I was born to travel and destined to meet the world.
My earliest recollections involve watching planes fly over our New Jersey neighborhood as they headed to and from nearby Newark Airport. Though others might not have noticed, I was the one child who would stop playing and immediately drop to the ground. Playtime or not, I needed to watch these steel birds as they crossed the sky above.
Planes were still a novelty during the 1960s and it wasn’t just the elderly who protested that air travel ran contrary to God’s order:
“If man was supposed to fly, he would have been born with wings.”
Wings or no wings, I was born to fly – even though I mostly felt tethered to the house and to the ground. My great grandmother never left the kitchen. My mother used a car when going to school or the local produce store. It didn’t matter that both destinations were a mere block away: to her, they constituted a “trip”.
My relatives weren’t all that unique. There were plenty who believed crossing the bridge into the next town qualified as a field trip. Others thought traveling the Lincoln Tunnel into nearby Manhattan, only 20 minutes away, required a special passport. It was a common mindset.
So, even while many around me preferred the nearby and the familiar, I envisioned myself a pioneer. Don’t get me mixed up with Laura Ingalls and her Little House on the Prairie or imagine me needing to scale Pike’s Peak.
My idea of pioneering was exploring the world through people. I wanted to meet them directly in their cultures, their homes and their local environments.
Kidding aside, I did travel a bit while growing up. My most surprising first encounter with other people was traveling by jeep through the island of St. Thomas. Technically, we hadn’t left the US. But I recall being shocked viewing local islanders dwelling in makeshift houses and lean-tos along the road. Until then, I thought everyone slept in a house or an apartment.
Even back then, the greater world was beckoning me to meet others whose lives weren’t exactly like mine.
My first formal experience abroad was in 1979 as a student living in Madrid, Spain. The semester living away proved a major adjustment – not the least of which involved the thousands of miles that separated me from my future husband.
At the time, Spain was emerging from decades under General Francisco Franco’s rule. I was initially intimidated by the frequent sights of military men armed with machine guns positioned in front of banks, buildings and public squares.
I slowly adapted to a standard of living behind our own. Women didn’t shave their underarms, deodorant wasn’t yet popular and some public bathrooms were equipped with handles for squatting over holes in the ground.
The senorita I was assigned to live with didn’t own a refrigerator. She kept her food chilled on an outdoor ledge and employed a weak water heater only when absolutely necessary.
Each day, Senora would carefully prepare an egg sandwich for my lunch and remind me to return home with the aluminum wrapper. The thrifty widow made ends meet by hosting exchange students like me in her tiny, dark and remote apartment.
I left Senora Portero to find lodging in a lively and safer part of the city. She felt sad and a bit dejected. I felt guilty for denying her the rest of the rent for the semester.
But my guilt turned to delight as I discovered a second Spanish family who welcomed me into their bustling hostel. This family would play surrogate family to me for the rest of the semester and totally change the way I would view my experience.
I quickly grew to love the adorable grandparents, parents and children who opened up their kitchen, family room and lives. With bedroom doors that now opened to outdoor sunshine and views to the Plaza Mayor, I was immediately brightened in spirit.
Mornings were sweet, illuminated by the smiling dad who steamed up aromatic coffee and played cook to me and the other boarding students. Extra servings of eggs, bacon and toast were always offered and encouraged.
I’d also spend time with this family’s happy wife who saved a few dollars each week to take her daughters away for “holiday” in August. Spain was still living in the conservative era: the girls attended nearby Catholic school, came home to iron and do domestic chores, and were always accompanied by chaperones when invited out on dates.
It was during that trip that I received news from America. Arriving home after class one night, my family host announced: “El Duque de America se murio!” Translated, it meant The Duke died.
“What Duke?” I asked my hostess. “We don’t have dukes in America. We don’t use royal distinctions in the US.”
“El Duke John Wayne!” she uttered, still excited.
To the viewers in Spain, Hollywood legend John Wayne was a familiar – and iconic – character from the US. They eagerly watched him in western films and he would be sorely missed.
