Why I think the travel world operates on a system of karma

For an atheist, I seem to visit a lot of churches when I travel. I also visit a lot of temples and stupas, cathedrals and mosques, synagogues, shrines and pagodas. I visit these religious buildings not because I'm deity-curious, but because they're part of the travel experience, part of discovering local cultures and beliefs.

I don't share those beliefs, because I'm not a particularly spiritual person. I don't follow any traditional faiths or worship any otherworldly figures. I don't go in for doctrines or principles that have been divined from above. That's not who I am. That's not the way I want to be.

Despite this considered position, I've realised recently there is one quasi-spiritual belief I do harbour, and it has, predictably, to do with travel. It's a force for good, this belief, a movement that no wars will ever be fought over, that no one will ever come knocking at your door to preach.

Essentially, my belief is that the travel world operates on a system of karma. That it's a giant set of scales that requires balance. That generosity shown to you must be returned in kind.

If you're going to accept other people's acts of goodwill while you're travelling, if you are going to enjoy favours being done for you, if you're happy for charity to work in your favour, then I believe you have to square the ledger. You have to do things at home that reflect the experiences you've had happen to you.

I understand, of course, that this could seem just as bonkers as any other form of faith – because they're all nuts except for the one you believe in, right? – but I practise this regardless. And it might not even be a spiritual thing, really. You could argue that it's just the way the world should work. Treat people as you would hope to be treated. Be kind. Be generous. That doesn't take any sort of faith.

For me though, there's something more than that. I see these giant karmic scales, and I feel the urge to balance them.

Right now, I don't think they're balanced. I'm a long way in the red. The good citizens of the world have done so much for me, as a traveller, that I'll be working for a long time to make things right.

I have been put up, for free, in friends' houses more times than I can remember. I've been shouted meals by generous people who have just wanted to show off their city. I've had drinks bought for me. I've been given rides, fed information, treated to experiences that money will never be able to buy, local, personal experiences that can only happen through the goodwill of other people.


And it's these experiences that I remember, too. It's not the fancy hotels or the lucky upgrades. It's the nights when someone's mum has cooked me dinner in the family home. It's the groups of friends who have taken me under their wings and dragged me to a pub. It's the mates I hadn't seen for years who have offered me beds at their houses for as long as I need them.

I have been lucky to have had these things happen to me on numerous occasions, and I'm eternally grateful for them. But appreciation is not enough. If you're happy for the world to treat you that way, then you have to return the favour.

That is why I have had a couple of Swedish friends staying at my house for the last week and a half. Not because I owe them anything in particular – when I went to see them in Lund last time they didn't have space for a guest. And not even because they're lovely people. I've had them stay because that is what you need to do for fellow travellers, to shore up your karma, to make certain that these great things will keep happening to you when you travel.

That is part of the reason I've had expat friends join my family for Christmas lunches in the past. It's part of the reason I go out of my way to offer directions to confused-looking backpackers on the street. It's part of the reason I write out long pages of tips for friends who are travelling to destinations I have visited and loved.

It's a way, in my mind at least, of balancing the scales. It's a way of doing right by a universe that has done so right by me.

I get that that may sound a little wacky, and I can even acknowledge that maybe it is. But it's a principle of doing good. And it's certainly no stranger than anyone else's beliefs.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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