Photos by Michael Freeman/Aurora Photos, Joerg Modrow/Laif/Aurora Photos, Macduff Everton, and Caleb Kenna/Aurora Photos
||Far-flung journeys (clockwise from top left): Burma, Greece, China, and Morocco.|
Twenty-five tales of last-minute travel prove that the least-planned trips can provide our longest-lasting memories.
e've all experienced them—those delightful, slightly irresponsible moments when we toss schedules and obligations to the wind and just take off. Whether it's a college weekend when you pile in the car and just start driving or a mid-career break when you fly half-way around the world to try your hand at something new, stealing away from your daily routine is a true guilty pleasure.
In Traveler's May/June special issue, we've collected accounts of last-minute travel that clearly define the meaning of "breaking away." Complementing our feature lineup is a collection of short first-person breaking away stories, including Pico Iyer's last-minute jaunt to Bhutan and Ann Hood's solo 24-hour round-trip from New York to India to fulfill her lifelong yearning to see the Taj Mahal. Additional contributors include noted writers Arthur Golden, Robert Hellenga, Rory Stewart, and a host of other lively voices.
E-mail us your own "sudden journey" at email@example.com.
Rory Stewart leaves wintry Oxford for a magical weekend in Morocco.
Pico Iyer catches the "first jet" from Calcutta to the kingdom of Bhutan.
Rolf Potts ditches his itinerary and buys a bike to pedal through Burma.
Danielle Pergament reads about Ethiopia and immediately books a trip.
Donovan Webster starts down the path to adulthood on the Outer Banks.
Robert Hellenga finds a new part of Florence by getting on the wrong bus.
Catherine Karnow takes a gamble on St. Barts and wins a week in paradise.
Edward Readicker-Henderson visits a Croatian island with a just-jilted friend.Eric Hanson grabs a cheap winter flight to a timeless hideaway on Crete.Judith Fein takes the funeral boat to Mogmog, Micronesia, for lessons in life.Arthur Golden journeys to the Forbidden City and meets his future wife.
Mel White turns nearly forfeited frequent-flier miles into memories of Spain.
Ann Hood flies to India to spend a single perfect day at the Taj Mahal.
Phil Zabriskie spends family time in Montana that helps heal memories of Iraq.
Keith Bellows makes a new friend over a Slovenian meal he still dreams about.
Shermakaye Bass parlays a Lions Club connection into a Carpathian Kismet.
Carrie Miller reconsiders a trip to Mongolia and ends up riding a reindeer.
Kelly Amabile hops in a car with friends and makes a dash for sunny Miami.
Courtney Brkic makes a new friend in an abandoned convent in Extremadura.
Jim Benning talks his wife into an impromptu road trip to Park City, Utah.
Joyce Maynard introduces her kids to London with a cheap weekend fare.
Holly Morris accepts a challenge and finds herself standing atop the Matterhorn.
Joshua Berman and his wife scrap a big wedding and substitute a year on the road.
Robert La Franco falls into a real Mexican Margaritaville in Puerto Escondido.
Mark Jenkins and his daughter become nomads around a fire on the Wyoming prairie.
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Moroccan Weekend, by Rory Stewart
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My friend Luke visited me one cold February in Oxford. We were 20. It was Friday, the middle of the semester, and I did not have a class on Monday. We decided that night to fly to Morocco. At dawn, we were standing in the sleet at Gatwick Airport. At sunset, we heard the call to prayer, at a café in the great suq of Marrakech. I had grown up in Hong Kong and was used to concrete and jeans. Not the robes, the pastis at the café table, or the warm light on mud-brick. It was the same day, nearly the same longitude, the flight was short. I had never experienced a change so unexpected or so wonderful.
The next morning we crossed the High Atlas range through Zagora to Ouarzazate, and by the afternoon we were on camels heading east. We rode for 30 hours, spending a cold night in the desert. It was Ramadan, and our guide was fasting. I tried not to be distracted by the pale dunes, stretching to the horizon, and did my homework on the camel.
By Tuesday afternoon, I was again in my tutor's office in Oxford in the rain. I did not tell him that I had been away. When I opened my book, to present my essay, coarse yellow sand ran onto the oak floor.
Rory Stewart is the author of The Places in Between and The Prince of the Marshes. He is chief executive of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a charity based in Kabul, Afghanistan.
"First Jet" to Bhutan, by Pico Iyer
I had just arrived, for the first time ever, in Calcutta, the most clamorous, mad, and (therefore) irresistible place I'd ever seen. The only other foreigner in sight had lit up something illegal before we'd even left the baggage claim area, and the taxi ride into town had taken me past sites of such aromatic decay and unquenchable energy that I knew I would be savoring a rich delirium for days to come.
My first morning in Calcutta, I decided to look in on a Bhutanese transport office, just in case my Indian passport would admit me (for $5 a day) to a largely unvisited kingdom that most foreigners had to pay $200 a day to enter, once I'd finished in Calcutta. As I was preparing to ask about buses into Bhutan, a man suddenly arrived and said, "Yes, yes. Hurry, please! The plane is leaving two hours from now." "But I want to go by bus." "Yes, please. Go now. The first jet ever to Bhutan!"
I am, for the most part, the most inflexible, routinized, and frustrating person, determined to plan every moment months in advance. And I knew this couldn't be the first jet ever to Bhutan. But how could I resist the chance to fly into the famously traditional Land of the Thunder Dragon on one of our most modern forms of flying carpet? I snapped up a ticket, grabbed my things from my hotel, and abandoned the next four days of exploring Calcutta so that I could trade in furious delirium for fairy-tale serenity in one of the most silent mountain kingdoms on the planet.
Over the next few weeks, I drove deep into the heart of a valley where no lights could be seen after nightfall and climbed all the way up to the celebrated Tiger's Nest monastery, which clings to the side of a 3,000-foot (915-meter) cliff. I spent days in Thimphu, the only capital I'd ever visited without traffic lights or TVs, and walked for hours along main roads without seeing a single car. Seventeen years on, I can remember every hour of the 21 days I spent in Bhutan. But I still haven't found a way ever to get back to Calcutta.
Pico Iyer is the author of six books of travel, including Video Night in Kathmandu, Falling Off the Map, and Sun After Dark.
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Ditching the Itinerary, by Rolf Potts
Some years ago, I traveled to Burma (Myanmar) for the first time. I had a month to spend in the country, and I'd put together an itinerary that allowed me to see all of the country's iconic northern attractions in four weeks: sprawling Rangoon (Yangon), historic Mandalay, peaceful Inle Lake, the scenic Golden Triangle, the grand ruins of Bagan.
One week into the trip, I began to feel disappointed. Everything was going according to plan (the trip to Rangoon's Shwedagon Pagoda, the Pyu ruins near Pyay, the traditional Burmese dance performances in Mandalay)—but in planning every detail of my journey, I was beginning to feel like I could predict what was going to happen next at any given moment. Thus, I decided to act on an impulse: Instead of buying a Mandalay-to-Bagan bus ticket as I'd originally planned, I splurged $40 on a sturdy, Chinese-made one-speed bicycle and started pedaling my way down the legendary Irrawaddy River valley.
The three weeks that followed were filled with the joys of the unexpected. My new bicycle, I found, had a max speed of about five miles an hour—a perfect tempo at which to discover the Burmese countryside. Mangoes were in season, so I bought armfuls of the sweet fruit for pennies apiece. When unmapped ruins or stupas graced the roadside, I stopped to investigate and linger. I slept in villages along the way, where townspeople offered to put me up in Buddhist monasteries. In a town called Pakokku, an English teacher invited me to speak to his students, and after class they all took me to a pwe festival at the town pagoda (where, believe it or not, a crowd consisting of families and monks watched a Burmese transvestite cabaret troupe lip-synch to Boney M's "Bahama Mama").
