“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you did not do than by the ones you did do.”
My Three Favorite Travel Stories
During my sixteen years of traveling and living around the world, I have had some fantastic experiences. However, the three below stand out as my favorites.
I hope you enjoy them. Let me know your favorite travel stories in the comments below.
Taakasan Omiyage (Many Gifts)
Like most men, I (Paul Heller, Founder of Fifty-Plus Nomad) only cry at sappy movies or following the death of a relative or a friend. Only once have I cried at something different than a film or death. It was a warm summer day when I was fourteen years old, on a plane bound for my home in August 1979, and I sobbed uncontrollably for two hours because I did not want to go home.
I wanted to stay in Yaizu, Japan, a small town halfway between Tokyo and Nagoya, where I had spent the previous two months as an exchange student.
Going to Japan was the first time I had ever left the country for a long and life-changing experience. In Yaizu, I always met new friends, learned about an unusual way of life, and received generous gifts and attention. I did not feel fat, clumsy, stupid, or bored. Instead, I felt alive and treasured.
I did not want to go home and:
- Be picked on by mean-spirited students who reveled in making me feel stupid, ungainly, and fat.
- Struggle to understand algebra and chemistry.
- Return to the routine of my home life.
I was the first American most of the Japanese in Yaizu had ever met. Little kids stopped to feel my skin and hair when I walked down the street. On the third day there, I accompanied my host brother, Hideshi, to his high school. As I walked down the hallway, the students gawked at me. Every day for the next three weeks, the students would bring me little gifts like antique silver coins.
Even though I was younger than most students, I led them in English conversation classes. The English teachers sought my advice on grammar and conversation questions. I loved telling the students about the USA and learning about their families and lives even though they were painfully shy.
At the end of my stay, the teachers:
- Gave me a yukata (a male kimono) and a gold embossed certificate of appreciation.
- Feted me with copious amounts of sake and platters filled with artfully arranged sashimi and teriyaki at a four-hour luncheon held in a large tatami (a woven grass floor covering) clad private room perched above Yaizu’s busy fishing harbor.
After the school session finished, I followed my host mother, Yukiko, on her daily chores for the rest of my stay. Yukiko taught piano to students of all ages. Her students and friends took me on city tours, invited me to visit their clubs, and entertained me with elaborate, sake-drenched dinners. When I arrived at her students’ or colleagues’ homes, they would set out intricately arranged plates of sumiko, a square-shaped watermelon that cost about $25 a pound.
One day, I looked around Satchiko’s, one of my host mother’s friends, home. I innocently admired a handmade doll with a small, reversible face draped in an intricate paper kimono. She gave me the doll. After refusing, I accepted the gift and casually noted that the doll’s face was blank.
My host mother took the doll from her hands and turned the front around to be blank. Sachiko then painstakingly attempted to draw a face on the doll and smeared ink all over the face in the process. I left with the gift, embarrassed yet touched by Satchiko’s kindness.
After about two weeks, Yukiko came to me and said that Sachiko had dropped off another gift for me–a beautiful pair of kimono-clad samurai dolls.
When I left Japan, I grappled with two luggage carts overloaded by three heavy boxes and two bulging suitcases. The Japanese host families gathered in the gallery above the departure area pointed at me and muttered taakasan omiyage (many gifts). My excessive baggage was a point of pride for these families – a subtle indication of their fellow citizens’ hospitality.
Never in my life have I felt so special as my stay in Yaizu. It is no wonder that I cried. Whenever I think about my time in Japan, I see living symbols of humanity’s innate goodness. I feel so blessed to have felt the loving embrace of the people of Yaizu when I needed it most.
My Journey Into Czarist Russia
Gatchina Palace, Gatchina, Russia
While studying Russian in Saint Petersburg in 1994, Rachel, a fellow student, invited me to visit a friend in Gatchina. Gatchina, a small suburb about 30 minutes outside the city, is known for its modest Czarist-era summer palace. Since I had nothing else to do, I decided to accompany Rachel. (Note: Rachel was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. She was a trained nurse from Australia who could fluently speak all six major Aboriginal dialects. Her ability to learn Russian fast was tremendous).
When we arrived in Gatchina, we rushed into a room in the palace’s basement covered with copious Russian hors d’oeuvres and vodka.
After enjoying lunch, a palace tour guide showed us the museum and castle. About an hour into the tour, the palace closed, but we stayed and spent several hours in the palace alone.
We waltzed in an elegant Czarist ballroom to music played on an old cassette player. Then we visited hidden nooks in the basement filled with tiny gold artifacts from the palace hidden from public viewing. As we began to leave, the couple invited us back to their home to enjoy even more food and vodka. Then, we caught the late train back to Saint Petersburg.
Many tourists would have spent hundreds of dollars for the chance to see a palace after hours. It only cost me fifty cents for the train tickets and a couple of dollars for wine. Yet, the experience was priceless. What started as a simple visit to a new friend was one of my life’s most magical days.
Christmas in Cairo
Camel Ride at Giza, Felucca Ride, and Christmas Eve Dinner
In the 44 years, I was fortunate to have both living parents; I only spent one Christmas without them. Ironically, while I have many beautiful memories of Christmas past with my parents and relatives, the most magical Christmas I ever spent was the one I spent without my parents and relatives in Cairo, Egypt, in 1984.
At the time, I was a 19-year-old Junior in a study abroad program at the American University of Cairo (AUC).
I began that magical Christmas Eve day on a day tour of the oldest stone complex in the world at Saqqara.
My friend, Richard, studying Arabic at AUC, invited me to celebrate Christmas eve night with him and a fellow student named Martha. As I recall, we began the evening with a one-hour camel ride at sunset amid the Pyramids at Giza and the nearby village. I remember being awestruck by the beauty of the sunset against the pyramid and by the sight of a modest adobe-like home decorated with a mural describing the occupant’s pilgrimage to Mecca.
Then, we went on a felucca ride (a local boat) across the Nile to the Le Meridien hotel, where we had a beautiful French meal with a couple of bottles of good French wine while looking at the Cairo City lights sparkling on the Nile river.
As this happened 38 years ago, the details of the day faded, but the memory of the sunset’s beauty, the company of Richard and Martha, and the joy of good French food and wine linger to this day.