The Namaste of Travel

by Janet Arnold-Grych

Having landed in Oporto, my husband and I jumped into the cab at the bustling Portugal airport knowing one word of Portuguese between us: obrigado ("thank you"). Really, we try to know enough of a language to be respectful when traveling, but we’d spent our language chips studying Spanish so we could move beyond exaggerated hand gestures when visiting our younger son, who was studying in Seville, Spain.

When it was clear that our cab driver didn’t speak Spanish or English (why should he, he was Portuguese) I dusted off my decades-old high school French because I had no other cards to play. As it turned out, our driver spoke wonderful French and was happy to join in the game. He was funny and patient as I unpacked old verbs and attempted to cobble together conversation. Though many of my sentences were an affront to the language, we managed to go back and forth, laughing easily and sharing this and that on family and the city. As a parting gift, he tipped us off to a tiny Oporto restaurant we never would have found—which turned out to be as marvelous as his hand gestures promised.

'Namaste' in Action

The overall encounter was a bit like a delightful scavenger hunt, where the goal was to enjoy the novelty and identify points of commonality. I find that to be one of the beautiful challenges of travel: to appreciate what is different while discovering what is the same. This interplay both broadens my horizons and re-grounds me in the common human experience, which deepens my own. Travel is a bit like “Namaste” in action.  

As yoga practitioners, we end our practice by saying, “Namaste.” In the West, that word has become a reminder of connection—"the light and love in me recognizes and welcomes the light and love in you” (there are many variations on this theme). Sanskrit scholar Nicolai Bachman breaks it down like this: “Literally, ‘namah’ means ‘salutations’ and ‘te’ means ‘to you,’ so namaste means ‘Salutations to you,’ and implies an honoring of the universal light of awareness that resides in each one of us.”

I like to think of connection and universality as identifiable but not identical. We share a common spark that is expressed in magnificently different ways. Travel affords a wonderful opportunity to welcome that uniqueness and, hopefully, become a bit more—a bit wiser or more compassionate or more creatively curious.

Connection Across Cultures

In some ways, it’s easiest to encounter and test our hands-to-heart approach when travel requires some navigation. Of course, travel to known spots via known routes for known activities has its merit, including well-earned exhales and the ability to lay down the heavy armor of everyday responsibilities. Travel that comes with a few blank lines, however, can offer a different opportunity to hold open our hearts. That’s because it asks us to actively seek commonality, perhaps stepping out of our comfort zone to do so.  When we can find that link with others, it’s an act of extending Namaste.

I like to think our odd collection of family trips over the years, to places both near and far, has fueled this recognition of commonality for my sons. It’s not that every encounter with others has been kind or helpful or even easy to witness, but those more difficult exchanges have reminded us that we can focus on the inherent worth of each individual and choose how we respond.

And frankly, the difficult exchanges have been dwarfed by the many kind and expansive interactions we’ve encountered—the locals who've spontaneously asked if we're lost and went out of their way to get us on the right path, the buoyant conversations struck up at public events or communal tables, and yes, the many cab rides. I love it when I get to listen in on my sons’ conversations with a ride-share driver. Neither of my sons are die-hard extroverts and yet each will look to engage the individual behind the wheel in conversation about the city they call home. It's wonderful to see how animated most people become when asked about their experiences.

Travel can show us how big and how small the world really is, how similar and yet spectacularly unique we all are. When we embrace this truth of connection, highlighted for us by travel, it is easier to walk in awareness that the light and love in me recognizes and welcomes the light and love in you—wherever we are. 

Check out yoga and Ayurveda tips for healthy, happy travel.

Janet Arnold-Grych is a yoga teacher and writer whose work has been published in Elephant Journal, Huffington Post, Third Coast Digest, and other outlets.

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