Today’s Reflection is about my recent travels, and some unexpected outcomes (aren’t they usually).
Simplicity of life when traveling is always somehow easier to experience, even when I am still connected to my life back home. Everything is more vivid and real, and I feel very alive and alert to the new world around me. This sense of presence is almost constant and immediate, a signature experience of being in a strange land.
This was very real for me recently, as the last part of my vacation was a cycling trip in Northern Spain, cycling the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela. There actually are 12 different routes that lead to Santiago; I picked the one along the northern coast of Spain, El Camino del Norte. I started in Bilbao, and followed the coastline; I chose this route because I love being close to the ocean, and because it is less popular one which means less pilgrims and more local people. As I found out while en route, it also rains a lot more.
“Many people think we travel to rush out into crowds of people, but most of us travel to travel within. There is no more quiet and central space than the anonymity of being in a foreign place without ties or obligations. In quiet moments sitting alone in a cafe, looking down on a village from the edge of a cliff, or in suspended peace of a soaring cathedral, we can pause to look back with objectivity and forward with intelligence and hope. Travel can be a series of these small epiphanies. With distance we can see patterns, themes, and questions our life has posed to us, and sometimes, in a faraway place, the answers come.” – Judith Babcock Wylie
When was the last time I picked an apple from a tree? I mean, by now I know they don’t grow on a shelf of a supermarket, yet the experience of stopping along the side of a small and winding country road, picking an apple and eating it was a beautiful reminder to the simplicity quality of life that is so easy to forget when “life just goes on.” Under the rain, being all wet, this apple tasted better than many of the apples I eat at home (and I do eat many apples).
Some of the other things that stick to mind are the friendliness of people of the regions I passed through. Friendly, helpful, and very enjoyable – especially when they find out I come from far away to do the pilgrimage route, and on a strange-looking bike setup. Rural Spain is an interesting mix of old and new; a brand new car will be parked next to a stall with a few horses or cows, with a beautiful old brick house nearby. Far in the distance, there will be a wind farm, with tall towers and large propellers generating electricity from the wind. The old and the new.
Then there is the Menu del Dia, which is the menu of the day. Such meal is a serious thing in the region. It starts with a first course, which will be a massive plate of something (like, a plate full of rice, hot sauce, and two fried eggs). That is followed by a main course, includes a basket of bread with unlimited refills, a bottle of something (water, wine, beer, or cider), and a dessert. It is cheap, delicious, and is a perfect completion of a day of cycling.
What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depth of our being. We come across a cascade of light, and there is eternity. This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure.” – Albert Camus
Beyond all that, though, something completely different stands out for me from this trip. I love reading when I travel; one of the books I took with me is called “Mirrors: Stories of almost everyone” by Eduardo Galeano. A profound and seriously disturbing, irreverent, heartbreaking account of the “unofficial history” of all that the white man did throughout his conquest of the world, on many continents. It is not that I have not known about it; I have. Yet, the details, the little moments, the fact that it was everywhere is what is so disturbing. How incredibly ironic it is that here I am, completing a route of the original Christian pilgrims, and am realizing that most of the non-European world has been brutally destroyed by greed and religion (namely Christianity). It is, in a way, a magic mosaic of our humanity – and it is not pretty.
Yet, equally or even more potent, was a poem that I received around the same time. It is a post 9/11 one, which captures the essence of the book in a very vivid and real way. Both the book and the poem are related, and I am sharing it with you all here.
A MOMENT OF SILENCE, BEFORE I START THIS POEM
Before I start this poem, I’d like to ask you to join me
In a moment of silence
In honor of those who died in the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon last September 11th.
I would also like to ask you
To offer up a moment of silence
For all of those who have been harassed, imprisoned,
disappeared, tortured, raped, or killed in retaliation for those strikes,
For the victims in both Afghanistan and the U.S.
And if I could just add one more thing…
A full day of silence
For the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have died at the
hands of U.S.-backed Israeli
forces over decades of occupation.
