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Four Odd But Inspiring Celebrity Pilgrimages and Spiritual Retreats

"Art is the only way to run away without leaving home," noted choreographer Twyla Tharp once said. For the artists themselves, though, sometimes the opposite is true: The brighter the spotlight, the duller their inspiration. In Hollywood, sometimes you can't truly be inspired unless you're a shapeshifting juggernaut, walking a new spiritual path every week, kickin' it with monks and wearing Kabbalah bracelets.

Kooky as artists' "spiritual retreats" may seem, there's no questioning that travel engenders change in our vision, putting things into perspective or opening new windows of creativity. Superstars have had life-altering awakenings thousands of miles from Beverly Hills since superstars as we know it have existed. Let's run through four of the most notable celebrity pilgrimages, starting in the sixties, and run through their chosen destinations to decide whether it's worth following in their footsteps or avoiding their crazy missteps.

The Beatles
Rishikesh, India

The Beatles and the Maharishi (via TheBeatlesInIndia.com)The pilgrimage: "Sexy Sadie / she's the latest and the greatest of them all," sang John Lennon on "Sexy Sadie," a sneering track from The Beatles' White Album. Read the rest of the lyric sheet and it'd seem like Lennon's skewering a stuck-up socialite who harshed his mellow, but it's actually a thinly-veiled diss track at 60s icon Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, creator of the practice of "Transcendental Meditation." People the world over -- particularly flower-child celebs -- idolized the Maharishi's supposedly pioneering practices, willing to travel thousands of miles to the Maharishi's ashram in Rishikesh, India (I've Been Here / I Want to Go here) to learn his methods. Among the Maharishi's fans was Beatle George Harrison, who encouraged his bandmates to join him on spiritual retreat along with actress Mia Farrow, her sister, Prudence, singer Donovan, Beach Boy Mike Love and a few visitors (all pictured above).
While it was a fruitful period for the band's songwriting -- essentially the entire White Album was written in Rishikesh -- one by one, the band grew disillusioned with the prophet. Though it's never been proven, a rumor was started that the Maharishi tried to use his transcendental powers to seduce female guests in the ashram. No true superhero would use their powers for such dubious aims, right? Lennon thought so too, using it as his reason for leaving the ashram for good and eventually writing "Sexy Sadie" to express the bad taste he got from the teacher's "black magic." It fits in quite well, doesn't it?: "Maharishi / What have you done? / You made a fool of everyone!" Lennon eventually changed the titular subject of the song at the request of Harrison, whose appreciation of Maharishi never truly waned.
The place: Rishikesh remains a popular destination since the Beatles put it on the map. It's now dubbed the "World Capital of Yoga" and receives spiritual visits from faithful the world over. Though the Maharishi's original ashram is now closed, plenty other ashrams and temples are open throughout the city if you wish to explore. Rishikesh is also scenically set where the Ganges River meets the Himalayas, and its surrounds make for a superb spot if you're looking to do some extreme river rafting, cliff jumping or trekking.

Cat Stevens / Yusuf Islam
Marrakech, Morocco

Musician in Marrakech (Ahron de Leeuw via Flickr)The pilgrimage: Fewer artists come more misunderstood than Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. After visiting the raucous island of Ibiza, Stevens' tune changed upon visiting Marrakech, Morocco (I've Been Here / I Want To Go Here), where he was moved by street musicians playing "music for God," which ran counter to the rock 'n roll lifestyle patronized by his peers in the industry. He became infatuated with this concept and began exploring his faith. After becoming particularly taken with a copy of the Qu'ran, Stevens announced his conversion to Islam (both in name and religion) and departure from his multi-million dollar songwriting career at its peak.
While Yusuf Islam says he's found inner peace due to his new faith, converted life hasn't always been easy. To combat misperceptions about the Islamic faith, particularly after the 9/11 attacks, he joined the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism. Three years later, he was detained by U.S. customs officials, who had him pegged on a "no-fly" list; Islam believes officials had mixed him up with another individual who had a similarly-spelled name.

The place: One of the largest cities in Morocco, Marrakech, or "the Land of God," now plays host to an intriguing mixture of the past, present, faithful and secular. Like when Stevens first visited, music plays a prominent role in the street scene; the Djemaa El-Fna is a shining example of the city's vibrancy, where nighttime gives way to loud drums and dancing. By day, weave through the countless souks, or marketplaces, and you'll be sure to run into the soothing sounds of traditional street musicians paying their respects as well.

Whitney Houston and Bobby BrownDimona, Israel

Artists getting inspired by the Negev desert (by FabioHofnik via Flickr)The pilgrimage: In 2001, Whitney Houston signed a six-album, $100 million deal with Arista Records. Two years later, she and husband Bobby Brown traveled to Dimona, Israel (I've Been Here / I Want To Go here) to spark their artistic inspiration... for Whitney's upcoming Christmas album. We gotta give kudos there -- most artists cut half-baked Christmas songs to fatten the cash cow, but Whitney's plans are always fully-baked prior to serving.

The rest of Houston's spiritual retreat was a bit curious, though; while in town, she and Brown gallivanted in traditional garb with the Black Hebrew Israelites, a small religious sect started by a Chicago bus driver that practices polygamy and claims to be one of the original tribes of Israel. Say what you will, but no one can say Whitney Houston's traveled anywhere but off the beaten path in her career. Let's just hope Arista Records didn't give her an advance on that $100 million -- by our count, she's still got four albums left to record, and she probably could use that cash on a few more spiritual retreats.

The place: If you're not visiting small religious sects or Israel's military training facilities -- or you're a Whitney Houston fan and want to commemorate her appearance -- you might not have much reason to head to Dimona, a desert city with a population just over 30,000. The surrounding state of Negev is historically home to squatting nomadic groups, though the industrial town of Beersheba (I've Been Here / I Want To Go Here) to the north, with its former Ottoman influence, may be of interest to history geeks.
(Whitney Houston image via AP Photo)

Dave Chappelle
Durban, South Africa

Historic Town Hall of Durban (via Wikimedia)The pilgrimage: After you heard "I'm Rick James, b****!" for the thousandth time, could you really blame anyone for wanting to go far, far away from the nearest frat house? Let alone its creator.

In 2005 Dave Chappelle, Comedy Central's all-star sketch comedian, inexplicably left his $50 million contract for "Chappelle's Show" in the middle of its third season; his departure was so swift and unexpected that rumors swirled about drug addiction and / or nervous breakdowns. It took weeks until Chappelle finally gave this statement to Time Magazine: "'I'm not crazy. I'm not smoking crack. I'm definitely stressed out.'"

Chappelle revealed that he had fled to Durban, South Africa (I've Been Here / I Want To Go here), to visit a friend and re-evaluate his Muslim faith and his career. He was unhappy with the direction of his show, though it was hard to persuade anyone in his circle. "I figured, Let me just cut myself off from everybody, take a minute and pull a Flintstone — stop a speeding car by using my bare feet as the brakes," he said. And put on the brakes he has -- aside from surprise stand-up appearances, Chappelle has all but put his career on hold since leaving his eponymous show.
The place: You might not hear about Durban as much as its larger sister cities in South Africa, but it's certainly won't be hurting for attention when South Africa plays host to the 2010 World Cup this summer. Durban holds one of the world's largest Indian populations outside of India in the entire world, which adds to its cosmopolitan charm. As a coastal city, travelers take kindly to Durban's beaches, and much work has been done to modernize the public transit in time for the influx of football fans, so the city could see a nice boost in visitors in the near future.

(Dave Chappelle image via Wikimedia)

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Four Odd But Inspiring Celebrity Pilgrimages and Spiritual Retreats + travel