Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Few Things I've Learned from Travel

     Did you know that Peru is directly below the East Coast of the United States? I may have had an inkling of that even before I started to roam the world but superficial knowledge is different than having a palpable understanding of the world. Flying into Lima as opposed to Rio makes one understand physically how much farther east South America lies from its northern neighbor. One can learn an enormous amount from books and lectures and other such sources but only experience paves the way for such knowledge to actually become part of you. It is that kind of  awareness that the tourist gains along the way. Anyhow, that is one of the things I have learned. There have been a lot more revelations.

     I have discovered that all people have the same basic needs even though the forms can vary greatly. There are houses built of palm and houses built of stone and others of wood or bricks or ice. They are all creations to protect us from the sun and the rain, but their design rests on the imagination and traditions of those who built them as well as the materials available in the area where they are located. We all need to eat in order to live but what we eat depends as much on circumstance and habit as it does on available food sources. Snakes and eels are not universally part of the diet. Guinea pigs are treats in certain places and unimaginable food in others. Even in a culture like Vietnam, there are folks who eat either dogs or cat yet consider the other repugnant.

         Every culture has its own customs and taboos and the visitor should be aware of these before voyaging to a new society. There are places where one symbol means OK and places where the same symbol is a gross insult. In some places one eats with the right hand and never touches food with the left. In others, eating with your hands would be considered quite gauche. Don't touch Koreans you are conversing with and don't use a handkerchief in a restaurant in France or your behavior will be considered rude. I found that Muslims and others remove their shoes before entering a holy space while the Japanese do so before they enter a home. I could go on and on with this list. One would never learn about such differences by staying home. They may not seem significant to the non-traveler but they have been quite interesting to me.

     While it seems that most of the people in the world require some spiritual base, if not an organized set of religious practices, the ways that need is satisfied could not be more varied. There are some who decorate skulls and stack them on shelves for ancestor worship. Others ambush natives from the next village to bury their severed heads with their ancestor's to serve them in the next world. Some folks bow to statues, others to rocks and stone. There are folks who consider washing oneself unholy while others wash thoroughly before prayers and still others who say a blessing before they wash in the morning. Such variations are what helps to make travel so fascinating.

      I have learned about the incredible variety of religions practiced in the world at large. Being among the practitioners is quite different than reading about their philosophies. In Orthodox churches and in mosques there is no furniture; but Orthodox stand during their ceremonies while Muslims kneel and prostrate themselves. Orthodox churches are filled with colorful paintings and icons of saints; Hindu and Jain temples feature lovely statues in addition to wall decorations; Muslims forbid the representation of living beings in their holy places. Zoroastrians leave the body of their deceased in open areas to be eaten by birds and other creatures who return the flesh to nature. Most other religions bury their dead in graves but these can be either above ground or below according to custom. In some areas there are people who choose to bury their loved ones in small houses which are replicas of dwellings for the living; in other places the bodies are burned and the ashes scattered. All of these variations are minor compared to the ideological differences that underlie them but they do make travel a bit more interesting. I would have been incognizant of most of these customs hanging around in my own neighborhood exclusively.

      So what does knowledge of all these tidbits contribute to the traveler's life? For me they enlarge my awareness of the world and make it more interesting. They feed my travel desires. They enrich my sense of man's creativity and imagination. They increase my wonder. Such discoveries are lots of fun and downright delightful. One more reward of travel off the beaten path.

                                                        Monks at Lunch, Myanmar

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