Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

When it comes to travel, the people make the place.

“The people make the place,” I told my nephew J.J. during our two-week trip to Greece last summer. He seemed to grasp this intuitively, loving Athens for the warmth of its inhabitants as much as the magnificence of the Acropolis. Yet I felt compelled to voice the thought anyway, because it encapsulates a travel and life philosophy I hoped he might adopt.

I’ve lived in the D.C. area for nearly all of my 46 years, and I have a long and dynamic list of things I love about the physical place, including: jogging the length of the Mall, strolling through the Cherry Blossoms in the spring, singing along to the likes of Barry Manilow at Wolf Trap, taking in any of the Smithsonian museums, having a lazy brunch somewhere on 8th Street and then wandering around Eastern Market, watching the Fourth of July fireworks at the Air Force Memorial, or driving 90 minutes west to hike Old Rag. It’s all familiar, in the best possible way.

But I also have a long-running list of beefs about this area, such as: traffic, soulless sprawl, politics, short-timing posers (you know the archetype: a windbag who isn’t actually from here and kicks off every conversation with, “What do you do?” as a way to gauge whether you’re worth talking to), short tempers, total inability to deal with more than three flakes of snow, and a ridiculously high cost of living. It’s all familiar, in the worst possible way. But even when the D.C. area serves up its very worst, it still has the greatest concentration of what matters to me most: my family and friends. Without those relationships, this place, while full of beauty, culture and history, would feel empty to me.

I take the same view when traveling: the way the people make me feel when I visit a place matters as much to me as the surroundings, if not more. Perhaps nowhere else in the world do the people enhance the enchantment of stunning scenery as they do on Crete. I wrote that Cretans are so genuinely friendly they make Athenians seem aloof, and it’s true. But of the people we encountered on Crete, my two favorites weren’t even from Greece, much less Crete. They were a pair of New Yorkers, Jennifer and Scott, who happened to be relaxing at our hotel’s seaside pool when I settled into an empty chaise lounge right next to them.

Jennifer said a friendly “hello” immediately, a scary opener to an introvert like me, who doesn’t always relish small talk with strangers. But after nearly two weeks in the company of an 18 year-old, I felt a bit starved for peer conversation and engaged without hesitation. It soon proved to be one of my better decisions. When I explained that I was traveling with my nephew, she wanted to know all about J.J. and listened intently as I gushed about how lucky I feel to be his aunt. Then we got to talking about the market near the hotel and discovered we both love to go to little local stores like that and shop for regular stuff, like toothpaste.

“I just like to see how it’s different,” I said.

The words were barely out of my mouth when she said, “Me too!”

Scott heard this, shook his head, and chuckled. We were off to the races.

Jennifer and I soon learned we also share a love of  handwritten letters and beautiful paper. When I write a letter by hand, I choose the writing surface carefully, the thoughts I place on it even more carefully, and the recipient most carefully of all. It takes time and effort, making it one of my favorite and most heartfelt ways to express affection. I cranked out letters weekly until the early 2000s, when the digital age nudged most of my correspondents, and me, in the direction of emails and texts. Jennifer bucked that tide. For her entire adult life, she’s been writing letters, notes and postcards to let people know that she cares about them, that she cherishes their connection.

In 1988, while traveling with Scott in Malaysia, Jennifer wrote a thank-you note on a postcard of New York for the kindly rickshaw driver who’d taken them on a tour through a town called Melaka. The impact of that note rippled beyond the driver, who saved it, and extended all the way to Rolf Potts, an accomplished travel writer who encountered both driver and postcard nearly twenty years later. Rolf relays the story, and its significance, beautifully:

Early in 1988, a newlywed couple from the States was traveling in Malaysia. While in the ethnically diverse, historical treasure-trove of a town called Malacca (Melaka), they hired the services of a 60-year-old rickshaw driver named Peter Ong. Thanks to a simple act of thoughtfulness on their part, Peter remembers them still today.