Six months of silence for the million and-a-half Iraqi people,
mostly children, who have died of
malnourishment or starvation as a result of an 11-year U.S.
embargo against the country.
Before I begin this poem,
Two months of silence for the Blacks under Apartheid in South Africa,
Where homeland security made them aliens in their own country.
Nine months of silence for the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Where death rained down and peeled back every layer of
concrete, steel, earth and skin
And the survivors went on as if alive.
A year of silence for the millions of dead in Vietnam – a people,
not a war – for those who
know a thing or two about the scent of burning fuel, their
relatives’ bones buried in it, their babies born of it.
A year of silence for the dead in Cambodia and Laos, victims of
a secret war … ssssshhhhh….
Say nothing … we don’t want them to learn that they are dead.
Two months of silence for the decades of dead in Colombia,
Whose names, like the corpses they once represented, have
piled up and slipped off our tongues.
Before I begin this poem.
An hour of silence for El Salvador …
An afternoon of silence for Nicaragua …
Two days of silence for the Guatemaltecos …
None of whom ever knew a moment of peace in their living years.
45 seconds of silence for the 45 dead at Acteal, Chiapas
25 years of silence for the hundred million Africans who found
their graves far deeper in the ocean than any building could
poke into the sky.
There will be no DNA testing or dental records to identify their remains.
And for those who were strung and swung from the heights of
sycamore trees in the south, the north, the east, and the west…
100 years of silence…
For the hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples from this half
of right here,
Whose land and lives were stolen,
In postcard-perfect plots like Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee, Sand
Fallen Timbers, or the Trail of Tears.
Names now reduced to innocuous magnetic poetry on the
refrigerator of our consciousness …
So you want a moment of silence?
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut
A moment of silence
And the poets have all been laid to rest
The drums disintegrating into dust.
Before I begin this poem,
You want a moment of silence
You mourn now as if the world will never be the same
And the rest of us hope to hell it won’t be. Not like it always has
Because this is not a 9/11 poem.
This is a 9/10 poem,
It is a 9/9 poem,
A 9/8 poem,
A 9/7 poem
This is a 1492 poem.
This is a poem about what causes poems like this to be written.
And if this is a 9/11 poem, then:
This is a September 11th poem for Chile, 1971.
This is a September 12th poem for Steven Biko in South Africa,
This is a September 13th poem for the brothers at Attica Prison,
New York, 1971.
This is a September 14th poem for Somalia, 1992.
This is a poem for every date that falls to the ground in ashes
This is a poem for the 110 stories that were never told
The 110 stories that history chose not to write in textbooks
The 110 stories that CNN, BBC, The New York Times, and
This is a poem for interrupting this program.
And still you want a moment of silence for your dead?
We could give you lifetimes of empty:
The unmarked graves
The lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces of nameless children
Before I start this poem we could be silent forever
Or just long enough to hunger,
For the dust to bury us
And you would still ask us
For more of our silence.
If you want a moment of silence
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines and the televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights,
Delete the instant messages,
Derail the trains, the light rail transit.
If you want a moment of silence, put a brick through the window
of Taco Bell,
And pay the workers for wages lost.
Tear down the liquor stores,
The townhouses, the White Houses, the jailhouses, the
Penthouses and the Playboys.
If you want a moment of silence,
Then take it
On Super Bowl Sunday,
The Fourth of July
During Dayton’s 13 hour sale
Or the next time your white guilt fills the room where my beautiful
people have gathered.
You want a moment of silence
Then take it NOW,
Before this poem begins.
Here, in the echo of my voice,
In the pause between goosesteps of the second hand,
In the space between bodies in embrace,
Here is your silence.
But take it all…Don’t cut in line.
Let your silence begin at the beginning of crime. But we,
Tonight we will keep right on singing…For our dead.
EMMANUEL ORTIZ, 11 Sep 2002.
A sunny week to you all, inside and out.