After a few days in Pakokku, I finally pedaled my way to Nyaungu to see the ruins of Bagan—as had been my original plan. They were indeed magnificent, but I only lingered for one day before pedaling back to Pakokku, where the owner of my guesthouse—who was short on cash, but flush with gemstones—talked me into trading in my bicycle for a fistful of baroque freshwater pearls. I still don't know if I got a good deal in the exchange, but it doesn't really matter: My spontaneous detour had already been a reward in itself.
Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. He has traveled to over 50 countries, including three journeys to Burma.
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My Uncle's Ethiopia, by Danielle Pergament
I was always interested in Ethiopia. I knew it as the place where the oldest human was found, where the Ark of the Covenant was purportedly hidden, and where an uncle I vaguely remember from childhood had been working as a surgeon for 34 years. Then one day, I picked up Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Emperor, a book about the last days of Haile Selassie's rule, and wide-eyed fascination replaced interest. Kapuscinski's world was mystical and fascinating and terrible and cruel and utterly foreign, like a fable from the Arabian Nights. Moments after finishing the book, I was on the phone with the airlines. I didn't have anything in the next few weeks that couldn't be rescheduled. And I realized this uncle of mine, who is 81 years old and knows the city and its history as well as anyone, won't be around forever. If I didn't go now, I knew I'd never go. I bought a one-way ticket to Ethiopia. A few days later, I had a visa. By the end of the week, I was on my way to the eastern edge of Africa.
Addis Ababa sprawls out at 8,000 feet, making it the third-highest capital city in the world. When I woke up on my first of 30 mornings in Ethiopia, it wasn't the thinness of the air or the sting of the pollution in my eyes that startled me. It was the green. From horizon to horizon, the city was embedded in a lush, verdant blanket. It was the first surprise of many.
Addis has many faces. There's the vibrant Mercato district that sells food, jewelry, donkeys, shawls, T-shirts, and trinkets to locals and curious backpackers. There's the poolside bar at the Hilton that sits empty all day until happy hour, when it fills up with every expat, diplomat, and U.N. worker in the city who comes to drink cold beer in the blazing sun. There are the fancy restaurants where beautiful young men and women dressed in tribal wraps perform traditional Ethiopian dances for the patrons. And there are the unfancy roadside stands, the ones with neatly swept dirt floors where businessmen cram inside for platters of kitfo—raw beef and spicy sauce. There's the crowded Bole Road, where cafés and bars spill onto the streets, pumping Ethiopian jazz and the smell of weed into the evening air. Then there's the Addis that doesn't show itself until well past dark—the hustlers, the petty thieves, the 60,000 children who live on the street. There's the Black Lion Hospital where my uncle is the head of surgery, the country's best medical facility where the power dodges in and out and pools of muddy water collect in the hallways.
There's nothing refined about Addis. Everything here is raw and untamed, as if the city spontaneously sprung from the land underneath it. It's a place where many of the roads are unpaved, where eating utensils are frowned on, and where flocks of sheep cross four-lane highways with ten-year-old shepherds cracking a whip behind them. Everything about this place brings you closer to the earth.
On my last night in Addis Ababa, I had dinner with my uncle—the uncle I hadn't seen for 20 years until I showed up in his city a few weeks earlier. I asked him what he thought of his adopted home country. "It's a mess, there are problems we can't even begin to solve," he said and paused. "But I'd never live anywhere else."
Danielle Pergament is a contributing editor at Allure and writes for the New York Times, New York, Departures, Travel and Leisure, and Outside. She divides her time between New York and Rome.
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What I Learned at Nags Head, by Donovan Webster
To begin with, there were problems. It was spring break of my college senior year, and—for the first time in my life—adult choices needed to be made, though I had little real information to base my decision on. I'd completed New York job interviews in February, and had been pestering publishers since to see if anything "had finalized"—which it hadn't. Consequently, I'd started applying to grad schools.
There was also that issue of The Girl, who'd complicated three lives by maintaining a "school boyfriend" (me) and a long-time "home boyfriend" (the other guy). As she was spending vacation at home in Boston, interviewing for jobs at banks where home boyfriend's dad sat on the board, I was beginning to see that, uh, maybe she'd only complicated one life.
On the positive side, I'd spent the first half of this, my last-ever college vacation, alone in my school apartment, finishing my senior thesis. Now, come mid-May, I was sure to be hurled into the unknown of adulthood
with only a diploma for protection. It took two evenings of wandering a deserted Ohio college town before I needed to escape. Next morning, I tossed my fishing and camping gear into the back of my car, then headed for "other environs." My destination? North Carolina's Outer Banks.
I'd never seen the Outer Banks, but I loved the sound of their name. They were on the Atlantic, were vaguely Southern, and—best of all—were slim, sandy barrier islands miles offshore, tethered to the mainland only by exotic-sounding car ferries and "causeways."
I got there, parked at the old, wooden lifesaving station at Oregon Inlet, strung my fly rod, and wandered across to the jetty to catch stripers on an incoming tide. Later, in the dark, I found a convenience store selling cold beer, bologna, mustard, and sliced bread; nearby was an empty, $6-a-night "honor box" campground.
I spent mornings at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, watching an owl feed its chicks, which, in the nest, looked like little bedpost finials. Afternoons took place on the beach at Nags Head, in the shadow of the black-and-white-painted Bodie Island Light. There was a lot of radio listening, sunning, reading, and wetting a line with the few other Nags Head fishermen. Sunsets were a rich, orangey red; they made the sand glow gold as huge seabirds glided over a plum-colored ocean. Dusk never looked like this in Ohio.
I returned to school a few days later, having caught some nice fish and carrying the intention (I won't call it courage) to never again place my life or happiness in the hands of anyone indifferent to its outcome. I'd eventually turn down the sole publishing offer I got, attend a grad school I'd yet to even apply to, and—shortly after she returned from Boston—wish The Girl good luck.
Somewhere in there, I'd also driven my first boundary stakes into that trackless wilderness called adulthood. It felt good.
A Traveler contributing editor, Donovan Webster is happily surviving adulthood. He lives outside Charlottesville, Virginia.
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Off the Map, by Robert Hellenga
My wife and I spent the winter of 2004 in Florence in an apartment that we rented from friends on Via Pietrapiana. One night toward the end of our stay we decided to take the number 13 bus up to Piazzale Michelangelo to enjoy the panoramic view of the city one last time, but the first bus to arrive at the bus stop was a number 23, and on a sudden impulse we decided to take it. We'll see where it goes, we said, and then ride back.
The bus took us to the station, as we knew it would, and then headed northwest. The last thing I recognized was Piazza Dalmazia. The bus plunged on deeper and deeper into the unknown and finally came to the end of the line. It was so dark we couldn't see anything, and there were no lights in any of the buildings. We explained to the driver that we were going to stay on the bus and ride back into the center, and the driver explained to us that the bus wasn't going back into the center and that there were no more buses that night and that we'd have to get off the bus.
After about five minutes of wondering what to do we noticed a car wriggling out of a parking space. I knocked on the window of the car and explained our predicament, and the driver and his girlfriend, who were very friendly, gave us a lift back to Piazza Dalmazia, where buses were still running.
