March 28, 2011

Contentment in Five Short Stories

I. Dairy Queen in Udon Thani

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In Northern Thailand I sit in the Udon Thani airport eating a custard pastry. It costs 20 baht (60 cents). Along with a cup of coffee ($1.10), it is my joy.

I sit across from the Dairy Queen—hugely popular in this part of Asia—and reflect on my day. Getting here required a bit of soft adventure. In this case I paid $3 for a 30-minute tuk tuk ride from Vientiane, Laos to the Thai–Laos border, then $6 from the border to Udon Thani airport, another 30 kilometers away.

The trip can actually be done for less money by taking a direct bus from Vientiane, but the bus I needed was full when I got there. I tried to get on anyway (sometimes this works) but my efforts were unsuccessful. No matter. It worked out just fine, and here I sit. Contented.

II. Running in Vienna

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On another trip I’m coming home from Europe through Vienna, a city I’ve wholeheartedly loved since my first visit years ago. This time I’m in transit for a couple of days, staying in a hostel and sleeping late before changing eight time zones. In the evenings I run for an hour along the river Danube.

On the way back from the run I go for takeout pizza and bring it to the hostel. On the last morning I go to the bakery, where I utilize my ten words of German to order milchkaffe and apfelstrudel. Then I take the train back to VIE airport and look around in wonder.

Vienna to me is the classic representation of what many of us in North America think about when we idealize old Europe. It’s trendy to look further out for travel inspiration, but I like Vienna just fine. After 18 months traveling on mostly OneWorld tickets, I’ll be buying a Star Alliance Round-the-World ticket later this year to get to some destinations that are better served from those carriers. If I can make the routing work, I’ll definitely plan the European portion through VIE instead of FRA.

III. The monk in Business Class, Singapore to Dhaka

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A Buddhist monk is sitting in the row ahead of me in the Singapore Airlines Raffles (Business Class) cabin. I wonder how that works—do monks get upgraded from elite status? Do monasteries train in travel hacking?

Flights to places like Bangladesh have an odd mix of characters. Among the expats, there is usually a group of U.N. workers, a few businessmen, an occasional journalist, and often a couple of people who you can’t really figure out what they’re up to.

I guess I fit into that category to any other observer, so I can’t complain. Me and the monk, we have something in common. I look around and think about the fun life I have, flying to Bangladesh and feeling like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

IV. The other monk in Moldova

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The Buddhist monk on Singapore Airplanes reminds me of the orthodox Christian monk I share a compartment with on the train from Moldova to Romania on yet another trip. It’s July and therefore the hottest time of the year to take an overnight train through the region. From the moment I get on board I start sweating. It doesn’t help that it takes a while to leave and we keep slowing down along the way, preventing the wind from coming through the windows and cooling us off.

Most of the other passengers are male, so I don’t think much about taking off most of my clothes and sitting on the bunk in my boxers and iPod earbuds. Right at that moment a female border guard walks through the compartments checking passports. Oops. I’m proud to represent my country well, I think as I hand her my passport. I put on a shirt and she flicks through all the pages with suspicion.

Later I talk with the monk for a long time, who has also stripped down to survive the heat. He tells me about monastery life and I show him photos of the years I spent in Africa. Finally we get underway to Bucharest. Even monks need to sleep, I think as my friend dozes off in the bunk below mine.

I didn’t like the heat at the beginning of this nine-hour journey, but now that the breeze is flowing, all is well. I doze off myself, while watching Romania roll by outside the window. At the end of the trip the monk gives me a prayer rope, which I keep with me for the rest of the journey.

V. The snow-filled streets of Toronto

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Several Decembers ago, I ended up in downtown Toronto for a friend’s wedding. At the time I had been in Africa the previous two winters, so I hadn’t seen snow in a while. That weekend, a huge snowstorm (well, by my standards) set into Toronto and the streets were stacked a foot deep with snow.

I don’t usually like cold weather, which is why I usually like the great city of Toronto much more in the summer. This time, though, I’m happy to walk through the snow in boots and a winter coat I had brought up specifically for the trip.

I walk through the Distillery District and St. Lawrence Market, listening to music and thinking about where I’ve been and where I’m going. Whenever I think of snow in the future, I’ll think of this visit to Toronto. Good times.

***

I know that contentment is more of an internal state of being rather than something that is derived through external circumstances. Yet, I am human and therefore influenced by my surroundings.

Could I have this feeling anywhere? Yes. But I also don’t mind going to Thailand or Toronto to find it.

