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.

If you found this interesting, why don't you share it with others?


The danger of fear

by Steve Brock on January 10, 2011

Sometimes the small fears - like what might be in this glass - hold us back from what matters most when we travel.

We’ve been looking at the issue of traveling dangerously and the impact that going to locations of profound suffering can have on us. I think most of us retain an idealized part of ourselves that tells us we should go to such places, make a difference and be changed. The only problem is that the less-than-idealized parts of us come up with some pretty convincing arguments as to why staying home or going to the beach make more sense.

I know that for me, comfort gets me in a half-Nelson and starts applying pressure whenever I even think of going somewhere challenging. But comfort is a pushover compared to the one thing that holds me back most: fear.

I wish it were something heroic such as the fear of being dismembered at the hands of terrorists or being kidnapped by guerillas or crashing in a fiery ball of jet fuel. But those fears are too abstract for me. I get more concerned about the really important things like being embarrassed, looking stupid or getting sick. Even though I’ve experienced all those things and have survived, I still have this worry that the next time is going to be the really bad one. And so I too often avoid engaging situations on trips that I know I should.

But not always.

Several years ago, I was in one of those difficult places of suffering, a large slum outside of Mexico City. I was there with both locals and some other foreigners learning about the needs of the community and observing the amazing efforts that people there were making to raise themselves out of poverty.

At one point, I was invited to the house of a local family to hear firsthand about their situation. I went with a local colleague who translated. We walked into one of the nicer homes there in the slum: this one had cinder block walls and a well-swept concrete slab for a floor. A family of five lived within the ten foot by ten foot confines.

After we made introductions, the wife uncovered a bottle of 7-Up. It was clear this was reserved for special occasions and while I wanted to protest that she shouldn’t open this on my account, I knew better.

The woman had a plastic bucket half filled with water that she obtained from the one water source a few blocks away. She then took four plastic cups, one for her, her husband, my colleague and me, rinsed them in the water, loosely shook them dry, then poured the prized soft drink into each cup. That is when my old traveling companion fear decided to speak up.

I knew the quality of that water and all that it likely contained. I knew that much of it remained in the cup. But I also knew that I had a choice: graciously receive the offered drink or give into the fear of getting sick. So I prayed a quick prayer of protection, accepted the cup and swallowed the 7-Up, the remains of the water and my fear all at the same time.

And I never got sick.

We rarely do. Hardly ever do the things we fear most on trips come to pass. And yet these often silly fears hold us back from so much of life.

What are your greatest fears about travel? Is this the year you stop listening to them and do something bold, maybe even dangerous? Why not try something adventurous and see what actually happens instead of worrying about what might. You will never know what lies on the other side of your fears into you cross them.

If you found this interesting, why don't you share it with others?