Friday, October 11, 2013

Travel is the ultimate high (or at least a good approximation thereof)

This is a little embarrassing.  The last time I posted to this blog was in September 2009.  At the time, as any person with the slightest interest would have noticed, I was, um, just a little obsessed about the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency, and the vociferously negative reaction by the American Right Wing to this event.  That was almost exactly four years ago.  In the four years since, while just as deeply interested in the political events in my country as I was before, I have been increasingly occupied with fulfilling my life-long ambition of devoting myself to seriously ambitious world travel.

In October 2009, shortly after my last blog post, Judy and I went on our first trip -- ever -- to Mexico.  On that 12-day trip (all the time we could afford, due to our work obligations at the time) we visited Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Queretero, and Mexico D.F. (otherwise known as Mexico City).  It was a fantastic, life-changing experience, in which I totally fell in love with Mexico and its people.  More than that, it left me absolutely determined not only to visit Mexico again, but to travel more.  I had forgotten just how fulfilling it is to see, touch, feel, smell, and taste the world outside the borders of our own country.  The United States is wonderful, yes -- especially the West Coast and my beloved Northern California -- but the World beyond is as more wondrous, as more full of amazing new experiences, as eating a real Mexican tamale is better than reading a description of what a tamale is like.

So, I immediately began plotting our next journey, which would be through southern Mexico, starting in Oaxaca.  In the first week of April 2010, with some trepidation, we flew from San Francisco to Mexico City.  The trepidation arose from the fact my father, aged 94, was in seriously declining health.  I had been helping to care for him for the past 4 years.  Up until then, I had not really worried that he would take a serious turn for the worse while we were away.  Nevertheless, except for our one trip to Mexico in October 2009, we had stayed pretty close to home.

We arrived in Oaxaca, and were again intoxicated by the magic of being in a country so close to the U.S. and yet so utterly, completely, totally different and foreign.  But then, after just four days, my fears were realized.  A telephone call from my daughter informed me that my Dad had passed away.  We immediately cancelled the rest of our trip, and returned home.  Most of the rest of the year was spent winding up my father's estate and settling his affairs.

But less than a year later, we started our cycle of what I call "Heroic Travel"  -- foreign travel occupying up to half the total weeks in each year.  For the next two years, we actually spent six months a year traveling out of the United States, a total of 12 months of foreign travel in two years.

Right now, via the magic of computers and the internet, Judy and I are typing away on our blogs in our hotel room in Budapest, Hungary -- halfway through our latest journey around the old East European Communist Block countries.  In the next several blog posts, I promise to bring this Blog up-to-date with a rundown on our adventures since 2009, with a few pictures thrown in.  Then I can begin more seriously blogging on what else has been happening in my life, and related concerns.

But rather than going through all those trips right now, I just want to comment on the nature of the travel experience.

I don't like traveling in guided tour groups generally, unless I have to.  Cuba is the prime example of a situation where I opted for group travel.  Even to get into Cuba legally from the United States, you have to go with a group.  (More on Cuba later.)  The great thing about independent travel is the way it challenges one at every moment to be creative, courageous and adventurous.  You can't just sit back and let someone else do the planning and arranging.  And with this independence comes a great feeling of accomplishment as the trip unfolds.  It's just so much more rewarding to be free to plan what to do on a given day, and where to go, rather than being chained to the itinerary of the group. 

Of course, it's also very challenging.  You have to plan in advance to see the important sights, because if you don't, there's no group leader to tell you what you're missing -- which may be exactly the things you came there to see.   But the rewards, for me at least, greatly outweigh the necessary costs in time and effort spent on planning.

All this is connected with what I think really excites me about travel the most.  And that is the way foreign travel forces one to be absolutely, totally, in the moment.  At home, there are just so many ways to avoid doing anything out of the ordinary.  The routine of life takes over, and mere existence becomes the norm.  But while traveling in a foreign land, especially where the language is different, there is no routine.  There is no easy way to procrastinate, to put off living in the moment in favor of just falling back on some easy, everyday habitual activity.  In travel -- especially, foreign travel -- literally everything becomes an adventure. 

As G. K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936) once said:  "An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered."  This is the key to understanding why travel is such a high.  Enlightenment is the experience of one's own self in the Eternal Now.  That Enlightenment experience -- the experience of the Self -- is the ultimate high sought by spiritual seekers everywhere and at all times.

Travel is not, by itself, Enlightenment.  But by being open to experiencing the many inconveniences of foreign travel (yes, even the uncomfortable airplanes and soul-deadening airports) as part of a grand adventure, one takes the first little step toward making travel itself a kind of spiritual exercise.  This is not always easy!  Cold, cloudy weather; unpleasant, rainy days; difficult train or airplane connections -- the list of unpleasant inconveniences goes on and on.  But with each and every decision to treat this, that or the other such inconvenience as part of a larger adventure, the whole travel experience becomes more and more an ongoing experience of the Eternal Now.  In other words, travel becomes more and more enlightening -- in all senses of that word. 

And this is what I mean when I say that travel is a pretty good approximation of  the ultimate high.