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perceptions — The Meaningful Traveler


Not seeing in order to see

by Steve Brock on September 7, 2017

The sign outside read “Public Convenience.” Leave it to the British, I thought, to come up with such a polite euphemism. It’s actually more accurate than our term, “Restrooms.” After all, people don’t actually rest in there, do they? But convenient, especially after a few too many cups of tea? Indeed.

Equally convenient are the wavy glass panes used for the window of this particular public restroom, er, convenience, in Chipping Camden, England. The wavy glass lets the light in, but provides privacy to those, uh, convening, or resting or using the loo or whatever phrase you care to choose. That same wavy glass also provides (or at least it did for me), a lovely object lesson.

Take a look at what I saw from inside the Public Convenience.

It looks like the world we know, but not quite. Everything is familiar, yet distorted. If I hadn’t told you it was a wavy glass window, would you know what this picture was? You might think I’d messed about in Photoshop or otherwise distorted the image.

But encountering this view in real life forced me to look at it again. And again. And that’s the whole point.

We never (or rarely) do that.

We are loathe to take the second look because, let’s face it: why bother? There’s no time. Or no reason. We have plenty of new things to see. Why pause and re-examine what we just looked at?

Because what we just looked at, we didn’t really see.

Quick. Don’t cheat and glance up. But tell me, how many doors are on the house in the photo? How many chimneys? Windows? What color is the bicycle? How many panes are there in the window?

You might be able to recall the building was yellow and that there was a bicyclist in it. Did you recall any of the other details?

You’re in good company. Only when I re-examined the photo did I see any of that. And why did I re-examine this photo? Because it intrigued me. Something about the distortion of reality made me want to see reality better.

Let’s go deeper (cue the woo-woo music).

I think God throws variations like this window at us all the time. God gets our attention with something curious. We then have a choice: Pursue it or ignore it. The pursuit, however, requires us to pause and take notice, to yield to the hint, the glimmer, the still small voice, which then reveals so much more. For example, one of the most delightful things I encountered in the myriad English gardens on this trip were the diverse types of bees humming about. The bumblebees there (24 species, to be exact) don’t look like the ones where I live. So I noticed them.

But I didn’t notice the one right in front of me on the window until I took a closer look at this photo. The bee is likely too small for you to see unless you click on the photo for the enlarged version. It’s near the middle about the same height up from the bottom of the photo as the bicyclist’s back. See it?

I’d never have bothered had this been a normal, clear window. It was only because of the anomaly or novelty of the wavy glass view that I made the effort to look.

I believe every day is filled with such examples. Scenes right before me that God wants me to notice for no other reason than to bring me joy. There’s nothing important about this photo. But every time I look at it now, I see something new. Something more. Something that delights. And all the distortions in it make me want to go take a look at the “real” world with new eyes. In part to appreciate it better. And in part to reconsider what is real and what is distorted and to learn the difference.

Beware of stepping into a Public Convenience. You never know what you’ll see.


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It just takes one

by Steve Brock on June 27, 2014

Grand Bazaar EntranceMy Uber driver and I start to chat. He’s driving me to the airport in Southern California last week and it doesn’t take long until we land on a topic of mutual passion: travel.

He’s retired and now drives part-time for Uber (a taxi-like service where drivers use their own cars and your rates are all determined ahead of time) to support his travel addiction. His travel mode of choice: cruises.

We discuss the pros and cons of cruising and in particular, the dilemma of food: you have a menagerie of delicacies available to you 24/7 on the ship, so why bother eating on shore? There’s one good reason: You’ll never gain a taste of the authentic food of the region on your floating hotel.

And so he tells me about his stop in Istanbul, one place where he definitely wanted to partake in the local cuisine.

Grand Bazaar MarketHe was visiting the Grand Bazaar with his wife and friends. They were having a very pleasant conversation with one of the ubiquitous purveyors there of rugs, lamps and interesting clothing options (the photos you see here are from my time at the Grand Bazaar a few years back including the outfits shown below). This particular rug seller had been extremely friendly and helpful, so my driver asked him about good options for lunch.

