Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Flying the Friendly Skies

I did not come from a traveling family.

Granted, part of it was undoubtedly the sheer numbers - six daughters plus Mom and Dad - so cost and difficulty must have factored in. That and Mom had absolutely no curiosity about unknown places beyond wanting her ashes scattered over County Cork from whence her grandparents came.

For my family, travel meant two weeks in the Outer Banks each summer and honestly, I was grateful for that. One summer stands out because we broke rank and instead of heading south, drove to Portland, Maine and took a ferry across Casco Bay to Peak's Island, where we spent a month eating lobster, wandering the island and dipping our toes in the frigid water, despite it being July.

When I turned 21, I did what any travel-deprived young woman did in those days: marched myself into an American Express Travel office, sat down and asked for help planning my first trip. I'd talked a slightly younger girlfriend into joining me but she left all the decisions to me.

My burgeoning wanderlust was limited somewhat by my budget but I gave the agent a starting point: I wanted to go somewhere not touristy, preferably where the primary language was not English. Her suggestion was Guadeloupe - with a caveat that we should learn some French and that their tourism industry was in its infancy - a place I knew nothing about, which made it a perfect destination.

That my friend's mother was a native born Frenchwoman seemed like a good omen, although as it turned out, I spoke and read far better French than my friend did, even if it was schoolbook French.

Despite never having flown or so much as traveled without my parents, I don't recall any hiccups getting to the Caribbean island or navigating once there. My girlfriend, however, had several complaints starting with the food, much of it new to us. While I happily ate my first conch fritters and some whole fish we'd never heard of, she declined, planning to order a ham and cheese baguette once we got back to the hotel.

For the record, she ate one of those nearly every day we were there. Le sigh. She also experienced major homesickness which made me sorry I'd asked her in the first place. Lesson number one: choose your travel companions carefully.

During the time we were there, we went on day trips in rickety buses to see the island, learned to snorkel, took a sunset cruise in a questionable boat and went to a market where I bought locally-made bowls and a large handled basket, all of which I continue to use today. And while I still have the brown t-shirt I bought to remember the Hotel Meridien (though it's now faded to ghost lettering), an online search reveals that it's long-since been knocked down and turned into a resort.

So I guess tourism did finally arrive full-blown in Guadeloupe.

Tellingly, that vacation to a strange place with new foods and never-before seen sights lit something in me that's only grown with time. First it was other tropical places - Aruba, the Bahamas - and eventually other continents. Though I've only traveled alone a few times - Dallas, New Orleans, California, one of my two weeks in Italy - my solo flight to Dubrovnik last fall to meet up with my main squeeze reminded me of the pleasures of the unknown, even when it's just for the length of a flight.

So here I go again after multiple trips to the nearby AAA Travel for adapters and a phrase book, packing and repacking my dresses and dealing with usual Dulles madness. Only this time, I'm flying past a full moon to my next adventure as a stranger in a strange land, at least for a few days.

After that, you can be sure that lesson number one goes into effect. In travel, as in love and life, choosing the best possible companion is everything.

My 21-year old self had no idea how much she had to look forward to.

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