The Gift of Travel

When we set out to do Just Imagine Vacations it was because our travels went well beyond those we focused on for which was Mexico’s Yucatan.  One of the things I wanted to do was encourage others to spread their wings and travel.  I know where my wanderlust comes from, my father; he loved to go to new places.  He and his wife had the advantage of being able to travel as retired military, so they would pack 2 bags, one for cold weather another for warm.  With their bags packed they would head to the base and check in, seeing what flight was available and where it was going.  No plans, no itinerary.  I am not quite that carefree in my traveling.  Maybe one day.

My father believed that travel opened the mind and made people better.  I think it goes a step further and opens the soul as well.  It is hard to hold on to stereotypes we have learned from others when we travel to another part of the world and meet its citizens. 

Many people travel in the safety of groups and choose to stay on the premises of the resort they are staying at.  That to me is like dipping your toe in a pool, you are not really getting the true experience.  I am more of a dive in the deep end kind of girl. 

That said, I’ve been thinking of how my travels have altered who I am.  What have I personally taken away from each place, each culture and what experience stands out?

The Caribbean has always had a pull on me.  It is easy to get to and the islands are so numerous that that alone intrigues me. I love the music of the islands and the way it makes you sway and how it puts a smile on your face whether it is reggae, salsa or just the sound of steel drums.  I love the warmth of the sun and the way the sultry evenings caress your skin. I love water so warm it feels like a bath and so full of sea life that you can spend hours exploring it.  I love the sunsets into the ocean and the occasional green flash and the laid-back patience of the people and their welcoming open arms.  I go to the islands and I feel my entire being gets rejuvenated.  It takes very little time for me to have this overflowing sense of peace. 

One of my favorite memories of the Caribbean was when we were on a snorkeling tour with “Shaman” in the BVIs; he jokingly nick-named me Rasta Pasta.  His laugh was infectious. He took us out for a day on the water with no plan in mind.  Towards the end of the day he saw a relative of his out fishing and brought our boat up next to his.  He talked us into buying fresh lobsters right out of the trap.  When I asked how to cook them he said, “No worries, I will come and prepare them the way my grandmother taught us.”  We dined that night on the freshest most flavorful lobster with a wonderful man we will probably never see again.  But he will live on in our memories and remind me to always embrace those spontaneous moments life gives you.

Italy is another place we hope to go back to.  It touched us in a very different way.  It fed our minds with history while feeding our bodies with the best food and wine.  I do not enjoy museums.  There, I said it, I can do a museum in record time, but to stand on the steps and walk the paths of history touches me.  Italy is so full of history from so many amazing times.  It is like a playground and you can sit and feel the energy, of these historical characters come to life.  Climb a castle and imagine what it was like to have that be your view looking off into the ocean or imagine defending it from a siege.  Walk the streets of Pompeii and look at the ruts cut over years of horse drawn wheels.  Visit a hill town in Tuscany and admire the cathedrals.  Walk through the streets of Rome and imagine the crowds cheering a chariot driver.  Take a boat down the canals of Venice and imagine the trading that once made it the heart of the trade world. All the while walking for miles and dining on the most amazing food from the freshest ingrediencies and washing it all down with amazing wine.

One of my favorite memories was sitting at a bus stop in Vietre del Sur when an elderly woman, dressed in black with her scarf around her head, started to talk to me. Her hands were going, and she spoke with such passion – I have no idea about what.  I knew from my limited Spanish that she was talking about her late husband.  Yet I was drawn into her story.  When she stopped talking there was that awkward moment when I knew I was supposed to share something.  I smiled and shrugged my shoulders and told her I didn’t speak Italian.  She grabbed my face with both her hands and kissed my cheeks repeatedly all the while beaming with such joy.

French Polynesia restored all sense of hope to my being.  A place so pristine and protected.  A place that the only apparent change is from thousands of years of the natural elements’ wear and tear on an island.  A place where you can see with your own eyes what a newly formed volcanic island looks like, and see what happens over thousands of years as its coral reefs develop right up to its last breaths as an atoll, as it slowly slips back into the sea.  How the ancient culture still is shared and how it respects and worships nature.  Your eyes will ache with numerous shades of greens and blues. And you will breathe in a way you only can knowing crime is minimal and you are safe to soak up the wonders from the highest peaks to the depth of the ocean.  It is what the world could and should be like!  A microcosm of harmony, as they say, “only the lazy starve here,” given the abundance of fish and the fertility of the volcanic soil. I imagine this place to be a combination of the Garden of Eden and Heaven. 

I went to French Polynesia with one thing on my list to see and do, and that was to watch the spinner dolphins in their natural habitat.  Of course, we did and saw a lot more in our almost 3 weeks, but that was #1 on my list.  I booked several tours which guaranteed 95% chance of encountering spinner dolphins.  But alas, each and every time, to the surprise of many, I saw no dolphins.  Convinced I would have to come back another time I went to bed our last night.  We woke early for our flight, only to find out that it had been cancelled and that Air France would be picking up our expenses for 24-more-hours in paradise.  So we went down to the concierge and explained all the places I had been to see dolphins but had not yet seen any.  She was shocked, and said she had just seen them the other day on her friend’s boat.  She made a call and arranged to have us taken out on a small hard-bottomed inflatable to where the dolphins loved to play.  When we explained all the places throughout French Polynesia we had been with no sightings our guide was also shocked and said he hoped today would make up for it. What happened within 10 minutes was still to this day hard to believe.  Not one, not two but probably 3 large pods of spinner dolphins came out to play.  They raced our boat, they swam under and popped up beside us, they leaped, they surfaced, they put on a show that surpassed my wildest imagination.  It took every ounce of restraint to not jump into the middle of them.  I asked if I could and was told yes, BUT the dolphins would probably leave, so I settled for the most amazing 45 minute dolphin show.  They brought me to tears and my face hurt from smiling so big and so long.  I will be back!

The last place that has touched me has done so slowly, over years  and in a much subtler way.  That place is Mexico. When I hear people criticize this place and its people it stings me deeply.  Loyalty and devotion is what I have gained from this place and the amazing friends I have met here.  I have been to this country as a wide-eyed young woman.  I have been here with family, friends, co-workers, clients and strangers, during good times and bad.  I have vacationed, worked, volunteered and taught.  And each and every time I have felt safe and supported.  Whether I was part of a spay and neuter clinic helping the poorest give their pets a better life or cleaning up after a hurricane, taking people on tours, traveling for stories or enjoying a vacation, I have always come away from my time in Mexico a better person!

Next year is our year to finally savor this wonderful place as we will spend 3 months traveling from the northern border to the tips of the Yucatan.  I have no one memory that stands out, instead I have tastes, sounds and best friends woven together like a supportive, colorful hammock. 

I am not so presumptuous as to believe that I could instill in others the wanderlust my dad instilled in me, but I do hope by sharing our experiences through Just Imagine Vacations that maybe one more person will step out of their comfort zone and see what the world has to offer. And if that is you, be prepared to be forever changed.

Lydia Pontius