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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 17, 2009

Get hooked on world's wonders


By Irene Croft Jr.

Most readers of this column share my passion for exploring the beautiful and the bizarre as strangers in a strange land. I have had the immeasurable privilege of visiting, to date, 213 countries on our mother planet. Stay-at-home folks may wonder what motivates a person to leave familiar comforts and environs for new horizons. Hard-core voyagers are just plain hooked on the stimulation and rewards of travel. They're a dedicated lot who'll venture to the ends of the earth, sometimes even under dicey conditions, for memorable experiences that only travel to terra incognita can provide.

Maybe it's the discovery, the very process of unfolding the mystique and essence of a country by being there. By examining at close hand the spectacular and the ordinary that combine to make a nation or a region or a people unique in your mind's eye. By following in the oft-tracked footsteps of legendary pathfinders or by heading out to little-known terrain. By finding more to involve your mind and senses than you had anticipated from your readings.

Perhaps it's the magical assault on the senses that the true traveler craves. Olfactory imprints can be indelible. I shall never forget my first whiff of plumeria as the plane door slid open at the old Honolulu Airport 45 years ago; the pungent pall of incense and dung that pervade the old quarters of Kathmandu; the omnipresent reek of drying fish in Dakar.

The stink of Gauloise cigarettes always evokes the Paris Metro, just as the piercing perfume of jasmine transports me instantly to Hindu temples where devotees worship a miniature blue god.

Travel can deliver vivid, unforgettable visual impressions. I close my eyes now and conjure the intense lemon-orange color of precious saffron displayed in a Burmese market; dazzling sunlight transforming India's sacred Ganges River into molten silver; the expressive ebony eyes of a Yemeni woman peeking out from her helmeted black abbaya. I can recall the gleam of an Eveready battery plugged into the earlobe of a Masai tribeswoman; the gray, impenetrable fog of San Francisco Bay; the sheen of nervous sweat beading on the lip of an Acapulco cliff diver; and a cold, ethereal full moon suspended over the Eiffel Tower.

The pleasures of the palate are surely intensified away from home. Who would not savor the taste of that succulent smoked salmon served in a vaulted Helsinki cellar? Or the fiery, eye-watering flavors of Indonesian satay and Sri Lankan curries? The exquisite flakiness of a croissant is enhanced on a balcony overlooking the Seine, and the earthy aroma of corned beef and cabbage is unsurpassed when emanating from a Dublin pub.

Sound, also, can be a powerful stimulant to a traveler: The melancholy tinkle of Kyoto temple bells; the cacophony of a Vietnamese fruit and vegetable market; the mournful call of foghorns off the rocky coast of Nova Scotia.

Similar sounds at home may evoke instant replays of travel experiences: the frenzied clamor of a Hong Kong street; the crack and thunder of an avalanche in the Swiss Alps; the mind-numbing clickety clack of the Trans-Siberian Express; and the blood-pulsating sambas of Rio's carnival madness.

Perhaps the primary attraction for some travelers is the cerebral stimulation. Who could fail to be awed by a Khmer culture that erected the temples of Angkor or by the complex mysteries of the Egyptian pyramids? Travelers seek to understand the lost Incan civilization of Machu Picchu; the magnificent architecture of the Maya's Chichen Itza or Uxmal in Mexico; the stone age culture of the proud people of Papua New Guinea's remote highlands. Travelers marvel at the determination to build the 3,800-mile Great Wall of China and at the far-flung remnants of a mighty empire once patrolled by Roman legions.

And certainly no glossy coffeetable book can ever convey the true color and texture of our planet's scenic endowments. You actually have to be there to savor the sense of place to cycle, to trek or to drive through the hills and dales of our global habitat. What one-dimensional photograph can capture the cloud-socked grandeur of New Zealand's Milford Sound, the stark tableau of Australia's Ayers Rock, or Brazil's teeming Amazon rainforest?

Pictures can never duplicate your up-close-and-personal impressions of the dramatic Grand Canyon, the panoramic harbor view from Cape Town's Table Mountain, and the unequaled tropical sunsets of the South Pacific.

Cultural pursuits may motivate other travelers to broaden their horizons. Although museum collections, fine arts and music are routinely shared among nations by traveling exhibitions and performances, enjoying cultural attractions in situ makes the experience fresh, authentic and unforgettable.

Examining the celebrated Mona Lisa smile at the Louvre is worth a journey to Paris. Where would the Vienna Boys' Choir be without its rich Viennese backdrop? One Chinese terra cotta warrior on display cannot possibly approach the impact of viewing a silent army of thousands arrayed in countless ranks at Xian. The famous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra never sounded so pure as it does in its own symphony hall.

And travel offers an irresistible bonus: perhaps no other of mankind's activities harbors more promise for peaceful coexistence among the world's inhabitants. Examining firsthand a nation's antiquities, religions, cultures and environments fosters an empathy and understanding that inhibits fear and intolerance among diverse peoples.

Book a journey. Do it now.