Travel is our opportunity to wade out from the rushing stream of daily life and lay down on the soft grass on the bank. Rest your head, close your eyes, let the sunlight filter red through your eyelids as the insects whir in the distance and the babble of the water fades to background noise.
I love the birth of small routines when away from home for a number of days. The walk from my hotel in Spain to get my daily morning coffee. The propping of my pillows each night in Mexico to sit and read and be able to gaze up and out upon the city spread below our epic windows. This week while at my Quaker yearly meeting in Greensboro, my favorite time of day has become skipping one session after lunch in order to have some time in quiet solitude. I can’t bear to spend the entirety of the day inside when the weather has been unexpectedly glorious–a rare reprieve from the oppressive tyranny of Southern summer is not to be ignored. The campus grounds are lush with green and shade and pleasing simply to gaze upon. I take brief walks down the college pathways–I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere of campuses, the saturation of expectant knowledge, the vibrancy of the young souls gathered. Even when they are not physically present, I enjoy the aura that permeates.
My habit each day has been to squirrel away two cookies from the lunch buffet, grab a cup of sweet tea, and venture forth to seek a quiet corner to read, write, or stare into space while enjoying the creamy breeze. Today I lucked out with a vacant front porch on one of the residence halls. It is everything Southern: grand columns, a row of rocking chairs, a porch swing upon which I now recline. Yesterday it was full up with those chattering in conversation so I went on past in my preference for solitude. I took a rocking chair on a small plaza in front of the student library. After sitting a minute, I was charmed to discover that I could overhear through the nearby walls a piano practice session. We’ve been pleased to share the campus with a summer gathering of music students. As I later rose to leave, I lingered to eavesdrop a minute outside one of the windows.
The last day of a retreat is always bittersweet as the blissful balm of isolation from the cares of the world threatens its imminent removal. We were granted a bit of magic our final night as a handful of us gathered on a porch with a low fiddler serenading our quiet conversation. The trees hummed along with their life within; a peek of stars up above the leafy roof reminded me of what I miss by being a city-dweller. Long we lingered, reluctant to release the bonds of camaraderie.
It’s pure glory out. Just enough sun dappling us through the pines, just enough breeze to soothe, music just loud enough to not overwhelm, just enough company to be pleased yet not burdened, just enough bitter in the beer to savor the smooth.
Sunday in the South and all is well and fine and just enough.
I realized a life-long dream last week. How often do we get to utter those words?
I placed my hands upon stones laid down by a people so ancient that their name and what they called their city is lost to history. Making my way through what the Aztecs named Teotihuacan was a spiritual day for me as I walked the Avenue of the Dead and looked with awe at the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. My mind cannot fully process how old this is and what grandeur it used to encompass, so I focus on this: a real person held his paint and created this mural that somehow has survived. He was real. He lived. Now here I stand witnessing his artwork. How amazed he would be to know this. How honored I am to be this witness.
When I tell people that I’ve gone to Teotihuacan, they immediately, eagerly ask, “Did you go up the pyramids?” When I admit I did not, their faces fall and I feel dismissed and regarded as somehow having failed. Refuse this! Do not let other people dictate how you “should” travel. My travel is my personal journey and the expectations of others for my travel and my life do not warrant my regard. My panic at the steep climb and my companion’s foot injury precluded our ascent–and to force the issue on account of “expectations” of how we “should” experience the site would have been misguided.
Once we shed the forced ideas of others, we are then free to journey in a manner that fulfills our own needs and satisfies our own soul.
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods;
There is a rapture on the lonely shore;
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more…
You are familiar with your culture and appreciate the good things in it. You may not be aware that in other cultures and civilizations there are values that people are attached to. If you are open enough, you will understand that your tradition does not contain all truths and values. It is easy to get caught in the idea that salvation is not possible outside of your tradition. A deep and correct practice of your tradition may release you from this dangerous belief.
Sometimes we need to push past our comfort zones…
A spot caught my eye as I headed back to the hotel one evening: an actual beer pub with a sign in the window for local brews. As was the case in Lisbon, beer is not Spain’s strong suit, wine is. Although I certainly enjoy both, I am a wine novice with an uneducated palate…but beer–well. The pub was closed on my first pass-by, so I merely stood like a child with nose pressed to the window and read their postings regarding what was on tap that week. I carefully noted my location (brooding statue in intersection) so I could find my way back. The following evening, I strode forth after my regular late afternoon freshen up back at the hotel, full of anticipation and high hopes. I tipped my head to the Brooder and made my turn back onto the designated street. I wanted to get a “flight” with samples of all that was on tap that night, but upon arrival discovered that most were IPAs and porters–not my preference. I ordered a wit beer and headed outside to one of the bistro tables on the sidewalk to savor. Another solo sipper sat at the table next to me. We raised our glasses in amiable cheer to each other. After a few minutes I asked him what kind of beer he was drinking. He smirked and shrugged and I took on a teasing tone, “What? You don’t want to tell me?” He blushed and admitted, “I was going to point it out to you on the menu…but I don’t have my reading glasses!” We both laughed and I invited him to my table to borrow my readers. I asked him to teach me the word for glasses, and he did, but it would not stick in my head and eventually it became a joke between us as I asked him for the word over and over again during our days spent together.
As an introvert, I don’t have the compelling need to seek out companionship and surround myself with conversation. It is, however, pleasurable when it happens organically (and when I am brave enough to reach out!). He and I continued our conversation into the evening and at some point his friend joined us at the table. These strangers welcomed me into their city and were gracious and fun and generous with their schedules, taking time out of their daily lives to escort me to places I might not find as a tourist. I went with each of them on separate days to beach towns outside of Málaga. Juan took me by city bus to a quaint restaurant for a divine seafood lunch where he educated me about typical southern Spain tastes and encouraged me to brave my hesitation and try everything. We met up with a group of his friends at a nearby bar where I suffered through the worst mojito I’ve ever had and drowned in my grossly insufficient language skills.
The next night I drove with José in his car (and yes I was a bit nervous but it was a calculated risk I decided to proceed with) to the seaside town that his parents live in. We shared a romantic candlelit dinner with wine and sea bass and fried sardines which I swore I would hate and instead ended up loving. A moonlit walk followed with extraordinary sand sculptures on one side from a contest held that day and cliffs rising on our other side. He held my hand and said that from his parents’ seventh floor apartment one could look across the water to the lights of Africa and this amazed me.
Some risk has to be taken sometimes in order to savor the full offering–new foods, lack of confidence in the language, unfamiliarity with customs–I’m glad I ventured out.