It was a bucket-list trip on steroids.
A once-in-a-lifetime, pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming, phantasmagorical journey.
Twenty-three days. Nine countries. Thirty-two thousand miles producing a seemingly equal number of unforgettable memories.
Here are a few of the most memorable:
Being coaxed onto a camel in Petra, Jordan, to have my picture taken in front of the iconic Treasury (actually more like an ancient funeral home) that everyone who has ever seen “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” would recognize in a heartbeat.
Racing over the red desert sands of Wadi Rum, Jordan, where Lawrence of Arabia once helped lead the Arab Revolt of 1916—and where Matt Damon struggled to survive an alien planet in “The Martian.”
Watching a lion mosey nonchalantly down a Tanzanian road toward our Toyota 4x4 before finally veering off and passing so close that he could have swiped a paw through a window had he wanted to. And that was just one highlight of a game drive filled with cheetahs munching on gazelles, huge herds of zebras and giraffes racing across the Serengeti Plain, trees filled with buzzards looking for leftovers, a river stuffed with napping hippos, a leopard draped lazily across a tree branch and hyenas, warthogs, elephants, wildebeests, topi and cute little dik-diks (also known as big-cat snacks), oh, my! It was like going to the zoo in reverse, where we tourists had to be safely locked in our motorized cages.
Being awestruck by the magnificent splendor of the Taj Mahal. Then, hours later, touring a village of Untouchables, the bottom rung of the Hindu caste system, where 4,000 people, we were told, have just 200 toilets—and many still prefer walking to the fields.
Petting baby kangaroos and wallabies at the Wildlife Habitat Sanctuary in Port Douglas, Australia, where many of the birds and animals (not the snakes and crocodiles, fortunately) are allowed to run free and interact with visitors. That followed a hike through the Daintree Rainforest, led by its only female Aboriginal guide with a wonderfully dry sense of humor. We also visited the Botanical Ark, where American Alan Carle moved 30 years ago to turn what was essentially treeless pastureland into a garden paradise with thousands of plant species from dozens of countries. (If you ever go there, make sure you ask Carle if you can try his wife’s breadfruit fries and guarana cheesecake. They are to die for.)
Enjoying feasting and dancing on the grounds of the Thommanon Temple in the Angkor complex in Cambodia. It’s usually dark and deserted at night, but just for us they set up a portable banquet facility along with electrical generators to bathe the 1,000-year-old temple in colored lights.
Who could possibly forget having our bus met by Samoan natives running with torches to greet us and lead our bus the final few hundred yards to a unique hotel where the staff spent part of their day watering the plots of grass—on the roofs of our suites.
Touring Robert Louis Stevenson’s Samoan home after being welcomed with a kava ceremony. Being spellbound by the magnificent stone-face moai megaliths on Easter Island. Enjoying spiced tea in a Bedouin tent, where a cute orange tabby adopted me as its dad for 15 minutes. Being waited on hand and foot at hotels I normally wouldn’t dream of staying at. (In Morroco, for example, we stayed at La Mamounia, where Michelle Obama had recently stayed.)
And on and on and on it went for three-and-a-half weeks. It’s the type of trip I wish everyone could take just for the chance to meet people from other cultures and come together.
A case in point: It took quite a bit of coaxing to get me up on that camel in Petra, for which the vendor was charging $5 or 3 dinars. Afterward I was so appreciative for his help and so thoroughly enjoyed the experience that I gave him a 5-dinar bill, thanked him and walked off. A few minutes later, one of our tour-group leaders tapped me on the shoulder and said the vendor wanted to apologize for not giving me my change. I assured him I meant it as a tip, and everyone walked away happy, hopefully with positive thoughts of having encountered both honest and generous people.
One of my greatest concerns when I signed up was taking a trip with 80 other people. I mean, I usually go on journeys with half that many and there usually are two or three every time who are either notoriously late for activities or perpetually crabby. I figured 80 might be like herding cats.
Perhaps it was the clientele they attract, but this trip was darn near perfection (except for a brief downpour in Cambodia). Everything—and I mean everything—went off like clockwork. Their trip leaders could not have been more pleasant or helpful. When I had to ask for another room in Trujillo, Peru, because of noise, it was done in 10 minutes—and the hotel apologized because it would not be quite as nice as the suite I had given up. The service and comfort aboard the planes made seven-hour flights seem like short hops. (And we spent 69 hours in the air.)
Before we landed, visa forms were already filled out for us and we almost always enjoyed fast, private screening lines at airports. During the entire 23-day trip, I had only one other complaint—that we couldn’t spend another hour at the wonderful Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas, Australia.
Editor’s Note: This article and addendum first appeared in the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat. It has been edited to fit our blog format and was republished with the permission of the author.