Travelling, as opposed to staying put
I just returned from a three-week trip to Barcelona, Spain and two locations in India. The journey was a spiritual pilgrimage, but aspects of it were typical of any international or exotic travel.
Travel—for those who can afford it—is the quickest way out of the doldrums of the myriad humdrum traps laid by habit. By contrast, in the Tibetan spiritual tradition the solution proffered might be, “Go into a cave and meditate for a year.”
A person who can procure a plane ticket to the other side of the world will almost certainly experience a heightened sense of being in the present, as soon as jet lag wears off. In Spain, walking through narrow lanes fronted by buildings that are 500 years old, or in India, my path crossed by a man in a pink turban plowing a field with two cream-white bullocks and an ancient wooden implement, I felt acutely “there.”
For much of my life, I’ve tried to deal with how the fluidity of the new tends to solidify, after a few months in the same place, into dull routine. The hills in the distance, which at first appear as aesthetic objects, as well as invitations to go beyond them into the unknown, become just blobs of stuff. The highways—which refused, for the longest time, to coalesce into a single recognizable pattern during a year-plus sojourn of mine in New Jersey once—finally did! And this left my world feeling smaller and less exciting.
How do you work at a full-time job and also “be”? How do you “keep it new” while doing the same thing at the same time every Monday, and possibly, something only slightly different every Tuesday? In all my contemplation and living, I haven’t really found an answer to that question. But do we live just to accumulate money for another trip?
It occurs to me, too, that some of us might have a problem feeling grounded, if we were on the road all the time. The opposite of travel, you might say, is home. The goal of a spiritual focus is to make home something found within, rather than a single physical place. But that’s quite an advanced state to attain. Meanwhile, alternating time at home with periods of travel seems a pretty good balance. The spiritual effort continues through thick and thin, through novelty and the mundane.
The joys of pilgrimage
In point of fact, most of my own international travel has been on the way to my pilgrimage destination: Meherabad, India. The desire to touch base every few years at Meher Baba’s Samadhi (tomb-shrine) is what actually gets me off the ground. Looking at Baba’s picture in my home, I sometimes think, “Why go anywhere? He’s here!” But gradually, the longing builds once more to return to the places Baba sanctified through decades of living, and especially the place where the Master’s mortal remains are.
This pattern makes me completely happy. There are many “perks”: the wonderful atmosphere inside the Samadhi, the incredible music of East and West that we share each day after morning and evening Arti. This summer, a violinist from Poland became a catalyst: harmonium, tabla, guitar, Persian “daff drum,” and other instruments easily blended together in song after song.
Other perks are that I can configure my trips so as to stop off for several days to see a city like Barcelona, as I did this summer, having explored Paris and Rome in previous years. I’ve also travelled elsewhere in India a bit over the years, on further pilgrimages to other places associated with Baba. This summer I went, with a local guide I know from Baba circles, to a glorious valley a hundred or so kilometres north of Meherabad, called the Valley of the Saints.
It so happened that 700 years ago, for reasons not entirely known, a great Sufi Master named Nizamuddin asked a number of Sufi Saints to migrate to this valley. Today, the valley and the nearby town of Khuldabad sing with beautiful domed shrines built to honour these living lights. August in this part of India is monsoon season, and though I didn’t see much rain, the days were mild and all the land was green.
One of the biggest thrills on the trip came as my guide and I walked in the shadow of a 700-year-old shrine, one that is in a semi-ruined state. Crossing a meadow, we noticed some young Indian men playing cricket. My guide knew them, and before long, I was standing there with the heavy bat in my hands. I’ve never been able to understand the slightest thing about cricket. But like many Americans, I was a baseball fanatic as a boy, and thought, “Maybe I can still hit.” When the pitch came, I swung, and crack! The ball sailed off into the distance. The Indians exploded into applause and laughter, and asked me to try one more pitch; and I did it again! The feeling among us all was of such cameraderie! Life was overflowing! And all in the shadow of those 700-year-old Sufi ruins.
Such experiences inculcate an attitude of awe and gratitude about travel: how blessed I am to see and do such things! With such compassion must I hold all beings—who are at some deep level, “me.” How fortunate I am to be able to engage in such globetrotting, when so many people live at subsistence level or below.
I try to keep in mind a cautionary note, as well, about a certain exoticism in going to a place like India, where the field workers, for example, wear flowing, colourful garments that seem to beg to be in a photo. This romanticizing of “the exotic” can become a subtle objectification of others. I try to remind myself that these people are just living their daily lives. Their culture is to be commended for its appreciation of beauty in attire or, say, in putting necklaces on the bulls that plow their fields. The jobs these folks are doing, though, remain labour-intensive and far from glamourous.
I became aware of still other subtleties in India. One day I saw a small herd of what looked like water buffalo, being tended by a tall, thin man with a stick. I was struck by the appearance of the animals, and snapped a couple of pictures. Then I approached the shepherd to ask him if they were indeed buffaloes, or just black bulls.
I was surprised at first to notice that he had a scowl on his face. What’s he upset about, I wondered? Then I saw him extend his open palm and pass his thumb back and forth over his index finger. He wanted me to pay him for taking the photos! Of course! How dense I was not to have offered him a few rupees beforehand. We haggled a bit, and I walked away feeling that I’d managed the situation well. This turned out to be true. I spotted him in another location two days later, and we smiled at each other and shared a hearty handshake. This time I kept my camera in my pocket.
Ultimately, “here” is all there is
A short video made by some acquaintances of mine is only six minutes long, and does a wonderful job of expressing the truth that however exotic a location may seem, it is simply here to those in it (and that this is truly One Beautiful World).
A Traveller’s Prayer
Let’s end this story with a little poem and a few more photos from my trip, all in the spirit of sacred and transformative travel:
I long to walk
of the world
as a labyrinth
village and city,
wonders of Creation
to the Creator,
until at the centre
there You are!
[ click to enlarge each photo ]
Clockwise from top left: Tomb-shrine of Meher Baba on India’s Independence Day (Aug. 16); La Diosa (The Goddess) by Josep Clarà i Ayats at Plaça de Catalunya, Barcelona; original building created by a Modernisme architect other than Gaudi; the inside of Meher Baba’s Samadhi (tomb); plowman with bullocks; sunrise at Meherabad, Maharashtra, India.
To read more about travelling within the country of India, visit ASTONISHING INDIA: 8 of the Most Awe-inspiring Places to Visit in India»