Fifty years ago, Doris Supranaut, a young, black-haired country schoolteacher in southwestern Minnesota, corralled a hyperactive, red-haired first-grader, firmly sat him in a desk and handed him a book to peruse while she attended to 13 other students in grades one through eight.
And so began my lifelong fascination with other cultures and other lands. To this day, I can remember the title of the green book she gave me: "Other People, Other Lands." The book, which I could not read yet, was filled with scores of photographs of people in many other countries, all sporting different colored skins, eating foods I had never seen before and living in houses very unlike our family's very ordinary white farmhouse.
For a snow-white farm boy who had only seen diversity in our red Duroc pigs and black Angus cows, it was startling to see that people, too, came in other colors.
Unknown then to this one-room, first-year teacher, she set me on a lifelong journey in which I have been privileged to visit nearly 40 countries. Whether eating heavily curried food alongside 150 Indian men in a packed caf in New Delhi, India, or borscht in a poor man's restaurant in Moscow or fresh pita bread in Amman, Jordan, I seldom have gotten through a unique travel experience without thinking of Doris Supranaut.
Foreign travel also brought the most prized relationship in my life as I met my wife, Lyn, on a trip to Australia in late 1972. After a whirlwind nine days of meetings in her home city of Brisbane, out of the blue I sent a telegram from Hong Kong asking if she would consider marrying a Yank. This blond-haired, coal miner's daughter said yes and in May of 1973, we were married and in gratitude for our 30th anniversary this year, I suggested we take, what else, but a trip.
So, for a total of two months, we traveled to Malaysia, Thailand and Australia, combining more than 14,000 miles in the air and another 4,000 on the ground by car in Australia and also visited six islands in the process.
I spent a year and a half planning this particular trip. Many people have asked me what I have learned through the years as I have prepared for trips to various countries. Though I am constantly learning new things, here are a few that have served me well.
1. Travel when you are able, not when you have enough money. Sounds odd. However, many people finally accumulate enough money and then are unable to travel because of age, poor health or loss of a spouse. The pursuit of a life full of unusual memories seems more attractive to me than a mundane life topped off by a pot of gold at the end when you cannot spend it.
2. The ways of foreign cultures are not wrong, just different. Granted, there are probably things we do here in America that are better than some cultures, but overall, there is a stunning array of differences in other cultures that suit them well. For a traveler, this tolerance is the primary attitude that will make a trip either pleasant or unpleasant.
We have inculcated into our children from a young age that people in other cultures, for example, do not eat foods they hate. There is a reason they eat a different kind of food and when we are in their country, we eat what they eat. Our children have both grown up loving foods that look much different than the average U.S. fast food menu.
No one clamors for a front row seat for this snake charmer's performance that earns him a paltry living in New Delhi, India.
3. Don't expect things to be like they are back home. Try different things. Why travel if all you want to do is take a plane 10,000 miles and eat at a McDonald's? The great part of traveling is just the opposite, experiencing the unusual, eating foods that are totally unique to your diet and sampling the lifestyles of what millions of people in another country do on a daily basis.
Often it is trying the unusual that allows memories of a lifetime. I will never forget using a bidet in Paris, France, for the first time in my life. I thought at first it was for washing my feet. Nor will I forget sleeping outside on a truckload of watermelons high in the mountains of Honduras, awakening with a thin layer of dew covering me as I heard the sharp caws of multi-colored parrots as they greeted the slow rise of the sun in the sultry, tropical skies.
I dislike large animals, like horses, bulls and wild boars, but a memory that sticks like velcro to my memory carpet is a ride on a surly camel by the pyramids of Egypt. Though the unruly fellow tried to bite my leg (much to the glee of his handler) there are few experiences I would trade for that moment of my life. I had to go outside my comfort level in order to do this.
4. Plan well, but allow for unscheduled treasures. On my first couple of trips, I used a travel agent. However, the Internet has changed what an ordinary person can do in planning their own trips.
It is quite easy now not only to make reservations for lodging all over the world, but to take a virtual tour of the very rooms in which you will be staying. On our most recent trip, we selected condos, self-serviced apartments and hotel rooms all on the basis of first seeing still pictures or short flash videos of them on the Net. (Example: www.asia-hotels.com.)