Back in our apartment we traced our route in our Tutto Città only to discover that the number 23 bus went right off the edge of the map. We hadn't been to the South Pole or to the heart of the dark continent, but we'd been out beyond the boundaries of the known world and had made it back safe and sound.
Robert Hellenga teaches English at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He is the author of five novels, two of which—The Sixteen Pleasures and The Italian Lover (forthcoming)—are set in Florence.
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Escape to St. Barts, by Catherine Karnow
In the 1980s, I was living in Paris, and fairly unsuccessfully trying to find work as a freelance photographer's assistant. By midwinter, I was broke, and Paris was rainy and cold. Then I got lucky and was hired to work on a men's clothing catalog that was scheduled to be photographed in the Caribbean—in Guadeloupe and Martinique. The team would consist of me, the photographer, the stylist, and three gorgeous American male models.
The shoot was easy: We only worked in the late afternoon and, in true French style, drank lots of wine. I was getting used to this relaxing lifestyle in the sun. The day before leaving, I suddenly decided it was too soon to return to Paris, in the midst of a dreary winter. I had to quickly think of a way to stay in the Caribbean for free, in the height of the winter season, no less.
I suddenly remembered St. Barts (St. Barthélemy), where, with friends, my family had once visited a New York filmmaker who had a house at the head of a large valley. There wasn't time to track anyone down and make arrangements in advance. Nevertheless, I flew to St. Barts the next day.
I arrived on the island and instructed the taxi driver to take me to the large valley that I recalled. I recognized the tiny, isolated house with its magnificent view toward the ocean. I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. Clearly, the house was closed up. It was getting late in the day, and I wondered what to do.
By some miracle, the caretaker came by, and I persuaded him to call the owner in New York. Amazingly, I got permission to stay, but was told that I would have to be out in a week as a very important visitor would be coming. I had a glorious week's vacation, and when I left, David Letterman took my place.
A Traveler contributing editor, photographer Catherine Karnow regularly shoots for National Geographic, Smithsonian, French and German GEO, and many other top international publications.
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Wander Cure for Lust, by Edward Readicker-Henderson
"Um, I think you drove off the island again," I told Amanda, helpfully. We'd glimpsed a bridge, a flash of creamy stone, another bridge. Then Trogir, Croatia, filled the rearview mirror.
Hatboy, Amanda's beau, had run off with a backpacker sporting a diamond tooth. My job as best friend had clearly been to drop everything at my Alaska home and join Amanda for a Balkan road trip—the cure of wander, she explained, to recover from lust. On whim and a bad map, we mini-golfed in Slovenia, drank wormwood wine at truck stops, and stared down an alpaca grazing a castle lawn. Nervous at the war-scarred Bosnian frontier, Amanda punched me: "Lunch? You told the guards we only came for lunch?"
And a wrong turn led us to the island of Trogir, a square-mile punctuation mark on Croatia's Dalmatian coast, where cats fought for sunshine in angles of cobblestone. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Trogir was settled by Greeks in the fourth century B.C., guarded the Roman emperor Diocletian's palace in the fourth century A.D. It spent the Middle Ages as a Venetian resort, and when this was all Yugoslavia, the island served as a strategic barrier to Split's harbor. Time has layered Trogir like shuffled cards.
We got lost in single-file alleys, browsed for jewelry made of fake ancient coins, ate lime gelato in a piazza that unfolded around a half dozen corners. Uniformed school children ran home through the city gate that in a sudden afternoon rain imitated a drooling gargoyle.
The restaurants smelled of fish that had been swimming the Adriatic mere hours before, and we argued over the color of the sea peeking between moored sailboats: "Kingfisher." "No, next-love's-eyes blue"—a scoff at the very idea of heartbreak.
Trogir was once important enough to merit its own bishop, based in the Cathedral of St. Lovro. Erected on older foundations in the late 1100s, the partially restored church shelters Croatia's most prized medieval sculptures, Radovan's "Adam and Eve"; the carved face of God stares from a pure white marble ceiling.
Amanda and I did the only sensible thing: At a side altar, we bought foot-long beeswax candles for a single coin. Then, on this island we had not heard of a day before, we threw glowing prayers into the soot-streaked walls. I didn't ask what hers was about; mine was one of thanks.
Edward Readicker-Henderson last wrote for us on his search for the world's quietest place. He is next covering York, England.
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Our Greek Isle, by Eric Hanson
My well-worn paths always led me to the best snow because that's what I wrote about. At the fag end of winter my wife longed for sun—I wanted to ski the high vidda in Norway. We made a deal. She had heard that in early spring you could fly from Oslo to Crete for next to nothing, which is exactly what we had, so that's what we did, stowing our skis and parkas with friends in Oslo and arriving in Iraklion with all our worldly goods in a gym bag. Crete is less Greek after Easter than it is before. This is when the northern Europeans appear and the natives in their black wool become museum pieces. Picture large pale Germans in small swimsuits.
Too much gear ruins the experience of a new place. Robert Falcon Scott took a piano to the Antarctic, and subsequently died there, although that may have had more to do with his decision to eat the ponies. My own tastes are narrow. My wife informed me when we were over the Balkans that I would need to learn to like olives because every Greek dish is full of them. I have always hated olives, having been frightened by one as a child, convinced it was looking at me. I learned that her warning wasn't strictly true, that the fish were plentiful and came as they were, without olives but fried whole with their eyes staring at you.
We took a cab from Iraklion to Rethimnon, along the looming, rocky coast above a slate blue sea. From Rethimnon we took a bus south by a road draped like string over the mountains. At each switchback we could look out and see to the foot of the abyss, each outer curve decorated with white crosses and handmade shrines commemorating the dozens who had perished there. It isn't hard to imagine minotaurs in such a landscape, but mostly you see widows. On the south side of the island, near the town of Plakias, it was already spring.
One of the most charming things about Plakias was its absence of history. No major temples or digs, hence no mention in guidebooks. The ancients did not prize beaches, and the landscape above the town is too vertical to be agriculturally promising. A thousand feet above, two towns hung like white necklaces among the pale green of the olive groves. The road they clung to petered out not far west. This was the end of the world in which there was nothing to do, so we did nothing. We walked up among the olive groves and ate lunch on a terrace where an ill-informed tourist told us we could see Libya. For a week we read our books, slept like tortoises on the beach. The day before we were to leave, we walked west along an unpromising footpath, and discovered the half-moon and almost empty hidden beach that has haunted us ever since. My wife swam and sunned, and I pretended to read my copy of Ovid. Up the hillside above us, like ruined pillars, a few giant concrete pilings foretold the arrival of more northern Europeans, with their resort villas, and their bars serving northern European beers. Quite often I find these places a year or two before they're spoiled. As with many of the perfect places we have traveled to, we have not been back.
Eric Hanson has written for Skiing, McSweeney's, Smithsonian, and Minnesota Monthly. His illustrations appear in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Bon Appetit, the Los Angeles Times, and the Atlantic.
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Funeral Boat to Mogmog, by Judith Fein
Yap is out there—8,421 miles (13,550 kilometers) from New York, 6,621 miles(10,550 kilometers) from Los Angeles. A Micronesian ocean speck best known for its gigantic currency—bagel-shaped limestone pieces that are up to 12 feet (3.6 meters) wide. But my appetite for adventure drew me to Mogmog. And that is really out there, 100 miles (161 kilometers) from Yap, 14 hours by a cargo ship named the Micro Spirit that sails, I was told, once a month or so on a schedule communicated by word of mouth. With only five days left on Yap, there was absolutely no buzz about a departure. The Spirit, it seemed, wasn't about to move.
