Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Lack of Control: Peaceful or Terrifying?

I had few travel worries entering my silent retreat in Esquipulas, Guatemala, and this allowed me to appreciate the beauty and peace I encountered there. As the directors of our program in El Salvador had arranged all the logistics, I was free to enjoy the trip to Guatemala, as well as my personal spiritual journey once we arrived. The previous semester, which I spent in Argentina, was full of traveling concerns. Are we going to get lost backpacking Patagonia? Which hostel is cheapest yet safe? Does my accent sound right? When does this 24 hour bus ride end? Will I explain this correctly to customs?

Months later, the lack of logistical preparation en route to Guatemala with my program Casa de la Solidaridad was a stark contrast to the independent planning of the previous semester. As I tend to be a compulsive organizer, giving in to the relaxation of trusting my program directors’ itinerary was revolutionary for me.

When we rounded the bend of the Guatemalan hillside and encountered the majestic monastery and basilica of the Cristo Negro for the first time, our van became silent. Had I previously researched the location of the bus stop and the amenities of the monastery, I would not have had the privilege of witnessing the famous Central American pilgrimage sight without expectations. For me, the soul-searching student, letting go of travel plans allowed me to enter into the weekend with the proper mindset. I am able to view this experience in a new way now, looking back on my personal growth after experiencing the Latin American way of life for an entire year.

In Albert Wendt’s Black Rainbow, lack of control signifies quite the opposite for the narrator. What proved to be freeing for me represents pervasive government oppression in Wendt’s futuristic New Zealand “dystopia.” Driving to Taniwhanui, the narrator realizes that he cannot alter his route: “Deliberately I turned the wheel to my left to swerve off the road, but the van refused to turn: it was locked to a prescribed course” (199). The all-powerful Tribunal erases complete identities, replaces natural landscapes, and kidnaps families. While the narrator can decide how he responds to these events, he concedes: “…in their Game of Life, we are fulfilling our pre-programmed roles” (235). In his meeting with the president, he realizes that the government has hidden his past identities from him. His journey of self discovery evolves as he questions the established system, which eventually frees him from society’s conformity and denial of history.

If self discovery in travel must include letting go of preconceived notions, systemic norms, and controlling mentalities, how do humans cope when those around us do not support the result? In my intentional community at Casa de la Solidaridad, I had 22 other students accompanying me, as well as professors, community members, priests, and energetic children warmly supporting my transformative experience. Yet Wendt’s narrator loses his family, friends, and identity; he ultimately may even face death. Wendt challenges the reader to grapple with the roles which community, society, government, and human relationships play in one’s individual journey.

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