April 2011

How was your trip?

by Steve Brock on April 26, 2011

When you return home from a place like Peru as I recently did with my family, inevitably, friends and colleagues will ask you this seemingly simple question:

“How was your trip?”

But how do you explain what it is like to step over the rise and witness the splendor of Machu Picchu for the first time? How do you describe how you felt seeing in person one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World that you’ve been reading about for months and have seen pictures of your whole life? How do you put words to all that you’ve experienced, have become and are becoming as a result of this trip?

If you’re like me, you don’t.

Or rather, you say enough to be polite but realize that the fullness of your trip won’t be explicable – to you or to others – for some time. 

So you wait.

And in my case, you share your thoughts over time with all the devoted readers of The Meaningful Traveler.

You’ve been warned…

Also, be sure to check out this free downloadable guide How to Photograph Machu Picchu for pointers on how to take better travel photos and specific ideas and specific tips for your trip to Machu Picchu.

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Layers of meaning – Part Two

by Steve Brock on April 20, 2011

After our serendipitous visit to the famous (but previously unknown to us) music store, Stein on Vine in Hollywood (the “Vine” being the same street, by the way, of “Hollywood and Vine” fame), we headed back to my in-law’s house.

We gathered my wife’s parents into the living room and reminded them that our function while down there was in part to provide a diversion from concerns about my mother-in-law’s upcoming surgery. I could read a combination of curiosity and skepticism on their faces.

Then, my son Sumner emerged wearing the baritone saxophone we’d just rented. (You don’t carry a bari sax; you wear it, strapped on with a harness that we jokingly note looks like a training bra). Quickly, the story spewed forth in excited words regarding the reason for getting the sax, how we found it, the discovery of Gary and Michelle’s store, all the jazz greats that have been there, etc.

Everyone was then talking at once, asking questions, telling their version of it as if Christmas has arrived unexpectedly ten months too soon. But the real treasure of this day came later that evening when Sumner did his concert for them.

He spent the rest of the afternoon out in the garage practicing so no one could hear him. And then, after dinner, the performance began.

The big performance for grandparents: Sumner on bari sax and Connor on piano

He played some songs new to his grandparents and some very familiar to them, for they have loved jazz all their lives. At one point, my son Connor got on the piano and joined Sumner in a 12 bar blues improvisation. As they were playing together, my father-in-law leaned over to me and whispered, “There is nothing you could ever have done for us better than this.”


The next day, we invited my father-in-law to join us as we returned the sax to Stein on Vine. We arrived there and immediately, he and Gary got into lively discussions on various musicians, concerts, bands and memories, a shared passion for the music and the entire sub-culture of the jazz world.

Gary Chen and my father-in-law comparing notes on jazz

As we event prepared to leave, I asked Gary who the “greats” of jazz were today. Wistfully, he noted that while there are numerous talented musicians playing today, all of the greats from the past shared the experience of having come up through the Big Band era.

Even artists like John Coltraine who were known more for their solo or small group work, trained with the big bands. That environment, that fusion of ideas and practice, of spark and response in a large band context just isn’t available today. It belongs to an era that will likely never occur again.

As Gary commented on this, I realized that such is the case for those of us who travel.

The past and the future intersect on this day at Stein on Vine

Moments like this one, this combination of discovery, of new relationships and connections to common interests and joy, these are fleeting moments. We can mourn their passing or we can celebrate them, realizing that such is the nature of travel, life and even jazz. We can’t hold onto these magical moments or replicate them in the future. Like a jazz improvisation perfectly played, we can’t repeat what was never meant to be more than ephemeral.  

But we don’t have to.

We can simply enjoy them and rest in the knowledge that the One who orchestrates such meaningful moments will bring us other such experiences in our travels and in our lives. And we can trust that the timing for such moments will be perfect.

Sort of like this past day in LA.

Sort of like jazz.

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Layers of meaning – Part One

by Steve Brock on April 14, 2011

Sumner at the entrance to Stein on Vine

On the same day in LA where we had a number of small conversations, we also engaged in one that went deeper, a dialogue of substance not measured by the time spent talking, but by all the layers of meaning contained in the moment itself.

Here’s the first part of a rather complex story.

We were down in LA in part to spend time with my wife’s parents. My mother-in-law was to go in for hip replacement surgery the following week, so our “job” there was to help out where we could and to distract my in-laws from concerns about the upcoming operation.

Before we left, my son Sumner came up with the idea of renting a baritone saxophone (which is the instrument he plays in his high school jazz band) while we were in LA so he could perform for his grandparents. Though they love jazz, due to health and other reasons, they had not been able to come up to Seattle to hear him play since he took up the instrument. And for those of you who may not be sax aficionados, a baritone saxophone (or bari sax for short) is just shy of a tuba in size. You could fit a small family into the case. This is not a carry-on instrument for the plane ride to California.

Prior to our departure for LA, we called around various music stores in LA and found one with a bari sax for rent. When we got down there, however, it hadn’t been returned to the store as expected. They gave us the name of another place and we called there but got voicemail. We checked the address, realized it was located on our way back from our trek to downtown LA, and so we decided to swing by.

No luck. The place had moved. But as we were walking back to where we parked, my two sons noted another music store, Stein on Vine, just half a block up Vine Street in Hollywood.

Stepping into the dark interior of Stein on Vine was like walking into a movie set (ironic since two movie studios were only a few blocks away). The photos below tell some of the story, but read this article from the LA Times about the owner, Gary Chen, to get a better sense of this amazing place and Gary’s own fascinating story.

We asked Gary if he rented bari saxes. “Of course,” he replied. That’s what he does. But he mostly rents to professionals for recording sessions. In fact, as we looked around the store, we noticed that the walls were covered with autographed photographs of most of the great jazz players (as well as singers such as Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald) over the last half a century. Each was signed with a personal message of thanks to Gary.

This was not your ordinary music store, but a Mecca for musicians, the “go to” place for everyone who was anyone in the jazz world.

When we realized the level of customer Gary deals with, we figured we’d never be able to afford to rent a sax here. However, after hearing Sumner’s tale of wanting to perform for his grandparents, I think Gary was touched by Sumner’s gesture. So he cut us a great deal, disappeared into a side room and moments later emerged with a beautiful bari sax.

As Sumner tried it out, I engaged in a conversation with Gary’s wife, Michelle. Both of them were originally from Taiwan but had “stopped over” in LA thirty years ago and had never left. When I mentioned that I’d studied in Taiwan, Michelle switched into Mandarin Chinese and soon we were immersed in a conversation in Chinese that ranged from travel to family to the weather conditions of LA and the cultural implications of having a tan in LA vs. one in Taiwan.

As all our discussions blended and became intertwined like a jazz improvisation, I began to realize what an amazing moment this was. The convoluted steps it took to find this place defied the odds. And then to be having conversations that connected my son’s passion for jazz with someone who lives at the heart of that world along with associations back to my own travel experiences from half a world away, all this was almost too much to believe.

But such is the nature of meaningful travel, when intentionality (looking for a bari sax to rent) collides with serendipity (finding this store and then meeting Gary and Michelle) to provide layer upon layer of discovery, connections and meaning.

The best part of this day, however, was that this was only the beginning. But you’ll have to wait until next time to find out what happened when we brought the bari sax home. Let’s just say that the day only got better as it went on…

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The art – and meaning – of small conversations

by Steve Brock April 5, 2011

Small conversations with strangers can often add more meaning to a trip than you would think possible as we found out on our LA trip.

Read the full article →