Repost: Karaoke Through The Andes: The Fun Side of Unpredictability

(Really) backstage before my "performance". Ollantaytambo, Peru
(Really) backstage before my “performance”. Ollantaytambo, Peru

Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up.

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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Fresh From the Blogosphere: Reviews of You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper

You Can Keep Your Adventure bookWell friends, it’s coming up on a month now since its release and some of my fellow bloggers have weighed in about my travel/humor guide You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper. I wanted to share this with you in the event that a) you haven’t gotten around to reading it yet and b) you would also like a glimpse at some other blogs that deserve your attention.

At the end of my last post I included a link to Kate Denny’s review of my book on her excellent blog Travel Far, Eat Well. Today I’d like to share two more with you.

The first is by Manny from The Greenwich Mummy blog. Besides being a delightful person, she covers a wide range of lifestyle  subjects from her Greenwich (London) base. Whether it be parenting advice or just something to do for the weekend, she knows her town and is happy to share it.

The second is by Carl from theoldfellowgoesrunning. His blog deals partly with running, and partly with many of the myriad topics of everyday life – all through his unique and genuine perspective. He’s a genuinely nice guy, and I’m not just saying that because he reviewed and recommended my book 🙂

I hope you take the time to check out my fellow bloggers’ sites and if you haven’t already done so, my book You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper – you know I’m just going to keep bringing it up until you do.

Have you read my book already? Leave a comment about what you did or didn’t like!

What’s a 47-Letter Word For ‘Up’?

Winter Street Scene, Helsinki, Finland
Winter Street Scene, Helsinki, Finland

I’ve got nothing against the Finns. During my brief sojourn in Finland they were nothing if not polite, helpful and friendly. Their language however, is a different story. I have never seen so many characters in one paragraph than I did in Helsinki during December of 2011. Considering I arrived in the morning after an overnight flight from JFK, it is conceivable that my impressions were tainted by the effects of jet lag. But there’s no way around it: Finnish is a difficult language with an abundance of letters in seemingly every word. And don’t even get me started on the double vowels. For the rest of the trip, any time a waiter or customs official seemed to be taking a long time to do whatever it is they were doing, it inevitably led to one of us saying, “He’s probably doing a Finnish crossword puzzle,” which would likely use up the majority of daylight hours your average Finn has available in the winter months. I shudder to think at what a classified ad would cost. Probably $100 just to say: For Sale.

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Linguistics aside, the rest of my Finnish experience was rather uncomplicated and simple. A 20-30 minute bus ride from Vantaa Airport brings you to the heart of Helsinki. Cable cars compete with other traffic through an architectural mix of modern and classic buildings all with that hard to describe Scandinavian look. The subway is clean and easy to navigate, with underground shopping venues that seemed a particularly wise location in December.

A Quiet Corner of Soumenlinna Fortress
A Quiet Corner of Soumenlinna Fortress

Just a short ferry ride from the harbor is a cluster of islands that make up one of the world’s largest maritime forts, the Soumenlinna Fortress. This World Heritage Site was good for a few hours of meandering the ramparts, giant cannons and support buildings, and if there were a few extraneous vowels, no one seemed to mind. When I left for India later that evening, I drifted off to sleep imagining what Wheel of Fortune would be like in Finland. (Contestant: I’d like to buy an ‘A’. Pat Sajack: There are 29 A’s)

My return voyage also brought me through Helsinki for one night, allowing me some time to do some shopping and walk the amazingly orderly streets, leading us to muse at how ironic it would be to navigate the traffic chaos of India only to get run over in a Finnish crosswalk. It also allowed me to participate in the quintessential Finnish experience of a hot sauna, which basically consisted of me sitting in a steamy wood-paneled room with five naked Finnish men. To combat the absurdity of the scene, I directed my eyes to the floor and my mind to trying to decipher what they were saying along with trying to conceive exactly what sound thirteen consecutive ‘A’s’ would make. When I felt my pores had released enough toxins, I politely gathered up the damp complimentary butt napkin you take in with you, and bid them all good night.

It’s been several years since my jitney to Helsinki, and while I don’t see a particular reason to return, I am glad that I saw it. I’m sure it is even better in the spring and summer months when the weather is warm and the days are as long as the words. There might even be enough time for a crossword puzzle or two. Just please…no more vowels!

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In Your Face, India (& Ears & Nose & Mouth)

New Delhi, India
New Delhi, India

Perhaps it’s a sign of conceit that I’m hardly interested in visiting anyplace that, well, just doesn’t sound all that interesting. Sure, I’ll still go, but there’s no doubt that I am a bit jaded, and these days, a little bit harder to impress. You can thank India for that. In fact, I do, & here’s why:

India is a fascinating, sometimes overwhelming, never bland or boring, assault on the senses. More than anywhere else I’ve been on earth, travelers run the risk of stimulus overload. Your eyes will be dazzled by the vivid palette that encompasses entire cities—such as Jaipur, the Pink City; Jodhpur, the Blue City; and Udaipur, the White City. The detail in the architecture is an explosion of curves and flourishes, and I’m convinced you’d be hard-pressed to find even one blank surface in the entire country.

Pole Position, Amber Fort
Pole Position, Amber Fort

You ears may not find as much pleasure as your eyes, since in all but remote villages, the sound you’re most likely to hear is a cacophony of beeping horns—all day and all night. When in the midst of things, you’ll also hear the sound of hordes of pedestrians, bleating cattle that wander freely through the streets of even major cities, and extroverted shopkeepers haggling in the market.

With all the poverty, you would think your nose would end up with the worst lot, but in reality, aside from the diesel fumes while crawling along in the most intensely absurd traffic imaginable, the smell of burning wood (and sometimes plastic) fills the air, making even the most urban setting smell rustic. And when you venture into a dining venue, things will just get better for your nose and then some.

A Feast for the Eyes & Mouth, Jaipur
A Feast for the Eyes & Mouth, Jaipur

Yes, your tongue will compete with your eyes when it comes to stimulus overload. Indian cuisine is much like its architecture—bold, saturated with flavor, and on occasion liable to bring tears to your eyes. Even the street vendors with their open-air woks that may not look like the kind of place you’d want to eat without really good health insurance, serve up delicious samosas and local fare that leave you not caring about where you got it. You’ll just want more.

No Blank Surfaces to be Found
No Blank Surfaces to be Found

So if I seem a bit blasé about “normal” destinations like Cancun or the Dominican Republic—don’t blame me. Blame India. It isn’t beginner travel, but if you’re open to new experiences, not agoraphobic, and wish to be dazzled, put India your bucket list. Your senses might be up all night with information overload, but along with your photo album, will thank you for it later.

For more travel pictures, be sure to follow Trip Accomplice on Instagram at @tripaccomplice

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