I’ve been thinking these past few months about what I was doing 20 years ago. Following my college graduation, I traveled for six months in Asia and Europe on my own, and saw wonders and learned things that I would never have seen or learned otherwise.
I had dutifully ordered my life according to expectations: going to school, getting good grades, staying out of trouble, going to college. But as my college graduation approached, I became increasingly disillusioned with the well-traveled road I was on. I was sick to death of school and could not bring myself to face an entry-level job right after graduation. Fortunately, I had saved my allowance from the time I was a second-grader, and had a nice little nest egg. I had always wanted to travel, and decided that this would be the perfect time. My parents, though, were apprehensive (and just a smidge disapproving) of my plans and, from February on, began asking me what my plans were post-graduation. I told them that I was going to travel, but they clearly hoped I would change my mind, because they kept asking. And asking. And asking.
My mind was made up, however, and while my college classmates were planning their weddings, buying cars, going to law school, and taking entry-level jobs at Dewey Cheetham & Howe, I was buying a backpack, a round-the-world air ticket, a Eurail pass, and a passport. I was a little nervous about setting out on my own, especially since I had only been to Canada and Mexico, each time as one of a group. But with a little Valium (thanks, Dad!) and a healthy dose of faith in humankind, I took the plunge.
My itinerary included four stops in Asia (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Nepal), and then on to Europe, where I visited Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, and then spent the latter half of my time abroad in England. I visited friends, or friends of friends, when I had any on my route, but most of the time I was on my own and made friends along the way.
It would be impossible for me to relate everything that happened to me—my journals and letters are extensive during this period—but some of my experiences were memorable enough that they’re worth sharing.
In Taiwan, my friend and I did our shopping in the outdoor market in Taichung (the city where she was living that summer). Live fish were flipping on wet tables, whole ducks lay in rows, their limp heads hanging off the edge, fruits and vegetables were covered in flies, and I don’t even want to imagine what that brownish gelatinous mass was (similarly covered in flies). As I walked past the stalls, surrounded by the summer heat and elevator music, I begged my friend not to buy anything. She insisted this was the freshest, cheapest food available, but I had a hard time letting go of my image of brightly-lit, air-conditioned American grocery stores as the only place to buy food. She had purchased the Fu Pei Mei Cookbook (written by mainland China’s Julia Child) and was eager to try out some of the recipes. Suffice it to say, we did our shopping at the market and despite my doubts, I rolled up my sleeves and pitched in in the kitchen that night and the several following, where my friend and her housemate created some of the most delectable dishes I’d ever tasted. (And far and away the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten.) The lesson here: Food does not have to be beautiful to taste good.
Outside Hong Kong I visited a Buddhist temple (the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery), and after I’d wandered around, taking in the many groupings of Buddha statues, large and small, a group of Buddhist monks began chanting a service. The sound was wonderful—like nothing I’d ever heard before. I decided that next time I went traveling, I would make a point of taking along not just a camera, but also a tape recorder, to capture the sounds as well as the sights.
Most people are fascinating, and everyone has stories to tell about their lives—especially fellow travelers. I had been with friends, touring, cooking, teaching English, and eating with my friends’ friends up until the time I flew to Bangkok. This stop, I was on my own. But looking back, I was never on my own for very long. I made friends in Bangkok, with whom I went out shopping, eating, to watch Thai dancing, and seeing the sights. When I went north to trek through the Golden Triangle, I was with friends I’d met in Bangkok, and along the way. When I went south to Koh Phi Phi, I met up with friends as well. And every time I returned to the guest house in Bangkok, I returned with a new friend. Traveling seems to wake people up, open their eyes and ears, and predisposes them to meeting other people. I was never without someone to talk to or take in the sights with.
In Nepal, I planned a trip for a few days to Pokhara, at the foot of the Annapurna Mountains. The morning I was due to leave, I went for breakfast to a restaurant across from the bus stop. Backpackers were required to leave their packs outside the restaurant (to make it possible for the wait staff and patrons to walk between the tables), so I set mine down next to several others lined up outside, and went in to eat. When I finished and went out to claim my backpack, it was gone. Once I absorbed that my things were gone, I realized there was nothing for it but to get on the bus for Pokhara anyway, and deal with my loss later. (I still had my glasses, passport, money, airline ticket, and Eurail pass in a pouch around my neck.) In Pokhara I purchased some clothing, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a towel and shampoo, all of which fit into a plastic bag. For the next week or so, those were my worldly possessions and do you know, it wasn’t half bad. Yes, I’d lost my camera, my gifts, my clothing, my digital watch (that I’d had since I was 12) toiletries, and other stuff. But it was just stuff. In the end, against any odds I could have imagined, the backpack (sans camera and watch) found its way from the Himalayan trek it had been taken on by accident to the American Embassy, where a Peace Corps volunteer returning to the US a few months later checked it with her baggage, and it was returned to my parents’ house in my absence. This was one of many instances were the advice to travelers to halve the clothes and double the money gained relevance.
