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Travel as a Sacred Path

I know what you're thinking. First she writes a book called Writing as a Sacred Path. Now she's saying the same thing about travel. This woman thinks everything is a sacred path. Well, you're right: That's exactly what I think. And having just returned from a month in Italy, travel is on my mind.

Traveling at least can be profoundly spiritual--and I don't mean just when you stay in a Tibetan monastery, visit the Holy Land, or go off to live with shamans. I'm talking about any kind of travel here, even your camping trip to Yellowstone or your group tour of Cleveland. But foreign travel, especially. Here's how:

1. Travel takes you away from the familiar. Regardless of how far you're going and how long you'll be away, the minute you pull out of your driveway, your daily routine is left behind--or at least it should be. Your work, the people you see everyday, your usual breakfast--you should say goodbye to it all as you head for the airport or the open road.  If you're unable to miss your favorite TV shows, can't imagine trying new foods, and have to check your work email even on vacation, you're missing half the adventure. Is it uncomfortable to have your regular life interrupted? Yes. But it also clears your head and refreshens your spirit. It helps you realize how unessential much of the "stuff" of your life really is. It wakes you up.


2. Travel strips away your identity. The moment I arrived in Italy, who I was back home essentially stopped mattering, at least to most of the people I was interacting with. My job description wasn't worth a tinker's damn, as my Mom used to say, and neither were most other things that make up the way I see myself.

As travel breaks you out of your ordinary life, many of the roles you play in that life fall away. What remains is who you really are. Who is that person underneath the teacher, clerk, grandmother, jogger, sports fan, knitter? What lies at the center of that patchwork? Identity is a good thing, and necessary. But loss of identity can be both liberating and eye-opening, and travel, done right, can be the perfect way to leave it behind--just for awhile.

3. Travel connects you with people you would never otherwise meet. One morning, when I was heading for my recorder lesson in Urbino, a woman stopped me on the street. She asked me something in Italian, then tried German, and finally English. I had understood one word from the beginning, musica antica--"early music"--and knew she was in my workshop. I soon learned she also loved cats and was a vegetarian. How could we not become friends? Here I was in Italy, sharing meals with a German woman whose life was strikingly like mine (and significantly different as well). Someone I would never have met if I hadn't traveled to Italy.

Over the years, I have met hundreds of people from all over the world while traveling. Some have become instant friends. A few have remained my friends throughout my life. Others were merely folk I met along the way, shared a few moments with and never saw again.

There is something miraculous about these relationships. You laugh with a couple from a country you couldn't identify on a map. You make the acquaintance of someone who turns out to live a half-mile from you back at home, or who once met your Uncle Louis at a party in '82. You meet someone whose life experience couldn't be more different from yours and yet discover you share the same passion for soccer or textiles. These connections are unique, and they are the kind you can only make when you venture out into the world and travel.

4. Travel summons your resources. Traveling requires all sorts of skills: street smarts, experience, intuition, wisdom, and at least a touch of bravery. Over the years, I've faced some pretty tough experiences on the road. I lost my wallet with all my money in it somewhere near the Taj Mahal. I've gotten off busses late at night in unsavory towns. I've gotten suddenly, desperately sick--once, I was so feverish I passed out on the floor of a bathroom in Kabul, to be discovered by the horrified hotel owner. Yet, I've always managed somehow. I found help, or I helped myself. I got myself out of seemingly impossible jams, recovered from some pretty hideous encounters, and in a few days, I was on my way again, riding some rickety local bus into the mountains.

I haven't had any disasters on my trip to Italy. But even on this relatively easy journey, I have enjoyed the feeling of readiness that travel gives me--the sense that no matter what happens, I have the strength and wisdom to work through it.

5. Finally, travel shows you how rich, varied, and astonishing the world is. This is probably the most powerful thing travel has to offer. I don't need to explain it, and I couldn't if I tried. But it's there, waiting to be discovered. All you need is a plane ticket or a full tank of gas.

Writing on the Roof of my Hotel in Florence

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