How short is too short?

by Steve Brock on May 11, 2011

“It was too short.”

That was my initial response when a friend asked, “How was your trip to Peru?”

These dyes sold at the outdoor market in Pisac, Peru are like a short trip: colorful and the highlights stand out but you know there is more here than you have time to understand.

But was the trip too short? Let me start by explaining why our trip to Peru seemed that way when we first returned home.

First, we had nine days total for our trip due to work and school constraints. Because we used mileage plan tickets, we had four (yes, four) stopovers each way. Thus, two full days (as in 24 hour days) were exhausted in transit getting there and returning. In general for meaningful travel, I don’t recommend spending 22% of your vacation in an airline seat or airport waiting area.

Second, the limited time forced us to restrict what we could see and do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m a firm believer in the idea of “freedom in limitations.” But when you travel all that distance, you can’t help (or at least I can’t) wanting to see as much as possible. We tried to find a compromise by concentrating only on the area between Cuzco and Machu Picchu known as The Sacred Valley.

Unfortunately for us, it’s a big valley. You could easily spend weeks there.

If you had weeks…

This tradeoff between limiting what you see to the time you have – while also wanting to see all you can – became crystallized for me less than one week later on another trip.

Six days after returning from Peru, I flew to New York for work. I arrived the day before my meetings and spent part of that day (a Sunday) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As I wandered through gallery after gallery of some of the world’s finest art objects, I started feeling the same as I did in Peru: I couldn’t absorb all that surrounded me in the time I had .

At the Met and in Peru, I came away aware of having encountered something beautiful. But I recognized I was only touching the surface of that beauty, catching a mere glimpse of something deeper, fuller. In both places, I had this paradoxical sensation of missing out on what I wasn’t able to see while simultaneously feeling overwhelmed and not able to process and appreciate all that I did see.

As on a short trip, when you hurry though the Met, you're not always sure where to go first or if you're seeing everything you wanted to see...

A third reason our trip seemed too short was that it didn’t allow for any stops along the way. Without rest and some mid-trip reflection, I didn’t have time for course corrections or to process. The one afternoon when I could have rested, I instead wandered through the ancient Inca-built alleys of Ollantaytambo taking pictures. Would I have been better off kicking back and reflecting? I don’t know. But I do know that a longer trip would have afforded me both: reflection and wanderings.

Finally, I think the main reason the trip seemed too short was that it didn’t allow for detours. We couldn’t change our plans without fear of missing out on something we’d been looking forward to for months. We didn’t have time to linger. We didn’t take the time to ask locals about what places were most meaningful to them or the few times we did, we didn’t follow up and go there. We didn’t see much that we didn’t plan on seeing, a classic symptom of traveling as a tourist rather than as a traveler.

Sounds somewhat depressing, doesn’t it? That’s how it felt in those first emotionally confusing days of return. But here’s the blessing of perspective that comes after you’ve been back a while:

Our trip seems like a downer only if we focus on what we missed.

I may still think about what might have been, but only barely. Instead, when I realize all we did see and experience, all the wonder and meaning we encountered I come to appreciate this:

In God’s economy, it all works out. You see what you needed to see. Granted, next time, I’ll try to plan a longer stay or choose a closer destination. And even today if you ask me “How was your trip?” I may, out of habit, still say it was too short.

But deep inside, I will know that in reality our trip to Peru wasn’t too short.

It was just right.

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