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…