Then, one night, there was an insistent knocking on my door. "There's a funeral," the excited hotel manager announced. "The ship is leaving with the body for the island of Mogmog in two days. You're on it!" When I told some locals of my good fortune, they turned ashen. "Hasn't anyone warned you about the Micro Spirit?" they asked.
Two days later, at dusk, I watched as a coffin was solemnly carried onto the three-tiered boat. I boarded with a rolled-up yoga mat, a sandwich, and two bottles of water. Everyone but me had staked out a place to sleep, most lying on woven mats. The ship, licensed to transport 125 mortals, was dangerously overcrowded.
I'd been told that you never step over a prostrate Micronesian, so my mobility was limited. Eventually I retreated to the lower deck and settled near the coffin. After all, I couldn't offend the dead. All night a group of women encircling the coffin sang as I was drenched by waves crashing over the side of the overloaded ship.
Soaked, I climbed to the top deck where I found myself a wedge of deck space.
"It's wet there," warned a passenger.
"So?" I said. I was already wet.
"Where you put your mat," he explained, "you're next to the only men's bathroom."
It was late, the darkness punctuated by choral snoring. I tiptoed around the top deck and found another spot. As I unwrapped my sandwich, a palm-size cockroach bolted across my legs. I dropped the food. Then I calmed myself, and picked it up again. A roach the size of a regulation softball crawled onto the bread. I screamed.
A gentleman named Brodney offered me a large loincloth, which he deftly twisted into a hammock. He suspended it from two nails, and helped me climb inside. I closed my eyes—five minutes before the rains came.
Fourteen hours after leaving Yap I arrived at Mogmog, where I encountered topless girls in grass skirts and men in loincloths. Only the fourth outside visitor in a year, I was chided for changing my shoes on the steps of the sacred men's house; consumed fresh fish, taro, and stew, and as much coconut water as I could hold; and eventually camped outside the house where the coffin lay amid the ritualized crying of grieving women. As they wailed, they also expressed their feelings about the deceased—not only positive, but also negative, in great detail.
At first I was shocked, and then I understood. During a Mogmog funeral, people are expected to air their feelings publicly, so they do not fester inside. But speaking ill of the deceased outside of this context is taboo. The experience lingered with me for a long time. Maybe we don't need to pretend someone who dies was heroic or angelic in life. Perhaps expressing our true emotions about the departed can be healthy, and a good release. It's worth seeking out customs associated with birth, marriage, and death when we travel. They often give us new ways to live our own lives.
Judith Fein has written for over 75 magazines and newspapers and was a reporter on public radio for six years. She teaches writing, gives travel talks, and makes travel videos.
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Stolen Kisses, by Arthur Golden
Only once have I ever dropped everything to go on a trip, when I was 23 and finishing graduate school in Asian studies. I'd never done such a thing before, and I've certainly never done it since. But I can't imagine the sort of person I might have become if I hadn't traveled that summer. It was a journey that completely remade my life. Three weeks of school remained when a call came from my Chinese-language teacher about a summer program at Peking University. To join it, I would have to leave town the very day after my thesis was due, and I didn't feel certain I could hand it in on time in the first place. Anyway, my girlfriend and I had promised to spend the summer together. I didn't hesitate before declining. But that evening my girlfriend persuaded me I'd been hasty. Such opportunities don't come along often, she argued, and even though I took a while to come around to her point of view, it goes without saying she was right. So three weeks later after a string of sleepless nights, I flew to San Francisco to join the others on our way to Asia—and there in the airline terminal, while being introduced to a few of the other graduate students on the trip, something quite extraordinary happened to me. Just across the way near the counter stood the rest of our group, among them a startlingly pretty woman of 25 or so, in pleasant conversation. Blond hair hung in a braid down to the small of her back. I don't believe in signs, or in love at first sight, or in much of anything else that can't be readily explained by science; but more than 30 years later I still remember with what seems to me an almost perfect clarity the aching sense of desire I felt when I set eyes for the first time on my wife.
Nothing in life is ever simple. On a trip I wouldn't have taken if my girlfriend had not persuaded me, I fell passionately in love with another woman. I had of course meant only to spend the summer in a country I didn't know, instead of which the entire journey became merely the backdrop for a real-life romance story. When I think of the Forbidden City in Beijing, I see Trudy there on its weedy cobblestone plaza beckoning me over, laughing about something another of the students on the trip has just said to her. When I remember the Ming Tombs, I remember too the kiss I snuck from her in the darkness there. Another time when I had a kiss in mind, things didn't go quite as well. I pulled her into a cave-like grotto at the Summer Palace only to discover that in the absence of public toilets the ankle-deep puddle I'd just stepped in, wearing leather sandals, wasn't filled with water at all. She and I still have a good laugh over that one from time to time.
Here's something I never laugh about: how close I came to staying home. I might easily have stuck to my carefully scripted routine, and what a tragedy it would have been for me. I would have missed not only an extraordinary trip overseas, but the love of my life, too.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Arthur Golden earned a degree in art history from Harvard College and a masters in Japanese history from Columbia University. His first novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, was a bestseller.
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Two Quick Tickets To Madrid, by Mel White
Samuel Johnson wrote that nothing concentrates a man's mind like being told he is to be hanged in a fortnight. And nothing concentrates a traveler's mind like opening an envelope and suddenly realizing he's lost 30,000-plus frequent-flier miles because he—that would be me—just plain forgot that they were going to expire the previous week.
Frantic calls to airline. First person says, essentially, "Tough luck." Second person says, "Let me talk to a supervisor," and then returns to say, "We'll let you buy some of them back." Third person is very nice and says, "I tell you what: If you want to book something today, we'll just pretend the miles didn't expire." (A rule of life for everyone, not just travelers: When calling an 800 number at a giant, faceless corporation, if you don't get somebody sympathetic at first, hang up and call back. Repeat as many times as it takes.)
At that point I'd been trying for years to get some travel publisher to send me to Spain, the number one country on my wish list. There'd been a couple of mild expressions of interest, but nothing had happened. So, with the airline staffer's offer, I'm thinking, "The hell with it, I'm going."
Suddenly I'm booking two tickets to Madrid. We're off for ten days in May, wandering through Extremadura and Andalusia, visiting the "white cities" and the Costa del Sol, sampling vino tinto and tapas, for what turned out to be one of the best vacations of my life. Maybe even, in fact, my new favorite country.
After the trip, I'm home three weeks and a travel editor calls to ask if I'd like to do a story on the Costa Brava. And so it goes.
Mel White is a freelance writer who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, and specializes in travel and natural history. He is a long-time contributor to National Geographic magazines and books.
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Taj Mahal Solo, by Ann Hood
My first glimpse of the Taj Mahal is from my hotel window and it makes me swoon. Downstairs, in the ornate hotel lobby, the guide I've hired for the day is waiting. The bellhop drops my one ridiculously small overnight bag, pulls a cord to open the heavy drapes, and there it is, rising postcard perfect in the distance. "The Taj," he says, and I swear he even gives me a little bow.
There it is, what I've gotten four shots (Hep A, Hep B, tetanus, and a polio booster), taken dozens of pills (typhoid and malaria on a dizzying schedule), received one visa, and flown 18 hours to see. A girl could almost turn around and go home. But no. I've come this far. In 24 hours I do have to turn around and go home. So I forego dropping into that king-size bed to get a closer look.
