I awoke in a hammock to the drawn out lashings of the ocean against the craggy coastline of the Caribbean sea. The sky was a peculiar shade of navy, but a muffled glow of mandarin pushed through at the horizon. I fumbled with my makeshift cocoon and peeked at my watch from beneath squinted eyes—5:45am.
The sun had not yet poked its luminescence from below the skyline and, at this time of the morning, the earth was completely abandoned – like it was mine, and the sun would appear for me that day, and for me alone.
I crawled out from my bundle, onto my feet, and drew a deep breath into my lungs. A small misting of sea water struck my face and I took steps toward the sawtoothed boulders that lined the shore. Crawling my way to the furthest, most jagged point, and overlooking the deep blue expanse of sea and sky, I perched myself atop the uneven stone cliff. I sat, for 90 minutes, somewhere close to consciousness but not yet fully awake, and allowed the rising sun to swathe my face in its flaxen warmth.
For an hour and a half I sat. And I did nothing.
“The need for an empty space, a pause, is something we have all felt in our bones; it’s the rest in a piece of music that gives it resonance and shape.” -Pico Iyer
This was a far cry from the commotion of New York, a city occupied by agitation. I had just left its disquietude two weeks earlier, and I was in a particularly capricious state. After six months in NYC, a city which I have grown to love, it had worn on me. Having turned down my dream job in New York, and leaving myself completely wide open to the unknown, I was overwhelmed, and the volatile sting of December’s air had sent me spiraling into a state of anxiety.
I would be desperately sad to go, but I knew in my bones that it was time. I needed warmth, and I needed adventure.
As the bulky doors of the fuselage slid open, a dense humidity filled the cabin and that indescribable smell of the tropics occupied my nostrils. My early-morning flight meant that I had only slept for about 20 minutes the night before, so my exit onto the tarmac was more indicative of a drunken hobble than a grand swagger.
I fumbled my way into the bright yellow of a Colombian taxicab and rode 15 minutes past the dilapidated houses and ragged coastline into the old city of Cartagena. Arriving at my hostel in a stupor, I hit the sheets of my hostel dorm bed, and for the next two days, I slept.
Choosing to ignore the city of Cartagena almost entirely (I knew I would be returning in two weeks), I set off early in the morning to catch an eastbound bus to the beaches of Tayrona National Park. Immediately upon my arrival, I sprawled out on my towel atop the soft yellow sand of the expansive beach. For the rest of the afternoon, I gazed at the puffy white clouds above. I had nowhere to go, and without any cell service or wifi, I had absolutely nothing to do.
At first I felt anxious. New York City had somehow convinced me that my time was wasted if I wasn’t being productive. And on this beach, I was accomplishing nothing. Something had happened to the person who once valued their time for what it was—theirs. It was no longer worth something greater than a banknote, and it was, in many ways, the opposite of everything I’ve ever stood for.
With no computer access and no way off this beach, I made the decision to reclaim my “wasted time” and turn it back into what it always should have been: mine. And do you know what I did with that time?
Absolutely nothing. I sat. Slept. Thought. Stared. Breathed.
The following day, in the hours after that gloriously evocative sunrise, I did exactly the same thing; I rested. Laid down. Ate lunch. Read a book.
Pico Iyer’s new text, The Art of Stillness, was a poignantly relevant read on that day. At a time when I was having trouble taking a personal inventory and finding a balance between travel, life, and work, what I needed was a reminder that, as Iyer says, sometimes, “making a living and making a life sometimes point in opposite directions.” I had gotten so caught up in work that I had forgotten to just enjoy life. And I forgot that enjoying didn’t necessarily mean doing. Sometimes the greatest thrills come from doing absolutely nothing at all.
“Going nowhere is the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else. […] It isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”
My time in New York was both eye-opening and grounding. I forged some beautiful relationships with many types of people, but especially in the winter months, I felt that I had lost some of my love for the world around me. I was so caught up in the daily hustle of the city that I never took the time to step away and think much of what it meant and what it was all for.
Here, though, on the beaches of Colombia, I was forced into repose. It is in this way that traveling compels us to take a different perspective on the world and to ponder, with intensity, our own reality. It creates a backdrop for our lives on which we can overlay our own experiences, as we seek greater understanding and appreciation.
Stepping back from the world for three days helped me to find a new point of reference. I remembered how important my time and my happiness were. I recalled what it was like to simply relax. To just enjoy the world.
Too often we get so caught up in the constant barrage of emails, text messages, social media, regular media, work, and other commitments, that we forget how simple and enjoyable life can to be. To survive, we need food, water, and shelter. Beyond that, Facebook, emails, deadlines, beer, relationships, even our jobs, are just distractions.
“Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.” -Admiral Richard E. Byrd
We can’t have noise without silence. We can’t have fun if we’re never bored. We can’t be busy and never put into perspective what all this “busy” is really for. We can’t travel and never reflect on what it all really means.
Slowing down doesn’t mean stopping entirely. It just means finding the time or place where we can sit, do nothing, and reflect. Especially in this day and age, when our lives are filled with more distractions than ever before, the need to slow down for a moment or two has never been more imperative.
So, step back, slow down, disconnect, and take a moment or two for yourself. The fact is, you may very well need it more than you realize. I know I sure did.
The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or mountaintop but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world. -Pico Iyer
Did you like this? I personally recommend Pico Iyer's new text, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. This short book, published by TED, is travel writing with a new perspective. Maybe your next adventure should be to nowhere.