Did you ever arrive at a world-famous site, one you've wanted to visit your whole life, and experience a luke-warm reaction? This happened to me at the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids of Giza. My heart responded: Yep, that's it alright. Just like I've seen in a hundred photos and scores of movies. Why didn't I respond with greater joy?
According to new brain research published in April, the pleasure centers of the brain find unexpected pleasures more rewarding that expected ones. We are hard-wired to be stimulated by surprises and discoveries of things others don't know.
We had many surprises on our trip to India.
I went to the Dalai Lama’s home-in-exile in the Himalayas. I hoped to run into him or Richard Gere. I didn’t. But the unexpected events still filled me with delight. Like when the proprietor of Glenmoor Cottages gave us Gere's room. It was surprisingly humble for a movie star.
I'm the first one up in the morning. I like to experience the world before it's peopled. But turns out our host, Mr. Singh, rises earlier. In his white kurta pyjama (tunic over loose pants) he stood at the edge of his property and gazed out over the precipice, through the mist, beyond the leafy green trees into the valley. He was meditating. The gentle hum of his mantra barely broke the silence. I watched in awe. That precious, unanticipated moment, the purity of the human spirit at peace, lingers in my heart to this day.
That evening we mucked our way through the rain to find dinner in town. McLeodganj is a spiritual center not a tourist mecca. No neon signs flashed EAT, so we had to climb the rickety steps of an old wooden building to see if the lights up there meant restaurant. And we didn't care what they were serving, we just wanted food.
Soon the only free seats in the place were at our table. Two college girls joined us. They were from the Northwest, too. Fun! Our neurological pleasure centers were flashing. Soon, my son asked one, “Do you know someone named Brianne?” Her sweet smile soured. Her pleasure center went dark. “Oh my God, will I ever escape my sister? I choose a semester abroad that is a million miles from home, and within six hours I meet one of my sister's friends. Unbelievable.”
After apologizing, my son assured her that we we'd be gone by Sunday. When she calmed down, we discovered that she'd actually been to some college parties at our house. It was our turn to be surprised. “Parties? When?”
We visit the Tibetan Children’s Village, a school and care center for kids whose parents are trapped in Tibet. It was a huge, high-quality education facility, and the faculty welcomed us as members of the American community in New Delhi who support their efforts. We were heartened by the unexpected recognition.
I have filed this trip as one of the best weekends of my life. I now understand why a spirited traveler welcomes surprises.
Here's hoping Brianne's sister learned this, too.