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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Going Places

"As often as possible, go someplace you’ve never been before." -- the Dalai Lama
This statement reflects how I am living my life in retirement, by making a point of traveling to countries and places I have never before visited. Last year, I went hiking in Turkey and Vermont, as well as visiting Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro. So far this year, I have visited Yellowstone National Park and Churchill, Canada. Upcoming trips will take me to Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, England and Costa Rica. I also have plans to go hiking in the Lake District of England and Washington's Olympic Peninsula, and to return to Yellowstone and St. Petersburg, Russia. I recently spent a few wonderful days in Sedona, AZ, hiking and photographing the beautiful red rock formations, and I have reservations to visit the beautiful Monument Valley of Arizona this summer.

In addition to visiting new places, I like to challenge myself to go out of my comfort zone and try new things, such as snowshoeing, curling and night photography. I have set aside my extreme dislike of cold weather for a winter wildlife watching trip to Yellowstone National Park and to search for and attempt to photograph the northern lights in far northern Canada. I wanted to visit those places, and in order to do that, I had to endure the cold.

I already have booked a trip to Israel and Jordan in 2015, as well as a photography trip to the great canyons of the Southwest and a polar bear viewing trip in Churchill, Canada. A summer trip to Alaska is also on the list.

As many have written before, traveling gives us an opportunity to see, experience and learn about other lands, people and cultures. I learned that I really like Turkish food, for example, and as someone who studied Latin for four years in high school, I was thrilled to visit several 2,000-year-old Roman coliseums. But what makes traveling abroad especially fun for me is interacting with local residents. When I lived in Moscow, I liked to talk with locals (in Russian). As I sat on a bench near the sea in Split, Croatia, a woman asked to sit on the bench as well. We soon started talking (I speak no Croatian, but she spoke decent English) and we had a nice chat. As a student of Russian language and history, I enjoyed hearing her recollections of living under Soviet rule in the former Yugoslavia. She even recited a poem in Russian that she had memorized while in school.

Traveling has many benefits. As an avid amateur photographer, travel presents countless opportunities to see the places I visit with a photographer's eye. It allows me to share photos of my journey with friends and family who may never get to visit the places I go.

Travel has made me, an introvert, more social. Often I am the only person in my group traveling solo, so I have been forced to get acquainted with others in my group. My trip to Turkey saw the development of a friendship with another solo female traveler; we are going to Africa together this year. I am still in touch (via e-mail and Facebook) with one of my Turkish guides. During last year's trip to Croatia and Slovenia, I became friends with three Jewish women, who invited me to join them for lunch and dinner at various times during our trip. And I am now Facebook friends with a woman who with her husband was part of February's trip to Churchill, Canada. My travels have made me more comfortable talking with strangers.

Traveling gives me more things to talk about and makes me a more interesting person. It also has made me more confident. It helps keep me young and involved. I like being adventurous, and it feels good to push my boundaries and go beyond my comfort zone. Traveling also has made me more adaptable. The weather doesn't cooperate, the connecting flight is delayed; whatever comes up, I am better able to handle it. I am not in control, so I have to learn to let go.

I lived in an apartment in Moscow for 3-1/2 months in the late 1990s. I was lucky in that my employer provided transportation to work and a per diem, as well as a nice place to live. But I learned to get my groceries the way the Russians do -- by visiting street vendors for produce, a mobile kiosk for bread, another shop for meat, etc. I learned to appreciate the wealth of foods available in American grocery stores, and the convenience and quality they offer.

I think travel has made me smarter. I got to experience first-hand, and understand, things about Russia I had only read about and studied in college. I learned to navigate the Moscow subway system, how to buy a pass for the subway, how to order a kilo of cheese and how to ask for directions. I learned how proud the people of Russia are, refusing to keep the change even when their poverty was obvious.

Travel in other countries also makes me realize how wealthy we in America truly are. We don't have to wonder whether the grocery store will be out of bread, or whether we will have hot water or heat. I have seen the shabby houses in Croatia and Montenegro, and the drab Soviet-era apartments in Moscow. I have visited a small village in western Siberia where the bathroom is an unheated outhouse several yards away.

I know that the kind of travel I do is expensive; I stay in nice hotels and travel on guided tours. I am fortunate that I have the means to do this kind of travel. How about you? Are you going to sit at home, wishing you could visit some place you've never been before? Or are you going to expand your horizons and plan a trip, whether it's in your own state or to another country?

The choice is yours.