‘The obstacle is the way’

These lessons are worth more than the obstacles.

The Truman Show was on.

I lay on top of the bedcovers in the tiny room with no chairs, watching Jim Carey begin to doubt whether his town really was A Really Nice Place to Live.

That’s when I saw it, crawling up toward the heat of the television set.

It was a cockroach. Brown. About the size of my pinkie nail, exploring the smudged wall in front of the bed.

I had just checked in to a cheaper hotel in Makati, for an extra night while I waited for my visa to China. Half the price of the one I had been in.

I didn’t really feel like coaxing the cockroach to please get out of my room. So I did what a person disgusted with the insect would do. Like a gone-postal Man in Black, I slipped off a sneaker and smacked it. It fell, dead, to the floor.

I took a deep breath, slipped off my other shoe, and lay back to watch Jim Carrey being anxious about the authenticity of his hometown.

Then I noticed a peripheral movement to my left. In the small room, there was not much space between the bed and the walls. So the movement was pretty close to my head.

Another cockroach, bigger than the first one, had emerged from wherever it is they hid, to crawl up on the wall near to my left ear.

Jumping from the bed, I grabbed my shoe off the floor and smacked that one, too.

I stopped being able to concentrate while Jim Carrey emoted his discontent. Visions of a whole NEST of cockroaches underneath the bed, ready to emerge when I was sleeping, crawling all over unconscious me, danced inside my head. I jumped up from the bed.

Shuddering, I decided the room was not a Really Nice Place to Live. Thankfully I had not yet unpacked, so I simply put my backpack on, wheeled the cabin bag out of the room, and gave the key back to the reception. “I’m sorry,” I said to the nice people at the reception, “but I’ve just killed two cockroaches and I can’t spend the night with any more.”

That one decision to try to save money by finding a room in Makati that was half the price of the one I had used was not a very good one.

OK, that’s a nice way of putting it. In fact, I felt quite stupid. I walked up and down the streets after abandoning the roach-infested place looking for another room I could stay in, until I left the next day. I eventually found one, but the entire change of venue cost the price of the roach motel and the new place. It was 1.5 what I would have paid had I stayed put instead of finding the half-price place, in the first place.

Lesson learned.

So I was pretty happy that I found a place that was cleaner, for the night.

The thing is, I made another mistake.

I had a domestic flight out of Manila at 6.45am. That meant I had to get up at 3.00am to make sure I was able to make it to the airport on time.

And I set the alarm on the phone. BUT I FORGOT TO TURN THE PHONE VOLUME ON. I had turned off the sound because it helped me to write without constant beeps and buzzes. AND I FORGOT TO TURN THE SOUND BACK ON.

So when I woke up at 5.00am the day of the 6.45am flight, I knew at once that I was screwed. Sure, I hadn’t swallowed a cockroach in the middle of the night and there were none that had burrowed into my ears while I slept.

But I was late for a flight, something that has only happened once in my life, and that’s a lot considering I fly close to 80,000 miles a year.

And I really, really wanted to get out of there. I had spent the time waiting for the visa to China by reading 6 books and writing an extended work, but the fact of having to stay put while I needed to keep moving was getting to me. It was uninspiring to be cooped up, passportless.

This was the moment when any amount of swearing and inarticulate language might be understandable.

I was surprised that I did not really get stressed. I acknowledged the fact that I’d screwed up by not turning up the sound so I’d wake up on time, and then I made myself a cup of coffee and thought about what to do.

Now, a month ago I might have gone ballistic. I might have thrown some things at other things and cursed my hippocampus. None of that, this time.

This time, I calmly assessed what the next course of action might be, if I really wanted to fly out of Manila.

So I got to work. If I had missed the flight without changing the circumstances of the booking, I would have lost what I spent on the return flight, and additionally had to spend another night (more money) while waiting for the next flight out.

My goals were not to lose the flights (and the money spent on them), and to keep my travel schedule on track.

I called the airport office, and they answered. I explained the problem, calmly to the person on the line. He directed me to reservations. Reservations talked me through a solution. And I found I could fly out of Manila that afternoon, as long as I went to the Makati office of the airline and paid the penalty fee.

I did. I flew the afternoon flight. All is well.

Here’s what I learned from these mistakes borne from complacency.

It doesn’t pay to be cheap.

I could have been optimistic and positive after the two roaches and taken the chance to spend the night at the cheaper hotel.

But the probability of having to endure a night of (a) possibly more roaches crawling all over my sleeping self and (b) the effects of that should they decide my ears were worth exploring were things I did not want to risk.

People are kind, and they will help you.

I could have entertained the possibility that an airline that in the past had served consistently delayed flights, had lost my luggage, and annoyed my entitled self would continue my perception of their poor service model and then given up on them.

But I would have been stuck in that city, using up resources I did not want to use, and feeling very, very bad about it.

Instead, I had a team of airline people (at 5.00 in the morning) who pulled together to help me fix my own screw up of not waking up on time for the flight.

I walked out of the ticketing office in Makati with dopamine all over my brain.

Dopamine is a brain chemical that is released when humans have pleasurable experiences. It makes us feel good. It is the chemical that floods our brains when someone Likes our post on social media. And it flooded my brain when I realized that all these people had helped me to fix my failure to wake up on time for a flight.

I also walked out of the airline office with a ticket that brought me right on track. I was grateful. I was happy. It hadn’t been a perfect schedule, but it was more than I deserved for screwing up the alarm on my phone.

So I called them. I called the people in reservations, in ticketing, and I thanked them for helping me.

They sounded like they didn’t get this kind of call every day.

And it felt good to say Thanks.

‘The obstacle is the way.’

This quote from Marcus Aurelius captures what happened exactly.

Sometimes, we can be the obstacle to the way we need to go. I was the obstacle on the day of roaches and silent alarms, and I am grateful that others were there to help me get unstuck.

The price of mistakes in long-term travel can be upsetting. These moments of being complacent cost us money, time and peace of mind.

But it is also a waste of energy to dwell on them. I learned that the obstacles I faced were outweighed by what I learned about patience and humility.

Patience was something I had to practice as it took over two hours on the phone to get the next flight out.

Humility was being able to change my mind about the service of an airline I had just about written off as having a ‘bad service model.’ I had to suppose good intentions for the six people it took to get me my next flight out of the city. I had to extend trust to get what I needed, done. And it gave me a sense of the goodness in people, who will help someone who needs it. It gave me a faith that I thought I’d waylaid, in the kindness of people.

These lessons are worth more than the obstacles.

And as I write this, safe and grounded in the place I had meant to be today, I am grateful for the time and effort all these strangers took to get me where I needed to be.

There is a Really Nice Place to Live, and it’s not a fictional show in a movie.

It’s a state of mind.

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