Travelling and The Ties That Bind

I got a new tattoo about a month back to pay tribute to travel.

I love travelling, particularly to remote places and to places where the experience of being there will be as different as possible from what I experience at home. I try as much as possible to avoid restaurants and hotels, and to have conversations with locals about what is important to them. For these reasons, when people ask me why I love travelling, I usually specify that I like “having travelled”, but that I often don’t much enjoy the actual travel experience because I actively try to make myself as uncomfortable as possible so that I can challenge myself and grow as much as possible.

There were a number of aspects of travelling that I wanted my tattoo to represent, but more than anything I wanted it to reflect the commonalities that I have found across continents. For me, the hamsa was the perfect symbol: it was a symbol that was commonly understood across continents, its meaning conveyed the common aspects of the human experience, and its meaning captured the aspects of travel that I most value.

The hamsa is a popular symbol for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim people throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Its purpose is to ward off the “evil eye”, which can be understood literally as a malevolent glare that curses its subject with injury, or which can be understood more generally as misfortune. Therefore, in its most distilled form, the symbol is a wish for safety. The desire to keep oneself and one’s loved ones safe is universal, and in my experience people are very generous in their concern for even the safety of strangers. I have been the beneficiary of numerous acts of kindness from strangers, some of whom I could not even communicate with beyond facial expressions of gratitude, who without solicitation undertook to help me feel safe and comfortable. The eye of the hamsa quite literally represents the people I have met while travelling who have “watched my back”. 

Of course, one would not need to wish for safety if there was no conflict. In that sense, the hamsa also represents a need for vigilance and a suspicion of “others”. I’ve witnessed all kinds of adversity: struggles against nature, struggles against poverty, struggles for territory, struggles for freedom. And although these are all tragedies, the universality of pain and hardship gives us an emotional language that we can use to empathize, comfort, and offer assistance. It reminds me of the time I saw a shirt in Smart Set (remember that store?!) that said “Born in Bali” and I couldn’t help think “How truly unfortunate”, because being born in Bali, aside from the beautiful environment, suggests a very hard life spent in extreme poverty. If we travel to a place without making an effort to understand the difficult realities of that place, we cannot begin to truly appreciate the place or its people.

I was speaking to someone on Tuesday who introduced me to my new favourite phrase, which is “mutually exclusive and complimentarily exhaustive”. I mention this because this third point might seem redundant to the prior two points, but I want to give it is own discussion: the hamsa is an attempt to control our fate. People might cynically call the hamsa “superstitious”, but we all in our own way try to control the world around us, and the ways we do this vary in their effectiveness. Some Americans have a near-religious belief in the power of guns to protect them. Some women feel safer walking home with their keys between their fingers. Some athletes wear the same socks to every game. Airports have implemented an entire system of security theatre. Children were told to hide under their desks in case of nuclear attack. We do what we can to control the chaos that is life; and when we travel that chaos is felt more acutely than in any other circumstance because we are without our support systems in unfamiliar places and often without the capacity – verbally and/or socially – to communicate effectively. This is where travelling gives us the most room to grow: we are challenged to roll with the punches, to be creative, to be less picky, and to be more grateful.

Finally, I chose to get a hamsa – and an elephant hamsa in particular – to pay tribute to the beauty in the world. So few things in life are merely practical, because universally humans so value beauty. Likewise, the hamsa is more than just a kind of good luck charm, it is a thing of beauty. As humans, we tend to find beauty and add beauty wherever we can. This is why, in part, I chose an elephant hamsa: the elephant being an otherwise inelegant grey creature, whose power and deliberateness make its majesty immediately apparent. Looking a bull elephant in the eyes as it walked toward me, its ears flapping at its sides, its tusks enhancing the symmetry of its features, is one of the most striking things I believe I will ever experience. The way I’ve described safaris generally was that it was like being on acid: it was just so stunningly beautiful and real and different that it was difficult to process what I was seeing. Similarly, it is painfully beautiful to see Maasai children walking along the side of road wearing their colourful blankets and showcasing the elaborate beadwork at which they are expert, or seeing a roadside shrine in Kho Samui where locals have left soft drinks and fruits as an offer to a god. This world is universally so chock-full of beauty, and it has been such a gift to travel and see so many different expressions of beauty in nature and culture.

Posted in: Beauty

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