I’ve been perusing the job listings and found one recently that looked very interesting. It is at an institution with which I am familiar and in a professional area where I think I could do well. But of everything about the job description there was one requirement that really stood out to me:
“the ability to travel extensively for days and weeks at a time”
Now that is one hell of an incentive for a guy like me, particularly in that the travel indicated is of the international variety. Ultimately, after some investigation, I found that by “weeks at a time” they meant at least eight weeks at once. Apparently, you leave on a jet plane for China and other countries in the region, not to return for two months. That’s clearly not feasible for a father of four with plenty of responsibility here at the homestead.
That said, it did get me waxing poetic (can you do that in your head?) about days gone by. There was a time in my life when I literally bought a Eurorail Pass and just took off for a few weeks. That was a time long ago. But at a time even before that, the idea of seeing the world was wildly foreign to me (excuse the pun.)
I have a distinct memory of sitting in Western Civilization class at my suburban New Jersey high school. Our freshman year textbook had these pictures of what I’m sure they considered important historical locations. To me, it was like a travel brochure of places I’d never see.
The Louvre. The Pyramids in Egypt. The Taj Mahal. Big Ben. That big building everyone takes pictures of in Kyoto, Japan.
The idea of travelling internationally or, frankly, travelling at all simply didn’t seem possible in my 15-year-old born and raised in New Jersey brain. My family had made it into Canada at Niagara Falls once and had even taken a cruise to the Bahamas. We hadn’t made it to Mexico (despite having lived in Texas) but my world travels seemed to me capped.
There was also a picture of Red Square in Moscow. This was 1985; the year that Sting released his song “Russians.” For those who don’t remember (or for my younger followers, never knew):
“In Europe and America, there’s a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mr. Krushchev said we will bury you
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
It would be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too.”
That’s right; pop music was worried about nuclear war between the super powers. (I will, for the moment, ignore Sting’s pretentious douchebag of a premise that Russians might not love their children like the rest of us.) As I had also seen the movie “Red Dawn” the year before. That was about high schoolers (led by an 80’s all-star trio of Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, and Charlie Sheen) fighting against the Russians who invaded their town.
Simply put, Red Square was much further away than just the 4,681 miles it would take to fly there from JFK.
Little did I know that I was fewer than two years away from moving to South America and about six from stepping foot in Lenin’s Tomb.
Once the dam broke on getting my passport stamped, I made the most of it. I hit over thirty countries between 1987 and 1994. I still haven’t gotten all of those pictures from the text book but have many: Eiffel Tower, Coliseum, Parthenon, the pyramids, not of Egypt but in Mexico, Machu Pichu, and Tiger Stadium in Detroit. (Fine, that last one wasn’t in there, but it was worth the trip and your loss if you never got there before they inexplicably tore it down.)
One thing I have found, though, is that some of the most satisfying experiences haven’t been standing in front of something I’ve seen countless times in photos but having an experience that you can’t plan for.
Take for example what I affectionately refer to as the “Chicken Bus Trip.”
Think to those scenes in movies where they try to convince you that our main characters have travelled somewhere way, way off the beaten path. They end up sitting on some crowded bus filled with people who don’t speak a word of English. There always seems to be one woman sitting there, for reasons passing explanation, with a chicken on her lap. Perhaps, in the filmmaker’s mind, this is the exotic equivalent of a house-warming gift in the third world. An appetizer in the raw, if you will.
See, I didn’t think these buses, or more precisely, these women, actually existed. I was proven wrong on an ill-fated leg of a trip through France, Spain, and Portugal in 1990.
My travelling companion was a family friend from Paraguay. We left from where my parents and younger brothers had moved after I graduated from high school: Brussels, Belgium. The trip, all by train, was set to take us through Paris, Barcelona, Lisbon, and then back through Madrid.
Our first stop went very well. We even ran into none other than Shelley Long atop the Eiffel Tower (she apparently walked to the top in high heels.) After two days in gay Paree, we boarded an overnight train to Lisbon and this is where things went awry.
Sometime after 1AM, the train passed over the border into Portugal and there we stopped for a middle of the night passport check. It was at this very late and unfortunate time that we learned something important. While Americans are welcome to travel at will throughout Western Europe without benefit of any visas, the same cannot be said for Paraguayans, at least not in 1990. She was getting kicked off the train and I could either join her or, I don’t know, pick her up on the way back?
It was through this unique set of circumstances that we found ourselves on the very, very quiet and really quite dark streets of Vilar Formoso, Portugal. (And, yes, I have asked myself any number of times from the moment our feet hit the ground of that railway station to right this moment why they would kick us off a train IN Portugal because we lacked the necessary visa to enter Portugal. They probably rightly assumed nobody was going to walk the 226 miles to Lisbon or even the 28+ miles to the nearest town of significant size.)
