I love reading travel books. I have stacks of anthologies. The best this and that — American writing, women’s writing, travel writing. Real adventures. Epiphanies. Meeting strangers, making friends, connecting. The best stories plop the reader down amidst the bustle of an Andean market or in the jungles of the Amazon or at a vineyard in Tuscany. But what about the things you don’t do as a traveler? The picture not taken? The treasure not purchased? Or the amazing, not-to-be missed, popular site not seen?
Here are 6 of my misses…
1) The stunning silver bracelet in Guanajuato. It was, perhaps, the prettiest bangle I’d seen in a long time, maybe ever, but I thought it was too expensive. To date, I have not found a nicer one. I have also not found a silver bracelet of the same quality that is as cheap as that one. I walked out of the shop by the plaza that day and into the marvelous sunlight of Mexico’s central mountains. It’s easy for me to be swayed by natural beauty — blue skies above and clusters of coral-colored bougainvillea clinging to the adobe walls. Jewelry can’t compete with beautiful scenery, special moments. Still, I wish I’d bought the bracelet.
2) The wine in France. I didn’t drink it. I was just out of college and not the least bit worldly when my husband and I traveled in France. We drank Cokes and coffee and ate steaks and fries. What a loss! I later learned to love French food in restaurants in the US and in hours of preparing everything from duck a l’orange to chocolate truffles in my own kitchen. And I’ve had more than enough French wine by now to make up for missing it in France.
3) The morpho butterfly in Tortuguero. I could have gotten a picture. The butterfly moved slowly, its huge blue wings dipping and rising as it crossed in front of the boat. The wings of the morpho are metallic, a blue that sparkles in the sunlight. We were on one of the canals of Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, floating silently between the mangrove trees lining the banks and the tall cecropia and figs leaning over the water. I got pictures of the monkeys in the trees and the kingfisher birds diving for fish. But the butterfly? It came out of nowhere, suddenly, and was so striking in its beauty and graceful movement that all I could do was sit and stare.
4) The catacombs of Rome. I stopped at the entrance. I had been in close quarters, on planes and trains and buses and boats for days, but I could not enter the catacombs. Claustrophobia had never before bothered me. I hid under beds and inside boxes and barrels as a kid. I loved the damp, cool, clay walls of our cellar in Kentucky. I did elevators in the city with no problem. I’ve been on a submarine, for goodness sakes. But, for some reason, at that particular moment in time, I panicked at the thought of following a chain of people through these winding, narrow tunnels under Rome.
5) The cuckoo clock in Germany. Rothenburg, three decades ago, was a fairytale town with turrets and clock towers. People still kept farm animals inside its medieval walls and the farmer’s market in the middle of town was a noisy, happy gathering place. The barns are hotels now, I understand, and the fairytale town is filled with tourists. I remember a special little shop full of handmade wooden trinkets — merry-go-rounds, nativity scenes, Christmas ornaments. And cuckoo clocks. Besides the cuckoo bird sticking its head out the cuckoo door, the clocks had other figurines — dancers dancing, beer drinkers drinking, wood choppers chopping wood. They played pretty music — “Der frohliche Wanderer” and “Edelweiss” and “In Munchen steht ein Hofbrauhaus” for the drinkers. I made it to the real Hofbrauhaus in Munich that year for a fun time. I wish I’d also bought a clock.
6) The stranger on St. John who could have been a friend. A few years back, shortly after my mom died, I was hiking in the Virgin Islands National Park and ran into an elderly woman who had found a huge, round seedpod and asked if I could identify it. I couldn’t, though I love the trees of the tropics — seagrape and maho, genip and mango, frangipani and bay rum, gumbo limbo and calabash. My favorite of all is the royal poinciana or flamboyant (flame tree). Anyway, we talked that morning about the trees and blooms we loved in the tropics, our favorite beach just over the next hill, and all the different times over the years that we had walked this same trail and never met. Later, I continued on my jaunt with a feel-good feeling that would have lasted a long time had I not realized that I had failed to get her name and had no idea where she called home.