Friday, June 12, 2015

Seeing the World Through Surrender

“‘You are from Florence,’ he said, ‘so you know of the majesty of that highest of sovereigns, the individual human self, and of the cravings it seeks to assuage, for beauty, for value – and for love.’” – Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence, page 17.

Swept away by the effortless allure of Rushdie’s writing, I read this sentence and thought, ah, Florence, maybe I would instantly love you, maybe in you I would find my soul city.

Modern travelers, at least Americans, seem to fall into this tendency of romantic wanderlust – we go to a place and we love it and it’s magical and perfect and colorful and we could live there forever and even, sometimes, oh, it’s so much better than America.

I thought I would go to India and I too would fall head over heels. I didn’t. India was dirty and smelly and crowded. It was also beautiful, colorful, and full of life. To this day, it captures my imagination and I still find myself drawn to fiction and music about and from India. Yet I’d held an ideal in my head, and I was confronted with the wrongness of that shining stereotype.

Yet reading about the mysterious man from Florence, I realized that romanticism still lurked in me. Were I to travel to Florence, it would not all be like that one lush pin on my “our planet” Pinterest board, a majestic city saturated with history. There would be dirt, prejudices, insecurities, mistakes, unwashed people disdainful of my unwashed presence. Just like any other city. There would be beauty, also like any other city.

But I can’t decide what form the beauty will take before I arrive, and that’s what romanticism does too often.

That’s the problem with social media traveling. We go to take a good shot. We want to gush on Twitter about what a perfect time we had, how grand were the landmarks, how intimately thrilling the side street market we discovered, like Columbus "discovering" America. We fell in love, and we’ll tell the world.

Not everyone is like this, of course. Many photos also capture misery and reality, the illogical smile of a scrawny three-year-old girl. There’s still truth to be found. Yet romanticism can cloud the truth of what we feel when faced with other cultures. We mask it with a smile and a quick four letter word.

So here’s some truth. I didn’t like the Taj Mahal. Sick to my stomach and sick of the stares of Indian men, I entered the dark mausoleum and realized a photograph can hide so much. I was at one of the wonders of the world and I was unimpressed. Does that make me grumpy and sick, even ungrateful? Yes, it does. But when I think of India, the Taj Mahal is not the wonder I remember.

I remember a small hotel room in Varanasi, one that was dark and not all that nice. I’d hardly been able to eat anything at dinner, a malady I’d combatted for the first few weeks of my trip, and, sick and frustrated, I went to that room and finally took one of the anti-nausea medications I’d been prescribed and avoided. Half an hour later, I threw it up and fell into my bed, exhausted but not broken, for I was finally starting to realize the truth of what I’d paid empty, false homage to for a few weeks: I needed to let go and give my suffering to God as an offering of humility and surrender. I’d been saying those words cheerfully to the other members of my group but never meant them. That night, after weeks of falsely waving the white flag, I finally affirmed them in truth, and I surrendered.

It was one of the most powerfully spiritual moments I’ve ever known, and it came not on a sweeping vista but in a small dark room where I lay on an uncomfortable bed feeling the pain of my hunger and the weakness of my soul.

The next morning, I ate, and continued to eat for the rest of my trip.

So should we stop travelling, stop falling in love, stop imagining with that wild romanticism? No. Yet sincerity should be the true quest – about what we see, about our feelings, about who we are and how we experience another culture. We need to be able to sit with the pain in dark hotel rooms. We need to recognize our very small place in a corner of the universe. We need to be honest.

Someday I hope to return to India, and to travel more, but to do so with open eyes of surrender and honesty.

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