Friday, July 18, 2008

Devotion, San Cristobal

There were a few of these in the Templo Santo Domingo. I've grown used to small towns in Mexico, like this one - small despite it's big reputation, having what seems to be one church for every 10 people. Grown used to it, expect it, and really, I love it.

A guy I met on the red eye I took down to Mexico City asked me if I am religious. If you just scrunched up your nose and said, "Huh?" out loud, well, that's quite an appropriate response. Strangers on a plane and such a personal question. Who but political pundits and clergy talk about religion in personal conversation these days? But the question came during the course of a long on-off conversation where this guy asked me questions and I answered them. At first I tried to assert myself by initiating some of the talk myself, but then I decided to stop. I was curious about what he'd ask next, because there was definitely going to be a next. An there wasn't necessarily a connection between the last question and the next. "Dolphins or manatees? Are you religious?"

So, after a short pause to think about whether I wanted to answer this question to a 99.9% stranger, I did. So I'll tell you too. It's easier to start with what I'm not. I'm not religious in the sense that I identify with an organized religion. I appreciate and even long for the ritual these groups bring, but I cannot reconcile myself with the political choices so many of these groups have sustained for so long. I don't feel open, spiritual or compassionate in a setting that promotes judgment as part of its theology. But here's what I am (and I usually shy away from using this word out loud): spiritual. I believe I'm not alone. I feel a connection to the world at large, to my fellow human beings - even the rotten seeming ones. I believe that love and compassion are very powerful. It's this small handful of things I am able to articulate that help me travel alone to a place I've never been, where my grasp of the language is not so solid and be okay, even have a great time.

Traveling alone is a mixed bag. What's great is that you wake up every day, you decide what you're going to do, and then you do it. That feels great. You meet all kinds of new people. Now granted, a lot of those are one time conversations - this isn't necessarily an effort to make a bunch of forever friends. Those one time, or one town, conversations, are often very rich and certainly memorable. This meeting people part, though, isn't always easy. You can't force it.

There are bound to be certain parts of your trip where you feel kind of lonely. That's when you start noticing all the groups of friends and couples around you. And they're likely not in it to meet new people. They've got their people. You might, as a solo traveler, go a whole day where the only talking you do is the ordering of your lunch or asking how much a bus ticket is. And while some of those days can feel pretty nice and relaxing, when their the lonely sort, it's the worst. But I've got some good medicine for that: I find one of those old colonial churches, step inside and reflect. I think about what's going on for me - why I'm feeling the way I do, what I need, what I'm trying to get out of my trip...all kinds of stuff. And then ten minutes, half an hour, an hour later - enough time to see a few streams of the devoted and tourists wander through, I feel pretty alright and I leave.

And then, I have a good rest of my day. I've just simplified the whole process a whole lot, but that's the gist of it. Airplane guy was on his way to Colombia for two weeks and he was not a Spanish speaker. When we got off of the plane in D.F. and were on our way to immigration, he said, "I'm sure missing home right now." That reminded me of when my friend Abby picked me up to take me to the BART station so I could get to the airport. I said, "I don't want to go anymore." I don't think I've ever said anything like that when I've traveled with others. So I wanted to tell plane guy about my church thing - if he felt lonely, to just find a church, go in. But I didn't. There wasn't enough time to explain my thinking around this sure cure. And it felt too private to share with the 99.5% stranger (we made some progress over the course of the flight).

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