Travel as a Spiritual Practice

Somewhere over British ColumbiaTravel is one of my core spiritual practices. Growing up, my parents took my sister and I on at least one vacation a year. It was the 3-week family sojourn to visit friends in New Zealand when I was 8, that left an impression with me great enough to stir a desire to experience more of this world. This desire continually pesters me, calling me out of the norm and into unknown and adventure.

This spiritual practice is distinct from pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a well-known form of soul-searching—a long journey to a significant landmark, shrine, or destination. The traveling spiritual practice that formed in me may well include pilgrimage, albeit they are not one in the same. For example, a pilgrimage of a devout believer bears a holy purpose and spiritual expectations such as the Hajj or walking the El Camino de Santiago. One who practices their spirituality through travel, on the other hand, may not be in any place of particular religious importance nor necessarily seek an audience with the divine.

IMG_2730.JPGFor me this means travel for travel’s sake, seeing the world in an attempt to learn about cultures, grow, and change. Sometimes that is through seeing landscapes from the air or car; sometimes that is lived through conversations with strangers or visiting museums or other places of interest. God or things spiritual may or may not be in my mind or on my lips, and yet the experience as a whole feeds a spiritual hunger.

What sets this apart? People regularly take vacations or travel across country to get from one place to another. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When I plan a vacation, I make sure I experience life and enjoy myself as much as possible. Why spend all my time going to a place because it is “the tourist thing to do” but not what I like? Cruise ships are not my cup of tea, but I have spent a few nights on the solarium deck of a ferry floating through the Inside Passage in Alaska. Twice, I have arranged a layover in Amsterdam long enough for me to hop on the train  and walk around town.  I delight in sunrises and sunsets wherever I am.

In my studies in spirituality I came across a definition for contemplation that has stuck with me: a long loving look at the real. Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt’s essay describes this definition:

The real, reality, is not reducible to some far-off, abstract, intangible God-in-the-sky. Reality is living, pulsing people; reality is fire and ice; reality is the sun setting over the Swiss Alps, a gentle doe streaking through the forest; reality is a ruddy glass of Burgundy, Beethoven’s Mass in D, a child lapping a chocolate ice-cream cone; reality is a striding woman with wind-blown hair; reality is the risen Christ.

These are, of course, things that in his time, his Western culture and his way that are striking.  All true, indeed—now imagine the thoughts, lives, and real contemplations of the near 7 billion people on this planet. This drives my desire to travel and experience the world.

Above all, appreciate the journey and live in the moment; see the world and take a long loving look at the real around you.
alaska panorama

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An Ordination

A quick story for today:  One of the first experiences I had in Costa Rica was an ordination at Iglesia Luterana Sola Fe, the church I lived two doors down from.  My second full day in the country was spent at two church services, one being an ordination.  The ordination was one of the many unexpected moments of grace during my time there.  Leonel, the ordained one, is a compassionate man who also does a prison ministry. I am grateful to have been present at this a special occasion.
laying hands on leonel

Nicaragua: War, Coffee, and Fair Trade

13_01_10_IMG_0996Riding in the back of the truck bed, I stared at surrounding landscape.  My grip on the top of the truck was tight as we drove over what passes for a road on Ometepe, an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.  As we passed jungle, banana trees, small villages where women cook over woodsmoke, and around the island’s two volcanoes—Conception and Maderas—I suddenly wondered what life might have been like during the war.  Nicaragua’s recent past tells a sad story of dictators, revolution, counter-revolution, and continued poverty.  What stories are there to tell?  Passing through the jungle in peacetime still brought sadness.

I’m not writing a history lesson, but it would be worth your time to reflect on the disastrous results of US foreign policy in the 1980’s that is only self-interested in abolishing whatever is deemed as a threat to US security.  Small Nicaragua, poor Nicaragua—labelled this or that and a worldview was thrust upon a people already in struggle. Somehow, millions of dollars were secretly and overtly donated to a war in this country, so far from the dominating culture, the vast landmass and wealth of the USA.  How many US citizens knew the life of an average Nicaraguan?  What is the face of socialism/communism/capitalism?  Today many of the people in Nicaragua struggle against tuberculosis, parasites, and respiratory problems (caused from open fires for cooking).  Corruption in the government, and 45% live on less than $2 per day…this is a reality.

Ometepe is beautiful, and it is also a remote corner of the country.  Electricity is still new to parts of the island.  Though not in the central area of the war, I imagined anyway…eyes closed, I transcended time.  What would it be like to be on my way to somewhere and have the constant fear of being blown away by mines, or attacked by contras?  My imagination wasn’t even enough to address that terrible reality of war.

Back into the present, I held tight until the destination, an organic coffee farm.  So, yes, there are good stories to tell. North Americans, when you purchase that expensive cup of fair trade coffee, know that you are effecting change.  No, I’m not being trite.  The fair trade concept has been out there, and perhaps you subscribe, and buy that coffee. But personal experience adds power my words, and my personal experience is this: Organic and fair trade products are not a political issue—it is a healthier way of life for all.

This good story is about a small collective called Finca Magdalena, who happen to export some of their coffee to an organization on Bainbridge Island, WA (fairly traded).  If you want to read a success story, read their history.

Below is a photo from my tour at Finca Magdalena.

