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I spent eight lethargic days in Luang Prabang, Laos. On every block I found a French coffee shop to sip espresso, read a book and watch the orange-robed monks stroll. During the steamy afternoons I napped on the guesthouse porch while my Italian friend Javi strummed his guitar.
I’m not a relaxed person. My mind never quiets. I’m constantly thinking, wondering, stressing, and battling anxiety. Over the years I’ve learned to control my wandering mind, but I’ll always be a thinker and an analyzer.
I’m drawn to naturally relaxed people because I lack that trait. So when Javi said he booked an hour massage I indulged in the relaxation and handed over my $4 with an urge to be pampered.
The Lao masseuse pushes pressure points, twists my limbs, walks on my back, and cracks joints. Since I’m incapable of clearing my head for an hour, this is the clutter that passes through:
I can’t believe this only costs $4…Ooo that’s an intense pressure point…I wonder how often they wash these pillowcases?…Probably not that often. I mean, $4 isn’t a lot…I wonder if he thinks it’s weird to massage someone’s eyebrows…It kind of feels odd…Hmmm okay, just relax, and enjoy the massage…I don’t think anyone’s ever walked on my back before…How long has it been?…I think I have 30 more minutes…Okay stop talking to yourself!…I wonder if he’s religious?… He’s probably Buddhist, almost everyone in Laos is…Hmm how many religion’s are there?…Religion’s such an interesting concept…
Really? This is what I’m analyzing while someone is cracking my back? For centuries religion has sparked conflict all over the world and I’m wondering why during my massage.
I don’t identify with one religion. My parents raised me Catholic but I never go to church. An indication of my religious confusion is the necklace I wear everyday while traveling. A silver chain with a Catholic St. Peter’s cross and a Cuban Santeria asavache hangs on my neck to keep me safe. I figure either I’m doubly protected or they cancel each other out and I’m back where I started.
I’m not saying I don’t believe. I pray. I believe that people enter our lives for a reason. So, to a certain degree I believe in fate. I believe that we don’t have full control. But under what religion does that classify me?
Monks pass me on the street and I wonder where they get their devotion? Some are as young as 10 and others are 50+. In Laos it’s very common for most men to spend at least some time as a monk, so maybe it’s a cultural construct? But really every religion has followers who dedicate their entire lives to its practice. So where does that calling come from? And why do some of us not feel it?
I know this is a touchy subject. But if believing in something is the central idea, why does religion ignite conflict?
With all the temples scattered through this city, it seems like an ideal place to devote your life to worship. Lao Buddhist followers never experienced the violence that ensued in nearby countries like Burma, but apparently some tension exists between the Lao government and Buddhist community. Government officials tape the sermons of clergymen to ensure that they adhere to Communist doctrine. Several years ago the government also cut the monks’ food rations.
Some people criticize the Lao clergy for adhering to the government’s political aims. So even though the monks appear to lead a peaceful existence, I question if they feel they can really adhere to their religious beliefs? I think the general idea that no religion is free from conflict is what deters me from committing myself to one.
Javi is a solo traveler. He’s been wandering Europe, South American and Asia for over a year now. Walking back from dinner one night I ask, “Don’t you ever feel lonely? A year is such a long time.”
He says, “I don’t think about it. My family and friends, I’m excited to see them when I go home, but I don’t let myself miss them.”
“But a year? I’m only traveling 6 months and that seems long to me.”
“Don’t think about time. Every day has a beautiful moment. If you travel slow enough, you’ll feel it.”
I smile at the idea and think: if a traveler’s religion existed this would be its central precept. I commit it to memory and revert to it when I feel lonely. Maybe one day I’ll be drawn to a specific religious group, but for this journey I think I’m sticking to a general faith in humanity, enjoying the monks pass me by, and working on quieting my busy brain.
CLICK HERE TO VIEW MORE PHOTOS OF LUANG PRABANG, LAOS
CLIPS FROM LAOS – featuring Lao monks, the delicious street food I ate every night for less than $1, Mae Makang the elephant eating her bananas, my best friend in Laos (a 4 year old named Hai), and of course yours truly :).