Recently I was musing on all the incredible things I’ve seen and people I’ve met around the world — and how many amazing things still await me, as the more I travel the longer that bucket list gets. Many of the fondest memories I have from my life have been when traveling, so I thought I would share my dozen best travel experiences I’ve ever had. I was going to do a Top 10 list, but deciding on the top events was a little difficult, so I rounded it up to a dozen. Here they are:
#1 – First Night in India, at a Children’s Orphanage (2005)
One of the most overwhelming, emotional, surreal and life-changing experiences in my life. It was my first day ever in India—itself an incredible culture shock—and that night I was sitting in a prayer room with over 100 orphaned children as their beautiful voices carried in song all around me. I felt at once a sense of homecoming; in India I discovered my “soul culture” (a place we did not come from but with which our entire being resonates), and I was welcomed into a second family that has been my family ever since. I was so inspired by this one night with these children that I wrote an entire book about them. I think of that night often, am going back this November for the sixth time to see them, and it stays in my heart as one of my best memories ever.
#2 – On Safari in Tanzania (2012)
This experience was just two months ago, in May 2012, but immediately vaulted itself to one of my best travels ever. Keith and I spent 10 days in Tanzania, going on safari to the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara National Park. We slept in tented camps and safari lodges, and went on game drives nearly every day.
Seeing these beautiful animals in the wild, in their natural habitat, was a dream come true (see my previous blog post and photo/video essay). Equally exciting was the morning that we spent with the Hadzabe, one of Africa’s last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes. Moments straight from National Geographic.
#3 – Loy Krathong Lantern Festival in Thailand (2010)
This enchanting festival is celebrated every year throughout Thailand, as well as in Laos and Burma. It takes place on the full moon in November, and with the spirit of Buddhism is symbolic of letting go of all one’s grudges, anger and defilements, so that one can start life afresh on a better foot. This is done via floating candles that are set upon the water, and large hot-air lanterns that are released into the night sky by the thousands. In fall 2010 Keith and I were staying at my friend and publisher Nola’s house in Chiang Mai, and she and her friends invited us to go to the festival with them. Thousands of people were gathered, and after a Buddhist blessing ceremony it was truly magical to watch the night sky fill with lanterns being released.
There was a close runner-up with the Pagoda Festival at Inle Lake in Burma. Here, where everything is built on stilts in the water and people get around by boat, the Buddha statue is transported from one wat to another by boat. This was also a really special experience, but I didn’t want to select more than one Asian Buddhist festival and if I have to pick between them, the sight of all those lighted lanters floating away into the sky won out.
#4 – Taking my Daughter to France (2000)
This trip was special to me for two reasons. It was the first time I took my daughter, Chandler, traveling internationally (she was 10 year old); and also because, after a week in Paris, we spent the next week in Normandy retracing my grandfather’s footsteps during World War II. My grandad, E.F. Smith, landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day and proceeded on to St. Lo with his platoon, liberating the town. From there they continued on to Mortain, where my grandfather was captured and taken prisoner of war by the Germans. Chandler and I traced his entire journey through France; when we were at the American Cemetery on the hill above Omaha Beach a ceremony was being conducted on the 56th anniversary of D-Day. It was incredibly moving, as was the parade in Arromanches with a speech by Winston Churchill’s granddaughter. Taking a photo at the memorial atop Hill 314 in Mortain, where Grandad was captured, was emotional.
#5 – First International Travel: Month-long Tour of Europe (1984)
I can’t leave out the first experience that gave me my lifelong wanderlust. Having been born into a pretty suburban, sheltered life without much opportunity for travel, I think my general nature combined with my love of reading and its discovery of other worlds, always inspired in me a deep desire to see the world. When my parents asked me what I wanted for a high school graduation present, I didn’t hesitate. The school was organizing a sponsored, month-long tour of Europe, and that’s what I wanted. I think my practical dad felt that the money would be gone and I would only have a few weeks to show for it; perhaps the money would be better used on a car or something. But the memories from that trip are still strong within me, nearly 30 years later, and this was my first stepping-stone into grand travel adventures. (Note: I had been to Mexico before, but when you live in Texas that hardly counts as international travel)
#6 – Angkor Wat, Cambodia with a CNN Hero (2010)
Of course, seeing the temples of Angkor Wat was awe-inspiring. But what made my first visit here even more special was being guided by CNN Hero Ponheary Ly, who survived the Khmer Rouge. After the horrendous genocide that killed her father, Ponheary became a teacher, as he had been. She saw first-hand how many Cambodian children did not have the opportunity to go to school; simply buying books or uniforms, or being able to get to school, was prohibitive. She eventually had to leave teaching to find a job that paid more, as she was helping to support her extended family. She became a tour guide, and started using some of her tips to send local children to school. A few became a few dozen, and today her foundation enables more than 2,000 kids to go to school. Hearing how she overcame her country’s brutal past, and getting to know this amazing woman, still inspires me.
