I noted last time that I had traveled to Mexico City as an adult. But that wasn’t my first time there.
When I was fourteen, my family made a trip to Mexico City. We sought out many of the cultural highlights of the place including a visit to the famous Plaza de Toros where we took in a bullfight. Unfortunately, what we witnessed was not a symbol-laden dance between matador and noble beast, but a pathetic slaughter.
The matador, sword unsteady, failed to pierce the heart of the bull on its final pass, merely wounding the creature in such as way that it hobbled around the ring on its knees in a spectacle too wretched for my adolescent eyes to bear. Even the toughened aficionados around us winced in a combination of pity and horror at the sight. The matador, amidst intense booing from the crowd, eventually finished off the poor bull. But it was too late for both the bull and for me: I have no desire to ever see a bullfight again.
Yet within the culture and tradition of the bullfight lies a fascinating concept known as querencia. Querencia is loosely defined as a place of safety, explained most poignantly by Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon. It is a place the bull returns to within the ring, a space more psychological than physical in its boundaries.
When the bull retreats into this querencia, this zone or place of safety, it feels more secure. If the matador cannot entice the bull out of its querencia, it means the matador must go to the bull and enter into the area of greatest danger to the bullfighter. For once in its querencia, the bull now controls the situation.
As with the bull, we too need to find our own querencias, our own places of safety when we travel. True, we rarely face an adversary with colorful clothes, a funny hat and sharp sword, but we have our own challenges. We may, for example, require sanctuary from physical harm, real or perceived.
For instance, I once stayed in a Christian youth hostel in the center of Amsterdam’s Red Light District (not so much for the cultural experience but because it was cheap). I was probably never in real physical danger, but the kind yet beefy security guard at the hostel’s door added to the sense that for that night, I had found my own querencia in that city.
More often, the danger we feel is less physical and more psychological or emotional. In such cases, we may find our querencia in a hotel room or airplane seat, a lonely chapel or a quiet cafe. It could be the security of others: a guide, fellow travelers, or a friendly acquaintance on a trip. Or it might simply be a moment of prayer squeezed in amidst the rush of discovery on a trip.
In one of the many paradoxes of meaningful travel, we journey from home to escape our own comfort zones and yet, amidst all the foreignness and novelty around us, we often need to find small places of comfort and safety along the way. Somehow, I think that’s the way it’s meant to be, one of those broader rhythms of travel and life.
As with bulls, each of us will have a different querencia. Most likely, we won’t even know ahead of time what it looks like. But at some point during our trip – especially on hard trips that take something from us even as they add so much to our lives – we will feel a need for our own place of safety. At such times we do well to listen and seek out our own querencia.