Traveling On ...
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twin in Innocents Abroad. Yes indeed.
These words of Twain invite me to explore just how travel helps us to fling open the doors and let the breeze of new thoughts, sensations, and visions blow through. It is virtually impossible for me to imagine my life without travel, and I’m deeply grateful I had the opportunity to pursue adventures in foreign lands throughout my life. My confused and dysfunctional mother with whom I had a fractured relationship was really responsible for this, and I thank her for that. I want to look at some peak experiences and examine what was given in those moments. Like, for instance, the prowling around the Colosseum in Rome in search of wild cats to feed, sitting in front of Monet’s Water Lilies, sitting in a boat on the Ganges in early morning, and attending a family cremation in Bhutan.
At the age of 12 or so I had the opportunity to live in Rome with my mother and stepfather. It didn’t take my mother long to figure out that a daily ritual unfolded each day in late morning when women of a certain age, many dressed in black, came to the outskirts of the Colosseum with little paper parcels inside containing their pasta or chicken from the night before. They offered this bounty to the many scrawny, mangy looking wild cats who lived amongst the ancient ruins. I’m remembering the young ones, driven by hunger, reaching up frantically with their little paws, and the older ones who rubbed up against your leg insistently. Our little family soon adopted this habit of being benefactors to the homeless felines, bringing our own leftovers and joining the Roman women in their acts of kindness. Somewhere in my multitude of old black and white photos are some pictures of these survivor cats, of my beautiful dark haired mother bending over to feed them in bright sunlight. A gift of an experience that invited us to join these Roman women in their charitable work. Italy is a generous country, I have to say, after having visited there many times since I was a young girl in the late 50’s. Generous in terms of its ancient beauty and rich history, its magnificent comforting food, and the openheartedness of its citizens. Our whole family was changed by living there: we came to see ourselves as citizens of a larger world and part of a long and formidable history, and we all discovered a love of food that lasted a lifetime.
In Paris I was taught something about art by a friend of mine who brought me to witness Monet’s Water Lilies at L’Orangerie. He was an artist himself and held a deep love for this revered painter who donated these epic paintings to his country at the end of World War I. As I learned to stop and sit and just look at art, I was changed. What I found was beauty beyond measure in an abstract form, you might say, that took me to a meditative place, a place of transcendence. I contemplated the luminous purples, greens, and grays, on the canvases, and I also thought about a life intensely lived and the artist Monet’s dedication to his work. When you hold this thought in your mind, you can’t help but feel reverence, maybe even an aspiration to find in yourself the dedication to speak your own truth in the world. As you age, you realize that one of the deepest purposes we humans can possess is the intention to offer our own creative gifts to the world. The pursuit of beauty is essential to our journey; all human beings are transformed by the sight of something extraordinarily beautiful, for it opens and softens our hearts and allows us to live more peacefully in the world.
It may have been 10 years ago that I had the opportunity to ride on the Ganges at the crack of dawn along with a group of fellow travelers, floating seamlessly through mist as the sky turned from dark gray to paler gray, and we looked to shore to see the citizens of Varanasi bathing, washing clothes, chanting, dipping themselves in the murky waters of the sacred river. It was a spectacle unlike any I’ve seen in my life. In America we live lives inside houses and other structures, occasionally venturing forth to hike in the mountains or swim in the ocean. In India all of life unfolds on the streets, alleyways, and certainly on the banks of the Ganges. You could say the landscape teams with human activity. Some of my fellow travelers were unnerved by the graphic display of this humanity and averted their eyes. They also carried in their minds the horror stories of getting sick in India, and truly the Ganges is (was) a very funky looking body of water! I strained my eyes, instead, to fathom what transpired in the ghats, delighting the brilliant blues, reds, and golds of the saris that shouted out in the morning mist. There were so many stories unfolding here, more than any of us Westerners could fathom… “It is complicated,” a female guide in Cuba told a group of us a few years ago, referring to her country’s mysterious political and social issues, and the same is true, I’d say, of India. The thing these two countries have in common is dire poverty and often a blurring of boundaries between rich and poor. The experience on the Ganges, like the four weeks before that I spent traveling in South and North India, taught me that duality in society can be cruel and heartbreaking, and in India it appears tragically inevitable. Seeing this first hand, as opposed to reading about the caste system in the newspapers or magazines, is a transformational experience. It reminds us that inhumanity and injustice surface everywhere, whether in the dirty cobbled streets of Varanasi or the tidied up neighborhoods of most any American city or town… In order to exercise wise judgment, we must allow ourselves to see injustice clearly.
I had the privilege to travel to Bhutan five or so years ago, and because of a remarkable friendship I formed with Karma my guide, I was invited to attend a private family cremation in the town of Paro. This all transpired on my last day of a weeklong adventure driving the countryside with Karma and his friend, visiting temples, walking village streets, and going on horseback up a mountain toward the Tiger Tops refuge. Karma had heard of my curiosity about Buddhist practice in his country, and shared with me his own attempts at joining the monks when he was a young boy. It was clear that though he never followed monastic path, he was conditioned by the Buddhist way of life, a way that emphasized non-harming, peace, dedication. In the stark and beautiful Himalayan landscape this country is considered unique in its purity of social traditions, its adherence to peace and protection of the environment. You see no police or military, you don’t hear sirens and honking horns, but you do hear temple bells, smell the incense and the pungent curries they offer you to eat. Far, far away from most everything you’re familiar with, you end up feeling at ease and safe here in Bhutan. The cremation I witnessed took over three hours, and it was a particularly intimate experience even though I never visited with the family members. A village woman whose name and story I didn’t know was encased in a meticulously crafted box-like structure of logs. Monks came and chanted and cast mysterious white powder on the pyre, then they lit the fire, and family members dressed in dark blue tunics came to tend the slow burning wood which eventually consumed this woman’s body. Toward the end I had a stark and vivid vision of her, and was sure I could see her whole face before the skull was cracked open to facilitate the burning process. It took my breath away. When I left I was given a gift of a small amount of money for being in attendance. I was being thanked for honoring this woman I did not know. I took away a keen sense of the wholesomeness of cremation, and a new insight about the transference of energy that occurs when the deceased is burned. Such a contrast to our traditions here at home… We keep the funereal process tidy and controlled, in a way, in the interests of moving on and getting over it. Like in India, where life and all its pain and suffering are constantly on display for all to see, the death ritual in Bhutan is faced head on with equanimity, it is included in everything else. The dark exists right there with the light.
If we take the leap and witness that which is different, strange, or scary, we can be changed and our hearts opened. When I think about it, I believe that we don’t necessarily have to get on an airplane and fly far, far, away to have these kind of learning experiences. While I’m clearly a fan of packing my passport and my “stuff” and journeying to someplace far off like the Galapagos or Machu Picchu, I know that we can traverse our towns and communities and reach out with our eyes and ears, with our interest, toward something new and different. We can be curious and responsive to the young man huddled in the park under blankets on a cold winter morning, or the older grizzled gentleman with shaky hands who bags our groceries at Safeway, or the lean and solitary coyote who scurries through the city dog park seeking refuge. I guess what I’m saying is: we can all be “travelers” in our own communities.
Travel is a bountiful, inspiring state of mind that will make all of us better citizens, happier human beings. I hope all of you who read this will turn this idea over in your minds and consider the ways you can open your heart and mind to the unexpected and unknown. I wish all of you great adventures in 2019!