What I Learned on my Summer Vacation
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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
In the midst of the usual stressful moments of travel, I ponder why I am so attracted to it. Why do I feel drawn to nomadism the way those at the other extreme are drawn to a lifetime in one community? Why do I want to take on the struggle of learning, or at least accommodating the different languages, currencies, customs of a new country? Because learning, for me, is the best exercise. In fact, it's about the only exercise I get! I like to learn about human behavior - especially the spontaneous, often anonymous, kindness of strangers. I am curious about religious practices around the world, their history and importance as part of the tolerant adaptation necessary to survival in various cultures. Kindness in many forms is a theme of most religions, often honored, sadly, in the breach. The struggle, the exercise, the encounters with strangers are important to me. But, "So what?" you may be asking - "Why travel? -- you can learn that stuff at home!" The answer lies in the travel itself.
In preparing for this talk, I again confronted myself with the effort-filled travel question. Then I consulted the writings of prominent travel writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Theroux, Rick Steves, and Bruce Chatwin. I learned a little. In his book, Anatomy of Restlessness, Chatwin asks,
Why do men wander rather than sit still?
Why wander? It could start with the Greek legend of Io and her compulsive wandering . . .He suggests it began with the, ". . . economic reasons of herding . . . the resultant mutual antagonism of citizen and nomad . . . and ESCAPISM (emphasis his) . . . " He asks, "Why do I become restless after a month in a single place, unbearable after two?.. I have a compulsion to wander and a compulsion to return - a homing instinct like a migrating bird. True nomads have no fixed home as such; they compensate for this by following unalterable paths of migration."
There seems to be no solid answer to his question - or to mine.
But let me tell you a little about myself.
I lived and worked and traveled in San Francisco for thirty years, and when I retired I moved to the dusty desert town of Albuquerque. I embraced the profound beauty of the desert, its history and ancient cultures. My experiences there ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. On the night of an autumnal equinox, I slept in the back of my pickup truck under the full moon at Chaco Canyon. I have crossed the Mexican border unofficially for a quick trip to a convenient outhouse, and created outhouse facilities where none existed.
After seven years of immersion in the glorious Southwest, I learned that it was not a permanent place for me. So I moved to the San Joaquin Valley, and discovered the beauty of its agricultural landscape. I delight in the almond blossoms, a delicate harbinger of Spring, and wait with edgy anticipation for the "Fruit For Sale" sign to go up at a nearby orchard. At Fall's first indication of tule fog, I flee to southern Mexico.
One of the pieces of self-knowledge I have acquired is that I am always looking for something more beyond the next dune, the next orchard, the next interchange and now, the next wave.
I reluctantly began cruising seven years ago, and since then have been quite willingly at sea 279 days - nine months!
I have seen almost every shore of Africa, and can't wait to see the rest. I snorkeled the crackling blue Caribbean as well as the sinking Seychelles, and gazed in awe at frozen Alaska - until I later compared it with the indescribable beauty of Antarctica.
I sailed to Antarctica and felt that I had visited another planet. It is beyond description. It is our planet before people and way before the gun, the car, the TV. I spent time alone in silence imagining what the planet was like BEFORE. On New Year's Eve the sun neither rose nor set - our world was timeless for 24 hours. I was sure no sailing adventure could top this.
Then I learned about the World Cruise, and began planning 18 months in advance. In preparation for any trip, I research the Web, read books, scrutinize maps, talk to friends and travelers. I print, mark up, photocopy, make notes. And in the accumulation, I absorb the emotion of a place. A friend's delight in a lemon store on a side street in Sorrento results in a new acquaintance and a free box of cookies! A seatmate on a crowded flight from Beijing to Hong Kong becomes a friend as he reveals his status, like mine, as a world wanderer.
My regular cruise companion is a very bright friend of 35 years, a former coworker and neighbor, an Anglican priest who shares many of my interests such as politics and anthropology. He remembers when my daughter Sara went to Tiny Tots, and I remember his publicity photos from when he was a Quiz Kid on the radio.
He didn't want to go on the World Cruise, but his doctor inquired as to how he was planning to take the money with him.
