By Ruth Cohen
It was an early morning, misty sunrise at the 15th century Taj Mahal in India, and we were perched on Princess Di’s bench, with the gleaming ivory white marble monument-to-love mirrored back into the reflecting pools of water. Breathtaking!
Even more exciting was a wet-landing from a rubber Zodiac boat in Antarctica, the austere, quiet, and ice-covered continent. Our boots crunched in the snow as we followed hundreds of charming (but stinky) black and white-suited penguins. As world travelers, Hal and I (Ruth) have marveled at many such sites.
After retirement, our first overseas trip was in 2000 to Thailand where we rode elephants, visited an ancient Buddhist temple (Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn), and were bitten by the international travel bug. In the 17 years since, we’ve traveled to some 50+ nations of the world, stepping foot on all 7 continents, including Russia and India.
Hal is the travel planner and guide; I handle the financial details, do the packing and serve as navigator. We’ve traveled almost every way possible: small 100-passenger river boats to large 3,000-passenger cruise ships, guided land tours, and independent travel utilizing rented vehicles and/or local, public transportation. The train, bus, and subway system in most countries is fast and inexpensive. Russian subways are Stalin’s art masterpieces; Japan’s monumental transportation systems moves thousands of passengers each day. The challenge is knowing when/where to get on and where to get off!
Hal’s favorite trip was an 89-day, independent adventure through Western Europe in a leased Peugeot automobile (he drove on either side of the street, depending on the country!) In the days before GPS and Smartphones, I was the navigator. Reading a map in French or Portuguese was indeed a challenge. I learned enough of the necessary words to secure lodging; when in doubt, I found sign language, pictures, and a smile goes a long way. We have often been helped by the kindness of locals. They see my bewildered face, obviously lost, and come to my rescue. Americans also are blessed and spoiled to find that English, by virtue of movies, television, and now Internet, is almost a universal language.
My favorite trip was probably the 37-day Holland America Cruise – beginning in Auckland, New Zealand and included ports in Australia, a dozen South Sea Islands, Hawaii, and culminated in Seattle. Visiting the many small islands made famous by authors Robert Lewis Stevenson (Treasure Island) and James Michener (Tales of the South Pacific which was adapted for the musical South Pacific), and multiple monuments in memory of famous WWII battles brought ancient and recent history alive.
We most recently visited Japan and South Korea. Just a few words in Japanese, such as Konnichiwa (hello), Ohaiyou Gozaimasu (good morning), and Sayonara (good bye) were ever so helpful in communicating with locals. Even though our pronunciation was not perfect, native speakers were always impressed with our feeble efforts (especially when delivered with a smile.)
Japan is a busy, and to westerners, a crowded country. Many of our generation, of course, still remember Pearl Harbor and WWII. Our visit included tours of the Peace museums and monuments at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where we examined in historical detail the decision by the Japanese government to admit defeat and end the war.
The Glover House and museum in Nagasaki (a World Cultural Heritage site), was the setting for the tragic Puccini opera, Madame Butterfly – it was fascinating to see life-sized statues of both Madame Butterfly and US Naval Officer Pinkerton come to life in their original setting.
While in Busan Metropolitan City, South Korea, (previously named Pusan) at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery, I found the name of my first cousin, DeRoy Kammerer, who lost his life in the Korean Conflict. He is one of 2,300 United Nations causalities interned here. Hal also located the names of two of his fellow Marines who gave up their lives in this war. (The US calls it a ‘Conflict’, Korea uses the term ‘War’.) In light of the current situation with North Korea, it was a sobering experience.
As travelers, we are fortunate to experience, first hand, some of the wonders of the world. I especially love UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is difficult to describe the feeling of seeing the 500+ year old, nearly 8,000 feet high, Machu Picchu Inca citadel at sunset, or being within arm’s reach of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and her smile, or gazing up at the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling (until ones neck gets kinked), or while on the back of a camel, glimpsing for the first time the great Egyptian pyramid of Giza looming in the distance.
Natural and recent or ancient historical sites are often beyond belief such as a misty tour of one of the oldest European Neolithic stone burial mounds in Ireland, a live reenactment of some brutal history of the Colosseum in Rome, walking on and peering over the sides of the Great Wall of China, and almost hearing the echo of marching boots of Russian soldiers while wandering through Red Square in Moscow.
Another of my personal favorites was our recent African safari, sitting in a hot, dusty jeep where elephants were up-close and in our face. Who knew they were so big? During an evening river boat cruise, we chuckled at the water aerobics performed for our amusement by baby hippopotamuses. Hal battled a mischievous monkey who stole a candy bar, right out of his hand. (Fortunately the monkey was so skilled, he snagged the candy bar, but missed Hal’s fingers.)
Traveling also allows a taste of a local cuisine and beverage. Guinness ale in Ireland, French wines and Polish beer: not to be missed. Unfamiliar fish and fruits in Thailand and Peru and several meals in China and Japan lead to interesting speculation: what did I actually eat? We were treated to a 12-course meal, complete with beverages and a dinner show in South Africa. The meal allowed us to sample many different African delicacies and species of animals, not commonly consumed in the United States. Antelope, ants, dog, or horsemeat anyone?
What is obvious when traveling internationally is the continual awareness that every culture has its own beauty: religion, language, geography, and history. At times, Americans tend to believe we are the “center” of the universe – indeed we are not – not by population, religion, culture, nor land mass.
Our revised bucket list is smaller now as we’ve seen many of the places on our original list. Hal is currently working on a 2018 small boat excursion to several Greek islands, with a hopscotch flight to Frankfurt to begin a land tour of Germany, and then catching a mail boat to experience the Norwegian fjords. Also the travel planner is exploring a 2019, 180 day cruise ‘around the world’ so I guess there are enough remaining sites on our bucket list to keep us occupied!