Tag Archives: travel

Finding the Zen of Travel and Letting the Destination Take Over

Fish peddler in Simon's Town, South Africa.
Fish peddler in Simon’s Town, South Africa.

It’s a challenge to find what creates the pulse of a new city in our travels. The essence that really makes an area alive for me takes considerable time to recognize, and then takes even longer to actually find. I know that it’s breathing somewhere close by, but remains elusive to my untrained eye. Nor can every local I meet put their finger on this indescribable essence that defines their city or country.

Of course, what I naively call the core is different for everyone, be they local, expat or tourist. I’m not at all sure what I’m even looking for when I ask someone to reveal the secret to me. It takes NSA-style probing, and often I only scratch the surface of what’s waiting to be discovered.

Cape Town at night.
Cape Town at night.

I have a blurry preconception when we arrive at a new stop in our travels. My expectations have been colored by snippets I hear on the news, something I remember from a documentary or gems I discover from reading other people’s blogs. But what do I, or anyone, really know from the information that’s out there?

I dream of learning the country’s language, however difficult, joining groups particularly native to the area, attending courses about the history or geography of the area, going on wild and exotic safaris or meditating in a secluded mountain monastery. I try to find the essence of a place by exploring and reaching out in every direction.

Penguins of Boulders Beach.
Penguins of Boulders Beach.

There are a number of ways I search for the pith of each place we visit. Couchsurfer hosts can sometimes have their finger on the pulse of the area. Often they are familiar with some distinctive local flavor outside of usual tourist attractions like watching a performance of taishū engeki theatre or visiting the red-light district in Osaka, Japan. Chance meetings with locals in coffee shops, bars, restaurants, trains and buses have shown us parts of a country that we would not have otherwise discovered. Stopping someone on the street to compliment them on what they are wearing has led to not only being lead to the store where they bought their item, but to lasting friendships. Friends of friends, and sometimes even friends of friends of friends have so graciously also given us insider knowledge of their area.

When I arrive somewhere, I find so much of it unexpected, at least in the way I naively imagined. I was so shocked when I didn’t find origami or Suzuki instrument training in Japan.DSC03267

“Letting the destination take over” is what I strive for in my travels. It’s akin to the method of the Zen master who declines to teach a disciple how to hold the bow and shoot the arrow. Only if the archer can somehow achieve the right state of mind, will he be able hit the bull’s-eye. Like the archer, I need to relinquish conscious control when travelling and allow everything around me to guide me.

“If you want to travel the Way of Buddhas and Zen masters, then expect nothing, seek nothing, and grasp nothing.”  –Dogen


We’re Human Be-ings, so Why Do We Act Like Human Do-ings?

I’ve been indoctrinated into the culture of speed and busy-ness. Sometimes, I think I’ve hurried through life without really living it.

Rainbow over Bo Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa, seen from our balcony

Why is it so hard to slow down? Speed is fun, right? Slowing down could be equated with being lazy or not being mentally alert, or worse, with getting old.

I constantly busied myself with something. I filled my head with distraction all day long. Was it so I didn’t need to ask myself whether I was happy or content with my life? If I put those questions to the back of my head, then I didn’t have to think about them, isn’t that it?

Doing nothing, or even just doing one thing at a time, seems to be taboo in the Western world. At the gym, I sought out exercises that work the most body parts simultaneously so no time was wasted. I listened to Ted Talks rather than music in order to build mental acuity. Never mind that I couldn’t remember most of the content, I could just listen to them again. I told myself that this is preparation for a time in the future when my mind will benefit from the brain training I do now.

Racing through meals, I ate standing, sitting at the computer or watching a film. I didn’t taste the food. (It all tastes like chicken anyway!) I’d even found ways to prepare meals faster. I would hardly prepare anything from scratch any more. Prepared food is the answer to a hurried life!

Concert by the Quingshui Cliffs
Concert by the Quingshui Cliffs in Taiwan

Realizing how many training years that Tai Chi requires, I strived to find ways to master it faster because I certainly don’t have a lifetime left to me. Regretting that I hadn’t learned to dance decades earlier, I searched for ways to fast track those lessons as well.

Working with slow internet speeds ironically sped things up by forcing me to multitask. While waiting for sites to load, I could review Kanji charts or make never-ending lists of things I wanted to research online when the speed improved.

Meditating on a river that feeds Liyu Lake.

I’d figured out how to fill every bit of available time. I’ve been a champion of not wasting a second. I’m even good at making excuses for all my never-ending activity. I’d fallen into the path of Human Doing-ness.

