This past October (2013), I took an eight-hour bus ride from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Chicago, Illinois. There were two reasons for this. One, my friends in Minneapolis worked during the week, so I had to find something to do to entertain myself. And, two, I have wanted to go to Chicago since I was ten and heard about American Girl Place.
In general, I prefer traveling with friends or family to traveling alone, but somehow most of the time I do end up traveling alone. As an introvert, this means that I often end up hunkered down in my hostel bed after dark, reading or watching videos on Netflix, rather than attempting to navigate nightlife on my own. Furthermore, with my poor sense of direction, this means that I often walk a mile or two in the wrong direction before I realize my mistake. Of course, these aren’t always cons. I love reading and watching movies. And sometimes getting lost leads to finding something exciting, delicious, stunning, peculiar, or all of the above. There is a lot of freedom in traveling alone.
When I finally found Chicago’s Millennium Park, after wandering back and forth along the shore of Lake Michigan for a few hours, I took my time looking around. My main reason for visiting Millennium Park was a desire to see Cloud Gate. Cloud Gate is that giant mirrored bean that gets featured on postcards from Chicago. So before I approached the bean, I put my camera away. I didn’t want any distractions. (I have a thing for public art, okay?)
First, I walked in a wide arc around Cloud Gate, taking it in from a distance, observing the reflection of Chicago’s skyscrapers and my fellow tourists. Then, I moved in closer, focusing on my own distorted reflection. Although I only stood about five feet from the sculpture, the convex surface made it look like I was at least fifty feet away. I waited for the family standing directly underneath Cloud Gate to finish taking pictures so that I could take their spot and gaze up at the bean’s belly. It was impossible to discern the shape of the structure from below. The reflections bounced back and forth, projecting my image several times over and muddling my sense of perspective. After only a couple minutes, I became so dizzy that I was forced to relinquish my position to a young Japanese couple.
I moved to a bench across from Cloud Gate. Just as I pulled out my journal to write down a few paragraphs about my experiences in Chicago so far, a Buddhist monk approached me. He seemed to appear out of nowhere and handed me a golden card, about the size of a business card, with an image of Buddha on one side and the words “WORK SMOOTHLY LIFETIME PEACE” on the other. Then, he handed me a small book with photographs of a temple taped inside and a list of donors and donations. The reason for every single donation was noted as “peace.”
Usually, I don’t give money to people, whether they are canvassers, homeless people, or monks. As a resident of Portland, OR, I get asked for donations almost once a block when I am downtown. Therefore, only special cases convince me to dig into my purse.
Maybe it was because he was the first human contact I had had in something close to twenty-four hours. Maybe it was because he spoke Chinese, and I studied Chinese in college. Or maybe it was that column of “peace,” “peace,” “peace,” penned several times over in different handwriting every time. Anyway, I emptied my wallet, and he took my eight dollars with gratitude, bowing and repeating “xiexie” over and over again. He slid prayer beads onto my wrist then went off to solicit the next group of tourists.
Maybe it is silly, but that incident was my favorite part of my visit to Chicago. If I had been traveling with a group, I’m sure that it would have played out completely differently. We likely would have waved him away. Or, we would have found Millennium Park hours earlier and missed him entirely. So I’m glad that I was there alone, because “peace” seems like such a simple and just cause.