We really liked the drive from Ely to Salt Lake City, Utah. The changes in environment were so bizarre and beautiful: in the morning the landscape was dry and flat and by the afternoon it became hilly and a bit busier. When we finally saw the salt plains we quickly pulled over for a photo session, appreciating it’s vastness from a  distance. The salt plains seemed almost alien and terrifying… unapproachable. Like sheets of sparkling ice in the distance, in the midst of the desert.

Salt Lake City wasn’t originally in our plans but after looking at the map, it seemed like a logical place to stay over on our way to Colorado.

Once we arrived in Salt Lake City we drove straight to the information centre to learn more about the city we’d heard of, of course, but not really familiar with. Armed with a map and advice on a good lunch spot, we made our way to the Utah State Capitol building. Oddly, once we arrived there I realised just how exhausted I was. I sat on the lawn for a while, tired enough that Triin got worried because I asked the same question three times in a row as if I forgot that I had even asked the question. After that little drama we walked up to the building and enjoyed the scenic view over the city. Interior of the building was breathtaking – marble walls and floors, the art on the walls and ceilings which gave a brief history of the area and how Salt Lake City happened. I found it strange in a way how the art was about the “best” bits, like the Indians had the land then after a discussion and a hand shake, the Americans took over the land and made everything “better”. The fact that you know there was alot of bloodshed and war and not just a polite discussion and a hand shake – that’s what I mean about the ‘nice’ bits. Shows that the ‘alternative facts’ have been around forever. 

Then we were off to visit the Mormon section and Temple Square with it’s grand churches, various religious buildings and smiling people. Really, everyone smiles at you when you enter a building. It’s weird. All I really knew about Mormons was that they are very religious, have no sex before marriage, and that the lead singer of The Killers was a Mormon. Since the weather was super hot, we decided to visit the Mormon vistor centre in the hopes of some air conditioning. There was a room with comfy sofas and a video reel of Mormon adventures around the world, basically a bunch of video testimonials about teenagers/young adults helping build churches abroad and teach people about the Mormon faith. We sat through a couple of the testimonials as we cooled off. And then we had to get out and escape the sparkly eyed faithfuls staring at us from the TVs.

Triin found it all strange and funny. She’s never been religious and considers religion on the same level as Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy. Make believe. Did you know Estonia is considered the least religious country in the world? True story.

A strange discomfort started creeping in, we left the ‘video testimonial room’ and saw Jesus art all over the walls, as expected. I was surrounded by these massive paintings of Jesus holding a child, Jesus preaching to people, etc. The room was filled with people smittened by the art work and those who worked there kept on walking past you and smiling at you.

Our goal was to find out what the difference is between Mormon faith and regular christianity. They seem like the same thing. On our way to the free movie theatre for a movie about the Mormon history we got hijacked by an old lady who insisted talking to us for what felt hours. So we missed the show but I guess we got all we needed from her. The lady explained the faith to us: the being married for ever and eternity and how the ‘true faithfuls’ can go inside their building and the rest can never experience this and how they dress in white and how the seek out their ancestors to bind their souls to their family tree in heaven or something.  It was very interesting but still I felt very uncomfortable and surprisingly emotional. I struck me that I hadn’t felt uncomfortable when we were at an Ashram in Yogaville trying out a form of Hinduism, at the spiritual retreat of Breath of Love. I had enjoyed meditation and breathing but with the Mormo faith I shared a history.

A bit of history of my life: (skip if you like)

I was brought up a Christian in rural South Africa, we went to church every Sunday and most of my friends were either from school or church, usually both. From ages 8 to 13 I even attended church camps in the summer, so religion was very much part of my life. When I was 12 my family moved closer to my grandparents who were very religious, reading their Bible everyday, gave you advice about any problem straight out of the Bible, and all their friends were from the church.

Later, being a typical teenager, I was less interested in the church but still had to go. We lived in a smallish town where there were always eyes on you and it felt at times that you didn’t have a name or identity only that you were so and so’s grandchild or child. Everything you did reflected on you parents, grandparents and siblings. You could be the black sheep for something like smoking the fact or didn’t go to church every Sunday.

My grandpa was a deacon in the church, his job was to go to hospitals and pray for sick people. There was always people c in and out my grandparents house, I know this because my job was to help bake cakes for guests and to wash dishes after they had left. I was especially close to my grandmother who always had time to listen to my teenage problems, or had the best advice even if God always had to be a part of it and she was funny, strong, stubborn, patient, encouraging and always had the best stories.

