Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Zen of Travel

Facebook message: "Hey Ari, It was nice to meet you the other day! thanks for sending me these links. i like that picture on the other link of you at what looks like a salt plain. Is that Uyuni? I want to go there-- it looks so awesome. Would you recommend it?"

My response: The picture of me looking into a vast white field was indeed taken at the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. You asked if I would recommend that site and I can’t give you a simple answer. I had a great time at Uyuni, but there is no site that I would recommend or not recommend because to me travel was precisely about getting in touch with doing the right thing for the particular moment. This approach ultimately developed into an affinity for Zen, though you can find it in numerous other sources, both religious and otherwise.

I love the title of the recent popular travel memoir “Eat, Pray, Love”. What a romantic image of life on the road! I also love the spoof published in response “Drink, Play, F*ck”. Couldn't someone mix and match any combination of those six options? I loved traveling for its power to illuminate new options. Through travel, I practiced disrupting existing orientations and adding new ones to my easel. My previous orientation included: being certain about a career path (the "small schools movement"), putting up barriers and a generally intellectual approach to life.

The book "Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel" by Rolf Potts helped me a lot in boiling down the Kerouac spirit into practical advice. He recommends that we neither depend entirely on the "beaten path" nor take on a pretentious holier-than-though attitude towards it.

So, I had rich experiences both with American, European and Latino tourists and alone at several "must see" places (Cusco, Uyuni, Canyon de Colca, Mendoza vineyards) but there were also many of "must see" sites that I passed nearby and skipped (Valle de Luna en Atacama, Chile, jungles in Peru and Bolivia, plane trip over Nasca lines) because I either wanted to preserve cash or just hang out with some people around me. I'm not the first person to suggest that travel is precisely a wonderful opportunity to practice letting go of the idea that we "must see" or "must do" anything and getting in touch with doing the right thing for any particular moment. Nonetheless, those "must see" lists in the guidebooks are great indications of options!

My memories of Uyuni are: an American tourist in our tour group who complained non-stop, bonding about indie rock with an American who was volunteering in Cocha , getting accustomed to tough elements and living from a backpack, chewing coca leaves with a bloody nose... oh yeah and some really unique and amazingly beautiful sites. The fact that it was really early in my trip shaped my experience at Uyuni, too. During the first 4 or 5 months of traveling, I did all my "on the road" time with others and I spent most of my time staying in places where I knew people (Cocha for 1 month, Buenos Aires for 2 months and Merlo, San Luis, Argentina for 1 month).

After that, I didn't stay put and I was on my own, except for fleeting hours, days or weeks when I met up with some person or group only to part again. I would agree with Potts that traveling with others is good practice, but only once you are really slapped in the face with the gorgeous burden of having to decide for yourself every minute what you want to do or don't want to do without having to consult anyone else or worry about what others will think, does the real transformation take place. Being alone also makes it much easier to meet locals, too.

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