So, on a crisp January morning, Sara dropped us at Amtrak in Modesto, and off we went to San Francisco. Still bundled in winter jackets, we landed next morning in Ft. Lauderdale. Summer had begun for us.
We boarded the Pacific Princess, found our lower-level cabin, and greeted former cruise friends. I set up the coffee pot, put the hot sauce in the refrigerator, and taped the "Vote Hillary" sign to the door. In the ensuing 110 days I visited approximately 30 countries, 19 of which were new to me, and learned a whole lot. The Pacific Princess portion of the trip was 30,336 nautical miles, roughly one and a third times around the earth at the equator. The Princess cruise concluded in Southampton, where we transferred to the Queen Mary II, and sailed eight more days to New York City, adding an additional 3500 miles to the trip. It was a late Spring day for New Yorkers, but the end of summer for us.
At the end of the trip, we drew up a list of our favorite destinations visited over several cruises. They are: Antarctica, Australia, Bangkok, Egypt, Italy, Mexico, Rarotonga, South Africa, and Spain.
So what did I learn on my summer vacation?
The most consistent and memorable thing I learned was the kindness of human beings, one for another. The sense of kindness permeated the trip; this very positive, yet simple, feeling saved many of us at one time or another. Let me give you a few examples.
As I attempted to snorkel in the Grand Caymans, my out-of- shapeness overtook me, so I resigned myself to paddling contentedly near the mother boat. Our guide, without a word, took my hand and pulled me around for half an hour, so that I could see the beautiful coral, the colorful fish, and the moray eels, which he fed by hand.
My dinner table mate similarly took in hand my new digital camera and got it functioning for me, made me a set of all her wonderful digital pictures, and took charge of producing the photos of my newborn grandson.
For many years I had longed to visit Machu Picchu; however, flying to 10,000-ft Cusco from coastal Ecuador was not the way to do it. I suffered from oxygen deprivation right from the start, when we were dropped in front of the cathedral and told to walk two blocks uphill to the hotel. As I struggled along, an older man came out of nowhere, shouldered my heavy carry-on bag, and said he would leave it at the desk. Dave and his wife stayed with me for the three days of the trip, as I wandered about in a daze . . .
The Australians seem to have learned that there are so few of them and so much of its vastness, that they need to be kind to one another. One tour guide saw that I was interested in a tropical fruit that grows in southern Mexico and which now is under cultivation in Australia. He spent his lunch time finding a botany book for me which explained it all. Between the rough beauty of the country and the charming kindness of its people, I didn't want to leave.
The terrible history of Iwo Jima contrasted with the joyous e-news that Sara and Greg's little boy was born! Others on the ship kindly shared in the celebration with a congratulatory cake and song by staff and guests over dinner. Emailed photos of the little guy were submitted to various technological gyrations and resulted in prints I could proudly show to others and tape to the mirror in our cabin.
As I sat at the Taj Mahal, randomly photographing and observing human behavior, a Japanese woman delicately decked out in a sari kindly befriended me. Her companions snapped our photos as we smiled warmly at each other, since our only common language was the smile. Seeing this, a large Hindu family gestured for me to take their pictures and to be photographed with them. Smiles all around, those again being our only common language.
In Dubai as I bargained for a prayer rug, the vendor and I used our few words to introduce ourselves. He was Iranian, and said earnestly to me, "Only peace between the people - government bad - people want peace."
Travel in Egypt is rigidly organized due to fear of terrorist attacks. Tour buses travel in heavily-armed convoys, and on each bus are at least two heavily armed security guards. The tour guides at each site carry menacing weapons, and equally armed guards can be seen on all the hilltops. There is no feeling of kindness in the presence of so much fire power.
On this trip I learned up-close about religious practices around the world, from a warm-hearted folk Catholic mass in the native language on Rarotonga to a welcoming Buddhist shrine at Angkor Wat. I felt like an outsider in these places, but I also felt the universal and inclusive religious devotion of so many, varied people. As Bruce Chatwin says in his book, The Songlines
There was an idea in the Middle Ages, that by going on pilgrimage, as Muslim pilgrims do, you were reinstating the original condition of man. The act of walking through a wilderness was thought to bring you back to God.
