If my suitcase could talk
By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Travel Editor
"Why did those guards stop me for so long?" I asked my Russian-born tour guide after I finally got past the immigration booth at Moscow's Sheremetevo Airport.
"They know you are journalist," replied Misha, matter of factly, "and they want you to know that they know."
That incident took place in May 1988, when I was finishing my first year as travel editor of the St. Petersburg Times by touring the Soviet Union. Now I am starting my 16th year -- enough time to reflect on the experiences and memories, most of them wonderful.
When I began work as the paper's first full-time travel editor, in charge of the new weekly section, I had worked 18 years for the Times in various jobs, but I had no passport. My first was issued in August 1987; I am well into my second. National-entry stamps in those passports range from Canada to Thailand, from Costa Rica to Jordan, from Brazil to, of course, the now-dissolved Soviet Union.
Second passport, third laptop computer, third and fourth cameras. (The newspaper changed from film to digital photography 15 months ago, but I still carry my film-using Canon, with its 28-210mm lens.)
With those tools and countless spiral-bound notebooks, I have brought back observations to share with you:
--The thrill of sitting in the cockpit as the Concorde landed.
--The awkwardness of stumbling upon a couple engaged in sex in a stairwell on the ancient wall surrounding the Old City of Jerusalem.
--The poignancy of Anne Frank's hideaway rooms in Amsterdam -- and the startling discovery of the open window, a thing never possible during her family's fearful years there.
I wrote about mishaps:
--Paying a huge fine as I exited Portugal's only superhighway because I had not known to take a ticket from a machine as I entered the toll road.
--Having my camera stolen by talented pickpockets on a streetcar in Budapest.
--Waking up in the bathroom of a Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) restaurant after having too much last-night-of-our-trip vodka and champagne and no food.
There are also some experiences I have not recounted until now:
--The adrenaline rush I felt aboard a U.S.-bound plane as I read with morbid fascination an article on the stalled investigation of the bombing of the Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland. While I was reading, my plane's captain announced that in another few minutes we'd be flying over land for the last time before crossing the Atlantic, and below us just now was . . . Lockerbie, Scotland.
--Eating a cooked pig's ear at the traditional Brazilian brunch called feijoada -- it was chewy, with little taste -- and eating Rocky Mountain oysters in Denver -- ram testicles, crunchy from the batter, with no taste.
--Passing more candles on my 55th birthday than I saw on all the previous birthdays combined: I walked that night for nearly a mile through a canyon, lit by luminarias, that leads to the Treasury facade carved into rock walls 13 centuries ago at Petra, Jordan.
--Stumbling up the tree root- and boulder-strewn path to reach the top of Mount Rushmore, only to realize, once there, that I'm afraid of heights.
I have seen treasures in some of the world's great museums -- not just paintings, sculptures and porcelains, but astonishing exhibitions of Native American handicrafts, classic cars, trolleys and buses, arsenals of military items and firearms, even comic strip and historical animation collections.
Among my two dozen or so trips on cruise ships, I had only one discomforting moment. It came when an officer aboard the Queen Elizabeth II explained why there had been an announcement about closing the water-tight doors below a certain deck number:
"We are about 70 miles south of where the Titanic went down, and we practice sealing the lower decks because this is still iceberg territory, even in May."
I have written about the awesome glory of the Grand Teton mountains, still my favorite site among natural destinations. And I have written of the grandeur of the Great Pyramid -- an image known through much of the world even by people who cannot find Egypt on a map.
The pyramids are in what we might call a suburb of Cairo, a city whose street traffic is anarchy, as heavily laden donkey carts compete for space with motorists who ignore red lights.
How unlike that is the Paris traffic as viewed from atop the Arc de Triomphe: What seems to be all the world's cars hurry to join the merry-go-round of vehicles circling the monument's base.
I have had pleasant surprises: In Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, employees in three garages combined to change a couple of flattened tires -- covered by rental-car insurance -- but wouldn't even accept a tip.
And some not-so-pleasant surprises: In a tiny cocktail lounge high above Helsinki, a commentator broadcasting on national radio told me in perfect English that Finns resented the fact that then-President Ronald Reagan was about to spend less than a day in this capital city -- to recover from jet lag -- before proceeding to meetings in Moscow.
The commentator pointed his finger at me and instructed, "Tell your readers: Finland is not a place to come to change your shirt."
