by Marjorie Fierstadt

There seems to be little constant in life but the desire to travel. Where we’ve been helps shape who we are today. Where we go might be what keeps us human. When it comes to vacations there’s no one size fits all, no fixed cost, no one place to go or dream of going. In fact, the sky’s literally the limit with space travel already an option if you have $20,000,000 for an eight day trip. Bookings are now accepted at Virgin Galactic, owned by Sir Richard Branson. A sub-orbital flight, the first expected later this year, soars to 360,888 feet and costs $200,000.

Here are a few stories of my own and two other Ebell members’ adventures here on Earth. As summer approaches, many of you will be hitting the road. Whatever you do, have fun!

Solo in China
I was on my way to Hong Kong and beyond, planning to go with a group from Hong Kong to Xian to see the Terra Cotta Warriors and then on a cruise. While awaiting takeoff at LAX, a man struck up a conversation and asked me where I would be staying in Xian. I went into my purse to find my documents and discovered they were GONE! I had my cruise documents but no passport, no voucher tickets for the hotel and no tickets for my domestic Chinese flights.
I was frantic. I called the flight attendant for help but she, in turn, notified the captain that I did not have the proper documents to travel and they threw me off the flight! I found myself on the tarmac, with my luggage, looking at the closed aircraft door, crying and shaking like a leaf on a tree.

I called my husband Ed, who had dropped me off. I told him I had been thrown off the flight and to come and get me. He said, “What did you do?” I was so upset I could hardly talk!!!
We whizzed to the Federal Building on Wilshire to get an emergency passport. It was very costly and not available until the next day. Obviously, I was not going to get to Xian with the group. So, I had to handle everything myself, including a visit to the Chinese Consulate, and go to Beijing alone.

It became the trip of a lifetime. I was in Beijing by myself for four days. I had experiences I never would have with the group. My accommodations were at the China World Hotel, a five-star property, which even had a bowling alley. I arrived very late at night and had to get myself to the hotel. The next morning I walked on the big main boulevard (Jianguomenwai Blvd.) waving to a sea of thousands of people on their way to work, by bicycle, smiling saying, ‘Ni hao ma!’ (Good Morning!) They never thought they’d see a lone black woman greeting them in Chinese. I had studied Mandarin for a year. (I was not fluent but I could say a few meaningful things and understand a little.)

The hotel staff provided guidance. I found a cooking class and learned to cook authentic Chinese “Ma Po Doufu” (Tofu), a recipe more than 150 years old. Classic “Peking Duck” was facilitated by the use of a hair dryer, and “Ants Climb a Tree,” ground meat with glass noodles, yum! When I got home I started a Master ‘looing’ Sauce which I kept going for a couple of years until my son put fish in it and ruined it. Some of these sauces have been kept going by families for many generations in China.

My Chinese girlfriend had written a letter of introduction and a map and directions to a shopping mall so I could buy local things and experience being “Chinese.” The guards in Tiananmen Square were very suspicious of me until I presented Ling’s map and then they called a rickshaw to take me to the mall. We started out on the main boulevard with all the trucks, buses, cars, bicycles and pedestrians. It was very daunting. The rickshaw driver kept turning around and telling me, in English, ‘I love you!’ the entire way, as we went through the back alleys of Beijing. I have never seen such powerful legs on a human being. He had probably never seen and certainly never been so close to a live black woman. He seemed fascinated by me. But he took me safely and all was well.

When I left the hotel, a group of the staff came outside and waved goodbye to me as the taxi pulled away. By the time I met up with the group for the tour of Beijing before the cruise I had a rich and soulful experience on my own, it was anticlimactic. When I got home a month later, I had a package waiting. Some good soul had found my documents at LAX and mailed them to me!

Years later I saw the Terra Cotta Warriors when they brought the exhibit here to the Bowers Museum in Orange County. I would never trade my experience on my own in China for what I thought I missed by losing my passport. Sometimes maybe we’re guided, who knows?

The unplanned, the unexpected, this is what makes travel so rewarding. That and getting home to our own waiting bed.

