As I look back on my 81 years of life on this wonderous planet, I can’t help putting my travel experiences near the top of the list of what I am most thankful for. The last three experiences which happened over the past two years —bad case of covid on a cruise to Iceland and Norway in 2022, cancelled flights to the BVIs over the Christmas holidays this year, and barely making it to Costa Rica last week– suggest that perhaps these adventures may be nearing an end, but still—how fortunate I have been! I have to give Embry a lot of credit. She has been the driver behind the quest to travel. By last count, together we have visited some 70 countries, several multiple times, and Embry on her own has added another ten to her list (mainly African countries and recently the “Stans.”). I have taken the lead on bareboat, sailing adventures (Tahiti, the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, the San Juan Islands, and over 20 bareboat cruises in the Caribbean), but almost all the others have been Embry’s doing. Let’s hear it for the Iron Lady!
Which ones stand out the most? The answer to that question for me is easy. In first place is our 2015 adventure around the world without flying. You may have followed my blog posts on this. Second would be our 1992 adventure in Russia organized by our son, Andrew, who was living there at the time, when with both our children and about dozen of our good friends, we took the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to a tiny village on Lake Baikal and explored the wild and lonely Taiga Forest. The third would be for me (Embry still gives me a hard time about not being invited.), when I was part of a three-week US delegation to China in 1986 to confer with local officials in about a half dozen cities about the Chinese housing crisis. And every trip Embry and I have had has been a learning experience. Not a single one has been a loser, even though I have had to deal with physical “meltdowns” on several of them.
But here is what I do not understand: Why is it that countries are friends one day and mortal enemies the next and then in many cases friends again? What is this all about?
There are many examples. Take Japan. In 1962 my college roommate and I drove across the country to Seattle where we boarded a Pan Am flight to Tokyo to join a group of American and Japanese college students working that summer on a farm at the base of Mount Yatsu, Japan’s second tallest mountain. This was only 16 years after World War II! Yet the Japanese students could not have been nicer or more welcoming. At the end of the summer, I spent a week with a Japanese friend, who invited me to stay at his family’s apartment in Tokyo. As I entered the vestibule to his family’s apartment, there was a painting of his father in uniform, sword drawn, walking in front of several British generals all carrying white flags. He had been a general in the Japanese Army during the war and the first commanding officer of the Japanese post war, “Peace Army.” His whole family welcomed me as part of their family. I still have a large, framed photo in our apartment of Mt Fuji, which his father had taken and autographed and given to me as a “goodwill gift.”
Embry and I have visited Russia twice–once in 1992 on the trip to Siberia and again in 2015 on our trip around the world. Both times we were greeted warmly everywhere we went. Andrew made many Russian friends when he lived there. On our first visit, Gorbachev had just been forced out, but the United States was still viewed as a friend and ally, and there was so much hope for the country and for democracy and so much good will toward Americans. And now?
China is another example. In 1986 the housing delegation I was on was wined and dined by local officials everywhere we went. They viewed the U.S. as a model for housing policy and treated us like royalty. In that year, the country was just starting to open up, having gone through the Cultural Revolution without constructing much new housing. When asked what they should do, we told them to build more housing. When Embry and I returned in 2015 for a month of travel there on our trip around the world, new apartment houses were everywhere. They had constructed several million new units and very proud of their accomplishments—as indeed they should be. In that year Americans were treated as friends. And now?
And Cambodia and Vietnam. Enemies in the 1970s and friends today. We were welcomed everywhere we went when we visited both countries in the early 2000s with no mention of the “unpleasantries” that had happened just twenty-five plus years before.
The answer, of course, is that this is just the way it is. Get over it: bad leaders, and we humans are herd animals. Accept human nature for what it is.
China and Russia have nuclear weapons. So do a lot of other hostile countries. Iran will soon have them. What are the chances that these weapons will never be used, ever? What are the chances that a mistake or miscalculation will never occur, ever? What are the chances that none of these countries will ever have an irresponsible, nutcase dictator, who is willing to take unthinkable actions because he thinks he can get away with it?
And on top of all this, we have climate change threatening to transform the planet.
One takeaway from our world travels is that we live on a beautiful planet. What is scary is that it is far from certain that we will be able to keep it that way.