Ridiculously, madly, rashly, I have come all the way to India just to see the Taj Mahal. Sure, people touring India make certain they visit the Taj. It's the country's most visited sight. But I am not doing anything else but this. I have left behind a toddler, a befuddled husband, a classroom full of students, a deadline. As a younger woman, I worked as an international flight attendant and grew accustomed to viewing major landmarks through jet-lagged weary eyes: the Great Pyramid, the Tower of London, the Acropolis, the Colosseum, all of them and more, lovely blurs. What did you do this weekend? Oh, climbed the Eiffel Tower .
But that was 20 years and a lifetime ago. These days I am more likely to spend weeks in Peru or Mexico, corralling kids and luggage. So when a birthday with a Big Zero at the end and cheap tickets to India both come into my mundane life, I don't think: I leave. With years of grown-up behavior, responsibility, reliability, and common sense under my belt, the time has come for me to do something this madcap again. With six days total and responsibility ten time zones away, I find myself in a car with a handsome guide and the Taj Mahal coming into view.
Just as I had hoped, the white marble is dazzling. The symmetry is perfect. Inlaid with semiprecious stones, it looks pinkish at sunrise, milky white in the afternoon, and pale gold in moonlight.
My guide gives me a beguiling smile and says, "It changes like the mood of a woman, yes?" I blush accordingly. Shah Jahan had it built in memory of his wife after she died. He was so bereft, legend tells, that his hair and beard turned snow white.
The Taj Mahal does this to me—it makes me believe in love stories and romance. From every angle, as the light changes, I grow more excited. Inside, it is dark and smells oddly like my junior high gym class, but who wants to be inside anyway when there are benches for gazing all around the monument's perimeter beckoning me?
Tonight I will return to see it under a full moon. Tomorrow, I will be on a plane headed home, to my real life again. But right now, right now, I am standing in front of the Taj Mahal. Around me, women in saffron and fuchsia and lime saris file past; children point to my blond hair and giggle; my guide recites facts, tells me more of the love story that led to the building of this tomb.
My guide tenderly touches my elbow. "I'll leave you for a moment," he says, "to enjoy the beauty of the Taj." And I do. Ah! Yes. I do.
Ann Hood lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she writes for Good Housekeeping, the New York Times, and other periodicals. Her latest novel is The Knitting Circle.
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Montana Healing, by Phil Zabriskie
New York to see my parents, Los Angeles to see my sister. That much I knew. But I wanted to go somewhere else, somewhere in between. I'd been living in Asia for three years and hadn't traveled in the U.S. for quite some time. More immediately, I wanted to be far from where I'd just been, in Iraq, for a disheartening ten-week stretch that began on Thanksgiving of 2003 and lasted well into the New Year. The insurgency was growing stronger, the people angrier. I was as tired as I'd ever been.
Thinking of Iraq—it was hard not to—gave me my answer. While I was there, two cousins of mine, sisters who lived in Montana—Laura in Bozeman, Anne in Kalispell—had e-mailed questions from kids at their children's schools. Despite promising to do so, I hadn't ever summoned the time or energy to respond. So I decided I'd go to Montana on my way west, see Anne and Laura in a state I hadn't visited in a decade, and answer the questions. With luck, I could also unwind a bit, be normal for a while.
In Bozeman, I ate dinner with Laura and her children, listened to son James talk about trying out for the tennis team and daughter Rachel talk about her synchronized swimming triumphs. After driving snow-dusted roads to Kalispell, I went for a frigid kayak ride at dawn on a lake in Glacier National Park with Anne's husband, Chad. Later, Anne brought me to a steakhouse with her friends.
I met with students in both towns, kids of all ages, groups of ten, groups of one hundred or more, kids who listened to every word, kids who didn't. Showing pictures, talking about language, culture, religion, and war, I made sense of it as best I could. They asked about Iraqi schools, Iraqi kids, and American soldiers (many had relatives in the military). Reporters from local papers listened in. A Bozeman woman read one story and tracked me down, leading to a lengthy e-mail exchange about Iraq and her son, who was stationed in Fallujah.
The most memorable moment came on my first night in Kalispell. Anne and her husband had a prior engagement. She told me she'd given money to her beautiful sons, Ruben and Izaak—then six and eight—because they wanted to take me to dinner and wanted to pay for it. Halfway to the restaurant, Ruben stopped, wide eyed, and started checking his pockets. He'd forgotten the money. I said not to worry, but he really wanted to pay. So I suggested going back, getting the money, then driving. He liked that idea, turned, and took off toward the house. I smiled, watching him run through the falling snow, then remembered the traffic—a parent would know this instantly—and sprinted after him. I caught up, we got the money, and he later made great show of paying for dinner. Thoughts of Baghdad were far away, which is exactly why I'd come.
Freelance writer Phil Zabriskie spent much of the past six years covering Asia and the Middle East for Time. He now lives in Delhi.
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Suddenly Slovenia, by Keith Bellows
I had no plans to go to Slovenia. And then I met Rok Kvaternik, who said, simply, "Come to my country and you'll never forget it. The food will astonish you." He should know, considering he published 24 Finest Flavours of Slovenia. "You'll see castles and monasteries and limestone caves and Alpine scenery—and who knows what else." That's when I said yes. When it comes to travel, the potential for surprise closes the deal.
Googling the place, I learned that the country's salt is coveted by high-end eateries from Manhattan to Tokyo, and that "karst"—the word for limestone, derived from a region here—is one of Slovenia's contributions to the world's vocabulary. Formerly part of Yugoslavia, a nation the map no longer acknowledges, Slovenia was once the domain of the Habsburgs and part of the Holy Roman Empire. Independent in 1991, it will assume the presidency of the European Union in 2008. But, of course, surprise rewards the least prepared.
An hour after landing at Brnik Airport, and meeting Rok, we were helicoptering at 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) over this doughnut hole of Europe, which is handily poised between Vienna and Venice. "Slovenia is hardly bigger than an Australian sheep farm, with two million people," said Rok. We swept over a rumpled rug of peaks (and a valley that is in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms), traveling from Slovenia's Alpine borders with Austria and Italy to its sliver of Adriatic coastline. We banked past 9,400-foot (2,865-meter) Mount Triglav, which graces Slovenia's flag; zigzagged along Slovenia's border with Croatia; then clattered home as the sun set off the left side of the copter and the moon rose to the right.
We later toured medieval castles in Bled and Ljubljana, and took a walk through Pleterje, a six-centuries-old Carthusian monastery whose residents still take a vow of silence. We toured Ljubljana's fog-shrouded market and cobblestoned streets. For hours, we explored Postojna cave, an underground limestone labyrinth of eerie silence and chill beauty.
I slept at Alpine retreats, one guarded by a pair of immense Newfoundland dogs, another graced by five ebony Lipizzaner horses, a breed that originated in Slovenia. And from my hotel on Lake Bled, near the retreat of former Yugoslav dictator Marshal Tito, I surveyed the nation's only island.
And, of course, we ate. Mouthwatering salami, struklji (cottage cheese strudel), homemade butter and jams and cheese, fish as I've never had it prepared, and bread that I still dream about. And I endlessly watched the rhapsody of world-class wine work its liquid magic.
On my last night, we had our farewell dinner with a group that included an adventurer bent on circumnavigating the globe via the poles and Slovenia's ex-prime minister, who jammed on the harmonica with a former world accordion champ.
