“A journey is like a marriage. The sure way to be wrong is to think you control it¨.”
My Favorite Travel Stories
Everyone has a repertoire of travel stories they like to tell friends after a couple of glasses of wine. I would love to hear some of my fellow Fifty-Plus Nomads’ favorite travel stories.
Some of the standard travel stories that I have repeated so often that some friends know them by heart include the following:
Language Learning Stories
- I can communicate in and understand two languages in the same conversation. At various times in my life, I could hold reasonably intelligent discussions in French, Spanish, Italian, and Russian. I have not had many chances to speak Russian for years. Thus, if I need to speak Russian, all the words come out at least for a couple of hours in French or Spanish (Both of which I use frequently). I have had opportunities to talk to Russian language speakers who also speak Italian, French, and Spanish. We played a little game where they talked to me in Russian, and I responded in their respective other languages. To our mutual surprise, we could hold long and reasonably fluent conversations.
- I can also easily watch a film in other Spanish with French subtitles or French with Spanish subtitles. (Strangely, I find this as easy as watching a movie in Spanish or French with subtitles in their respective languages. Oddly, it is not that difficult for me to watch with subtitles in Spanish than ones with subtitles in English. I can also watch films in Russian with Spanish or French subtitles).
- I have always been heavy-set. When I was in Japan as an exchange student in 1979, people would look at me and say, ¨You are fat¨. I found this insulting at first. But then I read that being fat to the Japanese traditionally meant being wealthy and healthy. One day while reading Berlitz’s English-Japanese phrasebook, I came across ninshin shite imasu, which means I am pregnant. ¨I am pregnant¨ is one of the few Japanese phrases I remember. I would use this expression in response to the comments about my weight. Everyone laughed so hard when I tried it out that I decided to keep using it.
- While living with a host family in Oaxaca, Mexico, for three weeks, I became a devoted fan of the telenovela Amor en Custodia. (A telenovela is a Spanish-language soap opera, mostly made in Mexico). My host family watched the telenovela, and I decided it would be an excellent Spanish exercise to watch with them. I asked the family to tell me the plot synopsis, and after they did, I watched the show every day for my entire stay (and even sometimes afterward). One day, the family had to go somewhere, and they came back while I watched the show. As they entered, I said something to the TV set like, ¨Victoria, why did you do that.? You are such a slut¨. In response to one of the plot twists. The whole family laughed and gave me a gentle ribbing for days afterward.
- While in the same family, I watched ER and NCIS with Spanish subtitles. Since I had seen many episodes before, I decided to use them to improve my Spanish justice and medical-related vocabulary. Every time I saw a word I did not know, I would write down the word. I knew the only way to learn a word was through repetition (preferably with some context). I decided to try to use these words in conversations with the family. After a couple of days, the family said, ¨Paul, you seem like a good guy, but it is a bit weird that you talk so much about hospitals and police¨. I explained the reason, and they would begin the dinner-time conversation daily by asking me for my latest medical or judicial conversation.¨
- I have eaten and enjoyed a lot of unusual dishes, including:
- Chapulines (grasshoppers) in Mexico (a bit too chewy for my taste but a decent replacement for peanuts in a bar).
- Salo in Russia. Sala is salted or highly fermented, aged pork (sometimes smoked), usually eaten with butter on brown bread. It is also often accompanied by vodka. (I love this dish, but most Americans I know find it too fatty for their taste).
- Balut in the Philippines is a developing bird embryo boiled and eaten from the shell. In my experience, most people suck embryonic juice, and some eat the fetus. (The juice tastes to me like a good bouillon. I have never eaten the embryo).
- As a kid, I would encourage my parents to let me try any restaurant featuring unfamiliar cuisine. Thankfully, my parents were usually game. If not, they would let me know why they did not want to stop, and I would accept their explanations. (I figured out younger than most kids that my parents were more inclined to indulge me if I was pleasant). As a result, I was quite a foodie by an early age. I loved clams, turtle and abalone meat, escargot (snails), frog legs, duck, brain, foie gras, cow cheeks, eel, sturgeon, and blood sausages. (Some of which I would not eat today because it is illegal or expensive). Besides liver, I have never eaten a dish I did not like. I particularly enjoy finding cities or countries, like Peru, Spanish Basque province, and Denmark, where the food is unexpectedly good. I also enjoy dining in venues ranging from street-side kiosks to five-star restaurants.
- I lived with my parents for around three to four months a year for five years. Whenever I return from a trip, someone asks me ¨How was your trip¨? My response is always like: ¨It was much more interesting, pleasant, safer (or some other positive adjective) than I expected¨. At first, my father always asked me what I thought of the trip. However, after a while, he got so used to this response that instead, he asked me: ¨ How was the trip better than you thought? ¨ Looking back, it reveals something interesting about me. I do see people and places with rose-colored glasses. I always look for and find something exciting and fresh about every place I visit.
Other Travel-Related Stories
- When I was in Israel in 1984, the inflation was so high that stores had to close every day for two hours to change the prices, and travel agents had lines around the block. At the time, people could buy fully refundable tickets in US dollars and cash them in for US dollars when needed.
- The Kindness of Strangers: During New Year in 1989, my parents and I went to Rome, Italy, as part of an inexpensive independent package tour. One day, we took a taxi back to our hotel. A few minutes after my mom got out of the cab, she realized that her purse had slipped off her shoulder and that her purse was still somewhere in the cab. Panicking, my mother reported her missing purse to our hotel’s concierge because the purse contained all of our travel documents, tickets, and money (I recommend you put these things in different places). He shrugged and said casually, “You never know; your purse might show up.” After about ten minutes, the taxi cab driver returned to our hotel with my mother’s purse in tow. Ecstatic, my mother reached inside her pocketbook and prepared a tip for the driver for returning the purse. I noticed she was about to give the driver around a hundred dollars in lira. I asked my mom, “Why are you giving him so much?” My mom replied, “He saved our vacation.” I shut up because I realized my mom was right. He saved us countless hours and a lot of money and deserved compensation for helping us so much. When my mom gave the driver a tip, he said, “That’s too much.” My mom answered, “It’s OK.” The driver quickly reached out and gave my mom a big sloppy kiss before departing.
Travel Stories: A Little Knowledge Sometimes Pays Off in Unexpected Ways
Sometimes knowledge pays off in surprising ways, including:
- My Geography degree allowed me to get a master’s degree in Public Administration for next to nothing. On one of the first days of my master’s degree Program, I met a young woman who had a degree in Geography from Guyana. She told me that the school had just started a new Geography Department and needed Teaching Assistants. She informed me that I would receive free tuition and a generous monthly stipend as a teaching assistant. I called, and the department told me to come to visit them and have an interview. I dressed in a suit, prepared my resume, and practiced for my interview. When I got to the interview, the professors looked at my resume and said: ¨Oh, you have a bachelor’s degree from Macalester College. That is a good college. When can you start working? It ¨The most uncomplicated interview I have ever had.
- I know where Timbuktu is and why it was a prominent place. In US English, we say someone is going to Timbuktu to indicate a distant, out-of-the-way location. Almost no one knows anything about Timbuktu. In my first year in college, I saw this extra credit question on a test in my Human Geography class: Where is Timbuktu, and why is it important? I was the first student who knew the answer. The answer: Timbuktu is in Mali. It was one of the most important cities in the gold trade in the 13th century. The gold trade made the King of Mali (from Timbuktu) Mansu Musa so rich that he paid for the construction of hundreds of mosques in cities from Timbuktu to Mecca.