Some travel articles, though useful and informative, lean toward the impression that if you pack the top-10 listed items, you will be prepared for all travel eventualities. And if you hit the best-of restaurants and must-see beaches, the trip will be nothing less than a fabulous success.
We are drawn to the package that is neat and tidy, even with (or perhaps because of) the growing and inescapable sense of a world gone awry. When writing an article on the ethics of traveling to Chinese-occupied Tibet, I interviewed a recent traveler to the eastern region of the country. Marianne's advice to potential visitors was to go with the full awareness that they would be witnessing a cultural genocide; to be prepared for gut-wrenching questions and a deeply uncomfortable sense of helplessness. What in the suitcase helps one prepare for this?
Travelers are drawn to countless cultures and places on the earth where some of the realities on the ground are unsettling, at the very least. All of us, even in our daily lives, are being asked (more and more it seems) to navigate uncertain times and unfamiliar terrains. Which is why, in the metaphorical suitcase at any rate, mindfulness should be easily accessible and packed right on top. While it isn't a gadget and doesn't require batteries, it is a tool of sorts. More than being aware, mindfulness is often thought of as a state of being fully in the present moment, free from habitual reactions, conclusions and judgments. It has been described as impartial watchfulness, observing the passing flow of experience and acceptance of whatever that experience is.
This can come in handy when we are in situations that we can't change, or, as in the case of Marianne, intentionally travel somewhere like Tibet to bear witness to oppression. Even for her, a seasoned practitioner of mindfulness, the task was daunting, the desire to act so strong. For hours she would sit in the car with her local Tibetan tour guide and vent her frustrations and anger over what she was seeing and feeling. "But how can I, how can travelers, help?" He suggested that, even though well-intentioned, foreign involvement often makes things worse on the ground for Tibetans as the Chinese respond with greater oppression. "Marianne," he would reply to her agitated enthusiasm, "the Chinese are sentient beings, too." A gentle reminder to not be too attached to her conclusions about the situation.
In Madakiya, a village in Northern Nigeria, I spent hours sitting on a tree stump, watching others sitting outside their homes, across the courtyard, watching me. It is the kind of place where if you hang out in one spot long enough, you will certainly be visited by passersby, likely entertained by some scenario or another, and generally feel included in the life events unfolding around you, even as an observer. Whatever it was -- children riding by on rusted tire-less bikes, aunties joining for impromptu singing and dancing, families strolling past in greeting -- I was a participant, but not the choreographer. Something in that felt so freeing; I wanted to bottle it up to take with me everywhere I went.
In retrospect, I suspect it was one of the many lessons in mindfulness that Nigeria offered me. Simply in order to make the decision to live there for a year, I had to suspend my expectations which, if unchecked, generally led me to increasing levels of anxiety and fear about the potentiality of seeing corruption and violence and falling into cultural misunderstandings. But once there, amongst the family and community, I was rather forced into the present moment, as adjusting to the intensely unfamiliar can often require; when finding surface similarities isn't an easy default because skin color, language, roles and customs are so different and it is simply necessary to dig deeper for that sense of commonality. Somewhere in the process I settled happily and somewhat ignorantly into a deep, unadulterated experience of kinship that I had never managed to achieve before, even with those with whom I share the same social history.
This is the closest I've come to imagining what Buddhist teacher, Bhante Gunaratana, might have meant when he described mindfulness as "a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it." Upon returning to the states, a friend said to me, "You look like you are in love," and I realized I was -- a hundred times over without any particular person as the object of my affection. Nigeria did turn my world upside down, just not as I had feared.