Thirty years. Just typing those words makes me realize that the work of writing about travel (that’s how long I’ve been doing it) is possibly the best work I could have ever stumbled into. And now, as I prepare to retire for good, I realize how many truly amazing experiences I’ve had.
I’ve ridden a llama in Argentina, a dogsled north of the Arctic Circle, a kayak in Costa Rica. I’ve spent time with turtles, listened to frogs from my hotel room, seen whales jump through the waves—and I’ve been paid to do it all! I mean seriously, what could be a better job?
Of course, it has been work, and I don’t want people to forget that. I remember the time I was at a “community table” in a Jackson Hole restaurant, and a fellow diner asked me why I was taking notes. I told him what I do for a living, and his response was “Wow, that’s like the easiest job in the world!” I just smiled, though I was thinking, “Ummm, did you notice that everyone else is just enjoying their meal and only one person is taking notes?” Still, it’s been the best job in the world (literally), and I wouldn’t have exchanged it for anything. As I’ve often said, “My friends have retirement plans and 401k’s, but I’ve been to Tahiti three times!”
So what are some of my most memorable moments? There are so many, some funny, some touching, some just awe-inspiringly gorgeous.
There was the time I was riding the bus on the island of Capri, from Capri Town to the little town of Anacapri up above. The driver rounded a bend a little too quickly, the side of the bus brushed up against a huge rosebush, and suddenly, through the open windows, as a collective gasp arose from the riders, the entire bus was showered with rose petals. All I could think was, “Sometimes life really IS a bed of roses!”
There was also the time I was doing a story, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prizes, about what went into creating the banquet for the Prizes. I was interviewing several chefs, and as I waited for the next one to appear, suddenly I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror on the wall, and I was like, “Oh. My. God. You’re in the kitchens of the Nobel Prizes!” It was one of those “is this not the greatest job ever?” kinds of moments.
Another of those occurred in Venice, where I’d been to write a story about the artists who create the beautiful carnival masks. A year later, I was back with my parents, and I wanted them to meet my friend Sergio, who runs the wonderful La Bottega dei Mascareri, just off the Rialto Bridge. So we’re walking along, we approach the shop, and…there’s my story in the window! I can’t even describe to you the feeling that came over me when I saw the look on my parents’ faces. That one moment made this entire line of work, which trust me, has been exhausting and not always as easy as you (or someone in a Jackson Hole eatery) might imagine, worthwhile.
Then there are the hilarious moments, like the time I was in a restaurant in Tokyo when a woman (undoubtedly having overheard me speaking English with my friend Kim) approached, and said in the world’s most pronounced Southern accent: “Excuse me, honey, have you got the time?” (Actually it came out more like “tahm.”) I looked at my watch and told her. She got a horrified look on her face and proceeded to et me straight: “Oh NO, honey,” she remonstrated, “Ah mean BIRMINGHAM TAHM!” Kim’s mouth dropped open. Mine soon followed. I can’t even think about the ramifications of being halfway around the world and so unable to adjust that you not only keep your watch set on your home “tahm”, but expect everyone else, by some kind of magic, to do the same!
I’ve always tried to adjust as best I can to the place I’m visiting, including learning a few words of the language (as well as, um, the time zones). Usually this works out great, though sometimes it backfires. I remember being in Rome when I was just learning Italian, and I visited Ai Monasteri, a lovely shop filled with skin care products made by monks.
With the help of the saleswoman, I was sniffing the various essential oils. Well, I sailed through rosa (rose), gelsomino (jasmine), and a veritable Italian bouquet, but when I asked to smell the “lavanderia” she got a funny look on her face. Seeing my puzzlement, she finally broke out laughing and explained to me that I might have meant “lavanda,” or lavender, rather than “lavanderia,” which means laundry. I’m sure I turned every shade of red, but you know, every time I visited that store, she greeted me as “Signor Lavanderia”!
Sometimes, no matter how much you immerse yourself in local culture, it just doesn’t work out as you expected. There was that time I was taking the train with my friend Lucy from Vienna to Venice, an overnight ride that left us feeling more than a little adventurous. So we pulled into this little town called Klagenfurt, out in the middle of nowheresville in Austria, feeling like the intrepid explorers we were and imagining that we were the only Americans ever to set foot in Klagenfurt. Such pioneers, such trailblazers!
