Traveling is the best vehicle I know to generate scenarios that are 100% unscripted. Some may shudder at the wanton unpredictability of various elements combining to create circumstances that border on the absurd or beyond, but not me. I find those random occasions where you find yourself in a place you’d never imagined, with people you’ve never met, doing something you ordinarily would not do, some of the most delicious morsels of a traveling experience—which often make the best stories as well.
With the possibility of once again traveling freely around the globe glimmering on the horizon, this repost of a 2014 entry focuses on the unexpected fun and laughs that could be had on a journey even for those who aren’t opportunistic by nature. The key lies in 1) recognizing the opportunity when it presents itself, and 2) grabbing hold of it with both hands so that the experience doesn’t pass you by. My own favorite anecdote illustrating these two factors took place in February of 2010, high up in the Peruvian Andes. The story goes like this:
Due to some serious health troubles my father discovered only when we landed in the high-altitude city of Cuzco, my stay there in that enchanting city was understandably a bit distracted. (See my post The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cuzco & the Sacred Valley for more details). Once his situation was under control, the only option available was to wait for him to recuperate sufficiently for a flight back down to sea level. At my dad’s insistence I left his bedside and was rushed to a waiting bus on the outskirts of town to tour the Sacred Valley—a portion of the tour I’d had to skip earlier for obvious reasons. I remember the curious stares as I exited the taxi and boarded the waiting coach, trying to avoid eye contact as I made my way all the way to the back row. It was then that the guide continued her spiel in Spanish, and I suddenly realized that there wasn’t going to be any English on this trip. It turns out that my fellow bus-mates were mildly well-to-do tourists from a sizable sampling of South American nations, and I was the lone gringo.
If this were the U.S. and I was on a city bus in Queens, perhaps I’d feel uncomfortable being so far out of my element. But here, amidst this coalition of good-natured Latinos, the unpredictability factor first revealed itself, and instead of being an outcast, this group of strangers went out of their way to include me in the most interactive bus ride I’d ever been on.
Starting with our stop at Chinchero, continuing on into our so-so lunch at Urubamba, a vigorous walk up the ruins of Ollantaytambo, and final stop in Pisac, I found myself in the midst of a gaggle of genuinely friendly—and fun—people who disposed with the standoffishness so common in tour groups in North America & Europe. These were people who embraced everyone & everything with unflappable enthusiasm as part of the experience. Sufficiently disarmed, I was then primed for what happened next.
On what was going to be a two-hour ride back to Cuzco, the guide got on her microphone at the front of the bus and playfully chided some tour members who were a little late returning on board with the ‘punishment’ of having to come up front and sing a song from their home country. As a lifelong New York resident to that point, I could not conceive of a scenario in my hometown—or homeland—where such a request would fly, let alone be accepted. But then that unpredictability factor struck again. Not only did the latecomers belt out their favorite tunes, but the rest of the passengers couldn’t wait for their chance to perform, as if it were auditions for Peruvian Idol. As an added bonus, their fellow passengers were an enthusiastic audience, clapping, cheering and singing along—except for me, since I was limited to only clapping and cheering due to my ignorance of the Latin Top 40. This was fine with me. I was having a blast and at the same time managing to stay out of the spotlight—until about the 45 minute mark.
Thanks to some ‘friends’ sitting next to me, it was pointed out—quite emphatically I might add—that I had yet to perform for the group. This provoked a deafening chant of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” Buckling to the pressure as the chants reached a crescendo, I made my way up the aisle to the sound of applause and a sea of smiling faces brimming with anticipation.
In my simple yet passable Spanish, I explained the obvious: I was a gringo and I didn’t know any Latin songs. As an alternative, I was going to sing a song from my home city—Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. The crowd hushed as I readied myself, hearing only the drone of the tires and the creak of luggage swaying in the overhead bins. Stealing a glance out of the windows at the deep green of the majestic Andes passing by, I could not help but take a mental snapshot of the absurdity of my situation—and just how much fun it was to find myself in it! Nobody could make this stuff up and I was absolutely thrilled. With a burst of renewed enthusiasm, I held up the microphone.