I met Peter myself in late 2007, when he also offered his rickshaw services to me. Pulling out a handful of postcards from previous customers, he seemed particularly happy with one from New York and invited me to check out the back, which read:

Dear Mr. Ong,

You’ve been a wonderful and knowledgeable tour guide through Melaka. You were kind and thoughtful (thanks for the bag of bananas!).

Thanks for recommending Chang Hoe Hotel.

Best Wishes,
Scott & Jennifer Ingber
New York USA

The card was dated January 30, 1988, and friction had so worn the front cover that New York’s skyscrapers seemed to be chain smoking. Though I didn’t take Peter up on his offer—I needed to stay on foot to get the pictures I was after—we did talk for several minutes while waiting under an awning for a rain shower to pass. I learned that Peter was born in January 1928, that he’d been driving a rickshaw for 40 years, and that he had seven grown kids living in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.

Months later I would google Scott and Jennifer and see their 1987 wedding announcement in the New York Times. Other than what I read there—he was a doctor and she a nurse—I know nothing about them. Except, I suppose, that their tangible thoughtfulness is still remembered two decades later by a man in Malacca, and has probably helped that man grow his business.

When Peter Ong holds up his postcard, then, he is not just showing us New York; he is reminding us that in travel, even when we give in small ways in a town through which we are so briefly passing, it matters.

I read the blog post while sitting next to Jennifer, its insightful last lines completing the lesson I hoped to impart to my nephew. I told J.J. the story over dinner that night.

“Are you serious?” he said, his face a study in astonishment. “That’s pretty damned amazing.” J.J. had liked Jennifer and Scott –they were the rare adults who managed to show interest in him without being nosy –and I could tell the story raised their stock in his eyes exponentially.

I pulled up Rolf’s blog post on my phone, read the final paragraph aloud, and said, “Remember what I said about how the people make the place?” J.J. nodded. “Well, those people who make a place special won’t know they did that for you unless you tell them. So whenever you can, find a way to let them know they made a difference.”

I resolved to redouble my own efforts in that department. After Jennifer and I became friends on Facebook, we cemented the connection by going old-school and exchanging home addresses. Since July, a trip to the mailbox holds the prospect of not just another $5 coupon from Bed, Bath & Beyond but also one of Jennifer’s wonderful notes. Any time one arrives, I’m transported to Crete for a few happy moments and reminded that friendship borne out of travel is an incomparable souvenir.

A recent gem...

A recent Jennifer gem…

 

Have nephew, will travel (Part II)

[When last we left our heroes, my nephew J.J. and I had spent a few days in Athens…]

My favorite dialogue of the entire trip happened while J.J. and I were riding in a cab for the second time. We had left our hotel in Athens before 6 a.m. –hours ahead of my nephew’s normal wakeup time –and were headed to the airport to catch an early morning flight to Crete.

As we whizzed through the city in the dark, J.J. said, “Will the airport have someplace where I can brush my teeth?”

“Yes,” I said. And because sometimes you ask a question when you already know the answer but want it to be different, I said, “Why, though? Didn’t you do it already?” He shook his head.

“I never brush my teeth before breakfast. I don’t see the point.”

I understood his logic: he was just trying to be efficient. Why brush your teeth and spoil only your breakfast when, by not brushing and merely exhaling, you can jeopardize meal enjoyment for everyone within a five-foot radius?

At the risk of making the kid feel like he’d been sent not to Greece but to finishing school, I laid down the second rule of our trip: If you’re gonna have breakfast in public, always —always –brush your teeth first.

That stinker had the nerve to say, “And don’t forget your napkin.” Apparently I’m the only one who cares if the kid ever lands a second date.

He brushed, we boarded, and an hour later we had landed on Crete. It didn’t take us long to discover that Cretans treat you with such warmth they make Athenians seem aloof, and that Crete’s natural beauty rivals the manmade magnificence of the Acropolis. We once again began with a taxi from the airport to the old town of Chania. We might have found the lack of traffic-related excitement disappointing had we not been so busy gawking every time we got a peek at the turquoise sea framed by mountains and rugged rock formations. Though we’d only just arrived, I already knew I wouldn’t want to leave.

