Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How To Be A Smart Traveler

New travelers often see the world in terms of countries on a map or stamps in a passport. This is somewhat misleading. Seasoned world-trekkers know that natural boundries such as mountains played an older and deeper role in shaping cultural differences. Water defined humanity most of all. Today's global cultures evolved from ancient civilizations built on three great freshwater sources: The Nile, The Indus and The Papaloapan.

Big rivers allowed bigger settlements. Enhanced productivity gave humans sufficient resources to move beyond the primal survival question: How do the ones with the muscles provide food and protection to the ones with the breasts who give food and protection to the children? Spirituality was the result. People could pursue higher questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?

The three rivers of civilization produced three streams of existential reflection. Enlightened travelers understand this. Such awareness helps them in relating to and learning from the people they meet on their journeys. Culture is like an iceberg. Food, art, clothes and music are just the visable tip that clues in the savvy trekker there is a huge reserve of meaning below the surface. Don't be a clueless traveler, obsessed with the tip but oblivious to the bulk of the mass.

Here are some resources that can help any traveler get a basic literary grip on the big three philosophical cradles of humanity. From the West, read The Torah, The Gospels Plus Acts and The Koran. From the East, read The Bhagavad Gita, Siddhartha and The Art of War. From the Americas, read The Popol Vuh, The Conquest Of New Spain and (wait for the shameless plug, wait for it...) my upcoming book Fresh Wind & Strange Fire. It won't be as good as The Torah or The Koran but will have more pictures. Keep in mind that this is more or less a kindergarden spiritual education. It probably won't impress babes at parties. However, it will make you more substantive and globally-informed than almost any reporter on CNN.

A few years ago, there was a popular travel book by a major publishing company containing a laughably-ignorant blunder. The author journeyed to The Haida Gwaii Archipelago. Wandering a cemetary, he offered politically-correct musings on tombstone inscriptions. A white Anglican man's eulogy read "Gone on to heaven." The author ranted long and hard about how arrogant this was. He then contrasted such with the spiritual humility of an indigenous man whose marker simply read "I have fought the good fight."

The writer was unaware that this is a quote from Paul who wrote half of the Christian scriptures. Paul's passionate words in anticipation of his own execution go on like this, "I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness." Hardly an example of meek religious understatement. Even Jon Bon Jovi knew enough of this quote to write a song without looking dumb.

I realize that spiritual illiteracy won't hurt an author's rep with the media. More likely, knowing anything about the Bible would make one a suspect of polygamy or snake-handling. (No matter how many women reject me, I refuse to handle my snake.) Nevertheless, let me boldly contend that travelers should make some effort to know before they go. Friends don't let friends travel stupid.

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