At Finca Magdalena

Thoughts Upon Arrival

Under the cover of darkness, I arrived in San José late on January 1, 2010.   Tired and disoriented from a few hours of in-flight sleep my heart and mind were also racing.  Once I cleared customs and claimed my luggage, I experienced a surreal moment walking to the door.  As young college students bound for an adventure tour passed me, men stood with signs looking for their tourist visitors.  The scene gave me a moments pause.

I had little idea what to expect of the entire month that lay before me, and indeed the new year as well.  Perhaps it was providential that stress kept me from dreaming up expectations about what my life would be in Costa Rica. However, I knew I wasn’t a tourist, so as I stood waiting for my deaconess sister, I had to ask…am I ready for this?  There’s no going back.  Yes, I’m ready, I thought.

Winding through the dark streets of  San José, I tried to get my bearings, which proved to be useless.  So I just observed.  As we turned onto the dirt road toward the shantytown that would be my home, I prayed to live in the moment.  Happy New Year.  From that moment on, I was free of the burdens of 2009 and free to re-claim an identity that had been lost in the depression—an identity of being a compassionate listener, spiritual director, and deaconess.

It was difficult to arrive so late at night, because I was not able to see my surroundings.  The houses in this small barrio are constructed of mostly scrap metal.  I lay in bed that night listening to the noise of traffic and dogs barking.  Bookshelves and a hanging bedsheet blocked off my private space.  However, the other side of the room was open to the air.  I lay there disoriented, yet thankful for a bed and the roof over my head, ready to sleep off a long day and begin a new life with a new community.

Below is the picture I took on my first morning in Costa Rica.  It looks out to the rest of the barrio and the mountains above San José; behind me are the bookshelves and my space.

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From Costa Rica

This brief post is only to say that I am well and enjoying my time in Central America.  I have some stories to share, so stay tuned.  Here’s a photo of one of the places I’ve been.  It is the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua.  It is in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, which is probably the size of Lake Michigan in North America.  The Island has 2 volcanoes.  I was there with university students from Pennsylvania, and they set up a medical clinic and worked at an orphanage.  The ferry boat is the only way to/from the island, and as you can see, it isn’t very big.  The name of the volcano in the background is Conception.  More to come…
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A New Year, Another Adventure

There is another adventure on the horizon.  On January 1st, 2010 I will kick off the new year by boarding a plane and flying away for the whole month, bound this time for Costa Rica (and Nicaragua).  As I did with India, I intend to post some, perhaps this time while I’m in the country.

One reason for my Costa Rica trip is to experience something new and away from the familiar in Seattle.  Lately I have been in a stuck pattern, in need of change but unsure how to make it happen.  Well, here it is happening, almost all at once.  Coinciding with this 34-day trip is the end to my work at a bookstore I have een employed at through graduate school and beyond, for 5 years.  It is time to move on, and this is my chance.

Another reason is that I have an opportunity to engage in ministry work with another deaconess.  This is exciting, and has potential to open more doors.  When I ask myself what it is I most desire in work, I have often returned to direct service.  A ministry with people, listening to them, learning from them, and helping where needed.  When I am in Costa Rica I will mostly be listening, learning, and absorbing.

I also really need a sabbatical.  This is a perfect way to combine something that engages my heart and mind, as well as being refreshing for the body.  I will leave Seattle in the grayest period of the year for Central America where it is warm, dry, and exceedingly beautiful to step into a new culture, learn a new language, and hear stories of brothers and sisters in Central America.

Expect more updates on my adventure, stories of those I meet, and of course pictures.

A Walk in Lodhi Gardens

Lodhi Gardens

28 December 2008

The distinct odor of exhaust and pollution hangs in the air.  It covers the visibility of the sky above and sticks to my lungs.  High above black Kites soar in circular patterns over the city.  There isn’t a place nearby for a vantage on my two feet, although I’m not sure there’s much to see.  It is warm, or at least to my perspective 50F degrees is warm.  In the gray Seattle mist, 50F can be chilling.  This sunny 50F in Delhi feels pleasant and welcome, considering I had left my normally rainy home with a foot of snow on the ground.  So even when the overnight temperature in Delhi dropped to 40F, and Delhi wallahs were cold, I felt fine.  No thank you, I don’t need an extra sweater.

Lodhi GardensThe moment spent gazing at the soaring Kites in the afternoon haze is suddenly jarred by my reality of Delhi–a near miss with a person, animal, or vehicle of some sort.  This time it was a man on a walk.  This place isn’t crowded, I almost ran into him because I wasn’t paying attention. Wising up, I also notice there are runners.  As I breathe in shallowly, I wonder how anyone could run in this stagnant choking air.

However, for the moment, I am satisfied with this mostly unobstructed walking path.  Lodhi Gardens is one of the few places of clean open space in the densely populated city of Delhi.  The walk exercises my legs, which are desperately in need of movement after 20+ hours of travel on packed planes the previous day.

Lodhi Garden walkMy friend’s mother is chatting, and I chat, too, all the while my senses are on high alert, recording my surroundings for future use.  Of special note are the ruins built by ruling powers of long ago.  These structures stand in contrast to the families who sit on the open grass, talking and eating.  I wonder about the families and their stories.  The old Mughal period architecture surely has stories, too—of their builders, those buried beneath the stone, and of the millions of passers-by over the years…