Part of why I travel is for moments like these. Very few involve museums, guided tours, or typical itineraries. Most of them are hard to predict; I just look up from whatever I’m doing and suddenly realize I’m perfectly content. Nothing needs to be added or taken away.

Where do you find contentment?

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Images: Thai Bus, Vienna, Danube Landscape, Monk #1, Monk #2, Toronto

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Comment on this article

51 Responses to “Contentment in Five Short Stories”

  1. Thanks for articulating this. I get these feelings when I travel – savoring the most delicious breakfast I’ve ever had in a San Francisco coffee shop, enjoying a drive out of Denver north toward the mountains on a sunny and exploring Chicago a little lost are just a few lately.

  2. there is something about being in a cafe..sipping…while reading a book…listening to corinne bailey rae or nina simone

  3. “…contentment is more of an internal state of being…” Very true. This philosophy is helping me recover from clinical depression. Doctors help with the medical pieces; I am responsible for the internal frame of mind.

  4. I remember once in my rushed attitude through Australia when I just kept wanting to do something new everyday and stressing myself out. Instead, while others left to go do something, for the first time I went and lied on a beach and just listened to music. I was so content for about an hour just listening to the waves and feeling the cool breeze go by my ears. Sometimes I’m content with a cappuccino and sometimes with some scenery to gaze at for hours like the Canadian Rockies or a sunset of a New Zealand beach. Those are the times I love the most.

  5. After a couple of days in Bourdeaux my wife and I walked to the train station a little early. It was cool and overcast but we bought some pastry and espresso from a cafe and sat outside anyway. Sitting outisde a cafe in Bourdeaux with my wife = contentment.

  6. Contentment is in a few places I can immediately name – my husband’s strong and gentle arms, sitting anywhere, doing anything, with a grandchild on my lap, or when a grandchild offers me a big hug and a picture just colored. Annie, the eight year old, gave me a white piece of paper with three stenciled words the other day – “Mammy is Fun.” And she smiled. Contentment washed over me. Josie and Mei give me pictures they color of My Little Pony. They smile. I melt in joy. I enter my garden gate, see the first tiny baby squash and teeniest green tomatoes with their yellow flowers for hats. I smile and know I have it all.

  7. Nice impressions of your travel indeed.

    Contentment is rather a general state of my soul. I am mostly really aware of it when hiking in a beautiful scenery, when I have a chance to be at the ocean (particularly the beautiful Pacific coast), when I listen to birds, see the beauty of nature. Also when I am running and feeling the air flow through my body.

    Finally, when I am flying actually. The moment when the airplane takes off and lifts me to places and encounters unknown yet. These are moments of bliss, excitement and contentment.

  8. I find contentment in a good cup of coffee or tea, in a cafe that looks out onto the hustle and bustle of the city, or the serenity of a garden. I have had that experience when I travel. I also try to have a local breakfast treat, or a sweet popular in the country I am visiting. I drink in the sounds of the environment. Ahh!

  9. Chris, thanks for sharing these stories. There really is something to the experience we have outside of our “normal” space.

    Kevin

  10. March 28, 2011

    roberta cottam

    Thanks for sharing these beautiful short stories–and short being an important word! Contentment exists now, and unless we can live in the present, we’ll miss these moments of bliss. When I travel, it’s easy to fall into these sweet pitfalls of happiness because all the constructs of Me-At-Home fall away–no deadlines, no reputations, no expectations, no histories with each of the people I meet. Abroad, life feels fresh and instantaneous. I think, “Enjoy it now–now! Because tomorrow I am on the road again.” My husband and I were once watching an impressive lightning storm over the beach in Mozambique when a sudden hail storm broke out. The Mozambiquans were delighted (as ice falling from the skies is obviously a rarity), dancing amidst the golf sized hail balls, scooping them up and popping them in their mouths. As you are reminded of Toronto when it snows, Chris, I’ll forever think of Mozambique when it hails, and savour the memory like a ball of ice slowly melting on my tongue.

  11. March 28, 2011

    Christine

    Vienna – ha!

    Next time you’re here, forget about the hostel and the pizza – surf our couch and learn how to cook a typical Austrian meal instead. If you want, get in touch.

    Christine

  12. Here in Ireland, I find the most contentment when hanging out the linens on the line. The best is when the sun is shining, and the wind is whipping, fighting me as I try to straighten the sheets. It makes me laugh and just feels good.