Our little fantasy was soon destroyed as we heard two voices (we didn’t even see the people attached to them) declaring “Well, I don’t know” (summon up a Southern accent ten times stronger than Ms. Birmingham Tahm) “The tickets say we’re in number 55 (`fifty-fahv’) and 56 (`fiftysee-ux’)!” Maybe this was a “you had to be there” kind of situation, but suddenly we found ourselves literally rolling on the floor laughing. I mean, we had JUST congratulated ourselves on being possibly the only Americans to ever come through these parts, when the misses fifty-fahv and fifty-see-ux arrived to puncture that little fantasy in true style. To this day, we’ll laugh if we see a street address or store receipt or pretty much anything with a 55 or 56 attached to it. If those ladies only knew how immortal they’ve become!
I’ve ridden a llama in Argentina, a dogsled north of the Arctic Circle, a kayak in Costa Rica. I’ve spent time with turtles, listened to frogs from my hotel room, seen whales jump through the waves—and I’ve been paid to do it all!
So many good memories, so many amazing experiences, far more than fifty-fahv or fifty-see-ux of them! (See, you can do it with anything!) Thirty years later, I can still remember my first “official” trip. I’d done some writing on Switzerland, and the amazing Rachel Rohner, then with the Swiss Tourist Board, called to invite me on a trip she was leading with several journalists, on the occasion of the Lucerne bridge’s re-dedication. “Sounds great,” I said, “but what does it cost?” When she finished laughing, she said, simply, “Oh honey, you don’t have to pay!” Well, who could turn that down? So I arrive in Switzerland with our little journalistic group, we’re in this like seventy-five star hotel right on the shores of Lake Lucerne, and, get this, when I enter my room there are presents laid out all over the bed! Who wouldn’t be in seventh heaven?
Well, that lasted about till the time I got back to the lobby just in time to hear one of the other journalists griping, “Damn, Sweden gives better presents!” Oh, please God, I thought, let me never become like that! I’m happy to report (though some of my hosts or editors might disagree) that I haven’t.
I like to think I’ve been one of the mellower visitors, able to take pretty much everything in stride. Like the time I stayed at the Ice Hotel in the north of Sweden, and the local tourist board had arranged that dogsled ride I mentioned. Since I was a journalist, the leader of the dogsled outfit wanted me to not just ride but experience driving the sled for myself. So there I am, standing on some runner kind of thing behind a team of dogs as we make our way across this frozen lake in the middle of the most amazing wintry scenery imaginable. It’s all going great, until… my dogs, sensing a newbie at the reins, decide to go on strike, plopping themselves down on the ice and refusing to move. I look around: snow and ice as far as the eye can see.
Did I panic? Did I scream at the group leader who had come from his own sled to try and get the dogs to move along? Nope. I looked around me at the overwhelming beauty and thought, well there are worse places to end it all. Suddenly, the absurdity of the whole situation washed over me and there I was in the middle of this frozen lake, laughing my head off. Soon the leader was laughing too, and I swear to God the minute the panic left and the laughing started, the dogs ended their sit-down strike and off we went into the winter wonderland. I’m pretty sure the dogs were laughing too as they pulled me along.
In many ways, this work has been a series of moments like this, that I can hardly even believe happened to me. On the Puerto Rican island of Culebra, I joined the scientists from the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (and several other tourists) for the Turtle Watch, a scientific expedition to watch for these giant turtles that swim down there from the north, lay their eggs, and promptly swim hundreds or thousands of miles back home to begin the process again. (Unlike a Capri bus ride, that is NOT a bed of roses for those poor turtles, and it’s the females that do all the work, of course!)
We gathered at the center of Brava Beach as our supervisor explained the drill: Every hour two people set out to opposite ends of the beach, quietly, to not frighten the nervous turtles. If either spots tracks, they signal with a flashlight. If not, we return to “center camp” in an hour and a new pair sets out.