But that was not my most memorable night in Slovenia. No, that would be the evening we spent at Pikol, which Rok assured me was one of the country's finest restaurants. Over wave upon wave of exquisitely prepared dishes, Rok and I talked. During our trip, our conversations had gone from surface chatter to itineraries to world politics. But on this evening, things became deeply personal. Our nationalities didn't matter. Our themes were universal. The relationship of host and visitor slipped away. I recalled my first encounter with Rok, this ebullient man who simply wanted to share his country with me. I didn't know him then, but I think I know him now. Travel engenders intimacy. In five short, spontaneous days I had discovered more than a country. I had made a new friend.
Keith Bellows is editor of National Geographic Traveler.
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Carpathian Kismet, by Shermakaye Bass
I was living in Prague several years ago when a friend walked through the door of my neighborhood post office. Last I'd seen Kieran McCall was months before, when we'd met and traveled together in Java. But somehow, within a half-hour of our reconnoiter, we found ourselves talking about Romania—he remembered I had a jones for the Carpathians—and within several hours we had visas, a destination (Cluj-Napoca, chosen from a map on the consulate wall), and were settled on the overnight to Budapest.
This was in 1996, and Romania was still "awakening" from its Soviet slumber. And though McCall and I knew travels would be tough, we'd expected to find a visitors center in Cluj, or a bookstore, or a map
. But nothing. We slogged through the bleak January morning, circling the city center, arguing, and by mid-afternoon we'd decided to return to Budapest. Right then, I noticed an office with a sign shaped like a house. Perhaps it was a real estate office. We entered, and a large woman sitting at a desk glanced up.
After a few minutes of broken communication, McCall and I finally conveyed our hopes: To find a mountain village in the Carpatii, someplace where we could write and meditate for a few days. The woman simply shrugged, signaling us to leave.
Then I saw it. "Hey, there's a Lions Club plaque hanging there," I commented. "My grandfather was a Lion."
Suddenly, a chair scraped the floor in another room, and a dark-haired man emerged. He exclaimed, in fine English, "Lions Club? You know the Lions Club? I'm a member of the Lions Club. Come in!"
Soon, we were chatting in Ovidiu Marc's toasty office, sipping Turkish coffee. Finally he said, "My father lives in a mountain village not far from here. There are places there like you speak of. I will take you tomorrow."
The next day, Ovidiu drove us to the town, where we found a lovely, though defunct, ski chalet—uninhabited except for the owners. We spent the next three days traipsing the mountainsides, evenings eating lamb stew. It was brilliant. My friend and I had found our hidden getaway; we'd renewed our friendship with walks in the snow, philosophical discussions, late-night card play. What were the chances?
When Ovidiu returned for us, as promised, and drove us to the train station, he underscored the kismet factor in his parting words: "I am not fond of strangers—no Romanian is. The only thing you could have said that day to open my door was what you said: 'Lions Club.'" Then he smiled and drove off.
God love the Lions Club.
Shermakaye Bass is a freelance writer and full-time wanderluster based in Austin, Texas. Her reporting for Traveler has taken her from Tunica, Mississippi, to Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
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Unexpected Mongolia, by Carrie Miller
"Come to Mongolia with me," my friend said. "We're going on a three-week horse trek to the Russian border to visit nomadic reindeer herder encampments. Very few people have traveled in the area—it should be an interesting trip."
A dream trip, but I had every reason not to do it. For once, I followed my head instead of my heart and did the practical thing—I turned him down.
Five days before I needed to be in Ulaanbaatar, I abruptly changed my mind. How could I miss that experience? In the next two days I drowned in sleepless preparation: I begged a month's leave from my new job in a new country; I wheedled a last-minute visa from the Chinese embassy; I threw everything from a swimsuit to thermals in a bag; and I took out a small loan from the bank.
Within a week, I was mounted on a tough bay Mongol pony, wild as the wind and wary as a rabbit. Seven of us set out on a crisp morning, accompanied by an entourage of 24 porters (including a bear hunter, a nameless shaman, and a border-patrol guard whose gun "safety" was a piece of fishing line) and 48 horses. I had no time to overthink or build up expectations—this trip was straight from the gut.
For three weeks we rode under a sky that yawned wide to encompass the vast, open landscape, painted in perpetual autumn colors of rust reds, wheaten golds, and metallic greens. The weather, ever-changing, sunburned our skin, blackened the sky with hail, and snowed on the mountains, etching them out in brilliant relief.
Our nights were spent on the outskirts of herders' encampments, a portable village of approximately ten families and 100 reindeer, all under the leadership of one shaman. In the mornings I awoke to smoke curling from the yurts and red-cheeked, ink-haired children herding their reindeer out to graze. With their light hooves clicking together, the moving herd sounded like a crackling fire as it passed my tent.
I didn't expect this—the delayed sounds of hoofbeats across an open plain free from fences or dwellings. I didn't expect the shy and beautiful children, dressed for us in their very best of pink dresses with faux-leopard ties and bright yellow Wellington boots. I didn't expect the porter mutinies, the horse thieves, the rustic vodka, or the petrified cheese—the latter being the most deadly dangerous of the lot.
Mongolia taught me many things. First, reindeer don't like their antlers touched when they're growing. While riding one, flying along on its long narrow back across the taiga, I had to content myself with burying my fingers in the thick, musky fur at its neck instead of grabbing the velvety handlebars that curved perilously close to my face. Second, sometimes it's better to be unprepared. I arrived in the country too tired and bewildered to judge. I could only experience—and ask questions. Third, follow the heart. Adventure is rarely convenient, and never practical, but it's worth every unexpected and raw moment.
Former Traveler staff member Carrie Miller now lives and writes in New Zealand. She recently picked up a new sport—boxing—and will soon compete in her first amateur match.
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Miami Road Trip, by Kelly Amabile
A wicked winter storm halted life along the mid-Atlantic. We had just returned to college after the holiday break, as a deep freeze set in, locking all of Baltimore beneath a thick sheet of ice.
The standstill was an open invitation for pre-semester parties —cancelled classes meant extra cold beers as students slipped from one dorm fest to the next. After a few days of nonstop revelry, I developed a sudden aversion to Natty Boh beer and an overwhelming desire to be someplace warm, miles from anything frozen—unless maybe a daiquiri.
A friend at the University of Miami said I was welcome to visit, only half convinced I'd actually show up on the overnight Amtrak. But as my roommates sat by listening to me plot a getaway, the impromptu escape quickly transformed into a group adventure. Within hours of my initial call to Miami, four of us piled into a beat-up blue Ford Tempo heading south on I-95.
We cleared the worst road conditions before nightfall and soon embraced the mild midnight warmth of the South. Windows cracked, we chain-smoked Camels and chuckled uncontrollably while rotating in four-hour driving shifts through the Carolinas and Georgia. When I called my Miami pal from a pay phone in Daytona the next morning, he was mildly stunned that we'd actually made the trek.
So were we, but a mighty chunk of the state still lay ahead, before we'd have to turn around and do it all over again in reverse! In our haste and excitement to hit the road, we forgot to reflect on just how long this road trip would take, leaving us hardly any time to actually be in Miami before we'd have to be back in Baltimore for Monday morning classes.
Most of what we did once we reached Miami is a complete blur to me now, but it was still worth every minute of monotonous highway. I recall towering palms, a dorm room wallpapered in Hurricane Orange, and the neon guitar atop the Hard Rock Café where we celebrated our journey to the land of tropical breezes and fruity drinks.
Less than ten hours after arriving, we were on the road again—but not before a brief frolic on the beach that is immortalized in one of my favorite photos ever—four smiling girls in jean shorts and tank tops, toes dancing in the sand along an aquamarine shoreline, as a bronzed blond lifeguard drives by on his beach buggy—an instant reminder of the simple joys and sense of wonder that travel so often invites.
