How Cultural Heritage Tourism Changed My Life

This post has been written by Meg Pier of Best Cultural Destinations, an online travel magazine featuring local perspectives on the world’s cultures. I asked Meg if she would be willing to write a piece about the intangible aspects of heritage and culture. What Meg provided was a deeply personal piece that shows those things that we consider intangible can in fact be profoundly life-changing. Thanks Meg.

Meg Pier is an award-winning professional with a progressive 25+ year career blending expertise in writing, editing, interviewing, public relations and brand building. She has a diversified set of credentials: publisher and editor of website www.BestCulturalDestinations, which explores the world’s cultural traditions; a corporate career as the founding member of PR departments for four major financial services firms; ongoing consulting assignments creating communications platforms/infrastructure/campaigns; and a portfolio of bylines as a published writer for mass media. Meg would love to hear from you and can be reached at meg@viewfromthepier.com.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

I spent 25 years in corporate media relations with financial services and asset management companies. Fairly early on in my career, I came to believe I needed to have all the answers.

More than two decades of this self-imposed pressure eventually culminated in four cancer scares in two years. Faced with my own mortality at 48 years old, my priorities underwent drastic revision, albeit kicking and screaming.

I left that career and began to travel. Through a series of personal, one-on-one cultural encounters that continue today, I discovered a new way of life that is vastly more rewarding than the exile of believing myself to be the Answer Lady.

I began approaching the unknown with curiosity instead of as a risk to be mitigated. I came to know the power of an authentic interaction vs a contrived transaction. I engaged with people not for an outcome but for an experience. I began to care more about listening and less about being heard. I stopped spending so much time managing conversations and started to let them unfold. I began comparing less and identifying more.

The result? I became happier, healthier, and more connected to myself, and to others.

Let me share just three of these life-changing experiences with you.

After three weeks travelling across Estonia, I had come to the end of the road, literally, arriving at the far southeastern corner of the country, in area known as Setomaa, or “Land of the Seto.” The Seto are an ethnic minority whose land spans the Estonian-Russian border.

My guide Elina and I made our way to the center of Varska and the community swing, a time-honored gathering spot for Estonians. I saw these structures all over the country in my travels, huge wooden platforms that can accommodate a crowd. And at the Varska swing, I enjoyed another tradition that is a cornerstone of Seto identity, leelo, an ancient polyphonic style of singing.

Gathered around the enormous swing were members of a Seto leelo choir:  Veera, 84; Anna, 82; Lidia, 80; Maime, 64 and Veera’s grandaughter Ruti, 16, who is an honorary member.

The group sang a song of thanks to the men who built the village’s swing, which gives the people such pleasure.  The lyrics tell of the girls giving the builders Easter eggs, a reference to the fact that a village’s swing would be built during that season.  In mid-March or April there was no agriculture work to be done, and the men’s thoughts turned to courting—the swing site is where romance blossomed among the village young people.  The mothers of the young bachelors would also come here, to eye the eligible girls, check out their posture and handicrafts, and assess who was good enough for their son.

A component of the traditional folk costume for both Seto women and men is a braided belt, which is considered both an item of everyday dress with a functional purpose, as well as “jewelry”. Men’s marital status is signified by which side their wear the knot on.  Village life required quite a lot of heavy lifting and the Seto girded themselves with the belts tightly, like a weightlifter, which made their strenuous movements easier—it also contributed to the upright posture for which the Seto are known.

When a woman married she must have many belts, as she was expected to give them as gifts to all the members of her new extended family.  The ability to do handicrafts was important and a woman was considered “useless” if she didn’t know how to make belts.

Lidia remarked “The songs are very long because we have so much to say,” but I learned another reason for their extended length is that the Seto women also had a lot of work to perform, much of it monotonous, and the singing made it go by more quickly.

The group performed a rousing “party” song, one typically sung at a gathering attended by both men and women. Periodically one of them would let loose a cry of “Ai-YAH” with a great spirit of jubilation. I was later told that the high-pitched sound is called killo and uttered by a woman when she wanted to try call attention to herself.

Veera said with a twinkle in her eye “When a Seto wife is chosen, a man looks not just for someone who is a good cook, but someone who is a good singer, it’s the family’s entertainment!”

On that note, Haime and Ruti set the swing to rocking, stationing themselves on opposite sides of the platform–Haime crouched at the front and Ruti standing tall at the back. Both expertly worked with the force of gravity to build up motion and speed and soon the giant swing was high in the air, with the duo practically parallel with the ground.  The other women began to clap and Anna and Lidia’s canes were forgotten as they began to step and sway together in a little dance. The swing gained even more momentum, the clapping quickened and laughter began to bubble. Giddy with the excitement of the ever-rising swing, I laughed and laughed until my cheeks hurt…and I understood why the women’s eyes sparkled and their faces glowed.

Our time together concluded with a lullaby.  The women sang the chorus in unison, its whimsical refrain somehow universal “Ah-ah, Choo-choo, Choo-choo, Lu-lu.”  It was infectious, and even someone as tone-deaf as me felt comfortable joining in.

As I said my good-byes, Anna impulsively took off her braided belt and handed it to me.  It is a cherished gift from the generous Seto souls who shared their songs, their laughter and a poignant lesson for this reformed workaholic about the power of play, a dimension of life I had left behind with my childhood.

On the island of Cyprus, I experienced another cultural encounter that taught me not only about an ancient local tradition, but about a way of being that was a revelation to me.

