Seven years ago today, I set out on an adventure that I had no way of knowing would still be going strong.
On January 2, 2016, after months of exploring an idea that had stubbornly planted itself inside my entire being, I pressed publish and began sharing a deeply important part of my life with all of you. And by all of you, I actually mean my family and a handful of friends, because back in 2016, they were the only people on the planet who knew that my little corner of the internet existed.
My goal was to keep The Modern Postcard going for a year. But as the months rolled along and past travel stories became present ones, I began hearing from readers (for which I thank you!) who shared thoughts and experiences that enriched my blog posts as well as my life. I may have started writing a blog with the intention of helping others by sharing my years of travel experiences, but I soon felt as if I was receiving far more than I was giving.
Each of these past seven years has offered profound insights and lessons and an overwhelming sense of love for new people and places. No matter how far away or close to home my travels have taken me, I’ve stayed true to my long-time promise of visiting someplace new every year. Documenting my travels has made me more accountable to myself as well. It’s often easy to forget the mishaps and look back only on the good, but without an honest assessment, there is no growth, no lesson to learn, no richness of experience.
Herb and I have been finalizing some long-awaited and exciting travel plans for 2023, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what has unfolded during these past seven years. From the most soaring highs to the most disappointing lows, each year has offered a little Easter egg of a life lesson, a nugget of wisdom to pack inside my suitcase on the next journey.
And so…in the spirit of looking back before moving forward, here are seven travel lessons from the past seven years.
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Travel Lesson from 2016: Reevaluate your bucket list from time to time; delete the “shoulds” and honor your deepest desires.
The idea of traveling to faraway destinations began in my high school French class, where my beloved teacher Josephine Downey would enchant us with tales of her travels and photos of fascinating-looking places. Alongside the verb conjugations and dialogues in my French class notebook, I kept a list of the wondrous spots in this country that I one day wanted to visit. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but I was creating my first bucket list.
As my view of the world expanded over the years, so did my list. In 2016, when Herb and I signed on for a cruise from Lisbon to London that would stop in ports along the west coasts of Spain and France, I realized two things about my bucket list. Most exciting was the thought that I would finally have a chance to visit Mont Saint-Michel, a place that had remained firmly planted in my travel dreams since my long-ago French classes.
But equally remarkable to me was the wake-up call that there were places on my list that I really didn’t have a deep desire to visit. These were “shoulds”– places that I’d added after reading an article or seeing a photograph rather than destinations based on my own passion. I’d always advised my children to remove the word should from their vocabularies when making important decisions, and yet here I was, complicating my travel list by including places I felt I should rather than wanted to visit.
Revising my travel priorities that day offered unexpected insight into my evolution as a traveler and as a person.
Travel Lesson from 2017: Don’t give up on your travel dreams.
Although Antarctica had been whispering to me for many years – decades, really – it had always seemed more of a dream than a possibility. I had read almost everything I could find about the White Continent, falling in love with the idea of walking among the penguins in an ice-filled world so unimaginably far away. It wasn’t until 2015 that Herb and I began putting a foundation under my romantic notion, seriously looking at when and how we could travel there.
We learned that there’s a four-month window from November through February for getting to Antarctica and opted for January, when the baby penguins would be hatching. As for the how part of the equation, we debated between taking a 100-person expedition ship from Ushuaia, Argentina, that would travel exclusively to Antarctica, and a 400-person ship that would travel to Antarctica from Buenos Aires, ending in Santiago, Chile.
The intrigue of visiting southern South America – a continent we had yet to explore – won us over, and in January 2017 we embarked on what became for both Herb and me an all-time favorite travel adventure.
Travel Lesson from 2018: Always have a back-up plan. Always.
In September 2018, Herb and I planned our first-ever river cruise on the Danube. We would begin our travels independently in Prague and then travel by train to Vienna for several days before boarding the riverboat. In addition to these glorious cities, we would be visiting Budapest at the end of the cruise, a trip highlight before returning to Vienna.
Throughout the months before we left home, reports of precariously low water levels on the Danube kept popping up in the news, resulting in a real concern that we might not make it to Budapest. With the river controlling our destiny, there was no way to determine ahead of time how our trip would be impacted. We calmed our concerns about missing Budapest by devising a back-up plan of traveling there by train from Vienna or wherever the riverboat would be able to dock.
As it turned out, the Danube’s water levels did remain too low for our boat to sail to Budapest. Herb and I joined a group of fellow riverboat passengers on a bus from Bratislava to Budapest, where we stayed overnight at a hotel arranged by the cruise line and then spent an additional day and night there on our own. And just as we had imagined in our world of back-up planning, we traveled back to Vienna by train in time to sleep on the boat and make our flight home in the morning.
Travel Lesson from 2019: Don’t let fear get in the way.
There are parts of our world where it’s wise to travel with a healthy dose of caution. But when that caution spills over into the zone called fear, we may find ourselves in a murky state of mind where negative imaginings so cleverly dwell. For me, Egypt was one of the places on my list that was often deemed unsafe for travelers. Herb and I had cancelled an earlier Middle Eastern trip because we were convinced that the Egyptian portion of the itinerary would be diverted (which it was), but in the fall of 2019, it looked as if tourism was returning to that part of the world, and we headed out on what became one of those “trips of a lifetime.”