Traveling has taught me there’s no need for constant busyness. I’ve learned to stop for the sunset seen from our balcony over the bay in  Ahmed, Indonesia;  for the end of the rainbow in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town that could be seen from our bedroom window;  for dolphins jumping off the starboard rail while sailing the English Channel;  for the sound of rain falling on the ancient grave markers of the spiritual mountain of Koyasan, Japan;  for the live Halverson Passacaglia (my favorite) played against the crashing waves with the 7900-foot Quingshui Cliffs as a backdrop.

Can I slow down? Can I choose the here and now? Can I find a way to become a ‘human being’ and not a ‘human doing’?

New Zealand sunrise

Connecting With Strangers in a Strange Land 101

I like to connect with people by sharing the humor I see, while Ivan uses his smile and laugh to draw people in.  Perhaps it’s because we stand out in a crowd, that we always seem to make random connections with people.

IMG_0141I mentioned to Ivan that many Taiwanese wear a ring on their pinky finger like Canadian engineers, including me. Ivan then focused on the hands of two girls near us on the bus. The girls were startled by his staring so I tried to explain. This created even more confusion because they didn’t understand English. Someone nearby offered to translate. She didn’t want to lose her space in the crowded bus, so without moving closer to the girls, she shouted in Chinese down the bus. Everyone heard but whether it made sense to any of them remains a puzzle.  We struck up a conversation with our translator, Beatrice and exchanged LINE IDs. Beatrice later referred us to a scuba dive master in Kenting, and invited us to other activities.

DSC00859Another bus, another day, a girl seated across from us shyly established eye contact. We naturally smiled back. She offered us a pair of tickets to join her at a music concert that evening. Unfortunately, we already committed to dinner with a Meetup group so we couldn’t accept. We keep in touch with Ling on LINE, though, and she sends us information about music and performances that we wouldn’t otherwise hear about since they’re posted only in Chinese newspapers.

We met Betty in a coffee shop. She immediately offered to show us around Taichung and her hometown, Changua. We feel like part of Betty’s family as she has taken us twice to enjoy holiday dinners with her entire family. There is nothing like experiencing a town from a local’s perspective! We also traveled with her family as a party of eight to nearby LuGang, well-known for its myriad food delicacies. With this large crowd, we were able to sample many different foods in between photographing all the dishes, snapping group selfies and asking a lot of questions about so many things  we didn’t recognize.

The Chinese tourists whose guided tour of restaurants we joined in HengchunOn a climb to see the sunset in Hengshun we met a girl whom we asked to recommend the best restaurant in town. We found the crowded restaurant that she wrote in Chinese for us (by asking everyone on the street). It served the famous Taiwanese dumplings and soup.  We jokingly asked the people seated next to us where they were going for dessert. Suprisingly, they turned out to be tourists from China and had hired a guide who was going to take them to three other restaurants before having dessert. In true Wedding Crasher form, (not in search of Ms. Right but in search of the best food in town), we announced that we were following them. The four of them welcomed us to join them . . . (they could hardly refuse). We sampled many dishes all over town that evening with our new friends until it was time for them to turn in and for us to look for a massage and a nightcap.

Vince, a pediatrician at the Cheng Ching Hospital greeted us in a coffee shop and asked what we were doing in Taichung if we weren’t English teachers. He was surprised that we had not traveled to the east yet so we quipped that we would go with him the next time he went to the coast. He right away countered with an offer to take us to the mountains that weekend. We visited some lovely gardens and then brought us to hot springs high in the mountains where we luxuriated and gazed at the cliffs as the sun was setting, from within our private hot tub cantilevered over the gorge. It was an enchanted evening.

DSC00710Perhaps our most convoluted meeting originated with Elizabeth and Phillip, whom we met on our cruise from LA to Osaka. Originally from Taiwan, they now live in California. They were not in Taiwan when we got here so they passed us the contact information for their friend Elena. Elena lived in Kaoshiung so she offered her hospitality whenever we come to visit her city and recommended us to call her friend, Angel who lives near us in Taichung.  Angel conferred with her sister, Monica, to see how they could help us in Taiwan. Monica decided that it was best to meet her friend, Alice, who speaks English. Alice lives in Florida but is visiting in Taichung for a few months. We couldn’t  break this long chain of connections . . .  we got in touch with Alice, the 6th person in this referral chain. Alice introduced us to the perfect Taiwanese cultural experience. She brought us to a respected Chinese calligrapher with whom we spent a lovely afternoon copying Chinese characters with traditional ink and brush. While we worked, he poured tea, displayed his prized bonsai beside us, proudly showed us his collection of ancient tools of the art and presented us with our own Chinese brush at the end of our lesson.DSC00697

These are just some of the ‘connections with strangers’ that we regularly make and it’s really why we travel.