Another highlight of my time in Siem Reap was receiving a private monk blessing ceremony. While thousands of people visit Angkor Wat every year (and I can go back to it any time), this monk blessing was something that you don’t often get the chance to experience. Kneeling before the elder monk and his two apprentices, prayers were chanted and water was sprinkled; we made our gift offerings and in the end, were blessed with wishes for health, happiness and prosperity.
#7 – Filming a Travel TV Show on the Great Wall of China (2009)
I went to China with a press group; there were two other writers besides myself, and the host and cameraman for Wine Portfolio television show, which travels around the world exploring places and their wine cultures. Yes, believe it or not, China has a burgeoning wine industry. We did a lot of fun and interesting things while filming the television program, including eating chicken’s feet, singing in a karaoke bar and participating in a “gan bei” contest (Gan bei means cheers and is followed by a shot of alcohol; at one dinner this custom got way carried away). But our last full day in China, and the finale shoot of the show, was spent on a private, unrestored portion of the Great Wall. Walking along, having it all to ourselves, with a champagne toast at sunset, was about as good as travel gets.
#8 – San Antonio and the Texas Coast with my Grandparents (1973)
This has to go in there because it is my very first travel memory. When I was six years old, my grandparents took me on a Texas road trip. We went to San Antonio and Corpus Christi. The only parts of the trip I really remember are my grandfather teaching me how to swim, and going up to eat dinner in the revolving restaurant at the tower in San Antonio.
My grandfather liked to tease me about being a “little lady” in my fancy dress in the restaurant, then coming out to a fair going on below, and turning back into a little girl in the bouncy house. I never forgot this trip (even the little I remember from it), and feel blessed to have had such loving grandparents.
#9 – Night Snorkeling with Giant Manta Rays in Hawaii (2008)
My mother and I took a great two-week trip to the Big Island of Hawaii; using airline miles and a home exchange, this must have been the cheapest Hawaiian vacation in history! We did a lot of amazing things, including a helicopter tour over the island and taking a night boat ride out to see the volcanic lava dripping, red hot, right off the edge of a cliff and into the ocean. But for me, the most memorable of those experiences was the night snorkel and dive with giant manta rays. With wing spans of up to eight feet, these creatures were intimidating at first when I was in the water with them. But you quickly realize how gentle and peaceful they are, and they swam and backflipped in circles right over me, as graceful as water angels. The fact that a National Geographic diver and photographer were in the same group as me didn’t hurt, either.
#10 – Getting Caught in a Protest in Chile (2011)
While on another press trip to this beautiful South American country, there were huge student protests being staged for education, all over the country. We witnessed protests several times, as well as hundreds of placards and schools that had been taken over by the students and barricaded with desks and chairs. But in Santiago one day, out on the streets we actually got swept up into a protest itself. Thankfully this one lacked any sort of violence or tear gas, but it was nevertheless exciting. I loved my time in Chile, especially walking a llama in the Atacama Desert and visiting Pablo Neruda’s house in Valparaiso.
#11 – Taking a Hammam in Morocco (2009)
Marrakech was a fascinating place, especially Djamaa El Fna, the main square where you can find love potions, snake charmers and male cross-dressing belly dancers. There, Keith and I also experienced our first (and only) Turkish hammam. I’ve had my share of unique massage/ayurveda/spa experiences around the world, but the hammam stands alone. After being ordered to strip naked and led into a marble room with two side-by-side slabs, we laid down and received the scrubbing of our lives from one Moroccan woman who spoke no English. She slathered mud all over us, she rubbed our skin nearly raw with a loofah—and she didn’t miss any part of our bodies. At times I felt about five years old as she scrubbed behind my ears and neck; at other times I was thinking, if you hadn’t already seen your companion naked this could be very embarrassing. Keith and I tried not to catch each other’s eye, as that only led to us cracking up laughing. My favorite part was how she rinsed us off; she simply filled bowls with water and threw the water on us.
#12 – Visiting Hemingway’s Studio in Key West (2007)
I am not only a traveler, but a writer as well, and of course I have my literary heros. And I felt I should be able to put another United States memory on this list. I absolutely love Key West; its colors and charms, accepting and outgoing personality, food and nightlife. But I really dug visiting the Ernest Hemingway house there (home of the six-toed cats)—and seeing his writing studio where he wrote To Have and Have Not, among others, was like going to church for me.
What is your favorite travel memory? Would love for you to share in the comments. And which of my favorite destinations would you most like to visit?
I loved going down memory lane with my travels; thanks for joining me!
Author’s Disclosure: One or two top travel memories were not shared here, on the grounds that I am not operating an adult content blog.