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By Niki Cheong (@nikicheong)     5 Aug 2016

No one likes waiting. But there are benefits to being stuck on a bus, train or plane, if only we can slow down long enough to experience them

When we travel, we are often in a rush—whether it’s getting to the airport or the train station, packing or checking in. For many people, this is a stressful situation to be in. Heaven forbid that this experience is further affected by delays.

It’s one thing to get stressed out by disruptions that may cause you to miss your flight or train; it’s another to be forced to sit somewhere waiting for information on the departure board to change. Who’s got time for that? Actually, we all do.

When it comes to traveling, we always aim to arrive early and moan when things are running late. However, we seem to have forgotten how to be present. I get it. One of the things I dread most about traveling is the potential for delays. It doesn’t matter how well traveled I consider myself to be or how well equipped I am for it—book? check; iPad? check; phone charger? check—waiting is no fun.

So, when I’m forced to wait—trapped on the platform, in the departure lounge or worse, on a plane—I, like many others, get upset. While I have never been one for confrontation, I have witnessed several times people storming to the counter demanding answers: What is going on? How long will this take? What am I supposed to do now?

Funnily enough, I’ve never in all my years of travel heard someone say ‘But I’ll lose two hours of my holiday’ or ‘I’m going to be late for a wedding!’ because delays are par for the course and if you’ve got any sense you factor them into your plans. After all, most travel companies can’t guarantee that they’ll depart (or arrive) on schedule. Even Italian dictator Benito Mussolini couldn’t really make the trains run on time.

There are times when we don’t seem to have a problem with delays. On commuter trains, often it is difficult or unruly passengers who hold the trains up. When we board a bus, we expect all the passengers to wait as we pull out our purses or wallets, dig through our coins and pay our fare. For some people, we’re willing to have a flight delayed because of our prejudices.

Delays happen because many things can go wrong—some the fault of the transport companies and others beyond their control. We all know this, and we all accept this as part of the experience of traveling.

The fact is that waiting has always been part of the traveling experience. If you take the bus, you’re waiting at the stop for the next one to arrive. If you take the train, you need to get there early enough for the doors to close and the train to leave. If you catch a flight, you queue to check in (or drop off your luggage) and then wait to board. In all cases, you have no control over how long the wait will be. You just hope that it is shorter rather than longer.

We have long accepted this as all part of a journey. And we only get upset because we have been told so often that time is of the essence and that every minute counts: ‘My time is valuable.’

But this doesn’t have to be the only way we respond to delays. If we pause for a minute and look at that value differently, what else can we do instead of getting really angry and spending all that time fuming? Well, we could read a book (or play games on our iPads). Or, we could look up.

Just by being present, we become more aware of our actions and ourselves. This awareness could be as simple as our current experience—we may wonder, for example, why we often attempt to board faster than others when the bus or train or plane will not leave until everyone in the queue is on it anyway?

Logging off and tuning in

Or it becomes a bigger question—what have we been missing? I recently quit social media for a couple of weeks and pledged not to look at my phone when traveling on the bus on my daily commute. Instead, I decided that I would look out the window.

The first couple of days were strange because for so long we have trained ourselves to look into screens instead of through them. I saw many things: parents bonding with their children, an elderly couple holding hands walking down the street, buskers passionately doing what they love. I also saw an acquaintance cheating on his then-girlfriend.

As the days went on, I stopped taking ‘looking up’ literally but still saw things that I might usually miss. I started wondering about how these days we lack interaction with our fellow human beings.

It’s not just about meeting new people. We discover so much about society from observing (and occasionally eavesdropping on) one another; we see how people behave, we pick up on shifting social norms and we listen to find out what everyone is talking about. We feel the pulse of the communities we live in, and we learn about life.

But this experiment was a conscious effort and took great willpower (and a couple of false starts). Unexpected delays while traveling help us transcend this barrier by forcing us into a time warp where we have to find ways to occupy ourselves.

If you’re traveling for work, this is an opportunity to prepare yourself better, or fix that little thing that has been niggling at you about that presentation or document you’ve been working on. You have just been gifted a bit of extra time.

And, even if you’re on a business trip, you could treat it as though you’re traveling for leisure. Being trapped offers us some time to get our minds in the right space for the coming days. We do not need to wait to check into the hotel, drop our luggage and collapse onto the comfortable bed before letting the pressures of our daily lives seep away. We can let the holiday begin now.

It is also the perfect opportunity for us to pause and reflect, spend some quality ‘me time’ and ride the wave of change that is inevitable in life. In short, we get the opportunity to do away with our attachments to the structures and expectations we have imposed on our hectic routines and the pressures that come with being an adult in this 21st-century world.

You’re already delayed, and you’ve been waiting all your life. Why not make the most of it?

How do you deal with delays in travel? Let us know with #momentumtravel.

Photo: Alamy

Niki Cheong
Niki Cheong (@nikicheong)

Malaysian journalist Niki Cheong writes on socio-cultural issues and lectures in the areas of media, power and politics. He is passionate about the impact of digital culture on society, and has been featured on the BBC, Al Jazeera, Dutch daily Trouw and MTV Asia, among others.

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