Well, wouldn’t you know, I’m the one that spotted the tracks. My reward? I got to count the eggs. I approached the turtle, who had dug her spot and had gone into a kind of laying trance. I lay on my stomach in the sand. One scientist gently lifted her flap. Another held a flashlight. Eggs plopped out. One, two…thirty-four…fifty…ninety-six eggs later, I breathed a sigh of relief (I’m sure the turtle did too). I snuck away silently and, awake again, she immediately waddled back to the water to begin the long swim north.
Only later, after a much-needed shower and nap, did I truly marvel at what I’d just seen. How many people, after all, have jobs that lead them to lie behind the rear end of a 1000-pound turtle as she squats in a crater along an isolated beach on a Caribbean island no bigger than a speck? This, I mused, was my “office.” My workstation was the world, my colleagues all of nature. Pension plans, I decided then and there, are way overrated!
In the end, though, all the dogs and turtles and mountains and shorelines don’t begin to hold a candle to the incredible people I’ve met. That’s the major pleasure this job has provided me, the thing that’s made this job so great. Perhaps that’s true of any job, but it really hits home when I walk down the streets of Venice and hear “Ciao, Rich!”
When I have drinks in my friend Christina’s apartment in Stockholm, when I celebrate Diwali with my friend Rennie and his family in Trinidad, when my Austrian friend Sigrid tells me she’s coming to San Francisco, and do I want to meet up? It’s a wonderful feeling to have friends like this all over the world. To have travel writing friends I encounter again and again (I’m looking at you, Claudia, Pat, David, Barb). To interact with people I owe such gratitude to (I know, it’s sounding like an Academy Awards speech), such as PASSPORT’s Editorial director, Robert Adams, who for twenty years has put up with my missed deadlines, last-minute updates, and wacky story ideas. I hope it’s been worth it for him!
As it all comes to a close, this final story as well as my career, I want to share the very most memorable story of my thirty years. As you’ll see, it’s, not surprisingly, all about the people. I was in the Lofoten Islands of Norway at the height of summer: midnight sun time. With my usual bad planning, I’d arranged no way to get from our side of the island to the part of the island where you could see the midnight sun phenomenon. I was asking at the front desk if there was any possibility of getting to the west side, when a gentleman in the lobby overheard the conversation and said, “Our group has chartered a bus, would you like to come with us?”
I looked around the lobby, and I was the only one there under eighty or so. I hesitated for about one second before saying, “Sounds great, let me get my coat and my camera and I’ll be right down!”
So the next thing I knew, I was on a bus with fifty Christian senior citizens from the south of Norway! I’ve honestly never been treated so well in my life. Thorvald, the group leader, introduced me to the others: “We want you to be welcome, and feel the warmth from your Norwegian friends. You,” he concluded to much clapping, “are at home with us.”
At our destination, a stunning cliffside overlooking the ocean, a woman named Aase told me of her time as an au pair in New York, where I lived at the time. Her husband showed me where the wild cloudberries grew. We gathered in a circle on the cliffside to sing “Norlandsnetter,” or Nordland Nights: “Ta nordlandsnetter i favn, om du kan” (Embrace the Nordland nights, if you can). Then we watched the sun descend, our reason for being there.
You know how the sun sinks slowly down until it finally slips below the horizon of the sea? Well, as we watched, it sank slowly, sank slowly, sank slowly, and…just when it was about to slip under the sea, guess what happened. It changed its mind and started rising again! It was breathtaking to see this sun that never actually set, but not nearly as breathtaking as the amazing kindness this group of people showed me, the way they embraced me like the Nordland Nights of the song.
On the bus home, they asked me to sing an American song for them (I chose “America the Beautiful”) and from the thunderous ovation at the end of it, you’d have thought I actually had a good voice! They responded with a Norwegian song: “I’m glad to see you,” they warbled in Norwegian, Thorvald’s wife Anna Lise translating, “God’s peace I’ll give you…” Let’s just say that back at the hotel, the now-bright light seeping around the edge of my curtains, the last thought I had before drifting off into an immensely deep and satisfying sleep was, “Sometimes I really do love my work.”
So yes, it’s been a wild ride, but one filled with kindness, joy, and one eye-opening experience after another. Thank you for joining me on it. Now, I’m going to give away my blank notebooks to the nearest school and try to remember what it’s like to travel without one in my hand. I think it will be fun, don’t you?