“Start spreading the newwwwwwwws. I’m leaving todayyyyyyyy,” I crooned.
I should add that right from the get-go my adoring audience was swaying in unison and singing along the best they could. I continued warbling as we rounded one hairpin turn after another, and with each passing kilometer my confidence grew until I was fully ensconced in the moment, wailing out the words at the top of my lungs while my fans kept up an a capella rendering of the brass instrumentals (daht daht dah-dah-dah, daht daht dah-dah-dah). Upon my rousing conclusion—holding that last note until I couldn’t breathe in the already-thin air—I shouted out in my best British Rock Star accent: “Thank you, Peru! G’night!” and basked in their unabashed adulation all the way back to my seat at the rear of the bus. And as my fellow bus-mates continued singing for the remaining 1.25 hours of the trip (including a hysterical, accent-laden rendering of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, Part II) I laughed inwardly, delighting at how never in a million years would I ever have thought I’d be party to such a scene, and marveling at how such unscripted occasions are truly what makes life worth living.
So my advice is this: While traveling—whether in your home country, a far-off land, or even the back roads of Peru—keep an eye out for the unpredicted opportunities that could possibly be that story you’ll tell for the rest of your days. It just might be the experience you never thought you were waiting for.
Do you have a story of the unexpected delights that unfold while traveling? Share them with all of us by leaving a comment!
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A-B-C-D-E-F-G. . . Now that I’ve got that song in your head, I’d like to propose a fun challenge – The Travel Alphabet Challenge, if you will – that will help you reflect on your past travels and hopefully tide you over until you can start having new ones.
The guidelines are really simple: Come up with your favorite specific destination – it can be a city, town, island or landmark – to which you’ve traveled that begins with each letter of the alphabet. Don’t use countries or regions unless you really have no other choice. The result will be that you’ll be more appreciative of the experiences you already have, and maybe find some inspiration to get back out there once it’s safe to do so.
Share this challenge with your family and friends or your followers on social media for a fun, safe, and inspiring activity that will keep your wanderlust happy . . . for now.
Below are my entries and the sometimes agonizing debate on which place gets the top spot. Have fun!
A: Antigua, Guatemala
This Central American gem surrounded by volcanoes beat out the cultural capitals of Athens, Greece and the city of Agra, India. An honorable mention goes to the evocative ruins of Ayutthaya, Thailand.
B: Bora Bora, French Polynesia
The B’s had some serious competition, with such world-renowned capital cities such as Beijing, Budapest, & Buenos Aires in play. But as anyone who’s been to Bora Bora can attest, that lagoon is just too beautiful to take second place to anywhere else. A shout out to tiny Boracay in the Philippines for its incredible beach as well.
C: Chobe National Park, Botswana
The C’s had quite a few worthy entrants. Most noteworthy are the Australian town of Cairns as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, and the amazing former Inca capital of Cuzco, Peru. But in Chobe National Park, those sunsets over one of the largest elephant populations in Southern Africa are honestly hard to beat.
D: Dominica, Caribbean
This green jewel in the Windward Islands of the Eastern Caribbean is home to the second-most beautiful place I’ve ever been: the tropical Titou Gorge. On that basis alone it beat out the also-stunningly-beautiful Denali National Park in Alaska, and the intriguing Middle Eastern playground of Dubai.
E: Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, USA
To be honest, I just can’t think of many places I’ve been that begin with the letter ‘E’ (besides the country of Egypt, and again, I’m aiming to be more specific). This is not a knock on quaint Edgartown with its quintessential New England houses and picturesque storefronts bustling on a summer’s day, but it would appear that I’m low on ‘E’ – centric experiences. I’ll have to get on that going forward.
F: Flam, Norway
This adorable outpost in the Norwegian Fjords is the starting point for the jaw-dropping Flamsbana Railway, which shoots it to the top of a very short list. I also have to give a nod Fairbanks, Alaska, USA because of its standing as the farthest north I’ve ever been. Apparently I haven’t had many noteworthy ‘F’ experiences in my life either.
