Something happens to me when I travel to places unknown. I pull inward, sometimes so tightly, elements of the experience wash over me rather than through me.
I wouldn’t consider myself a person who seeks out adventure, though that might seem hard for some to imagine. I am most content in a quiet space (ideally in a spot I know very well) with a great book, a journal (ideally with a couple cats and a dog), a glass of wine or cup of tea and maybe, soft music with no lyrics—but certainly the sound of nature in abundance.
Travel, for me, is sometimes better in my imagination than in reality. Primarily because my trips are never long enough to get through the culture shock, home sickness and overstimulation. In 2009, I was in India for six weeks, the longest time I’d spent away from home until now, and I left India smack in the middle of culture shock. The international trips I’ve taken that were solely meant as vacation, have provided ample comfort, plenty of English speaking tourists to make meaningful connections with and left me feeling seriously relaxed. But the vast majority of my international travel has not fallen into the “pleasure” category [see: staying with a Tibetan family who speaks no English, sleeping on their porch with nightly visits by spiders the size of your hand and learning to use an Indian toilet (hole in the ground) whilst having Delhi Belly].
I travel in spite of my contentment to stay home.
I travel to periodically shake loose ethnocentrism, nationalism and my inner yuppie.
I travel to find loving connections with people I cannot meet by staying home.
For me, the call to travel is about inviting moments that open my heart and mind, however fleeting, When the discomfort gives way to humility and judgment gives way to love, it is a rebirth I can’t as easily achieve inside my own culture. When things are different, confusing and seemingly chaotic, it scrambles my brain enough to shake loose the part of me that knows we’re all connected no matter our programed “otherness.” It strips off ethnocentrism and entitlement and gives me a chance to see with clear, open, compassionate eyes.
I never know what will open me up but when it happens, it’s profound. I can feel the welling up of tears, a shift in the pattern of my heartbeat and a deep sense of humility washes over me. There is also an intoxicating, I can move the Earth, feeling of love that washes through me.
I wonder what might happen if more humans had a shift like this more often.
We were in a town called Popayán for New Years and El Dia De Reyes (Three Kings). New Years was surprisingly mellow but as the days drew nearer to El Dia De Reyes, Popayán was flooded with tourists from all over Colombia. Popayán is a beautiful place in Southern Colombia with whitewashed colonial buildings and so many churches we lost count. We may have overstayed in Popayán thinking it would provide roots and respite from traveling. Tranquility isn’t why people generally visit Popayán, we now know. Hardly any cafes or restaurants were open during the time we were there and those that were, didn’t keep hours we could count on. And there was not an opportunity to dive into nature unless we took a tour with a group.
Our hostel was a revolving door of travelers who stayed for a couple days at the most before jaunting off to Pasto for the The Carnaval de Negros y Blancos, Cali or Medellin.
The room we called “home” for ten days overlooked one of the busier streets in the area. It was stuffy when the window was closed but loud with plumes of exhaust when it was open. While it was in no way the spot I was hoping to create a refuge for rejuvenation, it certainly offered many interesting conversations with other travelers as we made meals in the tiny shared kitchen. Even though we were in Popayán for ten days, we didn’t make connections with locals like we had in most other places which lead to feeling some loneliness. As a result of all these things, my protective layer grew.
By the time the town was bursting at the seams with people, I was irritable. I meditated which helped as always, but the seed of discontentment had been planted and was beginning to bloom. The day before the Fiesta de Reyes, John and I were frantically trying to get a number of things accomplished before the city shut down for the holy day. Our list was long and included a bus ride to San Agustín two days later which we’d been told might be full. On our way to the bus station, we were the unsuspecting targets of foam spray bandits. My inner uptight yuppie was far more present than my calm, easy-going preferred self and instead of reacting with laughter, as was expected by the well-meaning assailant, tears welled up in my eyes and I'm sure my annoyance was evident.
It is a lot of work being uptight. And thankfully, I am not very good at it because there is always a point when I crack and the uptight shell splits into a thousand pieces that I can sweep away.
Cracking open can be a very good thing.
I was disappointed by my negative reaction to being invited into the local tradition. I knew I’d missed something special and I was embarrassed. The people who foamed us didn’t know who we were but the person I want to show up in the world as, is most certainly not the “uptight tourist” who is set off easily. It is uncomfortable to share this not-so-glorifying story but it represents the moment things began to shift for me.
The day ended up feeling like a total loss. Everything was closed, including tiendas, so food for lunch and dinner was very difficult to come by. We managed to find an empty Salsa bar that had ham and cheese sandwiches thankfully.
The morning of the 6th came with a buzz in the air. John and I went to the bus station early to inquire about a bus for the next day, then had a mellow desayuno (breakfast) at a local café. When we got back to the hostel we learned that a parade was winding through the streets of Popayán. In spite of my wishing I could be on top of a mountain alone in a cabin, I joined John for the parade.
The streets filled quickly with people from all over the region and a sprinkling of international tourists. When the parade started the energy of the crowd lifted to a palpable joy. As dancers and musicians marched by, I was overtaken by feelings of humility, gratitude and love. The parade celebrated indigenous peoples of Colombia, culture, religion and community. It would have been impossible not to soften surrounded by so much beauty and wonder.
And that was it. My heart was wide open. The crowd, which had previously felt suffocating to me, now felt familial. We were part of it, not spectators. We’d been brought into the fold to some degree, and it felt reassuring.
As the parade ended, people on both sides of the street began feverishly spraying foam at each other. Giggles of little kids and belly laughs of their parents echoed through the streets, as children turned on the parents who’d so generously bought them foam spray. We attempted to sneak out, but there was no sneaking and there was no out. The entire city, in fact, all of Colombia, was engaged in a foam war.
When a little girl with pig tails, a huge grin and a can of foam spray nearly as big as she, stepped in front of me, I smiled and opened my arms. Her delight in foaming me was infectious. As my glasses, ears, front and back were covered in bubble gum scented foam (think shaving cream), I recognized a sound I hadn’t heard in a couple weeks—my own belly laugh. John’s beard was a favorite target (Colombians are generally clean shaven). John, in general, was a favorite target. By the time we got home, we’d been foamed head to toe and pelted with flour.
It is difficult to describe the moment, though I suspect we all have them, when the tension of the ego builds to a crescendo only to come tumbling down resulting in a feeling that the universe makes sense after all. At least for this one, small moment in time.
I anticipate hundreds of these moments, hopefully closer to thousands, in the coming year. Figuring out how to maintain calm and increase Zen regardless of the stress and discomfort is a goal for me this year. Building a practice of meditation, contemplation and self-care, regardless of the exhaust, noise, traffic and sleeplessness, is what I hope to accomplish during my year on the road. And if it doesn’t work, I can rely on the fact that there will be moments just like this one, that will crack any part of me that has grown rigid.
And . . . .