“Travel is not really about leaving our homes, but leaving our habits.”
My very first trip outside the United States was courtesy of Uncle Sam in 1967. He provided an all-expense paid thirteen month trip to Korea. Much of my time was spent on and near the 38th Parallel, in mind-deadening monotony except for when North Korea captured the US Navy ship, Pueblo. I was eventually befriended by a young Korean man who worked on base and he, through friendship and kindness, invited me to his home to meet his family and share a dinner. Although his family spoke no English, we all had a good time and I was invited back on several other occasions. It was an unforgettable experience because at a time of great tension, he helped me understand cultural differences and accept different points of view.
Later in life I had opportunities to travel primarily for pleasure but each experience included some meaningful exploration and education that transcended nice hotels and fancy restaurants. In the Greek Isles, I learned I could make a Russian taxi driver laugh, discovering commonality through humor; in Costa Rica, I stayed in an eco-friendly lodge built almost single-handedly by an American woman who wanted to preserve a rain forest; Thailand offered a memorable bicycle tour to villages seldom visited by tourists where I learned of ancient customs and got a peek at everyday life in rural communities; and in Cambodia, I discovered that a few dollars could buy a pig or numerous chickens for a farmer, a few more dollars could buy bicycles enabling children to go to school, or if I dug deeper into my pocket, a fresh-water well could be dug to aid a community. In France, the notion that the French do not like Americans was dispelled and I found that respect begets respect, friendliness begets friendliness, and cheerfulness begets cheerfulness. In South Africa, a safari company’s effort to discourage children from becoming poachers later in life was helping urban children visit the bush to experience the animals in their natural habitat, a simple idea that is having positive results; in Zambia, the common people were benefiting from the country’s mineral mining but unfortunately, were still in need of better housing, health, and education; and in Viet Nam most of the people I met bore no harsh feelings against the United States. As one guide told me, “we fought the French for three hundred years and the Chinese for a thousand years. The war with you was just a blink of time.” However more than one Vietnamese described the horrors of our use of Agent Orange against the population. Not our finest hour.
On a completely different note, not all my travels, especially domesticly, have been enlightening. During my twenty three years as a staff member with the New York Assembly’s fiscal committee, I had opportunities to travel throughout the United States. Once, when my rental car broke down on a freeway surrounding DallasTX, in those pre-cell phone days, I sought help by scaling a ten-foot high metal fence in order to reach a housing neighborhood across the road. Slipping over the top, I managed to snag one of my belt loops on some top metal, hanging helplessly upside down until my weight and gravity released me with a thud, and also tearing my pants. It confirmed the lessons of childhood that dirt and a disheveled appearance make people leery of letting you into their homes, no mater how innocent the request, like using their phone to call a tow truck.
During a winery tour in California, I leaned back against a huge wooded vat and my sports jacket literally stuck to the grease on a seam to the extent I could not walk away. I had to call for assistance to get un-stuck. The owners of the winery apologized for the mishap, saying in over fifity years of giving tours, no one had ever managed to get stuck on a vat. I was surprised at hearing that, as it was a pretty simple thing for me to do! Management offered me the options of either letting them pay for the jacket’s cleaning or my choice of any bottle of wine. That night I enjoyed a limited reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Gracelessness sometimes has its rewards.
One hot and humid July I was a featured speaker at a lunch for 300 municipal risk managers throughout the United States at the original Holiday Inn in Memphis, TN. The night before, power to the hotel went out and it was very warm. I wasn’t getting much sleep and kept drinking pitcher after pitcher of water. The next morning I was rehearsing my speech and had no appetite, so I just continued to drink water. Finally it was lunch time and when I was introduced and walked to the center of the dais, I realized for the first time that because of my short stature, the first three rows of tables could not see me at all. Management came to the rescue with a plastic box that ususally was designed to hold twelve bottles of soda or something, and laid it flat for me to stand on. It turned out not to be high enough; so they stood it on end and I stepped up and held on to the podium while standing on one side of the plastic box. All this in broad daylight and in front of a room full of RISK MANAGERS. To add another bizarre aspect of the scene, I began to sweat profusely. All 27 gallons of water I previously consumed during the previous evening decided to leave my body in a continuously slow fashion at the exact moment over six hundred eyes were looking at me. If you remember the movie “Broadcast News”, you will remember Albert Brooks’ character the first time he gets the opportunity to anchor the evening news. Now imangine his sweating being ten times worse and you understand what I was going through. I couldn’t read my speech becaused of sweat-induced blurred vision, so I explained to everyone that copies of it were available before they left the room; next I stepped very carefully off the box, took off my suit jacket, grabbed the mike out of its holder and proceeded to inform the crowd of my various embarrassing travel incidents all over the country. In the end I was mortified, they were happy, and my printed speech was well received. Two out of three isn’t bad.
But so far, when it’s all said and done, one of my very favorite travel memories occurred during a family Caribbean Christmas cruise elevan years ago. While most of the party was getting dressed for dinner, my assignment was to entertain my eight month old granddaughter Simone, Walking the outer deck I came across a lively bar scene with people dancing to recorded music. Stepping inside, underneath a thirty foot high golden statue Neptune on the S/S Norway, Frank Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight” began, and for the next 3 minutes, 21 seconds, I slow danced with, to my whispy eyes, the most beautiful female in the room. At the end I thought Simone quietly gurrgled “dooby moo” before indicating it was time to find mommy. Magical.