On Sunday evening, after our pancake-and-mineral-water sacrament meeting at the Dalai Lama's temple and after walking to the top of an extraordinarily beautiful waterfall, Rachel, Matt, Julia, Bonnie, Megan, Elizabeth and I walked clockwise along the path around the temple, a route called the kora. We stopped in the middle, beneath a pavilion that protected us from the fickle rain, spoke, prayed together, and indulged in three sleeves of America's, and milk's, favorite cookie. (It's really too bad we didn't have any milk.) The flavors: regular, strawberry cream, and chocolate peanut butter. At 49 rupees a pack, oreos are certainly a luxury, but this time the benefits outweighed the cost: eating an oreo is almost like being in America.
Homesickness is one of the symptoms of culture shock that also continues in the absence of culture shock. Ulysses, in The Odyssey, notes that "there is nothing dearer to a man than his own country and parents, [no matter how] splendid a home he may have in a foreign country." If we reduce homesickness to simply longing for familiar foods, then it's easy to see its effect on our group: the most frequently ordered menu item in any restaurant is french fries (or "finger chips," as the case may be). Homesickness is more than food, though: A cold bucket shower immediately reminds us of shower heads and water heaters. A faulty internet connection and failed skype conversation pours fresh salt on the parts of our hearts we have left after leaving half of them in America (or something :).
It may be for the best that we cling to oreos and french fries, though, because if we were to eat of the lotus (in this case, fried momos and sweet bali and lemon ginger honey tea) then we might never be able to leave Dharamsala!
In all seriousness, though, the ultimate punishment for a traveler is to restrict him or her from returning home. This is the curse that Cyclops wished on Ulysses and certainly my own worst-case scenario. Just like a toddler feels comfortable running around a playground because his mother is waiting on a bench, like Ulysses's can sail around the world because he knows his wife is at home, and like I can come to India because my family is in Utah, a secure base makes adventures possible. Sometimes, like when Elizabeth and I walked the kora discussing burgers and ice cream and other glorious things we'd eat again in August, the promise of returning to the secure base is the only motivation to push through the challenges of the present.
So why travel? Why leave home if you'll just wish you were back? Ulysses sought glory, but I wanted something else. I didn't know it when I left, but I wanted to meet Tasneem the Indian poet who writes to correct misconceptions between Indians and Westerners, Lorraine from London with the winning smile, and Lhamo, the former nomad from Tibet who laughs easily and teaches me Tibetan phrases. When my view of the world was limited by the Rocky Mountains, I didn't realize that a Buddhist monk in India might wake up at 5:30, pray for hours, eat tsampa for breakfast, and then study for most of the day without knowing or caring that the Pope controls the Roman Catholic church, not all of Christianity. And where else could I learn to write my name in three different forms of Tibetan script?
There is a reason to travel, and it involves experiencing real life in a completely new way. That is worth the trouble of leaving the secure base.