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Seven Simple Things

May 24, 2014

Let’s start this essay, and it is an essay, with a little test.  No wait come back, don’t worry, this will be a fun one I promise.  Give yourself thirty seconds to read through the following list of words.  It’ll help to say them out loud as you read, and visualise items as you go.  Ready, set, go:

Train; cutlery; coffee; rucksack; curtain; ocean; jungle; airplane; shirt; crockery; coffee; trousers.

Finished?  Right no cheating, cover up the words and write down as many as you can remember.

How did you get on?  If you got 10, 11 or 12, stop reading this and go join Mensa right now, you’re a genius.  If you got 1, 2 or 3, maybe try again later when you’re not driving, or fall-down drunk.  Really I’m not being funny, there’s probably something wrong with you if you got 1-3.  Get help.

If you got anything between 4 and 9, congratulations – you’re average.  You’re in the normal range of people who take this test.  If you got 6, 7 or 8 then you’re right at the top of the bell curve, in the good company of the vast majority of the population.  The most average of the average, if you will.  If you were a colour, it would be beige.

Well that was a jolly nice bit of fun.  Now that we’ve broken the ice you and I, keeping your score in mind, let me tell you a little tale…

There’s a city in Latin America which bears the lofty accolade, quite literally, of being the highest metropolis in the world – rubbing shoulders with the mountains and the sky at a dizzying 2,800 meters above sea level.  It’s so high that if you fly there from a lower locale, you run a very real risk of altitude sickness as soon as you get out of the airplane – not, perhaps, the best way to start a relaxing holiday.

This is why many people choose instead to fly to a nearby city near the coast, where the mountains dip their toes into the cool surf of the Pacific Ocean.  There you can catch a train up the mountain, gradually acclimatising to the altitude as you ascend.  Well, I say gradually, but the path from coast to crest is nothing of the sort scaling, as it does, the sheer face of the mountain.

To do this, the train has carved tracks out of the very stuff of the mountainside and to make its’ ascent it zig-zags its’ way across the slope, reversing on itself at the end of each section to make the next climb.

This takes time.  The flight from city to city takes 50 minutes, the drive five hours, and the train a stately four days to reach its destination.  But to dismiss such a journey based on time alone would be to miss out on some astonishing views as the lush, equatorial rainforest that bursts from the coast gradually dissolves into green rolling hills, which in turn give way to purple, jagged mountain tops.

And what a train!  We are not talking about some creaking metal worm in whose innards you perch uncomfortably on plastic seats, sipping bad coffee from a polystyrene cup and nibbling a dried, curled egg sandwich.  No in this train the stately Victorian carriages are made of the finest carved wood, dripping with luxury and excess.  The sound is deadened by the rich, deep carpets and the thick bound curtains whilst tea is served from the finest silverware and china.

All this, and the gentle incline allows the traveller by train to reach the top energised and ready to explore the city, whilst his counterpart alighting an airplane clutches his throat and collapses, vainly clawing the sky as he gasps for oxygen from the thin, mountain air….

I wonder, if we asked these two men as one draws a satisfied breath and takes in the view, and the other takes panicked gasps for oxygen as he drops to his knees, how many words from the list at the start of this story they might recall.  One no doubt will breeze through as he gently takes satisfied sips of air whilst the other will stare at you confused, pre-occupied perhaps with the one single dominating thought of his continued survival.  I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you which is which.

A man I know, let’s call him Ted, recently made such a trip, which as you can probably guess is why I’m able to wax so lyrically about this little-known attraction.  True to form, the gentle ascent meant he positively leaped from the train, ready to explore the beautiful city it took him to backpack on his back, camera at the ready.  Eagerly Ted strode forward, and out of the station.  Here he paused, taking in the extended views of rooftops vanishing into the distance; the crystal clear air making the distant buildings look like a quilt of Lego, or an over-zealous domino track made by a particularly enthusiastic nine year old.

And then, with but a cursory glance to those asphyxiating at the airport, Ted set off.  And immediately into a local man coming the other way, who spilled hot coffee all over our hero’s shirt, trousers and rucksack.  Luckily the local was not annoyed, more troubled in fact by the mess he’d made of Ted.  He began to help, padding with a hankie as Ted tried to deal with the hot coffee on his shirt and trousers, the fear his camera could be ruined, and this man industriously patting at his clothing.  It was at this point that another man arrived on the scene, equally concerned, and began helping Ted off with his rucksack as the coffee was seeping into the pockets, and running down Ted’s back.  Off came the rucksack, which the man then appeared to drop on the ground by mistake.  Another man appeared, picked up the rucksack, and in the blink of an eye all three dissolved into the crowd.

And Ted was left alone, dazed, and with the growing realisation that he had just been mugged.

Speaking about it afterwards, he told me his strongest memory was just how good the four people who did it were. There was no noise, no violence, no force – just a well rehearsed set of actions that left him on the ground without his rucksack.

“By the time I was off my knees, they had gone. I still have no idea where they went. The hotel doorman saw nothing. There were people in the street but nobody reacted. Everything was normal and quiet, apart from the fact that I was standing on the pavement, without my rucksack and with no idea where it was and these people had gone.”

I should mention here that Ted’s not your average holiday-maker.  He’s a seasoned traveller who has seen half the globe over the years; he’s a martial artist of 20 years experience, and he’s an ex-professional rugby player.  And all that was for nought because of seven little things.

Seven little things.  Spilled coffee.  Wet clothes.  Wet rucksack. Apologising, fussing man.  Second, fussing man. Dropped rucksack.  Third man.

The human brain, constantly exposed to thousands of points of stimulus every second of every day, is actually only able to process and retain at any one time, seven simple things.  That’s why you could only remember about that many from the list of objects at the beginning; it’s also why it takes three men twenty seconds to relieve a world-wise, very experienced traveller of a rucksack that was securely attached to his back, and vanish.

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