Wicked Wednesday: First International Travel

For our last Wicked Wednesday of the month, in a year when nobody is safely leaving the country (or even our own homes), let’s reminisce about the first time we traveled internationally. Where did you go, and under what auspices? What was the best thing you ate? Who did you meet? Have you used any of that experience in a novel or short story? Edith/Maddie will give away a copy of Murder on Cape Cod, because protagonist Mac Almeida was a world traveler before she settled back in her Cape Cod home town.

Julie: In between my junior and senior year of high school I was an AFS student in Tournai, Belgium. I had taken French in school, so I thought I was prepared. LOL. I was there for ten weeks. What a wonderful, wonderful experience. My host family, the Provis family, were lovely. I did have to go camping and got sick (not so great), but other than that, it was life changing. I promised my grandmother (who wrote to me every week) that I would eat everything that I was offered, which I did, though the kidneys were a moment. I made apple pie and chocolate chip cookies for my going away party, both of which were a big hit. I’m so glad that I took that opportunity for an adventure.

Edith/Maddie: Julie, somehow I never knew you were an AFS student! I was too, in southern Brazil for the entire year of 1970. (I’d been to Mexico with my class in sixth grade for a week, but we drove down there in buses from my LA suburb. The Brazil experience was much bigger.) I was barely seventeen when I left, and my exchange student year changed my life. First time on a plane. First time in a hotel. First time learning a language by immersion. First time realizing how ego-centric the US is – in Brazil, the newspaper carries world news on the front page. First beer, first hard liquor, first cigarette. And hearing about a tenuous democracy from a high school friend who was a journalist and spoke of the kinds of news he wasn’t allowed to write about. I ended up with a lust for world travel, a much broader perspective on life, and fluency in Portuguese that’s still nearly native.

Barb: My first real international trip was in the fall of 1970 when I was a Rotary Exchange student in Bogota, Colombia. The nine months I spent there had a profound effect on me. First and foremost, living abroad confirmed my identity as a American and my belief in our democracy.

When I left the US that fall, things had been in constant turmoil for years. From the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy to the Chicago Democratic convention to the ever-increasing protests against the Vietnam War. In May, National Guard soldiers had killed four student demonstrators at Kent State. It had never occurred to me that my government would kill people just like me. (Insert your own observations about my teenage naivety and privilege here.) The situation in my country felt very shaky to me.

But then in April, 1971, in Colombia there was a student strike and other indications of insurrection. The government declared “estato de sitio,” a state of siege. There were tanks and soldiers in the streets, but more profoundly, rights Americans think of as fundamental were suspended: Freedom of speech, meaning what it actually means, that if you made disparaging remarks about the government, even in private, you could be arrested by that government. And freedom of assembly, meaning not more than four people could gather in one place, which practically meant that my large Colombian host family had to break up into groups to wander through the farmers market and kids waiting for the school bus, when there was school, couldn’t hang out together. These suspensions were accepted by most citizens. And all this happened during one of the most stable periods of governance Colombia has ever had. The difference between a twenty-year-old pseudo-democracy and what was then our nearly two hundred year-old democracy felt vast.

The whole experience taught me how strong and ingrained US democracy was. How, though we disagreed on so much, we depended on laws, traditions, and shared beliefs I regarded as unshakeable to keep it going. Which is why, when, three years later the President resigned, I never doubted for a moment the Vice President would take over and run the country until the next election. And there would be a next election. That belief in the unshakeability of our democracy has carried me from that day to this, through the Clinton impeachment, Bush v. Gore, 9/11, and crises that would cause weaker democracies to topple. Needless to say I have thought of this often in the last days and months. I have held on to the optimism about our democracy that I learned in Colombia, but I have never questioned it more.

Jessie: Barb, that is such an engaging story! I knew you had been in Colombia but I had no idea that the trip had included so much unrest! I am always surprised at how American I feel whenever I travel abroad too!

Since we are talking about first international travel, I would admit mine was not all that glamorous. I was about a year old and lived with my family in Detroit. All the rest of the relations were in Maine and my parents wanted to go back for a visit so we took the route up into Canada and then down back into Maine. I was being potty-trained at the time and the gas shortage was on. Most of the filling stations were closed and so there were no available bathrooms. From what I understand from my mother, it was a difficult trip. I had decided that diapers were not for me any longer and refused absolutely to use the odd outhouse that was presented. I am still not a fan of primative plumbing!