One day it was discovered that one married deacon at our church had had an affair with a widow who had been a close friend of my grandparents for many years. Everyone was very shocked about the affair, especially because a deacon was involved. Then suddenly the focus turned on seeking out who had outed them. A lot of people decided that it was my grandma, who told me that she did not even know. My theory was “surely it shouldn’t matter, who let the cat out of the bag”but it turned out to become the case of “shoot the alleged messenger”. My grandmother ended up leaving the church due to all the hushed conversations and people making her feel unwelcome there, later my grandfather also left. After that my whole family left the church but I didn’t really care about that. I was most shocked though about my grandmother – the church had been her life, her friends and it all went hand in hand with her faith. I was upset for her,  I just couldn’t believe it.

I heard later that the pastor of the church told his whole congregation that they had to choose between the church or friendship with my grandmother. I was floored. After church some people usually came over to my gran’s house and there was always a steady flow of people during the week. At the end, the deacon kept his job and only two people left the church and stood by my gran. Watching and listening to my grandmother was hard – she was crying for days and nights, it really hurt her badly, not just the church or the pastor but the betrayal of her friends of many years. Luckily in the end it made her and her faith stronger, so I was happy for her.

It did, however, give me a different opinion about church. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem that people have faith or go to church, but the type of person you are and how you treat others is so much more important than just telling me you “go to church”. People say that in my small home town as part of their identity, as if it’s supposed to mark their moral levels, and now it means nothing to me.

I was brought up to care what others think of my actions, religious and not. I struggled with the “butter doesn’t melt in my mouth” attitude and the community judgement over “unwanted behaviours” could be crippling.  I was at the time labeled “a boy” for wanting to play cricket (it’s a sport, duh). I even remember someone saying – almost out of the blue – that my wife Triin was super nice and that they really like her but that I still had to remember that I was going to hell, being gay and all. It never mattered if I liked or disliked someone or disagreed with certain things as long as I went to church and had no opinions of my own as a child and young adult. It’s not hard to imagine then that a few months after I turned 18 and graduated from high school I left for London and stayed there ever since. Well, at least till we decided to go travel the world! 

Ok, back to the blog.

At Salt Lake City we went to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir practice (the same one from Drumpf’s inauguration). I was amazed how enormous the conference centre was on the inside, and the choir with the band was obviously amazing. I didn’t really mean to but ended up having a very long conversation with one of the Mormons and my story about my grandmother which happen about 16 years ago came pouring out of me. She said that obviously what had happened was not right but also made good observation, which was that the judgement towards each other upset me alot, but that I was also judging them. I was judging them for judging me for being gay or previously smoking and I was judging them for what I felt was unchristian like behaviour. I realised in fact that I was quite judgemental of some people and also my own family. Though I can’t change the past and I certainly can’t change people, I can change myself. I am one massive “work in progress” and that’s not always fun but it’s better then becoming stagnant.

Travel, they say, it’ll be fun, they say.

Triin, in the meanwhile, was sitting on the chair taking photos of the space and, after a while, yawning. The Mormon woman Charlene had been chatting with came over after a while and couldn’t really compute the fact that Triin has no religious beliefs. Like, none. Spiritual, yes. Not religious. She seemed to, literally, give up on her. “That lamb can’t be saved” (Triin says LOL). Fun fact: there’s no Mormon representation in Estonia.

After the very emotionally draining tour of the Mormon church, we went to our AirBnB which was a beautifully decorated three bedroom house in the suburbs. I was surprised by the interior, because from outside it looked a lot smaller and in a rougher part of town, but once inside I wanted to buy the place. The owners happened to be vegan and had left a entire file compiled of recommendations for vegan and veggie restaurants and places to go to breakfast. We were really tired and it was 9pm, but after seeing all the amazing number of choices we had for food, we quickly dropped our bags and went out for dinner. We just couldn’t waste the opportunity after driving through dry desert land for days our bodies and minds were craving for some vegetable love. We ended up at Zest and the cocktails + food were delicious. Totally worth coming out to eat. Salt Lake City has a surprising amount of vegan and veggie restaurants and highly recommend going to one if you are there.

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In the morning we packed up and chose a breakfast place from the file. It was an amazing coffee place, very hipster, and reminded us of our home neighbourhood in east London. Of course, we had avocado on toast and a delicious soy latte and even went to the bakery around the corner for something sweet. Salt Lake City had been an emotional and odd trip: a cocktail of Mormons, gay and homeless people.  It seemed that this place in between desert, salt plains and mountains had become a home for everyone, not just the religious.

We’d return to visit, even if only for the vegan restaurants.

Next up – crossing the Rocky Mountains!

 

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