Culture Guides

The Death of Ritual – Are Travelers Culture Vultures?

Traveling the world in search of ceremonies, meaning and ultimate truth, do we only expose our own impoverished cultures?

A good part of the reason that many of us travel is that our own culture seems so impoverished. Every town in the developed world seems identical with the same commercial, alcohol-driven culture, a vacuum of values, beliefs and magic – now that we’re too educated to have religion – and the void of meaning sends us looking for snake charmers and shamans, exotic passion and mysterious ceremonies.

Divorced from nature, the traveler who comes from the city has probably never known what it’s like to await the coming of the rains anxiously to see whether the crops will grow and the animals survive, water comes at the turning of a tap, after all. Likewise, light comes from the flick of a switch that renders the sunset meaningful only in its distant call to bring out the nocturnal section of our wardrobe and maybe to take taxis in dangerous neighbourhoods.

So when we see Brazilians dancing in trance in Candombe rituals or an Indian woman offering a few drops of water to the sun each morning, we’re enchanted. Finally, a world where meaning and magic exist, yet to be chased out by scientific certainties and the fruitless chase for materialistic consumer happiness. There are mantras to be learned, herbs to be smoked, meditations to be absorbed, abstruse texts to be pondered, sacred and unintelligible religious ceremonies to be respected – in short, we swallow it all.

After a few years on the road, however, it becomes apparent that much of it is the same old shit. The Hindu priests are often on the make, the religious rituals maintain social hierarchies, the sacred herbs are another form of escape and those ancient texts are often so hard to understand because they’re trying to express something that can’t be expressed with words.

We approach foreign cultures and systems of beliefs out of context, gulping it all down with the desire to believe but not really relating to any of the cultural values inherent in our newfound panacea for the soul. Try as we might, totem poles and spirits of the mountains will only ever really be fairy tales to our cynical minds. Arranged marriage might be the way to go but it’s not likely that we’ll ever turn back the clock and marry someone we’ve never met.

We’re 21st century orphans, deprived of the rituals, ceremonies and beliefs that hold a society together. Movies and music are about the only cultural references let that we share but, Tom Waits aside, they hold little answers as to what life is ultimately about. There’s no one who occupies the office of local wise person and we’re as likely to turn to Yahoo Answers for help to the questions of our lives as anywhere else.

And so we search and search, hoping to fill that cultural gap in our own societies. We see that in older cultures in the undeveloped world people still have meaning to their lives and are so much more content for it. The Catholic Church might be a corrupt, ruthless economic parasitic body but it makes life special for hundreds of millions across the world. Hinduism might be the least compassionate religion in the world but it brings the divine into the most impoverished of Indian lives. Who the hell are we to judge anyway? What’s clear is that though a Nepalese Buddhist may never have read a book in his life, he may be a good deal calmer facing his death than we will be in front of ours.

Yet any traveler who’s seen a number of cultures and belief systems knows that it’s all made up. The stories, the rituals, the creeds – they’re all arbitrary, going back enough centuries that they became sacred along the way. If a book, religion or teaching has survived a thousand years or more its age alone guarantees it a following regardless of its content. Yet for the followers, the believers, the faithful, life is good. There are rituals to get them through the day, answers to the ancient questions, someone on the other end of the cosmic telephone line.

We can try, like the beautiful hippies of the Rainbow Gatherings to invent our own rituals. Standing in a circle with joined hands, singing songs of thanks to Mother Nature and Ommming before each meal, they try to bring the moments of appreciation into the daily routine that passed out of our culture so long ago. But knowing it’s all made up makes it hard to take it seriously. Even the kidnapping of the Om, the sound that precedes all sounds – does it really mean anything to us? Can we really just Make-Believe?

Maybe. Hey, with the right drugs anything is possible.

Meanwhile the curse of the traveler is to see just how much everything is relative. There can be no cultural value or religion that has a monopoly on the truth. Everywhere we go humans are humans believing in saints, spirits and gods and the only thing consistent is their willingness to believe. We can admire their faith, find the rituals moving and poignant but ultimately few of us can really adopt another culture for our own. We’re just too post-modern.

Then again, who knows, that might just be our saving grace. That having seen so many cultures, societies and beliefs, the veil will eventually fall before our eyes and we’ll decode the Matrix. We’ll see that all is one, learn to live fully in the moment and lose all fear of the imminent death that stares every traveler in the face. We’ll look into the face of that little street kid in Brazil and see our own reflection.

And when he runs off with our watch we’ll feel our karma lighten for it.