Before we left home, people would sometimes ask if it was safe to travel to Egypt, or they’d simply tell us to “be careful.” But the truth was that we weren’t afraid. Part of the reason was that we had done our research and knew that tourism was returning to the region. The other factor was that we wouldn’t be traveling alone. We had chosen a cruise that took us to Egyptian ports as well as other cities throughout the Middle East. We were always on tours with a group and a local guide, and on a fantastically memorable overnight land trip to Luxor, we stayed at a secure hotel and toured with a guide and driver. At the end of the cruise, Herb and I traveled on our own to Cairo, where I had booked a guide and driver who took us from the airport to the hotel and all of the attractions.
We felt wonderfully welcome in Egypt and were greeted with gratitude for visiting this country that was climbing back into the sunshine after a crippling decline in tourism. Fear was never even a speck of a thought throughout our time there. We were grateful that we had done our homework, had carefully chosen the way we traveled and had proceeded with optimism.
Travel Lesson from 2020: Try not to put things off whenever possible.
Oh, 2020. The year when the world stood still. It’s fairly safe to say that most of us can pinpoint the moment when we realized that the times they were a-changing. For me, it was March 14th, the day Herb and I arrived home after his heart valve surgery at The Cleveland Clinic. I’d headed out that afternoon to pick up a few groceries, and several hours and four stores later, came home with tales of empty shelves and panicked shoppers.
Travel plans, of course, were cancelled that year, but with our first grandchild due to arrive in July, Herb and I shifted gears and planned a road trip to the Bay Area. We plotted the seven-hour drive as if we were heading out across the globe, packing food, face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, disinfectant, paper towels and even toilet paper with the aplomb of travelers who had always navigated life in a pandemic. We stayed at a guest house where we were the only guests, and although we weren’t allowed to visit the hospital, we had an over-the-moon moment meeting our new grandson as the family of three arrived home.
As the months of 2020 continued to fold into one another with a repetition that felt suspiciously like the movie Groundhog Day, we kept our travel spirts up by imagining where we would go when it was safe to travel again. The pandemic had blown in with the harsh lesson of not putting important things off, and we were definitely listening. Carpe diem, carpe diem.
Travel Lesson from 2021: Be willing to adapt to new situations.
Although our planned December adventure to South Africa had been cancelled early in 2021, I was determined that this wouldn’t turn out to be another year of lost travel. We were vaccinated, slivers of hope were peeking through the clouds, and I began to explore new possibilities. It was clearly evident that we would need to be flexible and willing to adapt to a new world of travel. The rules had changed, and they were continuing to evolve from one month to the next.
One day in June, I happened upon a Seine River cruise that included a special access tour of Monet’s Gardens in Giverny. Monet’s home and gardens had been high on my bucket list for years, and the thought of being there on a private tour set my spirit soaring. The cruise was round-trip from Paris, where we could fly non-stop. Vaccines were required in French restaurants and museums as well as on the riverboat. And masks – which by that time had become de rigueur in our daily life – were mandatory on the plane, in the riverboat’s public areas and in French cafés and other indoor venues.
Our willingness to adapt to these new rules of travel was rewarded with a remarkable experience we most likely will never repeat. We literally felt as if we had Paris to ourselves. From my tourist-free photos to the sun-drenched September weather to the 100-passenger riverboat that sailed with only 32 of us, we couldn’t have imagined a better way to dip our toes back into the travel waters. And best of all, no one in our group contracted Covid.
Travel Lesson from 2022: Most important of all, have fun.
Our travels to the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador this spring came with two Covid caveats: We would need to be tested upon arrival in Quito in order to take the cruise line’s city tour; and we would need to be tested again in order to fly to the Galápagos. A positive test either time would pretty much mean our trip would be over. Herb and I had no reason to worry. We’d recently gotten our booster vaccines and had been extremely careful, but I couldn’t shake the thought of “what if?”
After our first negative tests in Quito, I could literally feel a heavy cloud disappear – only to have it return the following morning as we waited for our second test results. It wasn’t until I was on the plane to the Galápagos that I could finally sense that the smile deep inside myself had returned, allowing me to be completely in-the-moment, allowing me to have fun.
The funny thing was that this was a lesson I had already learned. It didn’t relate to travel, but like so many lessons from our past, it reentered my life as a new experience that I needed to be reminded of. Back in high school, my best friend Mary and I were partners on the debate team, elevated to the senior varsity team after our winning junior year as novices. It was a huge leap for us, and we lost almost every debate. Finally, after one particularly painful loss, our wise and wonderful coach Mr. Stanford sensed our discouragement, smiled and told us to “just have fun.” He realized that we had become so focused on winning that we’d lost our passion for an activity we loved. We took his advice, and wonder of wonders, we started to win, even earning a spot in the Minnesota State Tournament at the end of the season.
Like my younger self, I had become so focused on having a negative Covid test result to get to the Galápagos that I’d lost the fun and reason for traveling there in the first place.