I tilt my head back and watch the motley of prismatic lights splotted across the ceiling. They pass by like kaleidoscopic sprites tearing into the crowded bus, departing just as quickly as they entered.
Each little phantasm bends through a millimeter of glass separating the journeyers from fleeting street lamps.
Cold blues and quiets coppers mix with timid yellows, their halogen fluorescence arches into the seats of wayward citizenry.
You don’t see the kind of people on a 3 A.M. Greyhound that you normally would see during the day. It’s just something about bus travel in the night. You’re treated to oodles of all sorts of weirdos.
The man next to me likes sports. I mean, he really likes to talk about sports. In my supple modesty I try to have a sympathetic conversation with him, only to reveal that sports are not really my thing. I try to think of a way to scheme my way out of this monopoly by letting him know I don’t really give a damn about his favorite baseball game of all time.
Maybe I’m anti-American. Really, I’m just tired.
When I turn my head to distract the conversation and divert my gaze, behind me a long-jawed oddball with a cowboy hat looks up from his immensely bright phone screen to split his crooked grin.
I turn back around to face forward.
Maybe I’m condescending and judgmental. Honestly though, I’m just tired.
The sports pedophile next to me talks about how he’s losing his liver, and how sometimes he feels that life is just passing him by. Like the wheels are turning but he’s not in control.
I mutter something about this all being a dream.
“Maybe someday,” he says, “we’ll all just wake up.”
At the expense of avoiding a philosophic conversation on life and death beside a man with a dying liver, and all of the subhuman elements beyond our control, I decide to close my eyes.
I miss my family.
To wayfare is not always easy, you know.
I think back to the childhood trips in the backseat of our minivan with my sister and brother. My parents used to wake us up around 3 A.M. to pile us into the minivan and make the 21 hour commute to leave the frigid Michigan winter.
Those were comfortable times.
My dad used to set us up with our Nintendo and a little box TV on top of a milk crate hooked to a power inverter. It was the same TV that sometimes doubled as a screen for our family karaoke nights.
He would remove the middle section of seats in the minivan so that we could stretch our legs as we controlled characters of mild cartoon violence. We even got to watch our favorite Disney movies.
Every so often, my mom would turn around from the passenger seat to ask if anyone was hungry, or if they had to use the bathroom. I always felt that we stopped too much for pee breaks.
Sometimes the three of us would fall asleep on each other, laying our heads like soft-shelled coconuts on one another’s shoulders. Those moments made for the cutest photos. Other times, we would instigate each other until mom would turn around real stern-like and threaten to revoke our TV privileges. Those nights we just put our pillows up against the cold windows and watched the neon night freeway go by.
I didn’t even get a window seat on the Greyhound.
As I open my eyes again, I recall the vague scent of soiled diapers curdled within the cab. It’s smelled like this since we got on the bus. There’s not a single infant aboard and it’s becoming a little bit nauseating.
I think about what would happen if I vomited up those egg rolls onto the sports man with the dying liver. Would he unsheathe a concealed penknife and jab it into my chest as a redemptive act of his self-dignity?
I’m growing increasingly antsy to get where we’re going.
I lean my head back again to watch the colorful spectrum of lights streaming along the ceiling.
Have you ever thought about the various kinds of trauma that you experience throughout life?
Some people experience big traumas: like the loss of a limb, post-war PTSD, and terminal diagnoses. But all of us, most days of the week experience what I like to call “little traumas.”
How do you know when you’re in the presence of a little trauma?
Think about stress. Next time you feel some reasonable suspicion of cortisol (the stress inducing hormone) coursing through your blood, let yourself pause. Imagine yourself in your childhood state just being in that very moment. There is no hardened armor, no mental aversion through deductive reasoning, and no status quo that you must operate within the bounds of.
It’s just you in all of your youthful vitality.
And in those moments of envisioning innocence in the presence of that trauma, ask yourself this:
“How is the world pushing its way in around me?”
I can tell you that being packed in a bus that smells like diapers with a bunch of nocturnal weirdos will certainly form as a little trauma for a number of people. It’s the same thing with waiting in line to pee at a rowdy nightclub, or being grilled by your boss for turning in an assignment late.
These little traumas are like a host of nanoscopic robots programmed to disassemble such perfectly curated comfort zones. It’s the broken air conditioning unit on the hottest day of the year, or even the bit of gravel in your shoe.
So what are these little traumas good for?
What lesson learning buds are they meant to blossom?
If at all, stress inducing moments teach us sensibility.
And there is no better method for the acquiescence of sensibility than the little traumas intrinsically built into experiences of travel.
Sure, you could book a twelve day trip to Tahiti with all expenses paid up front, no loopholes, guaranteed five-star hotels and meals, with just enough room to bring your favorite cocoa butter and maybe a little something on the way back as a souvenir for that shelf in your bathroom.
You might just get lucky that the vacation you’ve waited all year for delivers you from your deepest ogre of anxiety. Even the shuttle driver will be whistling something of jubilee as he drives with perfect mental clarity and exactitude in his maneuvers as a veteran charioteer.
But the reality of travel is often much more rugged.
White sand beaches prove to reflect a little too much light for your peaky white skin. You get packed in like sardines on a sightseeing excursion. The Chinese tourist next you keeps encroaching on your photo opportunities, and something strong is signaling that he forgot to wear deodorant.
But it’s all okay. You’re sensible. You’re learning to appreciate the small things. Your walls are being broke down so that your threshold of patience expands beyond the limits of the universe (or at least, the kids throwing sand near your tiny parcel of the beach).
Little traumas are not meant to cause you to kick yippy ankle-biting dogs, they’re just meant to open you up.
Think of it as the universe’s way of startling you without going overboard.
And then when it comes to travel, whether extended or brief, don’t set your expectations too high. Or even better, strive to be without expectations whatsoever.
After all, we don’t travel to just move around willy-nilly. We travel to be moved.
The next time you find yourself on a Greyhound bus at 3 A.M. with a few too many people that look like sociopaths and a cabin that smells like the unswathed rear end of a sullied infant, let yourself be transformed, your experiences be transcultural, and your transgressors be transient.
The road to rightful global citizenship is not paved with the gold bars of oil kings and investment bankers. It is marred with potholes, cracked under the heat of third-world suns, and burdened by bouts of lunacy on the sidelines.
We’ve been living life inside a bubble. The goal of travel then, and the subsequent swarm of little traumas, is to momentarily pop that bubble we’ve been so comfortably nested within.
It’s an effort to nestle into the naked flesh of reality, as closely as possible, so that we may know the collective element shared by all of humanity, in every experience, in every multitudinous moment.
“Maybe someday,” the man with the dying liver says, “we’ll all just wake up.”