One night two years ago, in Berlin—a city that until quite recently I called home—I left my three young children in the care of my husband and headed to a legendary underground dance party near the Spree river. It takes place in a haphazardly-built, fortress-like club that’s hard to find. The intimate rooms were steamy, vibrating with a wildly decadent crowd; everyone glistened with sweat and glitter. I arrived close to spent; for weeks before that night, I’d felt burnt out from being pulled in so many directions. But within minutes of starting to dance—theoretically on my own, but held fast in my spot by a press of flesh, moving in the middle of a crush of strangers—I was re-energized, swept up by the many-souled euphoria of the moment.
Touch is an inherent element of some of the world’s most transporting, fascinating cultural rituals, both modern and ancient. In normal circumstances, people of vastly diverse cultures make a common experience of shared touch. It’s part of wellness rituals with sacred roots, such as massage and foot bathing; and also of the most prosaic intimate greetings—from the Māori nose touch, called the Hongi, to the European double (or sometimes triple) cheek kiss.
Now, in these incredibly trying times—and just when we crave it most—touch is deemed dangerous. We’re told there’s to be no comfort in a hug from an elderly father; we can’t cuddle a friend’s newborn; we can’t treat ourselves to a massage to alleviate all the tension in our shoulders from hours of sitting in front of a screen. It’s a hard revelation to have hammered home: there is nothing more healing than human contact.
Collective rituals of touch have defined us as humans for at least a millennium. On a work assignment more than a decade ago, I went looking for pagan festivals that still existed in southern Italy. My husband and I found ourselves pressed between dozens of villagers and a stone facade on a sloped narrow cobbled street, in a tiny town in remotest Abruzzo. We held on to each other, and strangers, to keep our balance. Worshippers holding banners filed out of thechurch in front of us, accompanied by others balancing a towering painted wooden image of San Domenico. The men carrying the effigy bent down so that it hidden from view. When the icon was raised again, it was alive with slithering snakes. There was a collective gasp, and a brief wave of awe, made palpable by our close proximity to the fray; then cheers, as everyone noticed that the saint’s eyes and mouth were visible—a good omen.
Being part of such timeless communal ceremonies—literally, rubbing up against other humans—is, in my opinion, among the most meaningful experiences of travel. It can be had smearing vivid pigments on strangers, during Holi in India, a Hindu celebration that represents the victory of good over evil. And also during the El Rocio Pilgrimage in Andalusia, when almost a million people travel by horse and carriage to a site where, centuries ago, a hunter found a statue of the Virgin Mary in the trunk of a tree. Making a pilgrimage to a place of spiritual significance; laying one’s own hands on sacred ground; having holy waters poured over one’s head, or touching one’s lips to an inner-sanctum talisman—all deeply compelling reasons to journey to new and foreign places, whether Mecca or the Tiger’s Nest Buddhist monastery in Bhutan.
And touch is at the route of memory, too. I’ll never forget my first experience of a Ngaben, as a 20something student living on Bali. A many-days-long event, the Ngaben is an elaborate Balinese-Hindu death ceremony that is meant to liberate the spirit from its physical entrapment. It involves dressing and cleansing the body, which is placed inside an elaborate multi-tiered tower decorated with mirrors, flowers and rich fabrics. Relatives and friends carry the float from the deceased’s home to the graveyard—a joyous, ebullient, sometimes slightly out-of-control procession involving deafening gamelan music and racing with the tower through packed village streets. I was carried along, almost literally, by the jostling crowd to an open hill near the village’s temple of the dead, where the body was covered with offerings, doused in holy water, and eventually set alight by a priest (the Balinese believe the soul is lifted out of its physical body by fire, floating to the heavens on pillars of smoke).
I remember vividly that first time: the tower, and the crowds, came upon me sooner than I expected; I was held fast by bodies against a stone wall, and at times thought I might suffocate. But that feeling—the fear and chaos and exultation of the crush—is the most intense, and abiding, memory of the experience. From birth to death, touch is the sense that makes the greatest impact on us all—body and, indeed, soul. Margaret Atwood called it our first, and our last language, and the one that “always tells the truth.”