What in the world is this wanderlust?: Nitpicking the travel bug

Published in the United Church Observer magazine | July/August 2007 | Circulation: 81,000

Writer/traveller David Ball (left) with Vehbi and Sultam Ersoz, friends who run an organic farm in southern Turkey (photo: David P Ball)

It was only five years ago that I was hiking through the thorny jungles of Asia and over the ancient pilgrimage routes of Europe.

Now, after finishing university, I am in Lebanon. I am not alone. Every year, thousands of Canadian youth travel abroad, many of them immediately before or after college. What is it that drives us middle-class kids overseas?

Today, for instance, I find myself in the dark, mucky alleys of a Beirut refugee camp, passing open doors and questioning stares, posters of Palestinian heroes, and cramped homes literally stacked atop one another. Barred from expansion, this crowded camp grows inward and upward. In a similar way, Palestinians are barred from most employment and rights in Lebanon. The streets are so narrow and winding that every turn brings a surprise — at once ominous and exciting.

However, I am not here on a mysterious journey. A friend caught lice and warned me to check my head; I am coming to see Kholoud, a Palestinian friend renowned for nitpicking.

On schedule, the electricity cuts out. By candlelight, we eat cabbage rolls on the floor with her family. Then the inspection begins. (I get the all-clear: no lice, thank goodness.)

Since contact between unrelated men and women is forbidden in Islam, it seems strangely comforting to have a Muslim mother picking through my hair and treating me like one of her own.

The student travel bug that sends Canadian youth by the thousands to the corners of the earth needs an equally thorough nit-picking, a harsher inspection.

Wanderlust is an irony of privilege: I have the money and available leisure to leave my life in Canada and journey somewhere far away, experience another culture, explore myself, help if I can (and wax philosophical afterwards).

It’s a spin on the old European colonial quest, to explore (read: conquer) the world and gain a personal experience of the unknown. I wonder if today’s dynamic is not much different.

Perhaps it’s just the hint of arrogance in it that makes me feel this way. From a supposedly nice country like Canada, overseas engagement often takes the form of development work, teaching English, or off-the-map backpacking. Whether it’s the remote, unadvertised islands in Thailand I visited five years ago or the Middle East where I am working this year on a partnership in Muslim-Christian dialogue and ecumenism, there’s an allure to engaging with another culture, all the while rejecting those “obnoxious” tourists who just go to sunbathe.

But could it be more dangerous to think you’re the “good” visitor? Even for the Mother Teresas of this world it’s rarely the case. There is a sunbathe factor in even the most selfless act of service — the building of our egos through fortifying ourselves as loving Christians, or at least thoughtful explorers.

Whether it’s suntanning on a beach or basking in warm accolades upon our return, the shining rays of ego can sometimes obscure the shadows and crueler realities of how we in the West engage our world.

My own dark nights of the soul overseas have clouded this sunny image. I am ever grateful, because life’s challenges — wherever they happen — can be a gift. The early church, in fact, grew through its challenges and persecution, and not merely in spite of them.

One such humbling lesson came when a Canadian friend, Jim Loney, was kidnapped with three others while serving in Iraq with the pacifist Christian Peacemaker Teams. Loney’s courage, his putting his life on the line, forced me to re-examine myself, to seek support and to pray like mad.

I have felt powerless. But as Matthew Fox writes, grief can be a “highway to the heart.” Loney’s situation — and that of Iraq itself — shook many of us to the core, but it might also lead to self-examination and maybe even to new life in the church.

I’m left wondering: do my meagre efforts to live a better life amount to any redemption? Certainly they require faith. Lebanon has brought me sometimes painful waves of isolation, fascination and listlessness. Moving between the three — feeling cut off, drawn in, numb — has been a lesson in trust and faith. Once you begin facing your demons, belief can start turning into faith-of-the-heart. In such times, without faith, it’s “give up and go home.”

So why haven’t I gone?

While tempted at times, I am reminded that one purpose of mission is to allow space for the Creator’s intimate voice and guidance in my life and in the life of the church. I’m here because there’s a reason for me to be here, but I only know part of it.

At the end of it all, this experience may be as much about what “family” means to me as it is about learning, partnership and solidarity.

I have started seeking out sources of family in the strangest places: remote villages amidst vineyards remarkably similar to those in Western Canada; snow imported from the mountains on the roof of a car (and used by this foreigner to ambush a hapless boy carrying home his family’s groceries); Reading the CBC Web site a little too often.

I build rituals of familiarity into my life overseas: Finding a church. Daily prayer. Communicating with congregations in Canada whom I have never met.

In fact, “family” has become an amorphous idea hinging on familiarity, intimacy, engagement and, occasionally, comfort. Because — having left my bio-family behind for a year — I have also left my comfort zone. Even here I struggle to minimize the allure of excess: staying only in safe neighbourhoods, frequenting the trendy café around the corner, beer at an insanely low price. These things do provide comfort, but they are not the stuff that nurtures the spirit.

Over New Years, I stayed with a family in rural Lebanon. Qasarnaba, pop. 1,500, is a Shia Muslim village known for its historic opposition to Syrian and American domination; my friend’s father, Ali, had spent hard time in Syrian jail for his communist views.

As we sat around the breakfast table, eating a traditional meal of keshek (rehydrated yogurt powder with meat), Ali spoke abruptly: “This is a very special meal.”

Assuming he was explaining some peculiar New Years tradition, I was surprised when he added: “It’s special because you’re here eating with us.”

It was heartfelt and very real. Here is a family who had let me sleep in their son’s bed when he was out, fed me, drove me to and from buses, lent me the fare, and told me bad jokes at 2 a.m.

I spent that entire morning talking with them over sweet Arab tea about life in smalltown Lebanon, inquiring about how politics work in these parts and answering bewildered questions about the genocide of Native people in Canada.

It didn’t matter that the keshek seemed sour to my tastes and was lumpy; something about the familiarity of eating together and being so welcomed that I barely even noticed — it was the best meal of my time in Lebanon.

Last week, I ordered keshek in a restaurant, alone, and hated it.

David Ball is serving The United Church of Canada in Lebanon. He will return to Winnipeg in the fall of 2006.

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