That Time I Tried to Take My Spiritual Practice with Me on Vacation

Contemplating the Sea of Cortez with friends. (Photo credit: S.J. Reich)

By Melanie P. Moore

My carry-on bags were full of items I use at home for spiritual practice: books, noise-cancelling headphones to play my meditation app, journal, favorite pens, and, this time, my new steel tongue drum. I got it for my birthday and have played it every day since. Multiple times a day in fact. It’s pitched in D minor—a key my wife likes and which, so far, has not annoyed her.

But things got dicey as we started planning for the trip—a group trip for a friend’s milestone birthday.

My wife:  We should just take carry-ons.
Me:  I’m checking a bag.
My wife:  Really?
Me: …
My wife:  We’re going to the beach! All you need are shorts, a swimsuit, and flip flops. Maybe everyone doesn’t want to wait for your bag at baggage claim
Me:  But my drum and my backpack are my carry-ons.
My wife: …
Me: …
My wife:  You’re taking the drum?

To be fair, my wife is an icon of practicality and was coming to this discussion from a very functional perspective. Is the drum a functional item worth the hassle of bringing it all the way to Puerto Los Cabos, Mexico? My perspective was—how fun will it be to live out this form of embodied spiritual practice in an exotic location!?

The trip planners of our group are experienced travelers who are super-organized and seasoned executives. We had a spreadsheet of who was in charge of which meals on which days, which day was a tequila tasting and who was tasting vs just eating, which day was sailing, and travel details of who was on which flights including how shared ground transportation would go. It was like a corporate award trip. Which is to say, fabulous!

The day we left, we all met up at nearby gates before getting on our flights. Everyone was prepared. My drum, in its cute carrying case (with an external pocket for the mallets!), was with me and—get this—everyone on the trip had checked bags!

At the house (mansion, really) where we stayed, each bedroom had its own private bath and our room shared a balcony with two friends who were in the next room. While my wife and I drank coffee the first morning, I played my drum and looked at the ocean. Throughout the trip, I didn’t read my usual books and never opened my headphones or meditation app. I played the drum every day, an embodied spiritual practice that seemed to do it all. Unlike at home, where I play it in my meditation space (which is also my desk), on vacation the sound bounced off the tiles of the balcony and the stone columns vibrating not just my vagal nerve but the entire environment. It felt transcendent. Still, I tried to only play it alone or if just my wife was there. It’s not loud and I didn’t want to bother anyone. I love playing it. I don’t really know how, of course. I haven’t watched any YouTube tutorials or labeled the steel tongues with the little stickers that came with it to identify the notes. I just hit it in patterns that occur to me and try to remember which tongues don’t sound so great together, not unlike a kid beating on pots and pans except in D minor and the pleasing tones of a steel drum.

Out in the shared spaces of the house, someone said they had heard chimes. Our friend, the birthday girl, had been delighted to hear I brought the drum and said she heard it around the corner of the house when I played. Someone else overheard and asked about it. When I brought it out later that day, people seemed drawn to it. Just about everyone tried it at least once. Near the end of the trip, one of the guys saw me playing it in the cavernous living/dining area and said he’d heard it but thought it was music playing through the Sonos sound system. It did sound magical, echoing through the vast travertine-tiled space.

After a memory-filled week, we piled into vans heading to the airport. Many of us have travel anxiety, which was managed by getting there in plenty of time. We thought. As my wife and I moved quickly through security, my drum got pulled. I was held back to explain—in English. French had been my foreign language in college; my Spanish has heretofore been limited to “baño” and “cerveza.”

My carry-on—which had sailed through TSA pre-check in Austin and customs in Mexico upon our arrival—turned into an international incident requiring four (count them, FOUR) trips through security for our return flight. I was a pinball, bounced back and forth between security and the American Airlines Priority baggage check. Lines grew longer and my wife increasingly nervous that we would miss our flight. After the airline baggage supervisor said he had called someone and I could take it through security for sure (he said I could not check it per their regulations), I was again detained at security and sent back—this time with a supervisor from the security checkpoint. At the airline baggage check, the two supervisors conferred in Spanish, of which I understood exactly nothing, and agreed I could take it through. Back at security, the supervisor at least led me to the front of a line, whereupon he disappeared and, you guessed it, they pulled me and my drum out of line.

By this time, my wife had gotten one of our traveling companions—a native speaker—to come help. I told her it was my drum, that I had taken it out and played it for them. I didn’t understand the issue.

She spoke to the security supervisor in a tone that sounded to me like, “Come on! It’s just a drum.”

And then she looked at me and said, “They thought it was a drone.” (FYI/Pro Tip:  it’s illegal to take a drone into or out of Mexico.)

The security personnel explained that musical instruments can’t be carried on. Back down to baggage check we went. My friend, in her lovely Spanish, helped me—meaning she had to go back through security again with me. She told them not to charge me for the bag. After we got through security (finally, and without incident!), as we walked to our gate she said she’d told them I was a famous artist from Austin and the drum was very special to me.

This unintentional pilgrimage provided a deep appreciation for what it means to take a personal spiritual practice abroad. Journeying into the unknown, perhaps, should include a blank canvas for new practices, or at least new incarnations of existing practices. It wasn’t just that my drum sounded different echoing through a mansion I don’t live in, but I stumbled through a ridiculously dysfunctional, impractical, and nerve-wracking process of trying to get part of my spiritual practice back from another country where it didn’t fit into the system, where I didn’t understand the language, and where it had been mistaken for, at best, an (illegal) tool of surveillance.

“Tambor” is my new vocabulary word.

Playing my drum on the balcony, looking at the Sea of Cortez (video credit: Melanie P. Moore)

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4 Responses

  1. To journey without being changed is to be a nomad. To change without journeying is to be a chameleon. To journey and to be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim. – Mark Nepo

    I think maybe you are a pilgrim!

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