G: Geiranger, Norway
The ‘G’s were a really tough one to call. Geiranger is the third-most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and is only slightly edged out by the Titou Gorge in Dominica. Goreme, in the Turkish region of Cappadocia is home to incredible stone cities and was the place I went on my first (and only) hot air balloon ride. There’s also Antarctica’s scenic Gerlache Strait, the walled city of Galle in Sri Lanka, and I I’ll never forget the wonderful people I met and partied with in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
H: Hoi An, Vietnam
The H’s were also well-represented. Hong Kong, Honolulu, and Harare could each have easily been the frontrunner. But the charm and color that oozed from each street of UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hoi An was enough to put this historic town on top.
I: Ilha Grande, Brazil
Even if I hadn’t been short on ‘I’ locations, this idyllic island on Brazil’s Costa Verde, with its lack of cars and abundance of beauty would still claim the top spot. No offense, Istanbul.
J: Jodhpur, India
Other than the Taj Mahal (which we’ll get to shortly) my greatest motivation for visiting India was to see the Blue City of Jodhpur. Looking down at the warren of hyacinth-blue alleyways from atop the massive town fortress was a travel dream come true. Special props also go out to the Pink City, Jaipur, India, and the most famous city in the Holy Lands (& Bible history) Jerusalem, Israel.
K: Kalambaka, Greece
Too many K’s so little time. It was striking to me how many of my memorable travel experiences took place in a ‘K’ location. Tiny Kalambaka is the gateway to the unforgettable Meteora, pictured above, and my visit there was a thrill I still fondly recall. But the K’s don’t stop there. There was the incredible scenery of Australia’s Blue Mountains in Katoomba; whitewater rafting in Borneo outside of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia; and attending a beautiful convention in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. But if there was a second place award I’d probably have to give it to Killarney National Park in County Kerry, Ireland. The bucolic setting interspersed with the ruins of a crumbling abbey at sunset are firmly etched on my brain.
L: La Digue, Seychelles
Famous for its screensaver-worthy beach Anse Source D’Argent, this quiet pearl in the Indian Ocean is the quintessential island escape. This gives it the edge over the hip British capital of London, and the Costa Rican adventure town of La Fortuna.
M: Milford Sound, New Zealand
Milford Sound in southwestern New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park is my choice for the all-time most amazing place I’ve ever been. Pictures just can’t do it justice, so if you ever have the chance, please go there and you’ll save me the trouble of trying to explain it. Tropical heavyweights Maui, Moorea and the island of Mahe in the Seychelles make ‘M’ a dominant letter in my travel alphabet.
N: Nusa Penida, Indonesia
This little island just east of Bali was the site of my dive with manta rays, which ranks high on my all time list of amazing animal encounters. New Delhi, India – which was a much more interesting destination than I had originally expected, and the Neumayer Channel on the icy Antarctic Peninsula are also ‘N’ highlights for me.
O: Ocho Rios, Jamaica
As an admitted travel snob, I thought myself above the possibility of being impressed by such a mainstream tourist destination as Ocho Rios. But after climbing gorgeous Dunns River Falls and floating the aqua-blue White River, I found myself humbled by the natural beauty that defies the rampant tourism development that defines this popular cruise port. A special nod to the Hawaiian island of Oahu for, well, just being awesome.
P: Tie – Ponza, Italy/Paraty, Brazil
For me, the ‘P’ stands for powerhouse, as some of my favorite destinations on the planet all begin with that same letter. The authentic Italian island of Ponza is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a second home, and my memories there are something I deeply cherish. As for Paraty, I fell in love with the place just minutes after arriving, and if I could choose a setting in which to live, the jungle-clad mountains and islands of Paraty Bay and its surroundings are my vision of paradise. Had they been spelled with any other letter besides ‘P’ the Thai island of Phuket, and gorgeous Praslin Island in the Seychelles would be vying for that top spot for any letter, as would my second-favorite place in Italy – Positano on the Amalfi Coast.