  13. These stories are shared with such peace. Great post as always. Thx!

  14. This absolutely reflects my own experiences of travel and what I love most about travel. For me, some of my most contented moments have been stepping out of hotels in Europe in the Autumn/Fall and breathing in the crisp morning air; or walking the streets of London with no particular destination; cycling through the streets of Maastricht in the Netherlands (agin with no purpose other than to experience the city); or sitting in a canyon in Kakadu National Park with the birds above and a river below. Travel is so effective at drawing us into the present moment. I’m sure that’s what has attracted me to it, time and time again.

  15. Although I am unable to travel at this time…..contentment this week is looking out my window and seeing the fingers of sleeping tulips coming up through the frosty ground. The temps have been very cold yet they seem to shrug it off…they have a mission.

  16. Sometimes we need reminders to look for contentment. I find contentment outside in the summer, watching the water brush across the shores of Lake Erie or enjoying a good beer with my close friends and family. Those are the times I cherish.

  17. We had just gotten off of a long leg of the Trans-Siberian in Perm, Russia and were eating in a cafe in the train station. An American song came on the radio that reminded me of my older daughter and I was pretty content.

  18. There’s an old baseball book titled “Ball Four”. Author Jim Bouton wrote about “the cool of the evening”, the time after a well played game or a good day’s work when you sit, relax, maybe sip a cold beer and reflect on what you accomplished that day.

    I often do just that – grab a beer and sit on my porch enjoying “the cool of the evening”. That’s contentment to me.

  19. Thanks for reminding me of Vienna. I grew up there and just thinking about it makes me super happy. There’s no place like it (in my opinion) and everyone should experience some Milchkaffee and Strudel in Vienna at some point in their life. :-)

  20. I love to travel too, though I do it *much* less frequently than you, Chris.

    I find contentment most often doing more home-based things: yoga, walking by San Francisco Bay, making art, performing with a band or solo with my ukulele, Argentine tango dancing…

    And always: spending time with people I enjoy and care about.

    One of the biggest keys to happiness, I’ve learned, is knowing the things that make you happy and content, and making sure to integrate them into your life on a regular basis!

    Not always easy, I’ll admit, but it really is that simple.

  21. I know exactly what you’re capturing here: I call them my Moments of Zen. It’s possible to experience them in my home city, where I spend 90% of my time, but 90% of the moments occur when I’m traveling. A MoZ is the sudden realization that there’s no place else in the world I’d rather be than where I am in this point of time. One Moment of Zen equal a very good trip; two or greater equal an outstanding trip.

    Past Moments of Zen:
    - Seeing a four-wall mural painted by a famous painter in a private house in Tenerife
    - Stumbling upon the Berlin Opera’s finale (Symphony No. 9), outside, on a perfectly sunny day
    - Participating in performance art in Lisbon
    - Sitting on the steps at El Bulli after a four-hour meal, eavesdropping on Ferran Adria through the window
    - Witnessing a very big deal society wedding in St. Emilion (you wouldn’t believe the hats)

    I wish I were traveling right now. Now I’m a little depressed (no trips scheduled for awhile).

  22. I’m content when I walk around Christ Church Meadows in Oxford, by the River Cherwell where the ducks swim in pairs, and where daffodils are blooming in carpets by the bank. I look across the meadow at the dreaming spires of medieval Oxford, and realize that I belong here, at least for now. In a few months I’ll take my exams and then move to Scotland to start a PhD program, but for now I enjoy walking past the cows in the meadow, with their calves grazing beside them. And then coming home to the house I live in across the road, and celebrating a friend’s birthday with cake and wine, and sipping whiskey and talking until midnight, as we did tonight. And then quiet prayer in the house chapel before bed, to rise and do exactly the kind of intellectual and creative work I want to do. This is my joy.

  23. March 28, 2011

    Ian Clark

    Where do you find contentment?
    “within one self”

  24. March 28, 2011

    Suyog Mody

    a nap on the beach – any beach – with the waves making a light ripple sound is my contentment. we try to go for beach trips 4-5 times a year and i look forward to these naps the most.

  25. I find contentment in reading articles about contentment…

    Right now I love my life, everybody in it, everything I do and I haven’t even left my own country in two years. There is just so much that I have not yet discovered about Australia and looking forward to checking out Cooper Pedy where there are opal mines later in the year.

    Contentment is being happy with what you have, be and do.

  26. Chris, I think you hit it on the head. That feeling of contentment can hit us anytime, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing. The happy accident of seeing nothing needs to change. We can’t plan for it, but, with practice, we can make ourselves more accident-prone!

