With each trip I take, I make it a point to bring home cultural souvenirs — gold nuggets of experiences I’ll remember all my life. Whether it's sitting and talking with a Muslim at the Great Mosque of Granada in Spain, waving a flag at an Irish hurling match, or getting naked with Germans at a spa in Baden-Baden, it's experiences like these that give each trip that extra sparkle.
Whenever I'm in Turkey, I make it a point to see a whirling dervish. This is not a performance, but rather, a religious ritual done by the Mevlevi, followers of a 13th-century Muslim mystic named Rumi. Dervishes whirl while praying in a meditative trance. A dervish once explained to me: “As I spin around, my hand above receives the love from our Creator, and my hand below showers it onto all of his creation. “
One night, while walking through Istanbul, I came upon a big patio filled with tourists, enjoying a single dervish whirling on an elevated platform. My immediate reaction was negative, as I have a bad attitude about dervishes doing their whirl for tourists, who have no idea what’s going on. I prefer seeing the real deal at a place like the Galata Dervish Monastery or the Foundation of Universal Lovers of Mevlana. But on that night, I buried my bad attitude and simply enjoyed the beauty of his performance there in the Istanbul night.
In Barcelona, it’s a joy to join in the sardana dances to celebrate Catalan culture. Locals of all ages seem to spontaneously appear in the cathedral square. Everyone is welcome. Participants form a circle, hold hands, then raise their arms-slow-motion, Zorba the Greek-style — as they hop and sway gracefully to the music of the band. The rest of Spain mocks this lazy circle dance, but for me, it is a stirring display of the Catalan region’s pride and patriotism.
Good things come to those who participate. All of my Protestant life I’ve watched hardscrabble pilgrims and frail nuns climb Rome’s Scala Santa Holy Stairs on their knees. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, had these stairs brought from the Holy Land because they’re thought to be the stairs that Jesus climbed on his way to being condemned by Pontius Pilate. I had always observed the stair-climbing pilgrims as though they were in a parallel universe. But one day, on a whim, I decided to enter that universe. I picked up the little pilgrim’s primer explaining what holy thoughts to ponder on each step, knelt down, and — one by one — began climbing. Knees on stone, I experienced each step. In my pain, the art that engulfed the staircase snapped into action. And, while my knees would never agree, the experience was beautiful.
For 30 years, I've been going to see Malcolm Miller, resident guide and scholar at the great cathedral at Chartres, near Paris. Approaching the cathedral from a distance, my heart leaps at the sight of its spires rising above the fields, just like the hearts of approaching pilgrims must have done centuries ago. I go to Chartres on a kind of pilgrimage of my own — to be a student again, to be inspired. On most days, Malcolm sits down with curious travelers on pews in front of his stained-glass “window of the day” and, as if opening a book, tells the story that window was created to tell. There, in Europe’s most magnificently decorated Gothic cathedral, Malcolm gives voice to otherwise silent masterpieces of that age.
Of course, not every experience has to be spiritual. Some are just plain fun. Whenever I'm in the British countryside, I enjoy getting a taste of farm culture. And for me, nothing beats a good sheepdog show. I recently saw my favorite ever, at Leault Working Sheepdogs in the Scottish Highlands.
As I stepped onto the farm, a dozen eager border collies scampered to greet the group of us who’d arrived for the demonstration. Then came the shepherd, whom the dogs clearly loved and followed like a messiah. He proceeded to sit us down in a natural little amphitheater in the turf and explain all about his work. With shouts and whistles, each dog followed individual commands and showed an impressive mastery over the sheep. Then, with good, old-fashioned shears, we each got our chance to shear a sheep — who took it calmly, as if at a beauty salon.
I'm often asked about the difference between a tourist and a traveler. To me, a tourist visits all the big sights, sees spectacles on stage, and returns home unchanged, with a suitcase full of knickknacks. A traveler becomes a temporary local, engages with the culture, and comes home enriched, with a vivid collection of experiences and a broader perspective.