New York-based writer Kelly Amabile recently wrote about geocaching in Portugal for Transitions Abroad and her favorite European indie bookshops for WrittenRoad.com.
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Extremadura Dreaming, by Courtney Brkic
The abandoned convent looked like something from a fairy tale, all crumbling walls and the remnants of graceful, arched windows. I saw the ruins from Trujillo's city walls, where the wind blew fiercely enough to make an almost human sound. In early March the region of Extremadura is a landscape of charcoals, but I remember the pastures beyond the town as a startling, verdant green, the stone of the convent as ivory.
"Extremadura?" my university friends in Madrid had asked incredulously. It is the poorest region in Spain, and landlocked. The dark, moody fields beyond the highways had reminded me of the ones around my father's village in Herzegovina. Later, they were the key to explaining that region, then so much in the news, to Spanish friends.
On an impulse, I left the city walls and struck out toward the ruins. Halfway down a muddy track I met an elderly farmer herding his cows home. Instead of being annoyed with the dreamy foreign girl tramping through his fields, he let me look around the convent. Then, he fed me a sandwich and cautioned me rather sternly about wandering on my own in remote places.
Courtney Brkic is the author of Stillness: and Other Stories and The Stone Fields. She teaches at George Mason University.
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Park City Tomorrow, by Jim Benning
On one of those famous Los Angeles winter days that masquerade as summer, I was home in a T-shirt and shorts watching a preternaturally tan weatherman pointing at little illustrated snow flurries over Utah and Colorado when it struck me: I had to go. I needed to get out of Los Angeles and in on a few days of winter—real winter—immediately.
I did the math and figured I could postpone a couple of deadlines to buy myself a few free days. I'd always wanted to go to Park City. I knew last-minute flights would be too expensive. The road called.
"Leslie," I said to my wife, feeling more than a little unhinged, "how about we drive to Utah tomorrow?"
She looked vaguely ill. "Tomorrow?"
I watched, bemused, as Leslie passed through the four requisite stages of spontaneous travel co-conspiring: refusal ("Are you crazy? We have things to do"); bargaining ("How about next month?"); doubt ("The place is probably all booked up so close to New Year's Eve"); and finally, my personal favorite, gleeful acceptance ("Wheeeeeeeeee!").
We were so excited that night we barely slept. The next day, skis and snowboard securely packed, we were off, heading northbound on Interstate 15.
Every moment of the trip was sweeter than it would have been had we planned it. When we scored the condo with the Jacuzzi tub, we felt all the luckier. When we hit the slopes, the snow felt fluffier, the falls softer, than on other ski trips. Even the Swiss fondue at Adolph's was somehow creamier than it should have been.
But looking back on it, what I remember most fondly isn't the condo, or the snowboarding, or the meals.
It is the way our lack of planning and total ignorance infused the road trip with an intoxicating sense of mystery and adventure. The highway into Utah, which we'd never driven, seemed to unfurl before us. The stark desert landscape in the south, the smoking chimneys and snow flurries farther north, and finally, the winding road into the beautifully icy Wasatch—they all felt like unexpected gifts.
Jim Benning's writing has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Men's Journal, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. He coedits the online travel magazine World Hum.
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A Weekend in London, by Joyce Maynard
Rewind 15 years, to the winter of 1992. I was divorced and living in the town of Keene, New Hampshire, with my three children, who were then 14, 10, and 8 years old, when the one thing in shorter supply in our lives than money was time together. I was lucky that the children got to live with me, but specifically because they did, whenever a vacation rolled round, they were off to their father's house. As a person who also grew up in a small New Hampshire town, I didn't need any convincing concerning the value of taking children out to explore the world, but between school and Little League, and times with their dad, and the need to sometimes stay put and be with their friends, it was hard finding a stretch of time for the kind of leisurely exploration I would have loved to experience with them, while they were still young enough to come with me.
One Sunday, an ad in the travel section of the paper caught my eye. "A weekend in London for $100," it announced. Airfare and hotel included. I had been to London a couple of times, myself, but except for my daughter, who visited her pen pal in France once, my children had never crossed the ocean. As crazy as it seemed, making such a trip for a total of three days, that was three days more than they'd experience otherwise. So I picked up the phone and booked the tickets. Two weeks later—a Thursday afternoon—we were on our way to the airport (clutching my sons' hastily-procured passports, and carry-on luggage only.)
It was still morning in London when we landed, on Friday. I had made it plain to the kids that sleeping would be kept to a minimum on this trip, so they had taken care of that on the plane. We hit the ground running.
Here's some of what we took in on our whirlwind three days in London: The Tower, of course. (Torture devices, swords, and discussions of beheadings being a popular topic for boys around the ages of mine.) Then Covent Garden, for shopping, and an outdoor market where we picked up some funky vintage Carnaby Street-style clothes for my daughter, and a toy store where we studied categories of playthings unfamiliar to my American children: metal soldiers, wonderful dollhouses, paper puppet theaters, leather juggling balls.
In fact, we purchased the juggling balls, which later proved to be something of a problem when Charlie, my ten year old, decided to try them out in the Tube station, and one fell in the pit, and in a moment of sleep-deprived madness, I jumped in to retrieve it. (Getting out before the train reached the station, as you might surmise from the fact that you're reading this.)
We went to Abbey Road, and (like a million other tourists before us) re-created the famous Beatles cover, crossing the street. We visited the Sherlock Holmes Museum. We ate fish and chips and saw British farce, and drank hot chocolate, and rode in a double-decker bus, and fed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, and when the children lagged a little, I reminded them there'd be time for sleeping back on the plane.
We flew home that Sunday night, so they could be back in school Monday morning. Truthfully, I cannot say that any of them could have grasped, from that trip, the finer points of British life and culture. All these years later, in fact—having reached the ages where the adventures they embark on, though not infrequent, tend not to include me—they tell me they barely remember the particulars of that trip.
What my children remember is simply that we took it. That it was possible to do something as nutty as to fly 3,300 miles across an ocean, touch down, take a look around, breathe in the mood of the place just enough to know they'd like to return some day. Long enough to be confirmed in the belief in the crucial importance, in life, of a sense of adventure, and to understand a fact all travelers understand: No matter how long you get to stay in a place, there is always more to discover, which is why you need to keep coming back.
We got all of that for around $750. Money and time well spent, if you ask me.
Joyce Maynard has been a New York Times reporter, magazine journalist, radio commentator, and syndicated columnist. She is the author of five novels and the best-selling memoir At Home in the World.
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Matterhorn in a Moment, by Holly Morris
The Challenge: As an adventure correspondent for hire, I tend to have my passport at the ready, a 'back in a few weeks' auto-response e-mail crafted, and a lack of social commitments more than five days hence. All this keeps loved ones' expectations in check, and me from feeling like a hen strung to a coop, stumbling in circles, clucking for freedom.
But this drop-of-a-hat ethos wasn't quite enough when the phone rang one lazy August day in Seattle.
"G'day there, Holly," said my Australian TV boss from London, "Bradley just pulled out of the Matterhorn shoot. Are you available—in about a week?"
Tackle the Matterhorn? The iconic, frequently lethal hunk of rock that is a siren for real climbers worldwide? Next week? I looked down at my not-so-sculpted thighs, trying to remember my last anaerobic moment. I wondered if I could do push-ups in the aisle of the plane. Guts and Kodak courage could surely trump my lack of experience, I assured myself
"Sure, no problem," I say.