It’s been many years and many countries since my first adventure abroad. During the interim, many other personal encounters have added to the fabric of my life. They’ve also contributed to my understanding and appreciation of others.
During a trip to Cuba, I learned how sharing something as simple as cookies with the locals would prove an experience. Excessive food rationing, coupled with decades of living among fellow apartment dwellers who doubled as undercover police, made the most basic social gestures trying. After opening a few plastic boxes to reveal something sweet inside, then carefully distributing cookies out equally among all, I succeeded in my quest.
While in Cuba, I would learn that all citizens needed in-country passports to travel from place to place. Many who dared to question the communist government were denied food rations, fired from their job, or both. Friends and family would reduce their own monthly rations to quietly feed these dissidents.
I found the Cuban people to be dignified, well educated and refined, despite their severe shortages in food, clothing and supplies. One unforgettable moment occurred as I watched one desperate soul head out from Havana’s harbor atop a single inner tube. He brought a mop handle to serve as his oar. I wondered how long he would last at sea without water, food and proper protection.
A few years later I received a surprise envelope in the mail, postmarked Cuba. A photo was enclosed containing a smiling couple holding hands. I didn’t recognize either of them until I spotted a familiar item. It was my original wedding band, a narrow gold circle punctuated by a few tiny diamonds. The ring served as the focal point of this picture.
The band was something I’d bought for myself just before my husband and I married. I didn’t have any particular emotional attachment to the piece and felt led to leave it behind with this soon-to-be-married couple.
The letter and photo was a thank you note. While I’d long forgotten the gesture and the ring, these two young people had not forgotten me.
How does one express connections that go beyond words? I’ve fondly recall memories of sitting down with little children on a remote island in Uganda. They had never seen a white person and curiously rubbed my hands, believing the white would wear off to reveal a skin tone resembling their own. When I pulled out a photo of my little daughter, they became even more animated, chatting away about this marvel who appeared to be their age.
A chance meeting years ago would begin a lengthy friendship with the Mandic family in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The Balkan War was over but the country’s infrastructure was yet to mend. My husband and I arrived by ferry and were greeted by Nina, a woman who ran to the ferry port nearly out of breath. She was seeking guests to stay at their family home.
“We have a very clean room not far from here,” she offered in decent sounding English.
“Do you have a hair dryer?” I inquired. (Hair dryers were my standard back then. No hair dryer, no Maura.)
“Hair dryer? Yes!” she responded. That fact, plus an agreement for breakfast as part of the deal, and my husband was ready to set us up for a few days of lodging.
We arrived at the apartment of this multi-generational family to learn that Nina and her husband would be sleeping on the couch. Apparently, the two would regularly surrender their bedroom to tourists arriving by boat.
Nina’s mother-in-law LaTinka greeted us with cups of her finest and strongest Turkish coffee. The 6-year-old granddaughter made herself right at home atop my lap.
In the following days, we would learn that Grandpa was a former pilot who now spent most of his time playing afternoon cards with friends. Daughter-in-law Nina was a former instructor for the Soviet Army who spoke four languages, one of them English.
The collapse of the Soviet Union signaled the end of their careers and their livelihoods. More than that, this was a family comprised of warring elements within the Balkan War. Like so many in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere, religious, cultural and even tribal differences arising from political heads had created devastating loss to family, friendships and familiar forms of living.
We’ve stayed in touch with the Mandics over the years as they’ve continued to rebuild their lives. The family has prospered and Nina’s husband has added on numerous guest rooms and apartments to their original structure. We’ve lodged with the Mandics on a few more occasions, shared some meals and learned more about each others’ lives while sitting together on the family’s outdoor patio.
Travel has enriched my life – perhaps more personally than geographically. I’ve lost count of all the places I’ve been, but my memories are captured by moments when I’ve connected with others.
I always wanted to meet the world. This summer, I’ll be wandering through a few new countries. While I’m there, hope to meet a few new friends.
Whether they’re far or near, a block away or around the globe, I hope you meet those people who are destined to enrich your life, too!