I usually try to have nearly all our lodging reserved before we leave. Few issues cause travelers more stress, especially wives and children, than to be forced to drive for several hours at night looking for a place to stay in a strange country where there are no familiar names to guide you.
However, if you rent a car and drive in a foreign land, it is always nice to leave some nights free for those side trips where you find a small village with a view or an attraction that just begs for one more day of availability.
5. Put your emphasis on meeting people, not tourist sites. Buildings, art pieces and nature scenes are all wonderful, but what makes a country is the people of that land. As our family has traveled over the years, we always make it a point to try to get to know at least one native on a more personal basis each place we visit.
One of our most relished memories is a relationship we developed with a young Hindu man in Bali, Indonesia, whom we hired as a guide for the time we were in Bali. Through several days of conversation in broken English, we found out he lived in the mountains five hours away from the city with his wife and small child. Because of their poverty, he had to work away from home for nearly a month at a time, then take a bus to his home where he would spend two days with his family before returning to the city to start the whole cycle again.
Through a set of circumstances after we were back in Crosby, we were able to contact a missionary in Indonesia to whom we wired money to enable the young man to buy a Honda motorcycle so he could travel back and forth from his home each week. The letters, photos and telegrams we have received from him since then have been a trip memory we will carry to our grave.
Scenes like this in India and other Third World countries will challenge your personal value system.
No mountain view, no valley snapshot nor any tourist site will ever be of equal value to that of the people who make up the inhabitants of the country you are visiting.
6. Make your money stretch. The Internet has numerous travel sites where travelers write personal journals of their experiences in various countries. I find these invaluable in organizing a trip. (Example: www.igougo.com.)
For example, a lot of people who go to Bangkok visit a half dozen major temples that are recommended by local tourist organizations. Yet, if you read travel journals of those who have visited the temples, many will say to visit two at the most as after that, they take on a monotonous similarity. This advice helps a traveler then to actually see more things than to spend an inordinate amount of time doing just one aspect.
Try to go to places right before or right after the busy seasons. Prices are lower, crowds are less and locals are friendlier than during high stress times. Along with this, staying at an accommodation that is near to where you want to spend your time, but maybe not right on site, will provide cheaper accommodations that are just as nice.
I find travel expenses can be reduced if you plan three aspects well: one, don't eat at expensive restaurants if possible. We try to live like locals, buy foods at the food stores whenever possible; fix sandwiches. There are limits to this, though; my wife put her foot down when I suggested we buy Slim-Fast to fill the kids when we were traveling through England when my son, Luke, was in a high-volume eating stage.
Two, don't stay at extravagant hotels or resorts. I am cheaper than Jack Benny, and it pains me to spend in triple digits for a place to sleep. Clean, affordable and handy are the three catchwords that I use in determining where we will stay.
Three, stay away from high price tourist traps. There are always exceptions to this rule; sometimes countries have experiences you will only do once in your life. Do those. But don't waste money going to places that are mere reflections of what you can do in the States.
Food and accommodations often make up the bigger portion of traveling expenses, yet within reason, they are two areas of travel that you remember the least afterward.
7. Be grateful for every travel experience. My wife and I will never accumulate much money. We have chosen to spend money on seeing various parts of the world before we die. And, not every person would agree that the path we have chosen is wise.
But we have a unique perspective of how travel can change lives and attitudes. Her parents never left the state of Queensland in Australia. That state was their birthplace and became their grave site. Thirty years ago when my bride-to-be left Australia, she did so with the thought she might never see her family again in this life. My Minnesota farm parents traveled very little in their 90 years of life, never overseas.
But the freedom and low cost of travel today is unparalleled in our world's history. At my father's funeral, we found out that this man who once had farmed with horses and traveled little, now had children and grand-children who had visited 49 countries.
Whether a person travels to Texas, Tahiti or Thailand, travel can bring alive the fact that the overwhelming diversity of our world is better experienced than taught theoretically. For that, each of us who travels should be grateful.
(Henry Hintermeister, Crosby, has been in the publishing industry for 20 years, primarily producing hard-cover, coffee-table books on cities throughout the United States and Sydney, Australia. He is married to Lyn, who is Australian born. They have two children, Meghan and Luke, both with dual citizenship.)
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