Belly Dancing OutfitsThe merchant said he knew just the place and personally walked them to a restaurant around the corner and spoke to the owner who seated the group of four enthusiastically. The women in the party opted to wait for food on the ship, so the two men ordered, asking their hostess to select “typical Turkish cuisine” for them. Soon, she brought out a series of appetizers and finally the main course.

Grand Bazaar Lamps

My driver described how it was all tasty, but then they got the bill: for just two of them at lunch at a casual restaurant, the total came to over $150. He and his friends were outraged. They quickly realized they had been scammed, but at that point, they realized also there was not much they could do about it without causing even more of a scene.

They returned to the ship poorer yet wiser. But worst of all, they left with a bad taste in their mouths: a negative impression of the whole place caused by one unethical restaurant owner (or perhaps two if you figure the rug merchant was likely involved as well).

My driver stated that he cannot blame all the people of Turkey for one bad experience. And yet, just one encounter like that can’t help but influence you and affect your perceptions of a place. I work in branding and marketing and thus, though we may not like it, I know from experience how much perception is our reality.

That was an unfortunate situation for my driver, but it made me realize something else. It just takes one bad encounter to tarnish our view of an entire country or culture. But do we ever think about that in reverse? Meaning, did you ever realize you may be the only American (or whatever your nationality) that a person in another country meets?

We think of the people we encounter on a trip as windows into their culture. And they are. But it’s a two-way window.

That adds both great responsibility and a great opportunity to us and our trips. What kind of impression will we make? What kind of memory will we leave, about us and about our country? We may not feel as if we represent all Americans but someone overseas doesn’t necessarily know that. To them, we are America.

 It doesn’t take hundreds or thousands of Americans to make an impression on someone overseas.

It just takes one.


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Traveling in the dark – Part 1

by Steve Brock on March 28, 2014

Foggy RoadSeveral months ago, my family drove down to Bend, Oregon. We left the Seattle area after work, had dinner along the way and crossed the Columbia River just east of Portland.

By then, it was quite dark and our route – chosen by our trusty GPS on my phone – took us through what seemed like miles of twists and turns through Portland suburbs. Eventually, we found the highway – marked only by the street name, at least at first – that would take us to central Oregon.

I’d never gone this way before, so I had no idea what to expect. But one think I certainly did not plan on was the dense fog that soon began to engulf us.

In the limited visibility of the fog, we could just make out a string of rustic hotels and restaurants along the way, indicators we were nearing some sort of recreational area. I knew that Mount Hood was out in this general direction, and I wondered if these were places serving people as they traveled there.

By the time the buildings started to thin out, the fog lay like a dense blanket over the highway. It got to a point where for miles – scores of miles – we could barely make out the edges of trees lining the road. Occasionally, we could detect the dim glow of some light – we assumed for some building – as we passed. But with the exception of the occasional oncoming car, our entire world was a wall of gray illuminated by our headlights, the only distinguishing feature being the highway stripe down the center of the road.

As we drove, we were listening to a book on CD. And depending which of the three of us – me, my wife or my son – you asked, the fog made the story better…or too intense. We’d chosen a young adult fantasy from the library – the “Beyonders” series by Brian Mull – and at the densest point of our foggy journey where I actually considered pulling over due to limited visibility, the story got very suspenseful. We listened as the main character worked his way down hidden passages to find a book covered in human skin with a live eye that suddenly opened on its cover.

“Cool!” said I. “Ewwww! Creepy!” said my wife. “Shhhhh!” said my son.

After several more miles of this, we saw a haze of lights off to our left, evidently some sort of industrial space. Orange lights glowed from apparent towers and spotlights attempted to cut through some other area, with limited success. It was bizarre to see and, I’m sure influenced by the book we were listening to, our general consensus was that it was a staging area for an alien invasion. That seemed the obvious choice from its appearance in the fog.

You never know…

Eventually, about fifty miles from our destination, the fog lifted. But the night was so dark and we were so far from any town that the visibility only increased marginally. We still had no idea what was around us.

Journeying with limited senses changes your perception of travel itself. Driving for several hours with so few visual cues was initially novel, then a bit scary and finally, a new normal. It’s funny how something like fog can take a routine experience and radically change it.

But it wasn’t until we returned home via the same route in reverse a few days later that we realized how truly amazing our journey through the fog had been…

To be continued…

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