Monday, May 19, 2014

The Zen of Travel

Hmong girls in Sapa
Traveling is one of those activities most people either love or hate. I don’t mean the kind of travel where you become part of a group of tourists running through the ruins. I’m referring to backpack-type exploration in which you have no set itinerary, just an idea of what you’d like to see and where you might go. The rest is left to fate.

My partner and I travel this way in various third-world countries during her summer vacation from teaching. We have assiduously avoided the first world partly because it tends to be less interesting but mostly because it’s incredibly expensive.

All those years I spent as cubicle fodder, a dedicated wage slave, I thought that travel was a waste of money. Except for a few souvenirs, you wound up with nothing concrete to show for it. But when I was forty, I was diagnosed with cancer and didn’t know whether or not my story was ending. I recovered completely. But when my destiny was uncertain, I made myself two promises. One was to write and try to get my work published.The second was to see the world.  

Travel is a Buddhist experience. Even a somewhat-lapsed Buddhist like me is aware of this. When you descend on a place you’ve never seen before you are completely in the present moment. You arrive knowing not a soul and with no idea of what you will eat or where you will sleep. Chances are you only possess a sketchy idea of the meaning and depth of the culture. You are at the mercy of experience, the full range of potential occurrences.

These are sometimes wonderful beyond belief like dining with an extended Hmong family in Sapa Vietnam, having tea and cookies with Turkish women lace-makers inside their volcanic ash cave home in Cappadocia, going to an earth goddess Pachamama ceremony on a remote Peruvian hillside or simply drinking a mango smoothie in the night market in Chiang-Mai Thailand as dancing girls take the stage.

The experiences sometimes can be not-so-pleasant: like running out of water on a bus on the Raya Pass in Peru at 15,000 feet above sea level because the road running into Cuzco had been blockaded by strikers. Or being detained for six hours and eventually extorted for about 120 dollars each because of a “visa re-entry” problem in Vietnam.

Yes, anything can happen when you venture out into the world. The people you meet will be wonderful or awful just like those at home. But only they can show you how to turn the crystal in a new direction allowing you to see life in a way you could never have previously imagined. The value of that cannot be measured.