As an atheist, for me spirituality means finding solace in a number of different ideals that help you in your journey to inner peace. Many people have religious or spiritual moments when they travel that attune with these instances. In my experience, travel is the spirituality. If you think about what you usually do when you travel, there are many similarities from packing rituals, to understanding new beliefs, marveling at works of religion, and experiencing transcendental moments.
Whenever I get ready for a trip, I have rituals and practices that I always do. From making sure I have flights, lodging, sights and experiences in order for each respective country. This process never fails and it is always my ritual. As for the true spiritual experience, this happens at a few specific occurrences on journey: walking and meeting the local people, seeing the highlighted sights and nature, and simply interacting with the experience of being within a new setting. Meeting people in other countries is a deeply moving experience. When I traveled on a plane from Johannesburg to Cape Town I met a Bantu lady who was so excited that I had decided to visit, in my case the Fatherland, that she wanted to give me a tour. She also gave me a lot of insight into the country, post-apartheid in terms of race relations and the prevalence of Christianity.
She and her friend showed me their home, which was much nicer than my own. Afterwards, we went to the slums of Cape Town for a great braii (South African barbecue) at a joint called Mzoli’s. This was spiritual in that it was my first time meeting and seeing how Africans lived in Africa. As such, seeing the difference of what you had always grown up thinking about Africa versus being there was startling. It is most welcoming when you go to a country you have long wanted to and the people welcome you with open arms. As many of my spiritual journeys overseas were through experiences with people, many instances of spirituality came through a combination of people and structure. Within Myanmar, my most spiritual moment came from talking to a Theravada Buddhist monk at the Shwedagon Pagoda.
The monk had impeccable English and wanted to educate me on the tenants of Buddhism. As I knew a lot about Buddhism from having taught the history of it at my school, I was able to discuss a lot of the knowledge with him. While we conversed, many Myanmar people stared in awe of me, as they have had limited tourism since 2011, so I stood out to the large amount of local tourists. The true moment of spirituality was when we walked around the huge and glorious (one of the largest temples in the world) Shwedagon Pagoda and poured water on my necessary holy day. This was a ritual and most vividly this was a spiritual experience in seeing Buddhism from a place of origin.
At the same time, the Americanism of the monk made for a duality that makes the essence of travel spiritual in and of itself. At times, the spirituality of travel comes from being in an unfamiliar place that welcomes you into a culture with open arms. No more was this more apparent than the night that I prayed with Muslims at the Umiyyad Mosque (the oldest university in the world) in Fes, Morocco during Ramadan. I met an Indian Muslim friend in my hostel that had been praying for Ramadan. He said that not only would I blend in, but that my respect for the Muslim faith would be welcomed in the university.
We practiced the prayer for Ramadan and I went through the whole process of observing Ramadan in breaking fast, praying the correct way in unison with the other men and giving greetings. Still, the highlight of this experience was standing with other Muslims in reflection of the Umiyyad Mosque for all that it symbolized; as the oldest center of knowledge in Africa, a continent that is consistently shunned for its apparent lack of foundational education in my home country of America. The respect I already had for Islam due to my time visiting mosques in Turkey, was only deepened by this spiritual experience.
Through my experiences, there are many facets to the world that can be summed up in a spiritual sense. However, the spiritual journey of travel can be deeply cathartic as it allows for breaks from the normal routine and a chance to partake in new experiences that can teach you about yourself. Through the people of the new lands and the experiences I have with them, I am often able to have a spiritual awakening that comes from leaving behind the familiar.
This is what makes coming home always difficult. When I am abroad, I reach nirvana through the act of changing my mindset in foreign lands. As such, I encourage you to take your spiritual journey of enlightenment in whatever travels you take on next.