Liz: Jessie, LOL! I dislike outhouses too…So aside from a trip to Canada on a snowmobile and the odd weekend in Montreal, my first international trip was London. I loved it so much – I immediately felt at home. On my first trip there, I visited the Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, and I did a Jack the Ripper tour – which was so cool. I also ate Indian food on Brick Lane, visited some outdoor markets, and went to the famous store Fortnum and Mason, where I got rose and lavender ice cream–so yummy!

Sherry: Liz, I loved London too when we went. My first trip was to Tijuana, Mexico in third grade when we were visiting friends in California. I bought a marionette that I had for many years. In fifth grade another cross country trip included the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. My dad and I went up in the Skylon tower and actress June Lockhart was there.

Readers: Share your first international trip! If you haven’t had one, what country do you long to visit?

51 Thoughts

  1. Our senior year high school trip was to the World’s Fair in Montreal in 1967. I got to USE my French but was totally confused by the Canadian stamp machine. Their stamps were triangular!

  2. My first trip where I had to use a passport was to Thailand and it was amazing. Pattaya Beach with a condo overlooking the beach. Lots to explore and different foods to try. So much to see but it was relaxing too. So exotic. I had always dreamed about going to there on day and then I met this man who owned a condo there and asked me to save my vacation time as you need 2 weeks because of the long flights to get there and back. He is now my husband. We can’t wait for this pandemic to go away so we can travel again.

  3. Having never gone on an international trip, I have no stories to tell.

    But if I was going to be going on a trip, my desired destination would be Ireland. My mom always wanted to go there and I would like to visit the country as well. I used to subscribe to the tourism magazine IRELAND OF THE WELCOMES for years.

    But finances and the lack of knowledge when it will ever be safe to travel again means I will certainly never actually get to the Emerald Isle.

  4. Going to Puerto Rico in 1995 isn’t exactly international because it is still US territory, but it was definitely a different culture. However, I also talked my way into Yost Van Dyke in the BVI on New Year’s Eve with only a photocopy of my birth certificate. I was young and they had what was reported as the 3rd biggest NYE party at the time. NYE on the beach! Ah, the days pre-9/11. LOL

  5. My first international trip was to Europe on an American Express tour – if it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium kind of thing. My roommate from college was doing her junior year abroad, and wanted me to join her for a few weeks in the summer of 1967 in Spain and then just travel around where ever we wanted to go. My father, who worked for American Express as a travel agent, was NOT letting his (very naive) daughter do that! The compromise was that I would go on an AE tour. We started in Paris and ended in London, and hit Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands on the way. Lots of fun and the people on the tour were great, including one girl from Atlanta who was my age. We got hit on by Italian sailors in Pisa, managed to wander into the red light district in Amsterdam, and had a wonderful time! I realized then that it was just an overview and not a way to really get to know a country or even a city, but for an introduction, it was great.

  6. I don’t remember my first international trip. It was to the 1,000 islands in Canada. I celebrated my first birthday there on the annual family fishing trip. I was told we went to Quebec and to Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. My mother had family in Miquelon. I do remember later trips, but of the first – nothing.

  7. Wonderful stories, all around, ladies! My first international trip was a Caribbean cruise with my wife in March 2010. She spent most of 2009 being treated for breast cancer and we booked the trip as a way for to have something to look forward to during the worst days of chemo, etc. We had the best time on the trip, visiting the Dominican Republic and other island paradises.
    As a bonus, that was the that Butler University made it’s surprise run to the NCAA basketball championship game. As Indianapolis residents, Nancy and I wore our Butler gear with pride during the cruise and actually became mini-celebreties as lots of folks joined us cheering for the little school that could.

  8. The first time was so long ago. 50 years? I don’t think I was even 10. I remember a family car trip to Mount Rushmore and then up to Winnipeg, Canada. I don’t remember the city but I remembered the name because I liked how it sounded.

  9. My first international trip was a cruise to the Bahamas. It took a lot of courage for me to go because of my deep fear of water. As long as I stayed inside, all was good. But my first and only European trip was a 10-day city tour of France, spending three days in Paris. How I long to return.

  10. I was in my mid-30s before I managed to leave the country, other than a few hours in a Mexican border town, a year or two prior, My first “real” international travel was to England and Ireland. I went with a tour group of retirees, including my parents. I had to run to keep up with them! We did the usual tourist things, saw the Tower of London, Big Ben, high tea, a play in the theatre district, shopping at Harrods as well as Marks and Spenser. After a few days running in London, we headed off to Oxford, Bath, and Salisbury. Next a week busing around Ireland, which I LOVED! Even with the mist and rain, it was beautiful and the people were warm and welcoming. It was a grand introduction to other locales and cultures, even languages, because regardless of the fact that we were all native English speakers, it didn’t always feel like the same language!