A blur of airports, fondue, and wind sprints later, I am at the Hornli Hut, the launch point for tomorrow's six-hour ascent to the 14,692-foot (4,478-meter) summit of the Matterhorn. I crane my neck and take in the sheer, pointy, unfathomably vertical rock before me. Gulp.
"Tomorrow you will suffer," my grandfatherly Swiss guide says, patting me on the shoulder, "but later you will see the world differently. You will be a proud girl."
Hours 1 & 2: Generalized euphoria. Dancing up rock on endorphins. Gorgeous dawn views.
Hours 3 & 4: Increasing discomfort, exhaustion, regret. Stop noticing views. Curse at crampons.
Hour 5: Not fit for print. !!#!##!$*!
Hour 6: Suffering continues, followed by painful kinetic revelry, of sorts. Begin making pacts with God. Finally, absolution.
The Pay Dirt: Crisp, thin, gratitude-filled air engulfs me at the narrow, 90-yard (82-meter) summit that is adorned by a cross; my ego hisses off into the ether. I see Alps and countries and rugged humbling peaks pour across a distance of snow-covered majesty. Adventure on short notice exacts its price, but the payoff is worth it. I smile at my guide; his eyes are weary, and happy, his gray mustache crusted with ice.
Holly Morris is executive producer and writer/director of the PBS documentary series Adventure Divas. She has written for the New York Times Book Review, Ms., Outside, abcnews.com, and several anthologies.
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Not Your Typical Honeymoon, by Joshua Berman
Paris, Pakistan, India, Cambodia, Zanzibar, Uganda, Gambia, Casablanca! Tossing place-names like playing cards, it was hard to believe we were actually going. But we were, it was done: reception canceled, courthouse contacted, a round-the-world ticket fund begun! My mother-in-law lost cash on the catering deposit, but she and the rest of the family went along with our new plan, hiding any disappointment of being denied our "big day." They would be happy with a small, intimate day, and the ball of our trip was rolling. Logistics fell into place like bricks in an east-pointing road: quit jobs, loans on hold, car to charity, buy moneybelts, study maps, count the days.
On the road, the ball grew, our ten-month itinerary swelling to more than a year. Places we'd never been, together as we stumbled and learned, met people and missed home, together. Volunteering was the kicker, forcing us to go slow and live in villages for months at a time. In each new home, we donated our professional skills (a writer and a nurse) to nonprofit organizations. At our first assignment in West Bengal, we worked with Indian labor activists to conduct a malnutrition survey, interviewing 120 tea plantation families to prove the existence of starvation. In Sri Lanka, we joined a community-building organization as civil war awakened around us.
Between work assignments, our travels were equally eventful. Our pursuit of my wife's family legacy in Pakistan opened unexpected doors, including those to the Hunza royal palace and the "roof of the world." In India, Asia, and Sri Lanka, a Buddhist learning curve carried us silently to sacred shrines and a retreat in Bodh Gaya—the place of Buddha's enlightenment. In West Africa, village chiefs and medicine men, eager to boost our fertility, doled out blessings to our unborn children in the form of slaughtered goats, whispered Muslim prayers, and sacred crocodiles.
These strings of magic moments only appeared between ceaseless, sweat-soaked episodes of travel. Raw, romantic travel. This is what we have now, my wife and I, a deep well of shared, unspoken memories from which to drink and learn—for the rest of our lives, together.
Joshua Berman is a freelance writer, trip leader, and award-winning guidebook author. He blogged about his honeymoon on his website, The Tranquilo Traveler.
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Changes in Attitude, by Robert La Franco
Having finished a brief and delightful trip to Cuba with a friend, I decided on a whim that no visit to the region would be complete without a look at Mexico's famous surf spot, Puerto Escondido. Ignoring the fact that it was on the other side of Mexico and that I didn't have enough money to fly, I hopped on a bus from Cancún to make my unexpected trip to the Pacific. When I staggered off the coach 24 hours later, a scruffy Brit named Steve approached. His pitch was unrefined but well worn, and after a dodgy ride on the back of his moped, I found myself settling into a private room among a nest of Spanish bungalows that circled a small, four-foot (1.2-meter) rock pool.
It was perfect. After a day spent on the beaches in Cancún, I was hungry for a place that didn't feel like it was part of a permanently docked cruise ship flotilla. Puerto Escondido immediately sucked me in. On the first day I met an American girl who was living at Steve's compound while teaching English at a nearby language school. On day two a couple from South Africa came rolling in on the moped followed by two girls from the Netherlands Antilles. There were more beds, but no one filled them, leaving us with a small but cohesive and temporary community of beach bums. By the end of the first day together we settled into a lazy routine that was both meaningless and profound. In the morning we sipped coffee as we soaked up the cool water of the tiny pool. In the afternoon we wandered down to the coved Manzanillo Beach and sipped Corona with the gathered groups of European tourists who were packed into the hostel. As the waves crashed, we nibbled on an endless supply of tuna tacos made fresh by the local merchants operating out of the string of palapas behind us. In the evening we made our way down to Zicatela—the Mexican Pipeline—to watch the sunset surfers brave the world-famous waves and sip margaritas from hammocks before meandering among the cafés and tourist shops lined up and clamoring for business in the city center.
I had planned to spend a day, but that day turned into three, and those three into seven. By day six, the group had begun to splinter, and by day eight I could no longer keep my stunned and hog-tied work ethic from breaking free and forcing me to hop a bus to Mexico City and a flight back home to Los Angeles. It was two years ago, but I have been thinking about it ever since.
Robert La Franco is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Los Angeles. He has also written about his experiences in China, Mongolia, Peru, Argentina, Europe, and North America.
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Once Were Nomads, by Mark Jenkins
It was a warm and windless summer evening when it's a crime to sleep indoors. Teal was nine and I could still hold her hand. We were in the backyard watching the sky wash blue to orange when she said, "Dad, let's camp out," and instead of finding some lame parent excuse, I threw sleeping bags in the back of the jeep.
We drove up watching the stars pop out one by one and it was only half an hour into the mountains but we rode as far away as we could go on this planet. We went back 10,000 years when humans lived outside, out on the veld, unseparated from the world. We parked on the high prairie beneath a pine tree beside a willowy creek and Teal built a small fire behind a great lump of granite. We sat in the dirt before the fire and were nomads once again.
Stars and flames alternately reflected in Teal's eyes. She poked the fire and asked questions I couldn't answer. She burnt marshmallows black and forced me to eat them from her small sticky hands. The coyotes began to sing. It was a primordial call and chorus. Teal smiled and listened as if she understood every word. She said they weren't lonesome—just talking like when she and her sister talk to each other from bed.
When the fire was down to red embers and the cold had chilled our backs Teal insisted on putting up the tent by herself. We crawled in together and she burrowed deep into her sleeping bag while I listened to the wind touch the tent walls. I thought she had fallen asleep when she asked for a Magdalena story. Magdalena was the little girl in my stories. She was brave and kind like all the girls in unwritten stories on all continents going back a thousand generations. This night Magdalena wanted to go camping but no one would go with her so she went alone. She pulled her school books from her day pack and stuffed in her sleeping bag and rode her bike out of town. She knew how to build a fire so she wasn't scared. The coyotes loped in from the darkness to keep her company. They told her an ancient story until she became so sleepy she let her eyes close and began dreaming she was gliding over the plains back in time.
Mark Jenkins is the global correspondent for Rodale Press and the author of Off The Map, To Timbuktu, The Hard Way, and the forthcoming A Man's Life. He lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
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