My guide David led me from Limassol’s harbor through narrow streets, stopping abruptly at a storefront. I followed him into a sun-filled studio and the company of saints. David exchanged greetings in Greek with acclaimed icon painter Myrianthi Constantinidou, making the motions of introducing me. The petite brunette welcomed me with a wide smile, pulling a chair over for me to sit next to her at her workspace.

She faced her easel, on which sat a large canvas depicting the image of a haloed and bearded man against a rich gold background.  To Myrianthi’s left was a table spilling over with paints and brushes, and propped up around her on other easels and the floor were other works-in-progress, in various stages of completion.

With David translating, I asked the Myrianthi about her process.

“Inside of me I feel something that pushes me,” she responded.  “I might start an icon with one idea and something happens and that says ‘no, I will do a Virgin Mary instead.’

She said the way she feels on a particular day will influence her painting.  Some days she comes into her studio and looks at what she had done the day before and says ‘What?!’ and starts over.  She can’t predict how long a piece will take.  In the morning she can think she will be done in an hour and she is still working at 7:30 p.m.  If she has been commissioned to do a piece and is under a deadline, she gets nervous and anxious and it affects the flow of her work.

I nodded my head vigorously—I often had similar such experiences in approaching my writing. David conveyed my empathy to Myrianthi, who gave me a radiant smile; despite the language barrier, a connection had been made.

There is a Constantinidis family tradition in iconography, which began in 1961 when Myrianthi’s father George began studying the art in Athens.  He later was a pupil of Father Kallinikos of Stavrovouni Monastery, an icon in the realm of this religious art form who died in 2011.

Her father did wall painting on Chrysorroyiatissa Monastery for ten years.  Myrianthi helped him from an early age and saw from close up the processes and secrets involved in hand-painting icons and frescos.  Her brother does wall painting at churches; she believes they both inherited their passion from their father.

Through David’s continued translation, Myrianthi said that in 1999 her father got sick and had a liver transplant.  There was an order at George’s workshop at that time from the abbot of Chrysorroyiatissa Monastery for an icon painting of the Virgin Mary.  George was so sick he couldn’t do it and he encouraged Myrianthi to create the painting.  When it was completed, George told her that because it was her work, she should deliver the painting.  It was the first piece she had done and she was anxious and insecure when she brought it to show the abbot.  He told her that it was so good he wanted her to make a workshop in the monastery.  Two years later her father died and ever since she has felt his presence, motivating her.

I ventured to speak, and share that I too felt that my vocation had been influenced by a parent, now terminally ill.  To my embarrassment, my voice broke and my eyes welled up.  I tried to apologize but it came out as a small moan.  I was mortified and felt my face flush; I could only stare at the floor.  Then David, an American ex-pat who chose Cyprus as his home 30 years ago, said “In this country, people are comfortable with feelings.”  I dared to look up at Myrianthi and saw the emotion in her face. Despite no words having been uttered, she too had been moved, and we smiled at each other through tears.

Today, in my own studio, an original Myrianthi Constantinidis representation of the Virgin and child sits near me.  Among the pieces I have collected in my travels, the icon is special, a reminder that there is something of the divine in the spectrum of human emotions, and the grace that calls them forth.

It was through a bit of circuitous serendipity that some might call grace that I learned of the Mayan phrase “In Laakeech” which means “I recognize in you my other I.” This philosophy serves as a guiding principle for Best Cultural Destinations, despite my previously long-held belief that co-existence meant eat-or-be-eaten.

On a trip with my husband Tom to the Yucatan, we toured Chichen Itza with guide Julian. Over the course of several hours with him, we shared some of our personal circumstances, including Tom’s recent diagnosis of a very tiny benign but inoperable brain tumor on his optic nerve.

Tom and I had felt for some time like we were weighted down with some serious bad energy. We were trying to ride it out, but it was going from bad to worse. We felt stuck waist-deep in an icky morass of toxic circumstances that we just couldn’t seem to extract ourselves from, try as we might. Our own best efforts, practical and spiritual, did not seem to be lightening our load. And so, when Julien offered to introduce us to a Mayan shaman to perform a cleansing ceremony, we couldn’t accept fast enough.

We soon found ourselves meeting Jose Santos Tamay, who led us to a leafy green ceremonial space in the jungle grounds of Hacienda Chichen. A gardener brought Jose a plant and half of a coconut shell filled with water, and Jose instructed Tom to close his eyes. Jose then dipped the plant into the water and began brushing it down Tom’s head, arms and legs, while speaking incantations in Mayan. He then repeated the process with me.

While the language and ritual were unfamiliar, I realized I was experiencing the privilege of someone praying over me. It was comforting, and doubly so that Tom and I were experiencing it together. I was also moved to recognize how far I have come in my journey, and that the connections I have made in my travels have ever-so-gradually opened my uptight mind and shut-down heart to the point where I was not only comfortable but grateful to receive blessings in another language from a stranger.

And those blessings continue. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Jose gave Tom and me the coconut bowl and suggested we make a practice of performing a cleansing ritual on each other back at home. The coconut shell sits on our kitchen counter as a reminder to my husband and me that we can choose to bless each other at any time. While I can’t claim it is a daily occurrence, it is a regular one! And lo & behold…life continues to get better!

Cultural heritage tourism has been a bridge to connecting with myself, with others, and with the divine that is in each of us. I thank Jose, Myrianthi, the Varska leelo choir, and all the countless people around the world who have shared their cultural heritage—and their way of life—to my great benefit.

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