Earlier this week, as I passed through the immigration hall at the Bangkok airport, I noticed that each customs window featured a laminated placard warning tourists that it is illegal to purchase any item depicting Buddha.
That wouldn’t be worth mentioning but for the fact that I intended to buy a Buddha head while I was in town. My plan was to take it back to Helsinki and put it on someone else’s coffee table, which I later learned from the internet is among the worst things I could have done with it, right after screen printing it on a dishcloth and tattooing it to my foot.
Actually, there are lots of rules about where and how to properly display the image of Buddha, none of which I was familiar with prior to Tuesday. My lazy excuse is that I was raised Catholic, but that really only covers me until I turn 18 and am granted control of my own education. A more involved version is that I went to Catholic school for 13 years, during which time I lost any and all intellectual curiosity in religion. To this day, the topic of spirituality holds little interest to me.
That aside, one would think that after literally thousands of hours spent in religion classes, weekly mass, and youth groups meetings, I would know the ins and outs of my own faith. But I disproved that theory last summer when I tried to buy a wooden plaque at a Catholic gift shop in Poland.
“I’d like to see the picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa,” I said to the man behind the counter when I walked into the store.
He raised his eyebrows. “We don’t have that,” he answered.
“Oh really?” I asked. “I just saw one in the window.”
“We don’t have any pictures,” he sniffed. “We have icons… and statues… but no pictures. You should never call them pictures.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well I didn’t know that. Can I see… the icon in the window?”
Begrudgingly, the man got up and walked across the room. “Which one did you want to see?” he asked. As I opened my mouth to speak, he added, “DO NOT POINT. Just tell me.”
For the record, I wasn’t going to point. Doing so never occurred to me since I referred to the item by name. And while I realize that a reference to Our Lady of Czestochowa probably sounds obscure, it really wasn’t in this case. I was shopping in Krakow, which is literally a hundred miles away from Czestochowa.
“This is the Black Madonna,” the shopkeeper informed me.
“That’s not Saint Mary of Czestochowa?” I asked. I wasn’t an expert, but the plaque the man was holding looked like an exact replica of the carved wooden plaque hanging above the altar in St. Mary’s of Czestochowa, the Church I attended in Pennsylvania for 18 years. This, by the way, is why I wandered into the shop in the first place. I thought it would make a nice gift for my father, who attended the parish his entire life.
“It’s the Black Madonna,” he repeated.
“Are they the same?” I asked. It was an honest question. I’d never heard that Saint Mary of Czestochowa and the Black Madonna were one in the same, but I obviously missed the lessons on pictures and pointing, so that didn’t mean much. I would have thought that a man running a Catholic shop in the middle of Poland would have the answer, but apparently he didn’t.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
I handed it back to the man. “Thanks anyway,” I said.
“You didn’t like it?” he asked, now sounding offended that I didn’t want to buy the icon even though he clearly didn’t want to sell it to me in the first place.
“It’s not that,” I said. “I want to buy it as a gift, but not if that’s not who it is.”
“Well I don’t know,” he repeated. It sounded like he did know, but I didn’t bother calling him on that. Instead, I walked to the nearby tourist market and stopped at the first stand selling a mass produced version of the same carving.
“Can I see the one of Our Lady of Czestochowa?” I asked.
Without a single follow up question, the woman removed the plaque from the wall and handed it to me.
“Is this the same as the Black Madonna?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Great,” I said. “I’ll take this.”
And with that, I handed over the equivalent of $10 and watched her wrap my souvenir with slightly more reverence than the woman who bagged two Lewandowski jerseys for my nephews earlier in the day.
Being respectful is difficult when traveling, mostly because you don’t know what you don’t know. Over the years, I’ve made plenty of mistakes: I’ve used my index finger to point to a mosque on a map of Marrakech; placed cash directly in the hands of a shopkeeper in Latvia; and allowed a friend to order an Irish car bomb at a bar in London. I’ve showed up to a Serbian monastery in shorts and continued walking down the street during a moment of mourning in Israel. One time, I made the mistake of using sarcasm in Canada and it ended with me giving the dress I was wearing to a girl who complimented me so many times that I jokingly said, “Say that one more time and I’ll give you the damn thing.” (Yes, she accepted it. She even came to my hotel room to collect it.)
One of benefits of traveling is that you have the opportunity to learn about cultures other than your own. You don’t need a passport to do that, but sometimes its easier – not to mention more interesting – to experience it firsthand. The local perspective helps too. For example, learning that my Buddha-themed decorating idea was deeply offensive carried a little more weight coming from an immigrations hall in Bangkok as opposed to the checkout at Urban Outfitters. By the way, I still don’t quite understand why a Buddha t-shirt is such a serious offense, but I don’t have to. If an entire country thinks it’s important enough to post all over the airport, then I’ll just take their word for it.
Still, I stop short of criminalizing such things. A Buddha tattoo might be disrespectful, but I don’t think it’s an offense worthy of deportation. Nor do I think that using the image of Buddha wearing headphones on a bar flyer should be punishable by two years in prison. Those things actually happened in Sri Lanka and Burma, respectively. Were the people in question being ignorant? Quite. Tasteless? You bet. But criminal? No. Not by my standards, at least.
It’s easy to shrug these things off since they happened in countries that seem so distant and foreign. Up until very recently, I would have said that citizens of the U.S. didn’t have to worry about our government making up arbitrary rules about tattoos or happy hour flyers. But these days, I’m not so sure. That probably sounds dramatic, but I really don’t think it is. We have a president that drafts executive orders with blatant disregard for basic human rights and seems to think he can pick and choose when to enforce the law. When a private citizen does something he disagrees with – even if it violates no rule and has nothing to do with him personally – he calls on others to punish them swiftly and severely. He condemns one person for being careless, then overlooks the exact same behavior in others. He strikes me as a person who is so insecure that he might try to outlaw hamburgers if a cow looked at him the wrong way.
These are the clouds about the fallen sun, The majesty that shuts his burning eye: The weak lay hand on what the strong has done, Till that be tumbled that was lifted high And discord follow upon unison, And all things at one common level lie. (W. B. Yeats, These Are The Clouds) #poetry #quotes #clouds #nature #finland #country #travel #travelgram #traveling #solo #wanderlust #writersofinstagram #travelblog #travelblogger #traveling
I know, I know. Some of you don’t want to hear this. You want me to get back to falling off boat docks and choking on a Triscuit in a commuter train. Believe me, I want to get back to that too. But I can’t because I’m preoccupied by all this nonsense. I can’t ignore the fact that we’re all in serious trouble. In fact, if I were a more religious person, I’d be praying for our country right now. But you now know I’m not, so instead you’ll just get my thoughts.