Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Thoughts on life and travel

It seems like I’m doing it all bass ackwards.  In your twenties, one should be galavanting around, backpacking overseas and doing the single number  Then the script says, you settle down to job and marriage.  Ain’t the way it went for me.  I married young, did the career bit and then in my mid seventies started the single life.  

It was the mid forties, the vets were returning from WW 2 (remember that one? No, you don’t, you’re too young!) and as a college sophomore, I fell in love and married a returning Navy vet who also played jazz piano.  Ah, it was romance for the girl from Pierre, South Dakota  At the time, there were a number of married students attending the University: scrounging at any kind of job  to augment the GI Bill, living in veterans housing, drinking home brew - poor as church mice but optomistically looking forward to the Good Life.  

I had planned to be a Great Foreign Correspondent and travel!  That did not happen. I did finish college; in fact, I did some graduate classes.  I worked as a prison mail censor for a year, county welfare worker for several years and then, thirty-five years as a county probation officer in the Bay area.  

It was a good life.  It was a good marriage.  We did lots of good stuff - attended all sorts of concerts, saw various dance companies, bought books and records  - and traveled some. In the beginning, North America but then branched out to  the UK and  Europe; North Africa and Asia.  We celebrated his eightieth birthday in Tibet and Nepal.  We went mostly independently though we did use local travel agents’ services.

Three years ago I became a widow.  A terrible word that, widow.  Let me change it: I became  single.  For the first time in fifty-four years, I had no one else to consider, except the ever faithful cat.  Over a year ago, I sold the mobile home  and moved into a triplex, closer to town and transportation and the bookstore  and the library;  important things, at least  in my  life.  And  I  focused on the most important thing for me: travel  Since, I’ve been overseas some four times a year, now having wandered about in   sixty-plus  countries.  .

To back track a bit:  my niece had done a fair amount of traveling , maybe twenty years ago,  joining a French dig in Syria for several summers as well as the touring through Europe and parts of Asia.  She had told me of a booking company, Adventure Center, in nearby Emeryville which she had used on several tours.  

I decided I did not want to travel solo to many of the areas on my to-do list, but  I also knew I would not find a fit with most of the standard tours.  I contacted Adventure Center who sent me brochures about six or more British and Australian companies who specialized in small, eco-conscious budget tours to out of the way places.  Just my cuppa tea.  In fact, I had run into some of their groups at hotels my husband and I had  used  in Egypt and Spain, so I knew I was on the right track.  

Though here have been  three independent excursions to Bilbao, Sarajevo and London, I mostly book through Adventure Center, going with three  British firms and two Australian ones.  It’s worked.  The cost is reasonable; the groups top out at eighteen, my fellow travelers have been experienced and there has been plenty of time for me to do my own thing.  It has been the best of both group and  independent travel.  I’ve taken a dozen trips in the past three years, working my way around the world, slowly with intermittent stops home to reassure the cat of my continued interest in her well being.  

When I started out, my great passion was  China. I’ve now moved onto   the Middle East, Africa and the Himalayas.  In May I took my third trip into India which  moved on to Pakistan, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan - the old Silk Road, southern route.  Much of this is the area of The Great Game of years past, involving the British, Chinese and Russians with the added fillip of  local triball feuds.  This was my fourth effort to get into Pakistan.   Three previous tours canceled: not enough signed on or security problems.  I was apprehensive of signing on, via internet, for a solo trip, sight unseen and equally leery of just going and improvising.   

And why, at this time of my life, am I traveling. almost compulsively  to the out corners of the world?  I am living the dream of my youth but doing it at a time  I can really appreciate it.  I am a rather curious person (and take that any way you want!), curious about people and cultures - which is why I wanted to gointo journalism , why I was a good  probation officer, why I survived in the minority community where I worked for twenty plus years.  I  want to  understand the  motivations of those unlike me  So life  is  this exciting and enriching learning experience.  

