Zen and the Art of Super-Long-Distance Travel

It takes a long time to get from New York City to Chengdu, China. First, you get to the airport extra-early, to avoid security lines. Then you sit on a Cathay Pacific nonstop flight to Hong Kong—nearly 16 hours in an aluminum tube that, on its journey nearly halfway around the world, often passes within 500 miles of the North Pole. Throw in another five hours at Hong Kong International Airport—not the worst place to kill time, actually, thanks to its good restaurants and generally open spaces. Two-and-a-half hours to Chengdu, then who knows how long at immigration, then a cab ride or train or bus into the city… Air travel is speedy, but it still takes forever.

And it drives many people completely nuts—particularly on those 15- or 16-hour flights. Perhaps luckily, I am not one of those people. In fact, I love long-haul flights—the longer, the better.

It’s not that I’m an airplane geek. I don’t get off on the subtle differences between Airbus models—certainly not enough to stay excited for most of a day. I don’t do mileage runs, either. And I don’t spend the flight in frantic anticipation of the adventures to come.

I like the long flights because they are the purest, most empty stretches of my life. Cut off from the world below (unless there’s Wifi, which is still rare on intercontinental flights), I read, catch up on movies I didn’t even try to see in theaters (most recently “Winter’s Bone” and “The Hurt Locker”), write e-mails and work on stories, and just generally veg out until the plane lands. In the air, nothing is expected of me. For the length of the flight, I almost don’t exist.

It’s not easy, of course. It’s taken me some time to learn to withstand the wearying effects of long-haul travel. There’s no special trick to it: I fly economy. I belong to every frequent-flier program, pretty much. I check in online. I put the pillow behind my lower back. I have a bottle of water, a book, my iPhone and headphones, and I remove my laptop from my bag before I stow it (the bag) above me. If I’m flying into a new city, I have a window seat; if I’ve been there before, the aisle. Once in a while, I get up and just walk around the plane. None of these things should surprise you—it’s the kind of advice you read in travel magazines all the time.

Perhaps the one trick I have learned—the one that’s special to me—is that I am capable of not caring. Seriously. I can just sit there, nodding off or wide awake, for a long time. I can have a crying baby at my side or a corpulent monster. But I don’t care. I think about Siddhartha (the Herman Hesse version of the character, that is), who declared he knew only three things: how to sit, how to think, and how to wait. (Or am I remembering this wrong?) If you want to travel often and over long distances, those are good things to know how to do.

But I recognize that they’re not easy for everyone. People get annoyed. They get uncomfortable. They get restless. Add in the anxiety of being in a pressurized aluminum tube 36,000 feet above the earth’s surface, and it’s reasonable to expect bad moods and a reluctance to do this all over again. But just because I recognize that this is true for other people doesn’t mean I understand it on a visceral level. Me, I can’t get so upset, so worked up about the insufferable indignities of air travel. It takes too much energy.

Nor am I the opposite—filled with wonder at the physics, engineering, and economics that make air travel possible. For me, it’s a given.

No, the flight—the journey as a whole—lets me enter this Zen state of not-caring and not-being. It’s almost a purification ritual, exhausting my body and clearing my mind before I land in a new place, ready to figure out who I’m going to be in Chengdu, or Tunis, or Ireland. I need it, and I need more of it.

An extra blanket and a mini-bottle of Scotch wouldn’t hurt, either.

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