I arrive on a rickety little plane, the only passenger. The customs area is deserted, but the pilot rustles up a stern officer who stamps my passport, and then instructs me to turn left, then exit through the double doors. So I turn left and walk down a corridor that dead-ends at double doors. “ABSOLUTELY NO ENTRY” is what they say. Big letters, stenciled on each door. In red.
Generally, I don’t like to fool around at foreign checkpoints. I don’t want to get caught with a stray banana where fruit is forbidden, or muddy hiking boots in countries that focus on biosecurity, or a camera battery on little planes where the pilot will be required to carry it in a baggie, or a slight fever in countries that scan your temperature. It’s not that I’m a goody two-shoes; I just don’t like the looks of machine guns in close proximity. So I balk when it comes to bursting through those daunting double doors.
I turn around, retrace my steps, scare up the officer, and review the instructions with him. “Turn left, then exit through the double doors.” I’m perplexed. I ask, “The doors that say ‘ABSOLUTELY NO ENTRY’?” “Where do they say that?” says my officer. So together we trudge down the long hallway, and the doors really do say “ABSOLUTELY NO ENTRY.”
My stern officer turns into a jovial officer as he refreshes his memory about the doors. “Oh, that,” he tells me, “Don’t pay any attention—that’s for the people outside. Go on through. They just put the doors in backwards.”
Frankly, that hadn’t occurred to me.
I forget that, especially when traveling, some situations feel like Opposite Day. You have to be ready. The “Absolutely No Entry” sign really means “Go On Through.” Or you think your hand gesture is kind and inviting, but no, in this place it’s unspeakably obscene. You dutifully cover your head in church, but in this village, head-covering turns out to be a sacrilege—you cover your arms instead. You take a bite of mashed potatoes, but actually, here, it’s lard.
These surprises are discombobulating, and I love that. Casey Blanton, in Travel Writing: The Self and the World, puts it this way: “The acceptance of being off center places one in a position of ignorance and doubt; nothing is sure. If our familiar constructs and sustaining myths can be left at home . . . [then] like the nomad, [a person] can travel light.” Some of us need to knock ourselves off balance—maybe it’s the only way we know to achieve a particular kind of spirituality.
Spirituality is a tricky thing. Some people hope to minimize their mental and emotional clutter. Others want to feel more present to the moment. Still others seek further balance and stability in their lives. But some—me, for instance—benefit from an off-kilter spirituality that jars the eyes, opens the heart, and rewires the mind for lightness.
Some strategies for traveling light are near at hand. More sensitive souls need only walk around the block, observing the neighborhood, or climb a tree, log on, or read a book. Simply attending a worship service might do the trick. But for me it takes more than that to dislodge my perspective.
So I can’t resist communities where dolphins are gods. Or uncles raise the children. The crops are hallucinogens. Children are named for the day of the week they were born. Monkeys steal my toothpaste, I eat squid for breakfast, and I hang prayers in the trees.
I begin to lose my certainties, my entitlements, my assumptions, and barriers I only imagined. Like the nomad, I am traveling light, or a little lighter anyway, at least for a while.
Photograph (above) © 2012 David Wong.