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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Querencias, Creativity and Meaningful Travel

by Steve Brock on January 18, 2011

Sometimes small details on a trip - like the lines in this geyser pool in Yellowstone - will inspire you. But what you do with that inspiration usually occurs after you return.

Last time, we looked at the concept of querencia, a psychological and yet also physical place of safety that a bull finds in the ring during a bullfight. It may seem like a rather obscure notion that works for bulls facing down a colorfully dressed guy who dances around with a cape and a sword, but it has direct implications for people pursuing meaningful travel.

When we travel, a curious phenomenon occurs. All of our senses are elevated like one’s fashion consciousness at a Hollywood club. Because our sensory receptors are on high alert (and because we’re paying better attention due to the novelty of everything around us), we’re able to take in and absorb more.

The downside of all this is that it diminishes our ability to create. Yes, you read that right. When you’re taking in all sorts of new sights, sounds, textures, feelings and ideas, you’re not as able to actually produce a creative product. You’re hampered in your ability to put out while you’re taking in. Hmmm. That sounds awkward, but I trust you understand my meaning.

That may come as a surprise to some of you who feel most creative and stimulated when traveling. Travel itself is a creative endeavor. But it is mostly one of intake where you gather the raw materials for later use. Trips are like the Costco of inspiration. As we travel, we stock up on ideas and revelations that we can use months, even years after we return.

But like Thomas Edison’s comment that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, for most creative people, the actual processing and work occur not on the trip itself, but later on in a place – our querencia – where we have the time and safety to concentrate and do the hard work without the all the wonderful distractions travel sends our way.

Most of us will encounter our querencia at home. Still, finding querencias along the way has value to our creative process. Taking time and creating space for reflection on your trip can help you refine your thoughts about what you’ve experienced, course correct and recharge your batteries. You’ll be able to see with fresher eyes and thus take in more that can eventually be of use in some later creative project.

Most importantly, finding a querencia while you travel allows you to record the ideas that your trip has inspired.

Confucius was right when he noted that the weakest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory. Whether you keep a journal, sketch, make video or audio recordings or take photos, documenting the details that inspire you before you get home will help ensure that you’re able to retain and review them once you do return.

To your home. Your place of safety. Your 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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