70 years of travel: The story of my grandparents’ travel adventures

Note: I’ve been doing travel writing recently and that has been taking priority right now. This is a story I wrote for another website, when it’s posted I’ll link it here. 

I got my love of travel from my grandparents, Maurine and Sol.

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Their Florida home is beautifully decorated with art from the various places they’ve visited and my curious childhood self was intrigued with all these things from different cultures. At least once a year they’d go overseas and every time they came back, they’d have so many stories to tell and I would ask so many questions.

Decorations in their house

In their roughly 91 years on this planet, they’ve been to every continent, bar Antarctica. Sol would have loved to go to Antarctica, but Maurine wasn’t too keen on the idea because it’s a strenuous trip that involves a long flight to Argentina and a boat ride in rough seas, and because of environmental concerns.

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Maurine and Sol’s Travel Map: 1948-2017 (I made this on the website Matador Network)

Beginnings:

My grandparents grew up in the Great Depression and had very different upbringings.

Maurine was well-off and her family went on road trips around the country throughout her childhood. “We travelled at the beginning in cars and we would take a different trip every summer. My dad did all of the driving and Shirley [Maurine’s sister], she’d sit in the seat and help him with the maps. My mother and I would sit in the back and sing songs and stuff like that,” she said.

She also went to a private school where world cultures were taught early on in the curriculum. It was her upbringing that got her interested in seeing the world.

Sol was from a working-class immigrant family who never had the money to go on holiday. It wasn’t until he went to university that he travelled far from home. “We used to go to the beach on Coney Island, Jones Beach, those kinds of places, for the day, never overnight,” Sol said.

Their first travels:

Maurine and Sol’s first big trip out of the US/Canada was their honeymoon in Mexico.

“We were married in December and didn’t it sound wonderful to go to [a] warm climate. In order to get to Mexico, we had to take a plane to Dallas, then we got off of that plane and Dallas was a tiny airport and we got off on the tarmac,” Maurine said.

They flew on a DC-3, which is very different from modern planes. You boarded the plane from the back on a ladder and the plane was on an incline.

They visited Mexico City and Acapulco, seeing scenic and historic places like Xochimilco.

At the time, it was a huge deal to go out of the country. This was during a time when the most popular honeymoon spots for Americans were domestic, like Niagara Falls, Florida, and Route 66.

To put this in perspective, back in the 1940s and 1950s, air travel was not as accessible like it is today. Back then, flying was for the well-off or those in the military and even more regulated by the government. The average American going on holidays drove or took a train and wouldn’t really leave the country, except maybe go to Canada if they lived up north.

With four kids, it wasn’t easy (or cheap) to travel far, but they would go around the US and Canada. One memorable trip for the family was going to the World’s Fair in New York. Whenever we went to Disney World, my dad would make it a point to go on the Carousel of Progress and tell the story of how he went on the original one.

When their twin youngest sons went to university, they took their first overseas trip to Europe for their 25th wedding anniversary. They visited Italy, Switzerland, and France. By this point, they were nearing their 50s, but they felt younger than their years and they weren’t slowing down.

Almost every year, they’d go to a new place. Looking at their spreadsheet of their holidays, I saw many bucket list destinations: Hawaii, Scandinavia, the UK, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, New Zealand, Australia, Kenya, Egypt, the list goes on.

The way they travel is very different from others; they don’t want to just see the typical tourist traps, but rather they want to get a better understanding of how people live there, the history, and the culture of where they are visiting. To travel like this means sometimes you rough it, but the trip is always rewarding.

They also would travel independently to countries where they didn’t know the language and that was interesting for them.

“It was entirely different travelling in those days. You were pretty much on your own and completely unafraid,” Sol said.

In Greece, they didn’t understand any of the signs because they didn’t have a Latin transliteration and when they bought food at a shop, Sol held out his hand full of coins for the cashier. Of their European holidays, Greece really stood out to them and they loved seeing the ancient sites so much, they were inspired to see more of them around the world.

From travelling to China in the 80s to travelling to China in your 80s:

Some pictures from their 2008 trip to China

Of all the countries they visited, it was China that really fascinated them, especially the smaller towns and historic sites. They didn’t just go there once, they went there four times, most recently in 2008, when they were in their 80s.

“There’s nothing like China. We’ve only been there four times and we could keep going back. You’d never see the whole country,” Sol said. “It’s a huge, huge country. From the east coast, all the way out to the north-western part of China, it’s like going from Miami to Seattle,” he added.

Their first visit was in 1983, just when the country was reforming and opening up to American tourists. They noted that so much has changed over the years.

During their trips to China, they’ve been to Beijing, Shanghai, the Gobi Desert, the countryside, Hong Kong, and more.

Maurine and Sol recalled some standout memories like how in the 80s, tourists were strictly monitored and could not wander on their own; there were no hotels; most people travelled by bike or foot; and people had some knowledge of English and a curiosity and some knowledge of American culture.

Maurine remembered she spoke to some locals and they saw that she and Sol were Americans, and when they said they were from Chicago, the locals said “that’s the city by the lake” and that Illinois is “The Land of Lincoln.”

The accommodations were nothing like today and they were a unique experience. “There were not hotels like we know hotels. Because we were supposedly a high-class trip, they put us up in the same kind of accommodation that foreign diplomats stayed in. They were called state guesthouses,” Sol said.