  11. Living just outside of Buffalo NY, I can’t remember my first trip to Canada but they were often. The summer before my senior year, I was an exchange student to Nancy, France. Boy was that an eye opener! This was during the time of the bombings in European airports. The difference between signs at JFK stating “watch your belongings – pickpockets work this area” and soldiers with machine guns about 50 yards apart at Paris’ airport was mind blowing. But I loved my time there & was jealous even at a young age about the father getting almost the entire month of August off & the mother getting paid maternity leave.

  12. Leaving out trips to Canada (4th Grade and 12th Grade), I’m going to say my first international trip was right after I graduated from college. My college graduation present was a trip for my family (immediate family, so four of us) to go to Europe for almost a month. It took a little adjusting on my part, but after a couple of days, I was able to relax and it was very interesting and fun.

    Although I still debate that it was really a graduation present for me since all of us went. Especially since Mom and Dad have the scrapbook that was made and the journal we all wrote our thoughts in as we traveled.

  13. My first international trip was in 1995 or there about. I went on a cruise to Haiti, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. I was with a soon to be ex and the trip was stressful at best. We were with another couple and they didn’t know what he and I were separated at the time. I’ll not forget when he started his demeaning rant during supper how I stood and said, “If you all will forgive me, but I’m going to go and find some quiet area away from S. I walked away and found this hidden bar at the top of the ship. I spent a fantastic evening with a group of young adults. They saw me as this fun older mother like person who they could ask any question they wanted and I’d answer with honesty.

    The rest of the trip, I avoided S. as much as possible and did my thing. The other couple were his friends, so I wasn’t worried about what they thought about me. I enjoyed the rest of the trip. The guide in Puerto Rico when we went to the mountains was interesting and honest about the poverty there. In the port in Haiti where all the cruise ships go, I ended up getting a few trinkets and an embroidered mumu that I still have and use as a house dress during the summer. In the Virgin Islands I got gifts for all my kids at their huge market place.

    Other than S. being a jerk, I had a great time and took two other cruises before travel to Europe with friends where I could enjoy the trip without any hassles…well that is other than having my computer with my plane ticket in it stolen in Rome at the train station…but that is another whole story.

  14. When I was 5, my parents and I went to Cuba and Jamaica. I only have very little vignettes of memory, but I do remember enormous leaves on trees that kept us dry during a sudden gust of rain. And I remember eating breadfruit. Strange for a little kid. Oh, and how forbidding Morro Castle is.

    1. That’s quite a trip, Ginny. My sons lived with us in Mali for a year at ages three and five. I wonder how much they remember other than what the photos remind them of.

  15. I went with my husband and his college friend to Europe. We had a jam packed trip to the Netherlands, Sweeden, Denmark and Norway. We had backpacks, slept on trains, and stayed with another friends relatives for a few day. We had some great pizza in Stockholm and the fjords in Norway were breathtaking. It was a cheap but amazing adventure.

  16. My first trip was to Mexico. It was a cruise that my parents took me on for my sixteenth birthday! I have some fun memories from that time–I even ran into my Spanish teacher on the ship. None of the details of that trip have made it into a story, though.

  17. I went to a summer camp in Canada when I was 14 or 15. It was a two week canoeing and camping trip. Unfortunately I wound up with sun poisoning halfway through and had to fly home. It was my first time flying in a two seat plane

