I open my eyes to travel

A diffident traveler, I've long preferred domestic destinations. The bulk of my international experience includes a chilly weekend in Montreal, one very long car trip to Quebec, and two touristy day-trips barely across the Mexican border.

As I returned from Mexico the first time, the border patrol officer leaned forward in his booth and nodded inquiringly at my purchases. Only too eager to declare my treasures, I hoisted my shopping bag and began, "Oh, I got this lovely embroidered blouse, and a set of carved jungle-animal napkin rings...," my voice trailing off as he waved me through impatiently. He'd wanted a simple dollar amount, not a giddy show and tell.

The occasion of my sole trip outside North America was a conference in Costa Rica several years ago, where I flew with my husband, Ken, and my trademark misgivings. Thirty minutes before landing, the pilot announced that the San José airport was fogged in. We were being diverted ... to Panama ... for the night! Alarmed at this rather large blip in our itinerary, I asked the flight attendant about Panama's entry requirements.

She paused, then shrugged. "I wouldn't worry about it," she said.

I was not reassured. Like Canada and Mexico, Costa Rica had required only a photo ID and a birth certificate, so I'd forgone getting a passport. (Over the years, going without, as it were, had also served as insurance against impulsive spousal suggestions that we jet off to far-flung spots. As I routinely reminded Ken, there were so many spots in the contiguous United States where we had yet to fling ourselves.)

I was further unnerved to be met by armed soldiers as we filed into Panama City's airport terminal; such personnel had not yet become fixtures in American airports.

All evening, airlines had been ensconcing Costa Rica-bound passengers in moderately priced pensions. But by the time we arrived, only the posh "El Panama" hotel still had rooms. In our dazed state, the palm-appointed, black-and-white-tiled lobby barely registered as we checked in. Settling into our room was a simple matter, since our luggage, like everyone else's, had been secured overnight in the aircraft's baggage hold.

Too keyed up to sleep, we decided to seize what little was left of the day and headed down the hall, in the direction of the throbbing music that had abetted our wakefulness.

Peering into the hotel's dark, crowded nightclub, we beheld a big, brassy band, including four singers in faux-leopardskin costumes, all belting out the sounds of salsa. A young couple we recognized from the plane beckoned us to their table, and we spoke just enough common language to determine that they were from Costa Rica, eager to get home.

Meanwhile, given the circumstances, there was little to do but dance.

Although usually I must cajole Ken onto any dance floor, he agreed instantly.

By 3 a.m., this accidental tourist's timidity had turned to salsa-inspired exhilaration, thanks to dancing lessons from our new Costa Rican friends.

The next morning, a ramshackle bus ferried us back to the airport at a shockingly early hour. As we skimmed over the rugged, green-glorious hills of Costa Rica, I realized that had we landed as planned the previous evening, we would have missed this view. Divert to Panama? Minus passport? No problem, I thought, yawning like a seasoned traveler.

Once stateside again, however, I reverted to my stay-at-home ways. A few years later, Ken returned to Costa Rica with a group of ecotourists. But recently, he began agitating for the two of us to go somewhere exotic again.

"Spain? New Zealand? Just imagine!" he effused.

"Florida's warm in winter," I countered automatically.

But this time he wouldn't be diverted; one should obtain go-anywhere documentation, he said, as a precursor to serious travel planning. So I visited a local Mom and Pop shop specializing in passport photos.

Situating myself before the camera, I asked if I should wear my on-again, off-again glasses. Pop conjectured that customs officials would demand I don my specs in person if they appeared in the photo.

"Phooey," Mom countered. "Men take passport pictures with mustaches, then shave. Customs officials don't detain them until their beards grow back."

I wondered if this couple had traveled much themselves. Suddenly I recalled my moment of naiveté with the Mexican border guard. How does anyone learn to travel, I wondered, except by doing so?

Then it struck me: For many sojourners, the oft-unsettling but ultimately rewarding experiences acquired when traveling are precisely the point.

Now, as Ken browses travel brochures, I remind him that my passport will be good for 10 years; we needn't dash off right away. But I find myself growing increasingly intrigued by the possibilities. I regret that my new passport doesn't bear the stamp of a country where I once set foot just long enough to dance the night away. Maybe I'll remedy that someday. If so, I know just where I'll stay.

My passport is already extending my boundaries, it seems. Uh-oh, the places I'll go!

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