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Four travel lessons worth every penny

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 7/6/22

In the latest edition of National Geographic, the story of Jessica Nabongo, the first black woman to visit all of the world’s 195 countries and 10 territories triggered memories of the handful …

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Four travel lessons worth every penny


In the latest edition of National Geographic, the story of Jessica Nabongo, the first black woman to visit all of the world’s 195 countries and 10 territories triggered memories of the handful of trips overseas that I’ve taken. Born in Detroit Michigan, Nabongo, a travel agency owner and United Nations consultant, set out to document some of the pressing problems affecting people around the globe— such as interminable waste, and which countries of the world bear the worst effects of environmental degradation and recalcitrant poverty. National Geographic recently published her book entitled “Catch Me If You Can”. She expresses the value of seeing the world beyond one’s own borders but also suggests guidelines for world travelers in this age of climate change.
I took my first trip abroad in 1999. My in-laws invited me to travel with them to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. We would land in Cancun and launch other excursions from the island of Cozumel. Neither spoke Spanish. Knowing that I’d lived in Tucson, Arizona before moving to Minnesota, they welcomed me along, despite my rudimentary understanding of the language — rusty after years of no use. Once they shared their itinerary, I knew this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
Many travelers will tell you that every trip has unexpected twists and turns. Challenges can become part of the adventure. And we certainly had our share!
Our first outing involved a ride on a rickety bus packed with local commuters, headed for the renowned Mayan “ruins” of Chichen Itza. Midway to our destination, while crossing a region of dense jungle, the bus came to a sudden halt. Without any verbal cue, everyone filed off the bus — except us. We were confused, and a little nervous, so we agreed to stay put.
Within minutes, a uniformed police officer got on board and walked straight toward us. In a commanding voice and a foreign language, he pressed us harder and harder for a reason we couldn’t understand. We finally determined he wanted to see our boarding tickets. After a few minutes of frantically searching our pockets and purses, I humbly put up my empty hands and tried to explain that we couldn’t find them. With all of his vested power, obvious by the many insignia pinned on his chest, he glared at us. We knew we were at his mercy.
Just as our fear of being kicked off the bus was about to take over, the driver returned to his seat. He’d overheard what was happening and began speaking to the agent in a respectful but confident tone. The officer kept looking at us then back at the driver until his expression began to soften. Without any gesture to us, he simply turned and left the bus. The other passengers began re-boarding and within minutes we were back on the road. Mildly shocked but relieved that we had not been abandoned, we were overwhelmed with gratitude for the driver who was willing to intervene on our behalf.
Travel lesson #1. Even when terrified, try not to lose your cool. Help may unexpectedly arrive that may save your day.
My next trip took me across the Atlantic to Ireland, the land of my ancestors. In 2004, I discovered an announcement for an affordable ten-day tour and decided once again to grab the ring before it passed me by.
I found the bucolic landscape as green as the words “emerald isle” would lead anyone to believe. Surrounded by the North Atlantic’s gray and restless seas, the air was cool and misty. The Irish people’s pale ruddy complexions and steely blue eyes, were richly reminiscent of my long-deceased grandparents. And their gestures, adages and brogueish speech brought back many warm and funny recollections. I felt so “at home”.
While walking the Aran Islands, a ferry cruise away from the coastal city of Galway, I fantasized a writer’s dream of a lifetime. Secure one of these thatched-roof cottages. Leave my responsibilities of daily life behind. And retreat to this barren place where I could begin my first novel.
I schemed and dreamed about this return to my ancestral homeland for a long time before I finally admitted to its folly.
Lesson #2. Dreaming can be fun and inspiring.… And, faeries do exist!
In 2007, another chance to fly away came my way. Out of the blue, a friend asked me to accompany her on a trip to Vietnam! She was going to see her husband who was living there, doing volunteer work. I could travel on her Delta Airlines “buddy pass”and spend three weeks vacationing with them. Without hesitation, I said, “Yes!”
After three decades of marriage to a Vietnam War veteran, I’d developed a deep connection to this country and knew that visiting would be an extraordinary and important experience. My friend’s spouse, also a war veteran, was there assisting Amerasian Vietnamese who wished to apply for American citizenship. As children of American GI’s, U.S. immigration policy allowed this ethnic minority to apply for full American citizenship. It required completing multiple forms, providing necessary documentation, and understanding how to navigate bureaucratic obstacles. Jon’s clients lacked the resources needed to complete the process. They also lacked the confidence after being subjected to persistent discrimination and poverty. Jon’s job was to offer assistance.
We landed in Ho Chi Minh City, greeted by a group of Jon’s friends. They took our luggage and handed us bouquets of flowers. I will never forget their hospitality that day, and the strong fragrance of flowers mingled with the smell of jet fuel, not to mention the intense heat and humidity of Vietnam at midday!
Together, we toured the southern half of the country, taking in coastal stops along Highway One north to Hue. One destination was Marble Mountain, located on the outskirts of Danang, the place where my husband, John, had been stationed. We toured its caves where life-sized statues of the Buddha had stood for centuries. I recalled some of John’s sparse tales and imagined him and his buddies slipping away from the base to seek some respite in this quiet, sacred space.
As wondrous as these stops were, nothing matched the unexpected outpourings of generosity from the Vietnamese people. I admired their resourceful and industrious nature, their spirit of hope and resilience, and a persistent message they wanted me to carry home.
It went something like this. Despite a long and bloody war, they wished to express sincere gratitude to American soldiers for enabling them to achieve national unity and lasting peace! They wanted me to share their respect for our veterans who served their country well, as ordered. And finally, to assure them that the people of Vietnam hold no malice.
Lesson #3: Peace is possible, and far more important than ideology.
My next opportunity was my “mission trip” to Africa. I’d longed to go to Africa starting at age nineteen when I was invited to travel to Kenya with one of my professors and a small group of students on a summer research tour. Not knowing how I would raise the money needed, I declined — a decision I always regretted. I was sure that an opportunity like that would never come again. But in March of 2016, I found myself boarding a jetliner for Johannesburg, South Africa!
From South Africa, I travelled on to Zambia where I participated in an aid program for children orphaned by unyielding famine, disease, conflict or economic policies. I visited small villages as well as large settlements of mostly homeless migrants forced to flee the rural countryside and cluster on the peripheries of large cities where the resources to meet even their most basic needs were utterly insufficient. The time I spent in service were the heart and soul of my trip to Africa.
The magnificence of the African landscape and its wildlife are indescribable. Not even my camera could capture it. Africa defied all my imaginings! But my deepest and most lasting memories are not of Victoria Falls or Krueger National Park, as awe-inspiring as each of these places are, but memories of the people — singing, laughing and dancing, whether at work or at play. I will never forget the beautiful faces of Zambia’s children and the women who cared for them. And their irrepressible expressions of joy amidst extreme hardship.
Lesson #4. The experience of intimate encounters with simple acts of love and kindness, delivered in joy, will always supersede the thrill of the “must-see” Wonders of the World!
Between the pandemic and a growing awareness of how traveling impacts our fragile planet, I reconsider every time the wanderlust strikes. No doubt, exploring beyond the familiar provides pleasure and valuable insights. But for now, I’m cruising on the memories I’ve already banked, thanks to the amazing folks who helped create them with me. For now, I’ll train my eyes on the wonders around me, applying curiosity and a sense of adventure, here just outside my door.