Q: Quito, Ecuador
You would think that ‘Q’ would be an easy letter for choosing a favorite, but I found it to be a challenge to choose from such contrasting but fascinating destinations such as Quito, Quebec City, Canada and Queenstown, New Zealand. Ultimately I had to give the nod to Quito. Its colonial center and mountain setting just ticked too many boxes for it not to come in first, but I tip my hat to the ‘Qs’ for an impressive ensemble showing.
R: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Despite not being a city person per se, I was mesmerized by the setting of Rio de Janeiro and its namesake harbor that’s considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Ipanema Beach and the views from Sugarloaf Mountain didn’t hurt either. The silver and bronze medals for my list of R’s goes to the Eternal City, Rome, and the lovely Caribbean island of Roatan, Honduras.
The ‘S’ destinations were a bit tricky for me, with lots of good options but no one that really stood head and shoulders above the rest. Eventually I had to go with Singapore, for its beautiful Botanical Gardens, unique Night Safari Zoo, and the otherworldly-after-nightfall Gardens by the Bay. Honorable mentions go to Sydney, Australia; Stanley, Falkland Islands for being a slice of rural England inserted at the very bottom of the globe; St. Thomas in the USVI for Megan’s Bay, one of my favorite beaches of all time; and lastly Sigiriya, the monolithic fortress in Sri Lanka just for being really cool.
T: Taj Mahal, Agra, India
As a fan of architecture, I couldn’t not pick the Taj Mahal when it came time to select my favorite ‘T’ spot. To date I’ve never seen any building that could be its equal. Unfortunately that stole top billing from two other very worthy entrants. The Timbavati Reserve in South Africa was the site of my first safari and all its associated thrills. And Tahiti, besides being the flagship island of French Polynesia, is the very definition of ‘tropical paradise’.
U: Urgup, Turkey
Much like the letter ‘Q’, I was surprised that there were actually several contenders for the top ‘U’ destination. I went with Urgup since it was part of one of my favorite regions in the world: Cappadocia. This was also the site of one of the most unique properties where I’ve ever spent the night, namely, a cave hotel. A shout out to Ushuaia, Argentina for its alpine charm and Undara National Park in Queensland, Australia for its genuine Outback setting and abundant wildlife.
V: Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe/Zambia
Not surprisingly, when you’ve visited one of the world’s most impressive waterfalls, it’s going to make an appearance on your ‘best of’ list. From both the Zimbabwe and Zambia sides this is another one of those places you just have to see for yourself in order to understand how awesome it is. Other notable ‘V’ destinations are Valentia Island, on Ireland’s southwest coast, and the city of Vancouver, whose setting is unrivaled by any but a few cities (see also ‘R’).
W: Wanzhou, China
My affection for Wanzhou, a small city on the Yangtze River, is owed to the experience I had while watching a local children’s theater perform as I sat amongst a bunch of area farmers. It was there, upon observing our common reactions to the feats performed onstage despite the obvious cultural differences, that I truly understood that people are people – even if they’re in China. As a runner up, I nominate colorful Willemstad, the capital of the island of Curacao.
X: To be determined
As it turns out ‘X’ was the easiest of all the letters, because I have no recollection of being anywhere that begins with that challenging letter. It’s not for nothing that you get a full 10 points in Scrabble for using it. If you live an a place that starts with the letter X and remember seeing me pass by, please let me know at your earliest convenience. Until then, I’ll probably have to make another trip to China to make it work.
Y: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA
The ‘Ys’ were blissfully free of competition, but even so, the first and arguably most famous of all American National Parks is a bucket list destination in its own right. To all other ‘Y’ places I’ve passed through and can’t remember, thank you for playing.
Z: Zambezi River, Zimbabwe/Zambia
The fact that two of the letters in my travel alphabet are occupied by the Zimbabwe/Zambia border is testimony to how special a place it is. Recalling an evening cruise as the sun went down in the most orange sky imaginable while hippos splashed along the shore is a memory I’ll always treasure. The ‘Zs’ may be few, but they are mighty.