I continue to explore .  To see on television and/or  to read about  places I’ve been is a thrill.  And I almost always want to return.  The UK, China and India are the three areas I’ve visited more than once but there are so many others where I feel I’ve only skimmed  the top layer and need to dig for a bit more.  Then there are so many more where I haven’t been  at all.  I’m off to Southern Africa this October  and then Yemen  for Christmas (I like spending Christian holidays in Muslin countries - one year in Sarajevo, last year in Turkey and this one in Yeman!!).  In 2008 I have a March two week trip to Afghanistan  and a May two week symposium celebrating Ian Fleming’s/James Bond’s 100th. meeting in England.    Not sure about the rest of the year; will have to see what comes up: maybe Mali? Kashmir?  Libya for sure if I can get a visa.

Interestingly, given the role of the US in the world today, I’ve experienced no animosity, excepting an angry Brit.  It was the day after the reelection of GWBush with the London papers headlining his win.     I must have clearly reeked American as I walked through the lobby of London’s  Regent Palace Hotel for this rather respectable gentleman turned about and    bashed me with his folded newspaper, loudly asking: “Do you Americans realize what you’ve done to the World?”.

I did better in Syria:  In Palmyra, a delightful storekeeper, once he found out I was American, asked: “why does George Bush think I’m a terrorist?”  This lead to tea and nearly an hour’s discussion on American-Syrian relations.  His fellow shopkeeper down the street, only wanted to marry me off  for I should not be a single lady, according to his beliefs.  In Damascus, I bought bananas and oranges daily at a small store up the street from my hotel.  Usually, an older man waited on me.  His English was on a pare with my Arabic - and my French was limited to ballet French: I can count to six.  My last day, I found a younger man at the store who spoke some English and was curious where I was from.  Once that was established, he said very quietly and flatly:  “George W. Bush?”  I smiled and responded with a two thumbs down  gesture.  He gave me a big grin  and refused to let me pay for my purchase.  

Throughout, I found a distinction was made between people and governments.  This has certainly  been true  in all of the Muslim countries I’ve visited,     including Pakistan and Iran.  In Shiraz, our foursome - two Brits, an Indian-Brit and me - were seated near a large family gathering.  The patriarch of  family was giving a party at our hotel restaurant to honor his return from Haj, the pilgrimage from Mecca.   A middle aged man at the table next to me asked where I was f rom;  he  turned out to have a MEE from the University of Washington.  Soon, the entire family  including the patriarch, arrived at our table to chat and practice their English.  This friendliness contrasted with the large “Down With The US” sign painted over a replica of the stars and stripes on a downtown Teheran building wall.  

Life when not traveling?  I live in a two bedroom triplex, furnished with old and new.  Some stuff I’ve had since early years and some collected on recent trips.  Seventeen bookcases got pared down to a dozen in this last move.  Despite good intentions, - I live several blocks from the library -  I continue to buy books.  

I read a lot.   It is  authors such as Peter Hopkirk, John Masters, Charles Glass, Michael Asher, Jan Morris, James Barr, William Dalrymple, Colin Thubron and Rory Stewart that  have inspired me.  I also revel in   adventure novels - Frederick Forsythe is one of  my favorite writers - and detective  stories - Ian Rankin is the best -  and   biographies, particularly of those crazy Brit ex-pats that explored  the deserts and mountains of the world. Too often I have several books going at once. I continue to collect  writing by and about TE Lawrence, who, along with Richard Burton (not the actor), is one of the most fascinating  characters in history.  

The other  interests are in theatre, dance, and music (classical to jazz).  In fact, I keep in shape with dance classes, Pilates workouts and hiking. And untilthis last year, I was in London yearly for my cultural  fix.  But the UK has gotten way too expensive for Americans.  I can take two trips to far off corners of the globe for what one London excursion will cost. So it looks  like the UK  for a specific event, eg: TE Lawrence display at the Imperial War Museum,   or a short stay as I pass through to another destination.

But more than a month at home and I have itchy feet; I’m ready to move out.  Which is now!  



vrashus said...

You are one interesting woman ... I hope you will write more.

Anonymous said...

Yes, keep writing, you have such a great tale to tell.