“In Search of Soul”

by Rebecca Bruns

There are defining moments in our lives when we sum up what we stand for and believe in. One such moment came for me a few years ago when I received a serious medical diagnosis and the doctor leveled with me.

“We must be realistic about this.”

“No, we mustn’t,” I snapped back without thinking. “I’m not into reality. I’m into fantasy. That’s why I’m a travel writer.

People hooked on travel have no interest in the small reality of what is average and predictable. They hunger for what is out of the ordinary; they believe in an epic vitality that can stretch the limits of their lives, and the more oddball the journey, the better.

In my case, I’ve been chasing that bigger reality since the age of 18. I’ve hitch-hiked across America, vagabonded around Europe and Asia, driven the entire outer crust of Mexico, canoed down the Amazon, hiked the Andes, and dived the Caribbean – always in pursuit of something as close to unreality as I could find. I’ve gravitated far less toward the sensible Germanys and Switzerlands of this earth and more toward the bizarre, hot, primitive, rather tormented places, the Indias and Afghanistans, the Tahitis and Trinidads, the Puerto Ricos and Brazils.

Why is that, I wonder. Why does Istanbul send a thrill through my blood while London leaves me cold? Why does Japan repel me while Bali calls to me like a love song?

Some places have soul and some don’t. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder, but soul, to me, is a kind of sexy pantheism. Colors, tastes, glances, even grime – everything feels more alive, brighter than usual. The people seem happier, more passionate, more open and comfortable (in tropical cultures at least) with their bodies. Maybe it has to do with the sun; soul breeds best in the southerly zones. The pantherish way a man in Rome moves and smiles or a Mexican shakes hands at every chance just for an excuse to touch, the way lichens devour a Mayan temple or plumeria scents an island’s air like a drug – there’s poetry and potency there not found in cooler, more efficient climates.

The exhilaration rubs off. The minute I land in Mexico or Spain or Costa Rica, my heart expands. I feel more beautiful; I want to try out every café. I have only to smell fish frying at the beach to feel, “Yes, this is the way life should be!”

Soulful places are also big on religion, but more as magic and mystery than as doctrine or dogma. Pantheism again: Spirits lurk everywhere. On the Marquesas Islands, every rock formation metamorphosed before my eyes into a tiki. In Guatemala I actually was spooked by the voodoo-like Mayan idols the Indians prayed to, and charmed by their images of saints as campesinos with corn hanging from their belts. In India, families throw picnics in Hindu temples, and their gods are elephants, monkeys, love-making couples. Krishna in Wonderland. Religion is playful. Even when it’s repressive, as with Islam or Catholicism, it actually builds smoldering erotic tension, which is far more exciting than, say, the anything-goes attitude in Amsterdam.

And is it just a coincidence that soul and poverty go together? One friend said of a Third World country’s sensuality: “Don’t forget the marvelously corrupting influence of the huge ocean separating rich and poor.”

Hence the girlie bars of Patpong Road in Bangkok, the juicy samba schools from the favelas around Rio, the birth of calypso in Trinidad to protest social injustices. I don’t mean to romanticize poverty or ignore its hardships, but poor cultures do seem earthier than rich ones. Even Elvis came from the land of cotton.

Poor folks don’t have the money to go to the theater, so they have to invent it. They’re closer to basic animal needs and their instincts are more finely tuned. Just go down to the main plaza in Veracruz, Mexico’s biggest port city, and watch them do la bamba.

For that matter, did you ever meet a Latin, African, or Polynesian who couldn’t dance? Their hips are hinged to the rhythms of life: They seem to have jumped out of the primeval clay.

I jumped out of the suburbs of New Orleans, among America’s poorest cities. Predilections in travel, as in everything else, begin at home, and New Orleans is not typically American in any way. It has eluded the sterile harness of American values: to make money, be successful, acquire things and power. It fosters instead a Mardi Gras mentality: Eat, dance, sing, dress up, drink, love life and your family, and go to confession when you overdo a little. Please God, forgive me for eating nine beignets at one sitting in the French Quarter.

I had a Catholic upbringing, which can be so suffocating it turns you into a rebel, yet the church also gave me a taste for drama and the divine aesthetic. Is a gold-encrusted Buddhist temple so different from a gilded Christian altar? Is a candlelit mosque not akin to a cathedral full of votive lights, and the incense curling off a palm-leaf offering in Bali not a cousin of the frankincense burning at novenas?

Anyway, at heart New Orleans is pagan. Even with the church frowning down, New Orleans has always kicked up its heels as irrepressibly as Paris or Acapulco or Zorba’s Greece. The horns of Dixieland must blow, Gabriel be damned.

Ever since I left the South more than 14 years ago, I think I’ve been looking for New Orleans. My business card even calls me a “tropical travel writer.” Let somebody else go to Antarctica and Norway. I want a muggy backwater with rusty balconies and music that makes your hormones quiver.

I’ve seen the face of New Orleans in Barcelona, Cartagena, Old San Juan, and Port of Spain, even in the weltering, crooked border towns of the Amazon. I’ve heard its jazz in the beats of salsa, bossa nova, merengue, cumbia, even in the electric ukulele music of a waterfront bar in Papeete and the wails of Muslim priests from their minarets in Iran. I’ve tasted its Creole spiciness in the curries of India and the chilies of Mexico and Thailand. I’ve inhaled its lushness in the garden beauty of Fatu Hiva and the palm forests of Goa.

The familiarity of all this strangeness has fulfilled the sweetest dreams of my youth: to see the world, to stop at nothing, to be a part of the unknown, to be free.

Why wander so far, though, if New Orleans is my hero? Why not just move back and rent a mildewed old shack on the bayou?

I guess strangeness has become an addiction. I’m a fantasy stalker, a collector of exotic variations on a theme, like rare butterflies of a certain genus. Finding them brings a kind of communion as though I’ve met a new member of my secret family.

San Cristobal de las Casas, an antique mountain town in southern Mexico, is a good example. It was like nowhere I’d ever been, yet I felt an intense recognition the minute I arrived. I knew those courtyards full of lemon trees and parrots. I knew the stoic Indians who wore ribboned hats and believed in shamans. I knew the smoky smells and the walled Mayan study center of Na-Bolom at the edge of town, with its braziers of hot coals in the corners and straw hats on the terra-cotta walls and little tiles here and there of the Mayan jaguar for which the place is named.

I loved San Cristobal instantly and, as in so many places before and since, I sighed, “It’s unreal. I’m home.”