That serves as a capsule of the most important lesson I've learned in traveling beyond our borders -- the world does not revolve around the United States.
While you can find Michael Jordan jerseys and Florida Gator baseball caps for sale in small shops in European villages, and you can buy a Quarter Pounder in Moscow, and you can laugh at Mr. T apparently jabbering in French during reruns of The A-Team on Belgian television, there are several billion people out there who do not care about us.
Except when they fear us.
At a posh resort in northeastern Brazil, the young wife of a wealthy older man struck up a conversation as the three of us bobbed on a small excursion boat. She told me most Brazilians did not concern themselves with the United States, except for the concern about our invading their country.
"Invasion?" I repeated, dumbfounded. "What are you talking about?"
She answered, in so many words: Your president (it happened to be Reagan again) has just sent in troops to overrun Grenada, and we know that we have the natural resources your country desires.
I didn't know how to answer her.
More profound was an incident with the headmistress of the school reserved for children of Communist Party members living in Odessa, Russia. Visiting with other Americans on the trip I referred to at the beginning of this column, I watched as the youngsters stammered some rehearsed sentences in English before playing mandolins and balalaikas for us.
Then the headmistress came to the front of the room and began to speak. She had a grown daughter with a child of her own, she said, and a teenage daughter. What seemed to be a pleasant commentary on her life suddenly turned bizarre, as the headmistress began to weep softly and asked us not to kill her children.
"Your rockets, . . ." she said, before turning to compose herself.
As a child growing up in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s, I wore school-issued dog tags. There was only one bad guy in the world, we all knew then, only one country with rockets pointed at us.
But in that classroom in rundown Odessa, I suddenly realized that there had always been another bad guy. Only my country had ICBMs pointed at the Russians.
* * *
I need to return to Helsinki, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo in the winter, to learn how residents cope with short days and long nights in the deep freeze
I want to go back to Venice, but not without my wife, Dianne, so I can better appreciate the romance of that city.
That is probably the hardest part of being the travel editor. Getting away from my desk and seeing the world is always enriching, but it's always my job, not my vacation. Being alone out there for a week usually means 21 meals by myself, and because I don't speak any other language, I can't even eavesdrop on the diners nearby.
My job also changed, mainly the factors influencing decisions about which articles to put in the Travel section
Barely a month ago, for instance, I sat with about 50 of my travel-editor colleagues and watched a United Airlines executive explain matter-of-factly that he was about to demonstrate the TASER, which he said would help United pilots retain control of the cockpits against intruders.
The TASER resembles a handgun but delivers an electrical charge sufficient to override the body's central nervous system and thus cause an uncontrollable contraction of the muscles. Whoever is hit by the TASER charge crumbles and is immobile for one to five minutes.
"There is some concern," said United Capt. Hank Krakowski, "that the electrical charge could disrupt an implanted pacemaker. Like I'm going to worry about that if the guy is trying to take over my plane!"
Krakowski, a 737 pilot but also United's vice president in charge of security issues, reported that United has purchased 1,300 TASERs and was awaiting final approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation to place them in the cockpits.
One year ago no one at United was contemplating the expenditure of $700,000 on TASERs. Nor was there work being done to make all of the airline's cockpit doors impregnable by bullets, gas and explosives. But by the end of this year, it is expected the entire fleet will be equipped with such doors.
Other airlines are taking similar steps with their cockpit doors and are pondering how to arm their flight crews.
Last month brought a series of revelations about how the nation's counterterrorism agencies handled and reacted to bits of information before Sept. 11. Administration officials issued general warnings about unspecified, possible attacks.
All of this comes just as many Americans are considering that summer tradition, the vacation. What effects the racheting-up of the terrorism dialogue will have on leisure travel this year is unclear, though polls consistently report that the old-fashioned road trip and an increase in RV rentals are replacing long-distance flights for vacations.
In my first column, 15 years ago this month, I described visiting my next-door neighbor's childhood home, a corn farm in southern Illinois. It was so different from our crowded Tampa Bay area, I wrote, that I was struck by a truism: "A change of scene, people living different lives in different places. What travel is all about."
That was not changed by the events of Sept. 11, nor by all the reactions to them. It will always be true that we learn about the world by going out into it, meeting others and learning how they are like us and how we differ.
We cannot let our fears prevent us from traveling to appreciate the rest of our planet.
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