  18. I think my first international trip must have been to Juarez, Mexico. I was in elementary or early middle school in Alpine, TX at the time. I believe we were in El Paso for a few days for a coaching convention (my dad was, and still is, a high school football coach in Texas). Mom decided to take me on a bus tour over the border to Juarez for the day. After we got on the bus and already begun driving, the tour guide made an announcement that she hoped anyone traveling with children had their passports in case anyone tried to abduct the children. At the time, I guess passports were not required to cross the border from the U.S. to Mexico and back. Already committed, even though I don’t think we even had passports at the time, we proceeded into Juarez. This must have been 30 years ago or so. I have not been to Juarez since, so I am not sure how Juarez is today. But the difference between El Paso and Juarez, only a border apart, was night and day. That was my first glimpse of what true poverty looked like. It was the first time I realized how truly privileged I was, and we were by no means wealthy but stuck firmly in the middle class. As we crossed the border, I was a bit nervous after the tour guide’s warning about child abductions. But once in Juarez, I was not at all afraid. Perhaps that was childish naivete, but the friendliness of the people overwhelmed me. I was shocked by some things I saw, like skinned dogs hanging upside down by four legs in the markets and chickens running rampant through the streets and markets. But despite that, I remember the vibrant colors, the beautiful artistry of handmade pottery and beaded jewelry, and the smiles on everyone’s faces. By U.S. standards, the citizens of Juarez were incredibly impoverished. But one day was enough for me to see that they were friendly, kind, hard-working people doing their best to make it in this world like everyone else. We purchased some items in the markets and had a wonderful lunch of the best Mexican food I’ve ever had. I don’t remember everything about that day, but it was a wonderful experience. Many years later I had the privilege of traveling to the Dominican Republic as part of a U.S. delegation of international election observers. Given our task, we were able to see the true D.R., not the version seen by most U.S. tourists staying at all-inclusive beach resorts. My experience there was similar to that day-trip to Juarez. I witnessed abject poverty and was shocked by some things I saw, such as a man with a baby strapped to his back arriving at a polling place by motorcycle. The man had no helmet, and well, there was a baby strapped to his back on a motorcycle. But there he was to exercise his right to vote. More shocking was watching elections take place under the eyes of armed members of the D.R. military. The elections were far from what we would consider fair. There was undoubtedly intimidation of voters in a much more “in-your-face” way than in the U.S. (although we definitely have our own, if more subtle, form of election issues). However, more than memories of the problems with their elections, I remember the kindness, generosity, and intrepidness of the average people in the D.R. (not necessarily the ruling officials and military, but the average person on the street, so to speak). Despite innumerable obstacles (lack of adequate transportation, armed militia watching every step of the way from standing in line to the actual polling booths, evidence of voting fraud that meant every voter in the areas we were observing ran a very great risk of their vote being changed by someone else or not counted at all, the need to spend every waking minute just trying to earn enough to put food on their families’ table), the citizens of the D.R. arrived in droves to vote on election day. The lines were long, incredibly long. Menacing men with guns watched their every move. But they showed up. They voted. And most were more than willing to talk with us about their experiences. In our free time, we encountered a lovely, vibrant culture and friendly, happy people. I have traveled to many countries in Europe and to Canada, and those experiences were absolutely wonderful. But Juarez and the Dominican Republic stand out in my mind as the two trips that showed me both how embarrassingly privileged I am and the absolute beauty of cultures where even people who struggle every day more than I ever will in my life go through their days creating beauty and with an attitude of kindness and generosity toward their fellow human that you would not expect from people enduring such hardship.

    1. What a beautiful and loving post. Your acceptance and understanding of less privileged is inspiring. I have spent a lot of time in Peru getting to really know the people and have experienced some of the same things. There would be so much less prejudice and hatred in the world if everyone could see these things.

  19. I always wanted to do the international student exchange. It just was not an option at the time. Sounds like quite the adventure.
    The only foreign country I’ve visited is Victoria, BC, Canada. I’ve been twice and would love to go back. I hope one day to visit England and the British Isles.

  20. Wonderful to read about all your travels. I grew up reading travel books (who remembers Betsy and the Great World, or Our Hearts Were Young and Gay?) and longing to go places. We lived 25 miles from the Canadian border, so it was impossible to think of it as “foreign.” I watched Canadian tv! I didn’t go anywhere else until I was out of grad school. By pinching every penny, I had enough for my first trip ever, Israel and England (I know. It’s a long story). with a close friend. She was a fearless driver, we rented a very cheap car and wandered all over southern England. Unforgettable still. Over the many decades since, I’ve been to England many times ( my sister lived there, my job sent me), France, Scotland, Ireland, Greece,Israel again, Mexico, Italy, Egypt – most of them more than once. I would not have believed that would ever be me when I was 12. And now I know that famous sites are famous for good reason BUT a repeat trip is how you get to know a place. And never say never.

  21. My first international trip was to Cancun. Since then I have also been to Jamaica and Ontario, Canada. I would love to visit Scotland but with our age, health issues and the furbabies we have, I don’t see that happening.

  22. My first international trip was to Argentina to improve my Spanish. I stayed with a family, and our group had to take some classes at their JFK University. I had to write a term paper for my college at home. The first day was cultural shock because they had 7 kids, 2 maids, a swimming pool, and an estancia. However US appliances were better. When I got home, I went on a trip with my family that included Niagara Falls and Toronto in Canada. We were at an expo in Toronto that had the first Chinese exhibit outside of China. Stay safe and well.

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