We spent our first day in Chania at the Venetian harbor, where we ate breakfast by the docks, walked along the rocky seawall to the lighthouse, and refined J.J.’s bargain-hunting skills in the shops that line the cobbled alleys of the old city. IMG_3198Though my nephew had loved everything we ate in Athens, the food on Crete blew his mind. Our first meals were unfussy but beautiful and delicious, expertly prepared with ingredients that had been freshly picked or fished from someplace nearby. And, just as we had done in Athens, we continued to eat our body weight in tzatziki at every meal but breakfast.

To increase the chances that our clothes would still fit us by the end of the trip, I signed us up to hike the Samaria Gorge the next day. I’d heard it was spectacular and that the 16-kilometer hike, while taxing, is pretty much all downhill. Both rumors turned out to be true, though the people who recommended the gorge so highly had said nothing about the bus ride to the park entrance. To get there, you have to pass through, around and over a whole bunch of mountains, and there’s just no easy way to do it.

We were still in the relatively flat part of the bus ride when the guide, who had a heavy accent but looked like a middle-aged Jeff Spicoli, mentioned he had plastic bags on hand in case the last part of the ride made anyone feel queasy. I gave J.J. a “don’t you dare” look. I love my nephew, of course, but just a year earlier I’d gotten stuck holding the proverbial bag for my niece, Emily, as my sister Lynne sped us to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I had no desire to repeat the experience with better scenery.

Thirty minutes of hairpin turns followed and the bus pulled into the park entrance. My equilibrium felt a little off, but J.J. looked positively green. Small wonder, then, that his immediate reaction to the gorge was to disgorge: the poor kid threw up everything he’d ever eaten. Future meals, too, from the sounds of things.

Though glad he’d managed to avoid tossing his cookies on the bus, I felt terrible for subjecting him to such misery. I immediately offered him an out, but he insisted he wanted to do the hike. With some reluctance, I agreed, and we proceeded slowly.

After we’d stopped for three barf breaks in the span of 45 minutes, I began to worry about dehydration and said, “I think I’d better tell Spicoli.”

J.J. got no further than “Aunt Wheat, please…” before he hurled again. I knew he didn’t want me to say anything, but I faced a true aunt’s dilemma: on the one hand, my sister Suzi would kill me if I let anything happen to him. On the other, I understood that J.J.’s ego might suffer a mortal wound if word ever got out that he traversed Samaria Gorge on the back of a donkey, which happened to be the only form of rescue transport available. I agreed to give it a few more minutes, but only a few more minutes.

My nephew used those few minutes to marshal his life forces and mount the most miraculous rebound I’ve ever witnessed. By Kilometer 5, the color of his face had improved from lime green to chalk. By Kilometer 7, he was nibbling a Clif bar, sipping Gatorade, and remarking that the way the sunlight changed the color of the rocks as we went made the gorge “magical.” My nephew is not given to Thoreau-like observations, which made me think he was suffering from heat stroke after all and that I should hail the next donkey. But he managed to convince me he really was just impressed.

IMG_3252.JPGAnd who wouldn’t be? Wild, immense, and majestic, Samaria Gorge is enchanting. It offers spectacular scenery, with towering walls that at times stand 1000 feet above you and only 15 feet apart. Lovely greenery abounds, and a near-constant stream of spring water means endless and refreshing refills.

The hike ends just before the village of Agia Roumeli, where the perfect reward awaits: a swim in the sapphire waters of the Libyan Sea. IMG_3271.JPGWe cooled off, stretched our limbs, and then relaxed on the sand for a while before taking a ferry and then a significantly less-nauseating bus ride back to the Chania harbor. We arrived in time to catch our second Cretan sunset, whose colors and resplendence overwhelmed me to the point of tears.

“Can we go eat now?” my nephew said, breaking my reverie. He was well within his rights, because there was more tzatziki to be eaten, by God, and this time we had earned it.

[To be continued…]

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