Amazonas Adventure
While attending a family wedding in Caracas, Venezuela, Ebell member Jan Ippolito and husband Andrew accepted an offer for a trip to Amazonas which was arranged by the family.
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The trip started off with a hair-raising flight in a very old and rickety looking bush-type propeller plane over Angel Falls, the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall (3,212 ft.). Jan’s white-knuckle experience was assuaged by one of the eight passengers, a Catholic priest, who prayed over the flight as it progressed south to Canaipan Camp where the journey would start. “The engine actually sputtered a few times,” Jan remembers, “which was extremely unsettling, but thankfully uneventful.”

Jan, Andrew, their daughter, Nancie, two guides and two Warao Indians boarded a canoe which would be their home from the next four days touring on the Orinoco and Churun Rivers. Everything they needed was aboard: plenty of bottled water and canned food. They learned later that nature calls were answered by parking the canoe beside the river, going ashore and finding a spot in the rainforest. When asked about sleeping arrangements Jan quips, “We didn’t do much sleeping. It was pretty cramped and not at all comfortable.” One night they swung hammocks from trees and slept in sleeping bags.

The group visited several villages which were inhabited by indigenous people who spoke only Warao, a language isolated to that area. Both guides were able to communicate with the locals.

Jan especially remembers a stop at one Waraoan village where, seated on mats in a circle, they had a meal with the entire population (about 30): the chief, men, women, children, a couple of dogs, a pig and several monkeys. “The food was awful,” says Jan. “I didn’t recognize anything in the stew, which was root vegetables and some kind of meat. I didn’t want to know!” After the meal one of the young natives wanted Jan (not her daughter) to swing in a hammock with him; Andrew was not too keen. To everyone’s relief, it turned out to be a welcoming gesture, and all had a good laugh. Afterward she was hugged by the village chief.

One day one of the Indians suddenly stripped off his loincloth and nonchalantly went skinnydipping in the river. “That was a shock. He had no sense of modesty whatsoever,” says Jan.
Along the route they, of course, saw lots of wildlife – monkeys, alligators and fish, birds of many kinds, colors and hues. Jan was surprised at the dryness of the rainforest. The ground was very hard and water-free, with comparative low humidity and extreme quiet.

Recalling the experience Jan says, “It was definitely off the beaten path. We experienced a primitive culture seemingly untouched by modernization. It’s not for everyone, especially not the faint of heart. I’m glad I did it. But never again!”

American Road Trip
A vacation means a myriad of options, choices and costs. For Chrysoula Tobias, long time Ebell member, and her husband Ken, it’s the Open Roads and Americana.

Since 1994, Chrys and Ken have traveled each summer for six to eight weeks driving the highways, byways and back roads of America and covered more 200,000 miles by car. “This country is SOOO BEAUTIFUL,” says Chrys with a gleam in her eye. “And oh, so diverse!” They have driven to every state in the Continental U.S. except Alaska, a dream Chrys one day hopes to fulfill.

Their first trip was to break in a brand new car. They were going back east to visit family, friends and roots. The couple enjoyed it so much they did it the next year and from then on. “It’s always a thrill; a new adventure.” Chrys says.
They used to cover about 600 miles a day, but that is down, now, to around 400. They don’t make advance reservations but usually stop around 4:00 p.m. and find a place for the night. “We couldn’t do it without the Golden Arches,” says Chrys. “Food there, no matter what state, is pretty constant. They are always clean and have great restroom facilities.

“In general,’ she adds, “most states have rest stops along the highways with clean restrooms but many are being closed due to financial cutbacks. We used to budget $100 a day for the trip, but now that only covers the cost of the gasoline.” And they have been fortunate to avoid bedbugs over all these years.

One of their most memorable events happened in May 2007 when they encountered the devastation of a tornado that had wiped the town of Greensburg, Kansas (pop. 1,574) from the map in about 56 minutes. The twister was one and one half miles wide (wider than the town itself) and continued for 22 miles. Greensburg is the home of the world’s deepest hand dug well (190 ft. deep; 32 ft. diameter). “Every tree standing was just its trunk,” remembers Chrys. “None had any leaves or any branches. It was surreal.”

Chrys and Ken have visited many U.S. plants, including those making Harley-Davidsons, Corvettes and Toyotas. They have visited every major lighthouse on both coasts. One of their favorites is Point Reyes, just north of San Francisco which was first lit in 1870. They have enjoyed the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA and the WWII Museum in New Orleans, among many others.

Chrys’s most favorite spot of all is Mount Rushmore in South Dakota which she has visited 12 times.

Happy Trails to you Chrys and Ken from your Ebell family!

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