If you asked any of my friends what I love to do, they will all say travel. If I had to add something that is equally as important to me personally, it would be education. For all the places I’ve been, one of the best parts of travel is just how much my interactions with places have enlightened me. One of the best things about travel is that encounters with places, can be equally as impactful as interactions with people - if you pay close attention.
In 2015, I did a three-week solo-ish South-East Asia tour. At that time, I was personally wrestling with spirituality and considering how to level up my own understanding of my beliefs, faith, and the nuances of other practices that influenced that. Somehow, whenever I travel and reflect beforehand, the universe provides ample space for my intentions to naturally reveal themselves. While I forget what prompted my desire to grow spiritually, this trip is still one of my all time favorites because of how much I learned while traveling to three-different countries (mostly solo).
I studied the world’s largest religions back in undergrad - so I at least had some basic reference points of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. I also taught Global History and did deep dives into these practices with my students. Okay . . . so I guess ‘basic reference points’ is an understatement -- yet I still hadn’t experienced any of these religions outside of my own Christian faith up close. It wasn’t until travel to Thailand, Malaysia, and India that my own outlook on religion and spirituality grew immensely as a result of my gallivants across three different countries, and direct experience with all of these practices.
My first stop on my tour was Thailand, home of the sleeping Buddha. What struck me about my experience entering a Buddhist temple was how similar it was to entering a Catholic church. Modest dress was required. No short-shorts, tank tops, or revealing clothing should be worn. In fact, outside of the temples, were pashminas and scarves you could wrap yourself with if you wanted to visit, respectfully. When I entered, I witnessed people kneeling, and making their silent requests known to Buddha. At times I witnessed the lighting of incense, followed by bowing and focused supplications to a higher power. It looked a whole lot like prayer to me. Seeing the reverence reminded me of the women I saw growing up, who would stay after church, go to a statue, light a candle, and cast their burdens at the feet of a higher power who could provide something, anything, to get to a resolution.
In India, I met my Nomadness Travel Tribe group and experienced the Holi festival in real time. A celebration of good over evil, the arrival of Spring, love, and a celebration of color - it was magical to see the visible joy in people’s hearts on this day. In the days leading up to the celebration, you see the brightly colored powder all over the streets as people start buying their colors in preparation. Starting early in the morning, you take the streets and feel the excitement in the streets as people place colorful powder on you. The beating of drums, processions, and partying ensues to break up the routine of daily haggling, selling, and moving about. I don’t think I’ve ever seen joy manifest in such a palatable, bright, and fitting way. It was as if the smiles on people’s hearts were literally all over them, and us.
In Malaysia, I visited both a mosque and two Hindu temples for the very first time. The predominantly Muslim country allows visitors to enter the mosque at certain times, and provides hijabs for all guests to wear. Shoes are not allowed indoors, and even still some rooms are reserved for practicing Muslims only. As I walked around the mosque, I was in awe at the architecture and intentionality of this sacred space. While I grew up surrounded by imagery of the stories in the Bible, in the mosque, the Arabic calligraphy replaced stained glass windows. The white walls, and marble floors glistened brightly as I walked in this light filled space. The quiet solitude despite people moving about in silent reverence was beautiful to me. Surely, people did not and do not envision this type of space when they throw the “terrorist” label at innocent people?
Arriving at my first Hindu temple, Sri Mahamariamman Temple - I saw a mixture of practices, but still the same reverence any serious person who practices their faith would have. In the temple, were stories of Hindu gods and goddesses come to life. In painting and statue form. Vibrant colors surrounded me, as I soaked in another’s practice. There was kneeling, there was incense. I also consider myself fortunate enough to have witnessed a baby’s sixth day ceremony, where the child is presented to God by a female family member, and the red dot is placed on their head. Referred to as the Chhati Ceremony, Hindus believe that the fortune of the new baby will be written on this day and that the baby’s first visit should be to temple. While this is a gross oversimplification, I still felt special bearing witness to this as a visiting bystander. I thought it was special to witness a ritual in another religious site, and it only enlarged my understanding of religion, spirituality, and life.
In all these experiences, I realized that for all the things we fight over as people - our beliefs in things beyond our understanding shouldn’t be one of them. However those in power use religion as a ploy to drive wedges and division amongst us all the time. I was able to witness the practices of Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism - and I came away with an even deeper spirituality than before. Those of us who affiliate with a religion are simply searching for a moral guide and compass. In many ways, our religious beliefs explain the unexplainable, provide us an outlet to improve ourselves, and create a set of practices that ground us in celebrating milestones in life. As a Catholic, I am NOT the priests who do evil things, nor am I responsible for them. Much like Muslims are NOT the extremists who practice violent acts, nor are they responsible for those acts. While I have always been a tolerant person, as one who is educated, travel still taught me even more than any preconceived notions I had about these religions did. Because even if you consider yourself a liberal, if you’re not stepping INTO otherness without judgment, are you really as OPEN as you think you are?
Being from Brooklyn, while diverse in many ways, my own hometown never afforded me the ability to get up close to the religious differences we think divide us. Going across the globe, I experienced what I wish a lot more of us could: an encounter with something other than what I know, but that I can whole-heartedly respect and find beauty in. How many times have we let the filters of others above us shape how we view those that are different and their practices? While the world is bursting at the seams with conflicts rooted in “religion” and biased filters, dictated by those with no reference, empathy, or education - I wonder how much could change if more of us sought to experience otherness with open minds and hearts?