Friday, July 13, 2012

Coming to Love Travel part 1 - Paris, Geneva, Cozumel

This is the first of an occassional series of posts addressing how I came to love traveling and why I do it today.

My love affair with travel started young, and built slowly.

Paris Night
Sadly, I did not take this.
I was 10 years old when I first visited Europe. My dad had business in Geneva one summer, so my parents and I added Paris to the itinerary and made it a family vacation. I remember how Paris and Geneva dazzled me so. How unique and fairy-tale looking those cities were compared to the generic, cookie-cutter look of my native Southern California! Didn't great empires fight wars over these cities? Didn't my fourth grade teacher tell me that? And speaking of history, hadn't history been written in far away cities across the Atlantic in countries like France and Switzerland? Gothic cathedrals, stone villas, endless green hillsides, and the romance of strange languages spoken in winding cobblestone alleys through which kings and crusaders once walked left a magical impression on my 10-year old mind. "Paris must be the most exotic, exiciting city in the world," I told my parents the day we walked past Notre Dame Cathedral.

Nope. Didn't take this, either.
Dad had meetings to attend in Geneva, leaving Mom and I ample time to explore the city and its calm environs. One afternoon, she and I just sat on a bench along the lakeshore and watched the people go by. I remember they were well-dressed. Young men wore dark colored three piece suits and hats. Young women wore conservative dresses and heels. Old men in plaid jackets and dress pants held the hands of stately dressed old women wearing pearl necklaces and walked slowly past. Everyone carried themselves with a certain understated elegance lacking in beachy Southern California. These Swiss seemed me. "Geneva must be the most beautiful, wealthiest, and peaceful place in the world," I thought in between lunches at outdoor cafes and afternoon strolls with my Mom around Lake Geneva. I wanted to see more of Switzerland, of Europe. All too quickly, though, Dad's meetings ended and the vacation did too. The three of us returned home. School started again in September, and so did the afternoon cartoons. Slowly I forgot how wonderous it felt to be far away from home, but my daydreams took me back to Europe every once and again.

I had visited family in the Phillippines prior to that Euopean summer trip, and again as a teenager. It was not until my late 20s, though, that I rediscovered how free traveling made me feel...and how exciting travel was. In March 2004, I went on a a spring break trip to Cozumel, Mexico with friends from my MBA program. I thought getting out of frigid Pennsylvania and into some tropical sun would do me a world of good. And I had never traveled abroad with a group of friends before. I wanted to see what that was like.

Sascha, your author, Kristen, and Lee (March 2004)
For five days, my friends and I snorkled, explored, ate and drank. More importantly, I made memories. I fondly remember my friends Sascha, Lee and Kristen trying to teach me how to drive a stick shift on a dirt road with the old jeep we rented. After stalling out four times and forcing terrible noises out of the ancient transmission, I gave up; but I didn't stop laughing about the experience for days. I remember, too, exploring vine-covered old ruins with my friends, snorkeling in a crystal blue sea, and langorously sunbathing beneath a sapphire sky.

One night around one in the morning, I left my friends at loud, gaudy Senior Frog's to explore San Miguel de Cozumel on foot, alone, in the wee hours of Saturday morning. I'll never forget walking away from the strip of tourist bars and through the town's residential area. The night was humid, steamy, and I had it all to myself. I walked the deserted streets and alleys for an hour, just enjoying the night. An hour after I started, I found an open air restaurant in the front of someone's house. The owner, his wife and their friend were gathered around a TV watching an awful 1980's gang fight movie that I remembered was a staple of late night TV in my youth. I rolled up with a big smile and an "Hola!" and sat down at one of the many open tables.

Hamburguesa? No! (March 2004)
The owner looked a little confused as to why a tipsy gringo would wander so far from the main strip in search of food at 2AM on a Saturday and helpfully asked while pointing at a picture of a hamburger, "Hamburguesa?" A hamburger? Damn it! They know I'm American! But how? Could it have been my New Balance sneakers, khaki shorts, and Polo shirt? But I'm sporting a tan! "No gracias," I calmly replied. "Tres carne tacos por favor y queso y papas y agua." I hung out there for an hour, eating and conversing with my hosts in laughably incompetent Spanish. I tried to tell them how the terrible movie ended but I didn't have the Spanish to describe it, and they lacked the English to help me. They did nod often, though, and smile frequently too. It must have been nearly sunrise when I finished the last French fry, bid my hosts "adios", and located a cab to take me back to my hotel. Ha! Now that's a Saturday morning. Take that, boring Orange County, CA and frigid Pittsburgh, PA.

Sascha, Lee, and Kristen (March 2004)
That early morning sojourn wasn't even my favorite memory from that trip. My favorite memory came at the end of a day driving around the island with my friends in our beatup, old rented jeep and stopping to explore whatever caught our fancy. We left mid-morning that day to give us plenty of time to be out. By late that afternoon, we finally reached the far side of the island, the western side. We were tired and the afternoon light was just starting to show hints of gold as the sun moved lower in the sky. We came upon a reggae bar on the beach, not far from some cute houses, painted brightly in yellows, oranges and blues. We stopped the jeep, got out, ordered a few rounds of cerveza, drank and talked. Mostly, though, we savored our beers and the breezy afternoon together as our trip, and the day, wound down.

A decade of career ambition put my wanderlust in hibernation, but did not bury it. I HAD to do this traveling thing again, I thought.


  1. Congrats for your vacations in Cozumel. It is a beatiful place with fun activities. Here is some info on some of them if anyone is interested: scuba diving and snorkeling in Cozumel