comfort zones

Querencias and the comfort of the familiar

by Steve Brock on January 21, 2011

My friend Brian and my wife (shown here at a Starbucks in Edinburgh) both tend to seek out the comfort of the familiar (or maybe just the caffeine) on a trip away from home.

Let’s take one last look at this issue of querencia, a place of safety or comfort that we seek out on our trips much as the bull in a bullfight finds his querencia in a given spot in the bullring.

Most of us travel for the novelty of it, to experience new sights and even emotions. But for some who travel for a living, the novelty quickly wears off and becomes as welcome as the phrase, “I think we need to run a few more tests” is when coming from your doctor.

For those road warriors who are on a first name basis with the airline staff and who know the number on their Hilton Honors card better than that of their home phone, the last thing they want is more novelty or stress. They just want a familiar spot amidst all the unfamiliarity around them.

They want a querencia.

My friend Brian is one such traveler. He routinely travels the world, often alone, to assist pastors and churches overseas. On one long trip to Asia, he found himself in Jakarta, Indonesia and was feeling particularly homesick.

Those who don’t travel much somehow think that those who do become immune to a longing for family and home, but that’s not the case. You do learn ways to cope with the distance and absence, but it never fully goes away.

One of Brian’s coping skills was that he had long since discovered a place that served to some degree as a querencia for him while traveling: the local Starbucks. Because the menus, atmosphere and access to wi-fi are fairly similar in any Starbucks around the world, Brian knew he could always go there to find his own reconnection to home emotionally, and in this case, digitally.

An avid New York Yankees fan, Brian was in Jakarta during the playoffs. While he could have gone to the Starbucks in Jakarta (and there are many) and connected to the Internet to get the scores or details of the game, that wouldn’t have sufficed.

Instead, he took his laptop computer, connected to the Internet through Starbucks’ wi-fi, and through Skype (an Internet video phone service available worldwide), he called up a close friend at home…all for the price of a cup of coffee.

They talked a few minutes via the laptop’s built-in web cam and microphone, but then his friend did something that converted this coffee shop in Jakarta into a true querencia for Brian. Brian’s friend took his own computer’s web cam at his home back in the States and turned it around to face the television behind him. On the TV was the Yankee’s game.

Half a world away, Brian sat in a Starbuck’s, talking through the mike on his computer to his friend as they watched the game together. Sure, the clarity of the TV image through Skype may not have been great, but it didn’t matter.

Brian had found his querencia.

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A personal place of safety on a trip

by Steve Brock on January 13, 2011

When threatened, the bull - like us when we travel - seeks out its querencia or place of safety.

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.

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The most dangerous places on earth

by Steve Brock on January 7, 2011

Last time we looked at  traveling more adventurously, perhaps even more dangerously, recognizing that how you do that will be different for each of us.

Some of you have commented that traveling – or living – dangerously may not be the most appropriate goal. The concern is that seeking danger for its own sake isn’t beneficial unless you’re a thrill seeker.

Here I am in Bosnia after the war there naively smiling before a burned out Serbian tank and an active minefield. But that wasn't the real danger of such places...

I agree. The meaning here, however, isn’t to travel dangerously just for the adrenaline rush or to make adventure itself another idol to serve but instead to break the idols of comfort and so-called security that most of us unwittingly bow down to. And few things are as iconoclastic in freeing us from our grip on comfort as travel.

Still, even with travel, we can play it safe. So let me share some comments that a friend of mine, Tom Getman, made a few years ago. I worked with Tom at World Vision and among his many other roles there, he headed up World Vision’s office in Jerusalem near the end of the first Intifada (the Palestinian uprisings). He’s also spent time in other places of conflict, in particular South Africa during and after apartheid.

When I asked Tom about meaningful travel, particularly to difficult locations, he noted that war-torn countries and places of great suffering are the most dangerous places on earth.

I naturally assumed he meant because of the risk of getting killed or injured but he went on to explain: Places of conflict are dangerous not because of the physical harm you’re likely to sustain unless you do something stupid. Most of us are wise enough to avoid active battle situations unless we’re there for that reason.

The danger, particularly to Christians but really to anyone who is sensitive to the plight of others, is that you will experience suffering in ways you’ve never seen before. And once you experience that, it gets to you, gets inside of you. It can even haunt you. The danger isn’t to your body or health. The danger is to your status quo and your comfort. Traveling to such places will disrupt your life and change how you engage the world, if you let it.

If we’re open, God can use what we experience on a trip, particularly one to places of great suffering, to change us so that we, in turn, become agents of change in a broken world.

And that can be very dangerous indeed.

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A new kind of adventure travel

by Steve Brock January 4, 2011

Traveling adventurously looks different for each person. Risk is relative. But taking the easy way and avoiding risk isn’t really an option if you want to travel meaningfully. The question then becomes, “What will your adventure look like?”

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