Thursday, February 14, 2013

Travel Grows the Soul

Three years ago, when I started this blog, I named it Soul Investing because of something my friend Anna said. She loves travel too, and sees any money spent on it as an investment in her growth as a human being, in her soul. I didn't give it much thought at the time, that a blog called Soul Investing would be stuck into the category of a religious blog. As an agnostic, I wasn't prepared for the sometimes vitriolic comments I've gotten from die-hard fundamentalists who think my blog ought to be talking about how wonderful God made the world, and I am evil for giving all the credit to nature and mankind.

Anna was so right. Travel changes a person.

The able-bodied who can
work, work so very hard
to earn just a few pesos a day.
After the hundredth beggar has asked for money, after you see a man with no arms or legs plunked down in front of a church with a baseball cap full of change, your previously hardened heart just breaks. Someone takes care of this man. Begging is all he can do. His family or friends, or maybe even his beggar-master use that money to feed and shelter him, to support themselves and others. It's ugly, a long and boring way to make a living. It's humiliating. And it's not my life.

I was sitting in front of OO-LaLa, the best French pastry shop in San Cristobal, having my weekly indulgence: a chocolate croissant and cup of Chiapas-grown coffee. An old woman came up and asked for money. In the past if I've begged off (no pun intended) saying I had no "moneditas" (change), then the beggars have asked for a pastry instead, assuming I had larger bills I could spend.

I looked closely at this woman. Judging from her wrinkles and graying hair I would have guessed her to be around 65 to 70 years old, but she could be younger. Years of working in the high altitude sun can age a person. Younger than that, would put her at my own age, 60. I gave her a few pesos.

There, but for the Grace of God, go I.

The "Grace of God" can also be thought of as the "Lottery of the Womb". All my women friends and I  were raised in the latter half of the 20th century, in a culture where it wasn't customary to beat women senseless, rape them, or keep them as virtual slaves. I was born to middle class parents who valued education (both were teachers), and who had enough resources that I never went hungry or shoeless. I had an extended family that gave me lots of opportunities to develop the social skills I would need later in life, and I was encouraged to think, experiment, and create. In other words, I won the Lottery of the Womb.

What did I do to deserve that? Nothing. What did that begging woman do to deserve her life? Nothing. Clearly she didn't win it big like I did even though we were born around the same time and only a couple thousand miles apart. There's nothing fair about my incredible good fortune or her terrible fortune. And as fortunes go, she has it way better than people in Africa who live in much worse conditions, who are starving to death and who must watch their children do the same. I suppose she can feel grateful to be able to beg in a city with lots of rich tourists. What small consolation. I can only hope that she has a home to go to at night, where the other family members pool their coins and can purchase enough beans and rice to feed them all.

I've changed because of travel. I used to believe that we can all accomplish anything we dream up, we just have to work at it. It was my American cultural programming. Anyone in America can grow up to be the President, right? People who believe that God will "take care of you, will provide for you, will never give you more than you can handle, etc." are people who have also won the Lottery and haven't traveled very far. Life has a way of being far more complex than those simple platitudes and my own life is richer as a result of finding that out.