The next train through was almost exactly 24 hours away because it would be the same one, headed the same way. Apparently the Lisbon to Paris return trip takes a different route. While that seemed unlikely, this was the information that was available to us from the one man left behind in this station. His suggestion was that we walk toward a glimmering pool of very few lights on the horizon and catch a train to Madrid from there.
“There” was back in Spain and, actually, only a few kilometers away. Colonia de Estacion was our next destination.
We were backpackers in that we had backpacks, but hadn’t really planned to walk through the night. Left with really no other choice, though, off we set. We arrived with the sun in this literally sleeping town and found the train station. There was even a train there. What there wasn’t was people. Anywhere. At all. Even the cab of the locomotive was open and very empty. I stepped in there and looked at the controls. I don’t suppose any part of me really thought I was going to drive a train anywhere, but there was another desperate part of me that was looking for something to get us moving again. This same part of me, in travels in subsequent years that also went awry, suggest things like stealing a bicycle to ride a few towns over in Sweden or eating tiny little raw fish in Greece.
Finally, a random young man saw us and asked if we needed help. We explained our plight and he, in turn, explained that there would typically be a train, but the trains in Spain were on strike. Also he explained it was Sunday; this was something we hadn’t really been cognizant of.
What were we to do? We kind of had a schedule to keep if we were going to make it to all of our destinations and while I’m sure there are good and hearty folk in the greater metropolitan Colonia de Estacion area, their name (Colony of the Station, literally) indicated that maybe, beyond the train station we were in, there wasn’t a whole lot to do here.
The young man, perhaps sensing our mood, then helpfully offered that there was a bus. This was, in fact, where he was headed at about 5AM on a Sunday morning. This bus would take us a slightly bigger town where we could catch another to Salamanca and then, finally, a third to Madrid.
We were on!
Off to the bus station we three went and then I saw it. The bus was old to be sure. Older than me by a long shot, I suspect. It was brightly colored, reminiscent of the Argentina colectivos. And there were a lot of people getting on it. It was quite the crowd for a Sunday morning, I thought.
We bought a pair of tickets and then made our way onto the bus. We got seats near the front and there, right there, was the mythical “Chicken Lady.” An older woman, though not as old as she would have been in a movie, sitting on the aisle, with a real honest-to-goodness chicken on her lap! A chicken!
I suddenly felt transported to a different world. I didn’t think it possible that these people actually existed but there it was.
There is what appears to be a freeway now on the route were travelling twenty-one years ago, and maybe there was then too, but the road we were taking was small, unpaved in parts, and winding through the hills. About a half hour in we were confronted with another, miraculously wonderful movie cliché: sheep in the road.
It was at this moment that I had an epiphany. To be sure, standing beneath the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Élysées in Paris is a tremendous experience but it is one anyone with a credit card and a passport can have. To be here, in the Spanish countryside, our main characters, such as we were, well off the beaten tourist path, is not something a travel agency package offers. There were these sheep and that chicken and these people and there was me. I was experiencing something so wildly removed from my suburban New Jersey upbringing and that high school freshman western civ class and it was nothing that had a picture in that textbook.
We eventually made it to Madrid and Barcelona and, in later trips, a laundry list of other great cities of the world. I have loved my time in places like London, Oslo, Athens, Rome, and Zurich. Venice remains one of my favorite places in the world and my later trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg is one I’ll remember forever. I have still never visited Lisbon, and would certainly like to one day, but getting kicked off that train and having the experience we did is one I’ve absolutely cherished more than I would have walking around the Belém Tower on the banks of the Tagus River.
And that right there is one of the beauties of travel in my mind. While in the moment, I may not have always enjoyed when the unexpected happened: a bus strike in Norway, a surprisingly warm day in Peru, a missed connection in Finland, an unexpected rainstorm in Costa Rica, or even a closed restaurant in Thackerville, Oklahoma, the willingness to adapt has often led to a different and, though I can’t say for sure, probably superior experience. I feel sorry for those who can’t enjoy the unexpected. I have learned to embrace it even.
It is, in the end, this aspect that I may miss the most now that my travels have been severely curtailed by adulthood. I won’t be pursuing this job that would leave me two months away from home in some very foreign lands. The adventuresome spirit remains, though, and I’m sure there will be a time when I can hit the road again. In the meantime I get to enjoy my life here at home with my wife and my children and my friends. That is an adventure of a wholly different sort but one no less rewarding.