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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: December 2023

Why Travel?

Gerald Joseph Todaro

Why Travel? Lund Photography

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I doubt if any of us ask this question with the same wonderment we had in our 20s when the primary objective was fun at a beach and wild nights. Spring break in Ft. Lauderdale, Panama City, and the Bahamas were ideal reprieves from the rigors of cramming for college exams. My first travel experience that combined fun and learning came about as a member of a group of students from the University of Tennessee and the University of Florida, spending the summer in Bogota, Colombia. Our objective was helping to build a school in a barrio on the outskirts of Bogota, high on Montserrat mountain. I asked the chairman of the Spanish department why I was getting this free trip to South America. He told me something I have never forgotten. We want you to experience and appreciate other cultures and respect their differences.

Summertime in North America is wintertime in South America, the nighttime temperatures in Bogota dip into the high 40s. On our first day at the barrio, I saw little children running barefoot. I saw little girls with no clothing below their waist, no shoes, and no underwear playing in the dirt, and I observed many families living in tin shelters. The higher up the mountain, the poorer the family shelters. On the bus ride back to our host families, I was not the only one sick to his stomach.

We visited an oil pumping station in Catatumbo where I learned of underlying resentment of American companies’ inequitable extraction of raw materials and natural resources. This was my first experience of anti-Americanism.

Two years later, while back packing in Europe, I spent a week in Pamplona, Spain. I ran with bulls with my buddy from Australia. I’m not saying that running for your life was in anyway a learning experience, but drinking cheap wine from a bota wine skin at the afternoon bullfights were Hemingway moments. In the evenings we had to steer clear of gangs of local youths angered at the invasion of hordes of Americans ruining their festival.

The Chautauqua Institution is a century old “community of artists, educators, thinkers, and faith leaders dedicated to exploring the best in humanity.” I grew up 10 miles from the Institution on Chautauqua Lake, New York and spent a lot of time there, but not for the thinking part, college girls worked at the hotels in the summer, and the drinking age in New York at the time was 18. In 1988, the Chautauqua Institution set up a series of exchanges of government officials and citizens with the Soviet Union. Now married with children, I was considered a safe bet to be part of the representative group of Americans headed to Leningrad (St. Petersburg).

Our first days in the Soviet Union were shocking. The phones did not work, the food was awful, and no one on the street offered a smile. However, we were treated to a night at the Bolshoi, classical musician concerts, and dance artists during our two-week visit. We jumped the long line of Soviet citizens queued up in the Red Square to see Lenin’s tomb. President Reagan called the Soviet Union the evil empire. But when we met our Russian counterparts, our first and lasting impression was ”they were just like us,” they had the same desires, goals, and concerns for personal achievement, family, and their children’s wellbeing, not exactly the evil empire I envisioned. The Soviet Apparatchik, of course, was a different “kettle of fish.”

Our second stop was Moscow. Me and another lawyer wanted to visit a courthouse. Our driver asked people on the street if they could direct us to a courthouse, even a couple of policemen, but no one had a clue. We drove around Moscow for nearly 2 hours. Finally, we pulled up to a building that looked like a warehouse and entered through a non-descript side door. We were shown to a room that had the semblance of a courtroom. We met a judge. Through our interpreter we asked about civil procedure for recovering money for injuries. “Nyet,” was her response.

I returned to Russia in the mid-90s working on loan through the EXIM bank for a company part of GAZPROM. By then Russia was not safe for foreigners. I could not travel without one of my Russian friends by my side.

In recent years, my wife and I have traveled in Europe visiting the vineyards of France, Italy, and Spain. We stay in 3-star hotels. We save our money for food, wine, and excursions. And apparently, if one spends long afternoons going in and out of busy shops, trying on dresses and shoes, women’s fashionable clothing can be found at bargain prices…so I’m told. We have met lovely people everywhere; the police are friendly to lost and bewildered Americans driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Tour buses aside, Americans are welcomed in Europe, but keep in mind Americans are viewed as generous tippers. When traveling as a tourist, we try not to disappoint.

When the Voice of Experience board asked me to pen a short article on travel, it was a result of me saying how much my family enjoyed going to the Cayman Islands at Christmas time year after year. It was suggested I explain what draws us to the Island. The Caymans, like many of the Caribbean Islands, is a place to vacation and relax, unless of course, you bring along young children. In January, it is sunny, in the low 80s during the day, mid 70s at night. The water is warm, clear, and crystal blue. The sandy beach stretches 7 miles and there is world class scuba diving a half mile off shore. Food can be expensive and the hotels pricey, but sunset on the beach is celestial. The evening tradition on the shoreline is watching a bright orange ball sink into the Caribbean Sea against the back drop of a pinkish red and tangerine sky while sipping a glass of wine or your favorite cocktail. That, my friends is vacationing.