in time to see it pulling away. No worries. I sat in the covered shelter to wait for the next bus. As I did, though, a boy across the street shouted at me, “Hey you! That bus don’t come for another hour.” So, I’m waiting.

I’ve learned that any sort of travel entails a lot of waiting: waiting for buses, waiting for planes, waiting for trains, waiting for ferries, waiting for tour groups. And if you’re sightseeing, there’s always lots of waiting in line. When I was younger, waiting bothered me. It felt like lost time. I was easily bored. And if I were traveling, it seemed that I ought to be doing something because otherwise my money would be wasted.

Now, though, I often enjoy the wait. It’s an essential part of the process, a natural component in the rhythm of travel.

Note: Sometimes the actual travel itself is a form of waiting. A sixteen-hour light from Washington, D.C. to Johannesburg is a long exercise in patience. A three-hour van ride from San Ignacio, Belize to Tikal in Guatemala requires patience too. We wait to travel, but the travel is simply waiting in motion.

What I do while waiting depends on the situation. In a new country or city, the novelty takes the edge off — there’s plenty to see and do. (I especially like to browse the shops in new places. What do people in Paris read while traveling? What sorts of snacks can one buy at an airport in Zambia? Are there good souvenirs to be had in Belize?) Here are some of the things I’ve done while waiting:

  • On our flight from Portland to Venice last summer, we had a long layover at JFK. To kill time, I exercised. I did push-ups and sit-ups and squats in a corner of the room. After 30 minutes of exercise, I sat down to read. “You stink,” Kris told me. “Go change your clothes.” I went into the bathroom and gave myself a sponge bath.
  • On that same trip, we had a long wait in Rome before the night train to Paris. We had a long, leisurely lunch at a sidewalk cafe (during which I drank an entire liter of wine) before crashing for several hours at the edge of the train platform. We weren’t alone. Dozens of other passengers waited with us.
  • In Florence, Italy, we had to wait an hour to get into the Uffizi Gallery because of an impromptu strike. (We felt lucky; often these strikes can last much longer.) But waiting in line while sightseeing can be fun. It’s a chance to do some people-watching or to share stories with the people around you.
  • In most airports, I’m able to work while I wait. For instance, to kill time at the Denver airport this morning, I found a nearly-abandoned gate (downstairs in the A concourse, under A51) with a garden of free power outlets for me to charge my electronics. While I waited, I answered e-mail.

And now, as I sit in a bus shelter in southeast Seattle waiting for a bus, I kill time by blogging. I jot notes to myself on an iPhone. But today my wait is short. Nicole texts to say she’ll drive down to pick me up. “It’s Sunday,” she says, “and the buses don’t run very often.”

Nicole arrives a few minutes later, and I toss my pack into the back seat of her car. As I do, the #36 pulls up. Nicole and I laugh at the timing. I guess I could have waited.

“Waiting is fun when you have an iPhone.” — Kate (Nicole’s fifteen-year-old daughter), upon hearing the bus anecdote

What’s the longest you’ve ever waited while traveling? Does waiting make you tense? Or have you found ways to make the time pass more pleasantly?

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