Back when I did my 20 minutes of writing for 20 days, I offered one edition of “Five Lists of Five.” I realized then that I liked making lists, that I “think” in lists, and that lists provide a neat way to summarize life events.
So here are four lists of four things, travel edition. The only thing that unites them is that they all concern stuff I like or that happened to me outside my home country.
Four Side Trips I Took for Fun While Working Abroad
I rarely had time to take trips to visit exciting things while I was working around the world. Thus, I missed the Taj Mahal, Timbuktu, and Angkor Wat when setting aside a single day at the end of a trip would have allowed me to see them. The truth was, after weeks away, I was usually in a hurry to get home. But, here are four times and places where I took advantage of being close to something cool.
- Visiting a lemur preserve while in Madagascar. This short trip to an island off the east coast of that country would never have happened had not my colleague Ann insisted. I am glad she did. Lemurs are native to Madagascar, and seeing such a variety in one place in their natural habitat was a real treat.
- “Trekking” the 30 miles cross country from the edge of the Anapurna range back to Kathmandu. Another thing I would not have done had it been for my friend Lisa who suggested we take the bus up to the edge of the range, spend the night and walk back. It was a spectacular evening followed by a long hike downhill on a kind of mountain spine through small villages back to the city edge.
- Visiting Robben Island, off the coast of Capetown, visiting Mandela’s cell and Robert Sobukwe’s solitary confinement house and hearing of the torture prisoners underwent, from a former prisoner. I was teaching in Stellenbosch, and this trip came just before I left the country. I had never heard of Sobukwe before visiting the island, but the story of how he nearly lost his mind due to strict enforcement of solitary–no one ever spoke to him for years.
- Visiting the slave “castle” of El Mina in Ghana. I visited Ghana over a dozen times in the 80s, 90s, and Naughts but visited this historical site on my final trip. To see where slavery originated and learn how prisoners were held, rekindled an interest in better understanding the history and impacts of slavery in the US.
Four Terrifying or Troubling Experiences from the Road
When you travel as much as I did at once, you are bound to experience and see lots of challenging and scary things. This list could easily be ten or more.
- One hundred kilometers east of Mazar Esh Sharif.I was in Afghanistan to train community health workers in participatory methods, and we were driving up a dry riverbed to a remote village when two young men with machine guns stopped us. Though our vehicle had a “no guns” sticker in the window, they pointed them at us and demanded a ride. They were young–maybe 17 or so. One sat next to me and promptly fell asleep, and his gun, between his legs, slid out of his sleeping hands and stopped pointing directly at my face.
- The road between Islamabad and Peshawar. Sick with flu, I was the last person to enter a micro-bus for the 2-hour (as I recall) trip to Peshawar. The seat left to me was in the very rear on the right (they drive on the left in Pakistan). The road then was two lanes wide, and our driver passed recklessly pulling back in at the last minute as all manner of vehicles approached from the other direction horns blaring. Each time I stared dead-on into the eyes of a driver of the other vehicle whose brazen laughter EACH time is seared into my brain.
- A mosque in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp. When I was a young person, the massacre in these camps changed my view of the Middle East forever. And then, there I was, standing in a mosque with a man who described the entire thing for an hour without stopping. At the end, he pointed to the floor of the mosque and said, “we dug into the floor and buried the bodies here. They are still here, below us. We pray upstairs now. I was in the pit, and they handed the bodies to me. One of the dead bodies was a huge man, and when we got him into the pit, his arm twitched somehow involuntarily. Everyone fled, and I was left in the pit by myself for almost a day. Going through something like that will change you forever.” Indeed.
- A remote village in south-central Mauritania (east of Kankossa). We sat around a large mat, drinking tea and telling stories in the Mauritanian way. It was full dark, no stars, and I casually put my hand behind me to change positions. Scorpion. One of the most painful experiences of my life. My hand swelled slightly, but the numbness began to spread up my arm, even as the pain translated into my elbow and shoulder. Hours later, the numbness was to my neck, and I thought about death. Too far from anything to do anything. A nurse on the trip with us checked me hourly, and I prayed. By morning the pain was still intense, but the numbness had receded.
Four Meals I Had the Pleasure of Eating
It may be trite to say that the best part of leaving home is learning of new food, but discovering all the fantastic ways that people take simple ingredients to create stunning dishes is truly a benefit of the many lonely days on the road. I ate none of these in fancy restaurants and most of them without utensils.
- Thieboudienne (Senegal and Mauritania–coastal). This was not just one meal but meals–meals that I ate as often as I could during long workdays in Nouakchott. Local women sold this fish dish by the side of the road, and I preferred the rice scraped from the bottom of the pot and plenty of habanero-like peppers that made me sweat. “Bien roffee” as we used to say: the spices stuffed into the fish were the best part.
- Breakfast thali in Hyderabad and environs. This is another meal that was an ongoing treat every morning while I was training on Hyderabad’s outskirts. With rice as the base of various staple preparations, the chutneys, dahls, and spices made for discovery each day. The first time I ate this kind of food, I thought I had never known what food was before that moment.
- Gumbo fish sauce in Accra, Ghana. Although I could have put “Red Red” for my Ghana favorite, the spicey fish sauce made with okra and eaten with “pate” made of fermented corn was the messiest, tastiest, hottest dish I had the pleasure of eating.
- Steak-frite, table wine, and tomato and cucumber salad at Chartier, Paris. Basic French food served in a turn of the 19th Century bistro, where you sit tightly packed with strangers, waiters are stereotypically grouchy old French guys, and orders scribbled on paper tablecloths may not sound like a great experience. But you would be wrong. The food’s simplicity cannot be confused with its taste, and one consumes the ambiance as much as the endless baskets of fresh bread.
My Four Favorite Metro Stations in Paris.
Huh? Favorite metro stations? Yes! Living in Paris after growing up in a tiny town without a single form of public transportation was a discovery.
I just loved riding the metro (talk to my wife about this; she does not get it either).
- Gare de l’est. More than a metro stop (served by several lines), the various stations were grubby, smelly, and crowded. But they all led to the promise of long train trips to Europe’s heart, including the Orient Express, which left the gare every day. Leaving the metro station at the Gare de l’est meant an adventure was in the offing.
- Trocadero. Always a clean and bright spot that delivered you almost instantaneously to the “Place” of the same name and the Tour Eiffel. What is not to love?
- Saint Michel. Not unlike Trocadero, St Michel brought you to the depth of old Paris, just across the river from Notre Dame and the labyrinth of the Quartier Latin. So many choices from there!
- Jardin Luxembourg. Only one line, the regional rail line, serves this quiet but large reserve in the middle of the city. Bring Le Monde, find a chair, put your feet up and read. Bring your wine, baguette, and cheese and make an afternoon of it.