I hope you enjoyed perusing my personal travel alphabet and the deliberations that were required to create it. I encourage you to begin working on your own, and feel confident that you too will enjoy the memories, anecdotes and imagery that will inevitably come to mind as you do so. Be sure to share this challenge with family and friends and on social media, so that everyone’s travel alphabet may be firmly in place by the next time we’re ready to set off into the big wide world.
So to conclude and avoid keeping the more OCD among you, let me finish the song I started at the beginning. “Now I know my (travel) A-B-C’s. Next time won’t you fly with me.” You’re welcome.
This week makes a full 15 years since my first visit to the natural playground that is Costa Rica. Though that trip came at a very difficult time in my life, the mind-blowing beauty of this Central American gem somehow kept most of my attention. The lush rain forest, impressive volcanoes and pervasive scent of flowers are as good a natural remedy for depression as the world can offer, and in my much improved state of mind, looking back is more pleasure than pain
Destination: Costa Rica
What Brought Me There
Needing a warm weather escape after a tragedy at home, Costa Rica drew my attention for its proximity, its reputation as a safe destination in an otherwise dicey region of the world, and let’s face it: the abundance of soft adventure opportunities on offer. Nothing like going off to play in paradise to get one’s juices flowing.
What I Loved
Upon landing in Costa Rica, I felt as if I were in one big, giant, natural theme park – each with its own geological attractions. My highlights were all under the shadow of the massive Arenal volcano. I went rappelling for the first time in a nearby canyon, took my lumps on the roughest whitewater rafting trip I’ve encountered to date, and spent a glorious day soaking in the paradise-like waters of Tabacon Hot Springs.
This is not to say that the rest of the country was a bust. Carrera National Park was a trove of wildlife encounters, and despite my negative headspace at the time, the wild Nicoya Peninsula was just as pretty as advertised.
What I Would Do If I Went Back
Technically I have returned since that first trip, but that was just one day off a cruise ship spent at popular Manuel Antonio National Park. If I could go back I wouldn’t mind seeing the Monteverde Cloud Forest, the beaches of the Guanacaste, and if money were no option, the feather in any diver’s cap: Cocos Island.
It’s now been over a decade since I visited the Inca wonderland of Peru. The awesomeness of the country is evident in that fact that even though everything went wrong (Machu Picchu closed for mudslides, my dad winding up in the hospital for respiratory problems, an unexpected extended stay) it was still an incredible destination. Looking back, it’s not the bad stuff I remember, it’s the majesty of the Andes, the massive glory of the fortress of Ollantaytambo, and most of all, the warmth and friendliness of the local Peruvians I was fortunate enough to meet.
What Brought Me There
When I was a young boy, I distinctly remember seeing an image of Machu Picchu in an old book and thinking: someday I have to go here! In February of 2010 I thought I would finally get to reach that goal. But a series of mudslides damaged the train route to that remote citadel, and the government decided to close the site for a month – very inconveniently during the time I was scheduled to arrive with my dad as a week-long pre-trip to a Central American cruise. As a consolation prize, I got to spend my time in the amazing Sacred Valley, which also was the setting for one of my favorite unscripted travel moments.
What I Loved
From the moment I stepped off the plane in Cuzco, the Andes took my breath away – both figuratively and literally. The lush green mountains and terraced slopes were everything I had imagined it would be. In particular I was fascinated by the Inca ruins with their incredibly fitted stones that have kept them standing when so many less-quality buildings have been destroyed.
Most of all I loved the people. Even though I was incredibly stressed at my dad’s health situation, to a person they treated me kindly, and made me feel welcome despite the obvious fact that I was a tourist. Even on the darkest day I had there, I can still fondly think back on sitting on a terrace overlooking the main square in Cuzco, after a meal of pollo asado washed down with super-sweet Inka Cola, and feeling a measure of contentment through all that anxiety. To me, that’s a great testament to the character of the place.
What I Would Do If I Went Back
As already mentioned, Machu Picchu still remains untouched by my footsteps, and I would welcome the chance to finally get to stand atop that world famous landmark that mesmerized me as a young child and gaze about. I would also like the chance to check out the Rainbow Mountain and make my way towards the Bolivian border and Lake Titicaca.