One thing that was different about the guesthouses was that there were no keys to lock the rooms and there were staff on each floor. When Sol asked an employee about what happens if someone tries to steal something, the staff member said, “we’ll chop their hands off.”

Sol’s favourite moment in China was when he went to the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven for the first time. To him, these historic tourist sites were dreams, but when they saw them in person, it had such an impact. “When I climbed up on the Great Wall I was practically in tears,” Sol said.

On another trip in the early 90s they took a train across the Gobi Desert, which they described as a “real experience” because food waste is thrown out the window and the animals eat it.

They arrived in a town in Northwest China called Urumqi and were surprised to find a brand-new Holiday Inn with a revolving rooftop restaurant. There was a snowstorm and they couldn’t leave and more and more tourists flocked to the hotel, making it very crowded. Maurine and Sol were there too long and they had to get out.

The tour guides chartered a plane for all the trapped tourists and it was an unexpected detour to Pakistan, cutting short their Silk Road tour. Maurine and Sol got to see the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan (they even took some footsteps into Afghanistan, so they’ve technically been there). “Everybody walked around with a gun,” Sol said. Maurine added that the relations between the US and Pakistan were very different then. Today the US, Canadian, and British governments issue travel warnings against all non-essential travel to the country and against all travel in certain regions of those countries.

Over the years, they’ve noticed that China is catering better to tourists.

In their most recent trip to China, they went to a smaller town called Dali in Yunnan Province, in Southeast China. A young woman named Sally took care of them and wore traditional costumes every day, except for the last day, when she dropped them off at the airport, she wore jeans and a t-shirt.

The accommodations when they were there were not the cushiest. Maurine slept on a cot and Sol slept on a makeshift bed made of a doorframe and blankets. But it was a good trade off because they went off the beaten path, seeing how people lived, and saw beautiful sites.

Other bizarre stories:

My grandparents could tell stories for days about all the places they’ve been, but there were a few other stories from their travels that stood out. In all their time travelling under all the different presidencies and governments, they’ve never felt unwelcome for being Americans because many countries love tourists and how they stimulate the economy.

Their trip to Vietnam was an adventure and totally a change in routine from their relaxed life in Florida and the Chicago suburbs. They raved about their tour guide who spoke perfect English, whose father fought against the US in the Vietnam War, and whose husband worked for Gillette. Sol described her as “a lady who knew what the hell was going on.”

They found the motorcycle-filled streets scary because the drivers didn’t stop and there were no traffic lights. “You just keep walking and rely on them to dodge you,” Sol said.

The next day they were to fly to Saigon, but the plane was hijacked by a high up government official, so they were left trying to rent a car and it was one long road trip, with stops along the way.

Also in Vietnam, they listened to a talk about the tunnels the Viet Cong used. The group walked out into the woods and the guide challenged them to find the tunnels, but no one could find them. The tunnels were city like and had hospitals, beds, everything. “They literally lived down there,” Maurine said.

Their trip to Vietnam was a couple of decades after the war and Sol was curious about why they were so welcoming to American tourists. “What they said to us when we said ‘Why are you guys so friendly? Why don’t you hate us?’ The guide said, ‘Because we’ve been fighting foreign countries for years. You’re just the latest one.’ That was her answer,” Sol said.

New Guinea was a nerve-wracking trip for my grandparents because while they were there, the bus fell into a ditch and no one could get out. Women in the village came out and saved the day by coming out and lifting the bus back onto the road.

While on holiday, you try all sorts of different foods that you can’t get at home. After a visit to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Maurine and Sol went to a nearby pizza place, but this wasn’t your ordinary pizza, this was Russian pizza. They loved it.

Final thoughts:

What has changed the most for them is mobility and how they travel. Maurine cannot walk as well as she used to and now uses a cane or a walker. Sol’s mobility is a lot better, but it gets more difficult as each year passes. They still love travel and they never want to give it up (in fact, they have quite a few trips lined up for next year), so they had to rethink how they do it now.

Their preferred method is cruising because it’s convenient, all-inclusive, slower paced, and accessible. The cruise ships are compact enough for people with mobility problems to get around and they offer easy tours for the elderly and those with disabilities.

One piece of advice they gave was to do the hardest trips early on, while you can do them. “Early on in our travels, we ought to do the hard trips first,” Maurine said about Sol’s travel planning philosophy.

There were many places that Maurine and Sol wanted to go, but had to cancel after realising that it would be too much time travelling or not accessible enough. They wanted to go to South Africa, but it was essentially two overseas flights (US-Europe then Europe-Africa), which was too much for them to handle. They also wanted to go to South Korea and the South Pacific Islands, but that is a bit far for them now.

Another tip they said was to pay attention to travel alerts from your government. “If the State Department gives their OK, you’re alright. You’re as safe as you would be in this country,” Maurine said. “That’s why we went to Egypt. People thought we were nuts, but they said they will have more security for you than they will ever have anywhere else,” she added.

One thing they’ve learnt from their years of travelling is that people aren’t all that different after all and that it’s good to keep an open mind when travelling.

If there was one song that would describe my grandparents, it’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” because they really have been everywhere.

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