  27. Some of my contentment comes from the planning! I have an upcoming trip to Europe (first ever by myself) and if I’m ok travelling alone….I think I’m going to start planning my first ever RTW trip! OMG!!! :)

  28. My best moments traveling have always been ones like the ones you describe. My favorite contentment moment was a morning spent journaling and meditating in Machu Picchu. The sun was shining, the bulk of the tourist hadn’t yet arrived for the day by train, and the setting in the Andes Mountains couldn’t be beat.

    Yes, the setting inspired me, but I think what it actually did was remind me of the goodness of my life. We can get so distracted by the rush of life that we forget what a gift our lives are. Even with a packed schedule, traveling affords me the opportunity to stop and notice my life again.

  29. March 28, 2011

    Maggie Dodson

    BDAY IN DAKAR

    Up at 5.30am. Only two hours sleep. At club last night for one of greatest Senegalese musicians, Cheikh Lo. Catch bus to Keur Massa, then cab to monastery at Keur Moussa, for kora mass at 10am. Clando cab drivers trying to charge hilarious prices for short trip, ‘It’s 50k to there!’ Need training from Bangkok Rhet. Drink Cafe Touba, sweet and peppery. Senegalese laugh – ‘Toubabs drink cafe Touba!’
    Man at l’eglise calls a man who will drive us for sidesplitting price. Give up, missed mass now. get bus back to city.
    Buy pastries at boulangerie, eat with friends then walk to La Calebaisse, four storey museum of African artifacts, treasure trove of style with beautiful ceilings and lovely restaurant on top.
    Le Ngor next. Red wine, hot sun, rolling surf, smell of the sea on the wind, good company…restaurant as close to the waves as you can be without being in them.
    Then I’s feast. Baked whole tuna, the hottest chilli, tomato and onion salad, Togolese ablo. Perfect day.

  30. I remember the first time I felt that feeling of complete contentment, I was about 22 and backpacking around Europe. I was on my own in Germany and in some small town surrounded by one of those stone walls. I distinctly remember sitting on that wall and being overcome with a joy that was simple yet profound. I had very little money, was single, no one knew where I was, I had only the things I could carry on my back and I had no idea what tomorrow would bring – and yet I couldn’t have been happier. I’ll never forget that moment, and I have had many more since then – but since that day I have known that my happiness is completely up to me.
    I enjoyed your stories. Happy travelling.

  31. There’s a spot by the bay where I always run to and stop for a while just to take in the water. Whenever I’m there late at night or very early in the morning, I could just sit and watch nothing for hours. Something about the absence of any other people and the sounds of the waves just flicks a ‘calm’ switch inside me.

  32. I tend to find contentment while writing with a pen and paper. Being around a large body of water helps. But I’m learning to find contentment when things are going well and when things kinda suck.

  33. Parks do it for me. It’s not the about the greenery. It’s about the people watching, or in one case, the waterbird babies watching. Reading your stories, I remember sitting in a park near the Rodin Museum in Paris just after school had let out and watching the kids and their carers, another park / square in the Gracia region of Barcelona sipping cafe con leche at the end of the work day watching the dating age young people play their games, and yet another park along the river in Norwich, England, the opposite shore lined with boat homes, watching the swans, ducks, and silly geese (as we called them because they would surround us in groups and stare at us with the most baffled looks and because they were too dumb to detect thrown bread if it fell between their feet) parade their new hatchlings in straight lines.

  34. March 28, 2011

    Tommy Typical

    Costa del Sol and a sunrise that said what do you want from life. And outside Louisville when my jeep rolled down a hill and disappeared one night and all I could say was it’s gone and cried until I laughed. Keep it up my brother! Serendipity happens!

  35. I do not get to travel as much as I would like….but am working on it. I did have the opportunity to go to Italy last fall….I had SO MANY moments of contentment that when I came home and people were bombarding me with ?’s about all of it…DID YOU GO HERE? DID YOU SEE THAT? DID YOU DO THIS? WHY NOT? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?…I simply responded calmly and took myself back to all the moments I had FOR MYSELF, on that trip that I fully embraced contentment….thank you for reminding me of them….perfect timing

  36. I find contentment on a long walk with the sun shining, playing a board game with my son, reading a good book, and in just sitting with a cup of good coffee.
    As I’ve gotten older and more at ease in my own skin, I find that my contentment and joy are connected with the deep sense of gratitude I feel every day.

  37. I get my contentment from spending time with my grandpa. His short term memory is failing him, but his long term is amazing. He points to the old cow bell on his shelf and tells me that his mother brought that with her when she moved from Switzerland to the US in the early 1900′s. He loves telling me how she would go up into the Swiss Alps when she was very young and yodel. Learning about my family’s past and being able to share these precious moments with my grandpa make me feel like everything is as it should be. Perfectly content and perfectly happy!

