I’m always annoyed when the typical newspaper travel article takes up space describing three meals a day eating cuisine that can be found in any major U.S. city. In between, the writer shops for something that almost sounds worth the customs hassle, lies on a beach with the same sand that can be found at home, and reviews bars that have drinks that be concocted anywhere.
If I’m going to travel halfway around the planet, I probably am never coming back, so I want to experience what is unique about the place: a world-class art museum, a religious festival, a stunning vista, the site of a major historic event. It’s important for our trade, politics, and cultural enrichment to get outside Fortress America once in a while, yet most Americans seem to think that if they can get to London, Paris, or Rome, they’re done. Here are a few unusual memories of the 34 countries I’ve visited (many with my wife, Sandra).
Northern Ireland Mythology. In 1991, I toured Navan Centre in Armagh, from which Ulster’s ancient rulers generated history and legends as exciting as those of King Arthur. They were brought alive by immersive audiovisual presentations and the Centre continues to use the latest technology to illuminate everything from Celtic spirituality to ancient warfare. The beautiful north of Ireland remains one of the great undiscovered destinations, now that political violence is very rare.
Renaissance Italy. In 1996, I was stunned to discover that Italy has 40% of the world’s art, but I wasn’t prepared to fully understand it, being rusty on the Greek mythology on which so much is based. And it was only when I listened to a record of the relevant volume of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization that I came to fully appreciate that the Renaissance was a cultural supernova. Some memories need to be enhanced afterwards.
Cuba’s Tropical Communism. In 1998, I had State Department permission to go to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro. However, by the time I was ready to go in July, my PR contact was on a long vacation and everyone else on the staff was terrified to make a decision without his approval. I went without a press pass to write a travel article, risking arrest, which put us in the same paranoid mindset as the Cuban public. We did get to listen to Castro speak for several hours on Revolution Day, participated in Mardi Gras, and our fortunes were read by a Santeria priest.
The Glory of Greece. In 2001, we wrote a background piece for those who were preparing to go to the Olympics in Athens three years later. On the flight there, we read Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way, which explained how the Golden Age of Greece became the fountainhead of western civilization. Modern Greece may be dysfunctional, but the people are fiercely and justly proud of their heritage and we came back with a new perspective on history.
Eternal Egypt. We thought we were going to see the pyramids, which turned out to be rather boring and very difficult to get into. But we left the tour group that was going snorkeling to visit the legendary temple at Abydos, whose walls are covered with paintings that are still vivid, and it is the only place where the symbols of all the pharaohs are inscribed. On our last night, we were put into a trance by Cairo’s uniquely colorful version of the Sufi whirling dervishes.
Sacred and Secular India. In 2004, we toured Northern India with some trepidation, after decades of stories about health hazards. What we found were not beggars, but street entrepreneurs. The ambition and educational values of Indians have resulted in some of the world’s best medical schools and the ability to occupy of a quarter of the CEO seats at Silicon Valley tech companies. At the same time, religion remains intertwined with daily life, whether on the sidewalk or in the boardroom.
Turkey, Crossroads of History. In 2005, we spent three weeks in Turkey, which has 40,000 historical sites (most excitingly me Troy, since I aspired to be an archaeologist as a boy). It also has a modern Muslim culture, the perfect introduction to a modern Islamic society for Americans. Istanbul is an extraordinarily dynamic (and clean) city (despite the news, you’re less likely to be killed there than if you stay home).
Glorious Samarkand. In 2008, we finally made it to Uzbekistan (my original visa application was denied because my name is the same as a reporter who been critical of the government). Samarkand, the legendary ancient capital, is full of stunning Islamic tile art and metalwork, alone worth the price of a trip.
Mighty Malta. We visited this tiny Mediterranean island in 2009, which has been the site of battles that changed the course of history. The Knights of Malta inflicted the first defeat on the Ottoman Empire in 1565 and in 1943 was bombed for 100 days by the Nazis, as the Allies used it as the staging ground for the invasion of Sicily. It has a fascinating history, starting with the world’s oldest freestanding buildings, temples that were constructed around 3600 B.C., a millennium before the Great Pyramid.
Underrated Toronto. As we prepared to go to Toronto in 2011, we kept hearing that it was like New York City run by the Swiss: the good news was that it was clean; the bad that it was boring. It turned out to be the first, but not the second. It is an economic powerhouse that provides a high quality of life and lots of cultural options, while doing an excellent job of preserving its history. Two museums sounded worth skipping, but we’re glad we didn’t: the Bata Shoe Museum (the history of footwear is quite fascinating) and the Gallery of Intuit Art (powerful sculptures of shamans in the act of turning into animals).
South African Safari. In 2013, we flew to South Africa, but had only two days for a safari at the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve, which was nevertheless supposed to be the centerpiece of the story. We’d heard stories of tourists who saw little except gazelles in a week. We needn’t have worried: we literally came face-to-face with a leopard, were nearly charged by a mother rhino protecting her baby, and got trapped in the middle of a ferocious cave buffalo herd. The animals reminded us that all living things flourish when they adapt to their environment, something humans seem determined not to do as we refuse to change our ways in the face of climate change.
The Maya of Guatemala. I was a guest lecturer at UCLA on the Maya of Central America for years. The one press trip I had signed up to see their cities was cancelled. I finally had a chance to go to Guatemala in 2015 to visit Tikal, but equally fascinating was that Mayan shamanism is continues to be practiced by Catholics. For many reasons, I see Guatemala as the next hot Latin destination.
By focusing on what’s unique about each destination, we extract its essence and never have to come back until we run out of countries.