My visit to the Taj Mahal on the weekend of March 23 saw the convergence of religious holidays of the three major faiths - Christian Easter, Hindu Holi, and the Muslim day called Mawlid al-Nabi.. These holidays have their own distinctive rituals today, but probably hark back to primitive people's observance of the Vernal Equinox, the coming of Spring, the rebirth of joy and light.
Most of us are acquainted with Easter. Holi is a Hindu day of celebration of light and color. The custom is to throw colorful paint at people and shout, "Happy Holi!" The only defense against ruining your clothes is to paint yourself and your friends first, which everyone on the tour bus did. Through the day we saw and exchanged greetings with people of many colors. Mawlid al-Nabi is a celebration of the birthday of the prophet Mohammad in 570 CE. That afternoon we passed a Muslim shrine packed with people who stared intensely at us - only then did I remember our brightly, if incongruously, painted Anglo faces.
Again, I turn to Bruce Chatwin for his views on the devout nomad. Chatwin asserts,
Nomads are hated - or adored. Why? It cannot be sheer chance that no great transcendental faith has ever been born of an Age of Reason. Civilisation is its own religion; religion and state are wedded; at the apex of the god king of Egypt, the deified Roman emperor or the papal monarch. In its own day "Pax Britannica" was a religion, and one nineteenth-century sceptic described as religion `civilisation as inflicted on the "lower" races at the end of a Hotchkiss gun.
The great faiths renounce material wealth and the idea of progress in favour of spiritual values. Their ideologies hark back to the religious experiences of the early hunters and herdsmen - a complex of religious beliefs known as Shamanism. The shaman is the original religious mystic, androgynous and ecstatic. The nearest the Chinese had to a transcendental faith - Taoism - is `little more than systematized shamanism;' Judaeo- Christianity, Zoroastrianism and the Hindu Buddhist traditions preserve their pastoral past (Feed my Sheep - The Lord is a Good Shepherd - The Flock of the Faithful - The Sacred Cow). Islam is the great nomadic religion. Even in the Middle Ages the ecstatic dualist cults of the Bogomils and Albigenses had their origins in Manichaeanism and the shamanic traditions of the western end of the steppes and they paved the way for the Reformation. The religious leaders of the Civilised give way to the shamanic type of religious hero, the self-destructive evangelist, the celibate, the wandering dervish or divine healer. . . . The nomad renounces; he reflects in his solitude; he abandons collective rituals, and cares little for the rational processes of learning or literacy. He is a man of faith."
I was drawn to the world cruise for its total immersion, entirely leaving behind the known world, being exposed to, even confronted by the challenge of knowing different people, both on the ship and on the shore, learning about their cultures, religions, languages, lifestyles, philosophies. In other words, their civilizations. I learned about kindness - simple, every- day kindness. Kindness in the face of one's own difficulties, kindness despite perceived differences, kindness regardless of the variations of religion, race, sex, or nationality. I learned about the global number of ways there are to express religious devotion, from painting faces bright yellow and red to waiting patiently in line for admission to the Taj Mahal -- behind the cow in front of me.
If you are one of those who asked the earlier question, "So what?" let me applaud you as one of the many people who are content with a small neighborhood, a small community, a small world. You find knowledge, satisfaction, even rich fulfillment in the immediate. You are lucky people.
As the author Paul Theroux says in his book, Dark Star Safari,
The greatest justification for travel is not self- improvement but rather performing a vanishing act, disappearing without a trace.
San Francisco Chronicle writer John Flynn exhorts us to travel, saying,
Freed from the psychological leash of home, you might find that you experience the wider world with more vibrancy and focus than you ever did before.
Rick Steves says
The world is a cultural yarn shop - and travelers are weaving the ultimate tapestry."
I say, "You may have a summer vacation in which you learn about kindness and religion around the whole world!"
Finally, I conclude with the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, "You must remember that I will be a nomad, more or less, until my days are done."
[Delivered July 13, 2008. Mary Randall is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County. She is a world traveler, college lecturer, and Mexiphile.]This is a (copyrighted) Guest Sermon from our collection. If you enjoyed it, or if you'd like to use part of it, please contact us via E-mail:
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