  38. The first time I remember having that feeling was in high school sitting in a dark hotel room in Salzburg. I was on a school choir trip and it was the middle of the night and we had the windows open and were up late talking, sitting on the windowsill, looking out at the street and courtyard below us. A man walked by singing. One of my friends wrote a silly poem. A little bit later we watched as a young man tried to steal a moped unsuccessfully and got mad and started yelling at it. Having those random shared observations with wonderful people just made me feel giddy and really content with my life and the people in it.

  39. I think contentment is about not having the noises of responsibilities and schedules in my head, when I am free to relax and take in the current task or environment. Its a quietness of mind and spirit. I have found contentment sitting around a fire at an alpine lake, warm food in my belly after a long day backpacking, watching the alpenglow on the surrounding peaks, chatting with friends. I have also felt it reading geology on my living room couch. Yes, you can find it anywhere, but you are also right it is not a bad thing to find it in some extraordinary places as well.

  40. My happiest moments are talking to random people. People in stores, people on the train (like you spoke to the monk), people look for / buying the same things I am, people selling what I’m buying, etc. Everyone’s stories are so interesting, conversations like these always leave me with a smile =)

  41. Strangely, our family’s most contented moments came during times of hardship. Whether we were soaked to the bone on an unseasonably cold July day in Munich or freezing and starving on a late March night in Tuscany, traveling with our 4 kids has taught us that contentment is in the little things–like realizing your jacket has a secret hood, splashing through puddles because your feet are already soaked, or an impromptu game of tag (parents included) under the stars, to get your mind off your hunger. Enduring hardships with contentment is something to savor–and make the best memories.

  42. in berlin.

  43. I run a few enterprises offline and online. One of them is a farming concern, 3 hours away from Lahore. On the way, I try to stop at one of the many tea/truck stops, find an empty corner, sit atop a makeshift bench, plan my things-to-do while sipping on hot, magnificently-sweet tea.

    I order one cup for myself. Then I offer tea to the tea boy taking my order, him now smiling the pleasant smile that only unpredicted, pleasant behavior can bring. Then I look around if any guy is ‘just sitting around’ and tell the tea boy to give that person a cup of tea as well.

    It is at moments like these that I suddenly realize what I am doing, that I am perhaps living the best days of my life, and that is what I’ve always wanted. I bring thanks to the One Above, I promise myself to be better than I am now, to try harder, to perhaps re-live this moment as many times as possible. Total, unadulterated, pure contentment.

    And when was the last time I ‘planned’ a ‘tea stop’? Never.

  44. every time you write stories like these about your travels it makes me want to travel the world even more.

    thanks for sharing these stories, it makes my morning when I dream of traveling.

  45. I’m on a journey which will take years – the rest of my life, very possibly. I’ve met people I would never have connected with otherwise and done a lot I didn’t know I was capable of. I regularly cry, mostly with laughter but sometimes with frustration or just exhaustion. As I journey on I learn more about who I am each day and grow my respect for myself and others I’m traveling with every time I overcome a new challenge. My journey is parenting and it is where I find contentment.

  46. I find contentment using my muscles to propel my bike and body on single-track trails through the woods along with my dog. He has a smile on his muzzle and so do I.

  47. Great article. I love running in new places when traveling. It is such a great way to take in the surroundings and to breathe it all in. Yes, contentment can be found anywhere, but sometimes it is more fun to find it far away from home.

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  49. It’s quite simple : I find contentment in my garden when I touch the ground, when I plant vegetables, when I sow seeds…
    I love the time it takes to grow…
    I love being on the porch and just look at my garden when the sun goes down !

  50. Nice article! I think I get some of the feelings you mention any time I first arrive in a city I have never been, AFTER I have gotten some kind of accommodation and gotten rid of the beast on my back – that incredible feeling of possibilities as you stroll into an unknown city or town. I usually don’t look at a guidebook or map or anything at this point. If it is the type of place where there are postcards being sold I sometimes will glance at a stand – in about 2 minutes I see pictures and names of all the places the guidebook would have told me to go to anyway, but I am on the street while doing so. Then I just wander – I figure the really good cities will draw you naturally into nice or interesting places with no help needed. If a city can’t do that, then there is something not quite right.
    Then, with a nibble here, a beer there, I get totally lost, but usually find myself in the very place I would have wanted to find anyway.

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