Life of Travel

My first rush of travel adrenaline hit me on the St. Louis airport tarmac in an airplane headed to Indiana.  My mother had sent me at age 14 to visit my father for spring break.  She had told me how exciting it was to feel the press of one’s body into the seat when an airplane accelerated and leapt from the ground into the great unknown, and she was right.

Before boarding the plane, I had passed through a cluster of orange-robed Hare Krishnas who provided a book that eventually set me on a 15-year course of vegetarianism. Their exuberance was captivating to a young girl, and “A Higher Taste” was just the right length book for my trip.  I boarded the plane in Missouri loving burgers and stepped off with a certainty that I’d never touch one again.

The following year, Mom and I packed our things and moved to London for a semester abroad.  She wanted me to see what life was like in other places and to look back at my own country through a foreign lens.  Although our address was in a swanky neighborhood, we shared a house with 25 college kids stacked two to a room. On weekends, we traveled to museums and theaters in London or to nearby countries.  We celebrated Halloween in Paris, walked quietly through Anne Frank’s secret home in Amsterdam and wandered flower-covered hills in Aviemore, Scotland.

On a trip to visit a friend of my mother’s in Marseille, France, I met her younger brother, who was only a few years older than I.  As we strolled around a double-decker carousel in the city made famous by Alexandre Dumas’ “Count of Monte Cristo,” it became clear that Raoul and I were relating as if language wasn’t a barrier for us.  We were tight friends by the end of the weekend despite not having a single common word.

Another excursion took us across the English Channel on a tour that had been arranged for a group of young businessmen but had a few extra seats available.  Mom and I were the last two people on the coach, and I plopped down next to a lanky music lover named Lee with whom I quickly struck up a camaraderie. On the ferry to Belgium I stood at the bow of the boat awash in sea spray and laughed with him and his friends.  In the weeks after the trip, Lee brought local color to our lives.  One evening, he brought a car to Hyde Park and taught me to drive from the “wrong” side of the car on the “wrong” side of the road. Another time he took me to an ice-skating rink where I quickly learned that the major difference between ice- and roller-skating is that ice makes for a wet bottom on anyone who sits and laughs after falling.

Our friendship didn’t end there. After Mom and I returned to the United States and moved to California, Lee showed up on our doorstep with his brother and friends as they toured this country.  And when I went to work in Greece for a college summer, I stopped through London on my way to and from Athens to meet up with Lee for a curry.  He continued to introduce me to his friends, and some have become as close as family.

Two years ago, Mom and I returned to England to visit with those friends at their North Sea cottage for Easter.  From the couple’s children I learned that the Easter Bunny delivers oversized chocolate eggs to English children in lieu of the bunnies to which I am accustomed.  And from me they learned to dye eggs – something they had never done. I had brought a dye kit from home and was initially worried that we could only find brown eggs at the market.  Fortunately, the dark eggs yielded rich jewel tones when dyed. And they tasted just as delicious after I taught the kids how to bash the eggs in contest on Easter morning and then make them into a wicked new creation that made everyone howl in delight – deviled eggs.

My summer in Greece included the expected pilgrimage to the Acropolis and a surprise appreciation for the best tomatoes on Earth, but it was richer and more interesting because of the people I met there.  I worked for a concert promoter in Athens and went around the city and country touting the upcoming performances of music icons Nikos Karvelas and Anna Vissi.  In between tour dates, my local co-workers became my friends and tour guides.  They coaxed me to join them topless on a Greek beach – something the locals don’t consider risqué – and taught me how to speak basic Greek phrases and read words written in capital letters – the only alphabet I was able to master.

After a late night on the town in Athens, my new friend, Marina, insisted that we go to an underground club for after-hours celebrating.  I was surprised when we actually went underground and found ourselves in the basement of an office building where Greek folk music was played on traditional instruments.  Marina and I joined the other women in the room to dance on paper-covered dining tables while our dark-haired companions bought pie tins filled with carnation heads whose petals they broke apart and tossed over us in appreciation.

More recently, I took a trip to the Cook Islands to celebrate a landmark birthday.  I went as a travel writer and was joined by four other writers and a tourism representative whom I met on the airplane to the South Pacific.  Two days after we all met, we flew to the tiny island of Aitutaki, where we snorkeled in a cerulean lagoon with turtles, fish and coral.  We lunched on grilled bananas, fresh papaya and seared ahi, and we got to know each other’s life stories.  That night, we sat on the balcony of my beachside bungalow listening to classics like Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” telling tall tales, and watching a tropical rain fall.  When the shower moved offshore and the moon began to rise behind us, we noticed a gentle white arc appear over the ocean.  It was a moonbow – something none of us had ever experienced before. We all agreed that the best way to savor the moment was to wade into the warm sea toward it, laughing and sharing the chance event.

I still feel my mom’s identifiable rush of adrenaline when an airplane roars down the runway and pushes me into my seat as it takes me off to new adventures, but when I look back I realize that the most special memories I have had aren’t tied into where I was, but with whom. It is people who have added color and texture to who I am and what I do. Leaving home does shed the baggage of daily life for a brief period, but I always return with exotic new bags in tow.  These are in the form of the new relationships I’ve created with the people I’ve met. It doesn’t matter if I’m learning a different diet in St. Louis, being blessed by a medicine man in Rarotonga or laughing with friends on my front porch, at the end of the day, it’s the people who make life colorful, interesting, challenging, different and memorable.  I don’t need to grab my passport and head out of town to find the best that world travel has to offer, I just need to phone a friend.