Copenhagen was one of the loveliest cities I’d ever seen: beautiful buildings, canals, Tivoli Gardens, cobblestone streets, well-mannered people, impeccably dressed old ladies and, after being surrounded by palm trees for months, I got my first glimpse of barberry bushes—so like home. I knew the Jews owe a debt of gratitude to the Danes for ferrying them to Sweden to escape the Nazis, and indeed, their moral compass still seemed intact: To this day, I’ve never seen people stand so patiently at a “Don’t Walk” sign with no vehicles in sight. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was playing Beethoven’s Third Symphony (the “Eroica”) at Tivoli while I was there. I was enthralled throughout the performance, and stood and applauded with everyone else at the end. When the orchestra resumed their seats for the encore, they played a piece I’d never heard before, with a distinctly European sound and a bouncy tempo. From the delight of the audience, I realized it must be a piece by a Danish composer. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra knew what its patrons had come to hear, but they also knew what they’d be delighted to hear—an excellent lesson in hakarat hatov (showing gratitude).
After four years of studying German in college, I was delighted at last to have the opportunity to speak it. Germany was filled with too many wonders for me to list—visiting Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn, the Cologne Cathedral (and the museum of Roman ruins underneath it), seeing friends in Konstanz am Bodensee—but at the same time, it was the autumn, and large groups of schoolchildren seemed to be traveling the same routes tourists had taken during the summer, filling up youth hostels and causing the off-season youth tourists to be cast out to look for other accommodation. I and my meager possessions had been turned away from the youth hostel in Konstanz one morning and with my small budget, it occurred to me that I may have to find a sheltered place outside somewhere to spend the night. I had a newfound sympathy for the homeless, and it was only by sheer accident that I met up with a friend (whose address had disappeared along with my backpack back in Nepal) in the local department store later that day, and went home with her to stay. This time, as so many others, I learned not to despair, and that I would eventually find what I needed if I waited for it. Good things often happened at unexpected times and in unexpected places.
In Vienna, there were more things to see and do than I could have done in a month. A city packed with beautiful architecture, unrivaled bakeries, cultural activities galore, and out-of-this-world shopping, I nonetheless managed to have a miserable few days there. The youth hostels were full, the inexpensive hotels in my Let’s Go book were filled, and the only place I could find to stay was a seedy hotel with dodgy staff and clientele, a common shower with a clogged drain, and a bed where half the springs were broken. (I discovered that there are worse things than cockroaches, which I sometimes had in my quiet, private rooms in Nepal.) It was the worst night of my life, and I spent all the next morning finding a more suitable place to stay. Oy Vienna—everywhere I went, people were rude, gave me wrong directions (usually sending me in the opposite direction from where I needed to go), and were appallingly behaved (I’ll never forget the sight of two women crouched behind a tombstone in the Jewish section of the Central Cemetery, peeing). The only two people I met whom I really liked at the hostel where I ended up staying were…German. I realized that sometimes it is actually possible to go for days without meeting a friendly face. (I look forward someday to returning to Vienna and having a better experience.)
I was in England for the last three months of my journey, during most of which I worked in a pub in Cambridge, roomed in a house on Chesterton Road, and sang once a week in the Trinity College Choir (where the graduate student conducting the Verdi Requiem said he didn’t mind having a townie in the choir in the least). The bar staff at the pub was international: an American, a Pole, a Brazilian, a Nigerian, a South African, two Irishmen, a Scot, and the usual assortment of Englishmen and -women. The Brazilian and I had the closest friendship, not only because we were women (and not English), but because there was something about being from the New World that set us apart from the others. I loved buying fruits and vegetables in the outdoor market in Cambridge, passing the colleges and the Round Church, and shopping at the Spoils Kitchen Reject Shop. But my favorite thing, which I only discovered shortly before I left to return to the US, was the Fitzwilliam Museum. I knew it was there, but I only had one evening and one morning off per week at the pub, so shortly before Christmas I made the time to go. It was a treasure trove of art and history, but the thing that struck me most about it was that unlike American museums, it didn’t cost a fortune to get in: it was free. (Donations accepted, of course.) This, and the other free museums in Britain made me understand the importance of nations preserving their culture and making it available to everyone, free of charge. Whether Britain has the politicized and controversial equivalent of the American National Endowment for the Arts, I don’t know, but the message sent by all the fights and cuts to the NEA’s budget is that American culture is for the elite, not for everyone. I couldn’t disagree more.
Returning to the US after six months away was a shock. I wasn’t in college anymore, and I wasn’t traveling; I had to get down to the business of living. But that year, and the ones that followed it, I vowed to do whatever I could to make my life as much like vacation as I could. I would travel whenever possible, spend more time outdoors, explore where I lived (the state of Oregon, at the time), and always think of how the people I met in the wonderful places on my trip lived. I would never take a working toilet for granted again, I would learn to cook so I could make some of the wonderful foods I’d eaten, and I would always remember that you don’t need more than you can carry.
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