Surviving Your Dream Vacation
75 Rules to Keep Your Companion Talking to You on the Road
Charley and I have done a lot of travelling together over more than fifty years. It started while we were engaged. I was still in college and he was an Air Force officer assigned to Dover, Delaware. For two years we drove back and forth between Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and Dover Air Force Base in his white VW “Beetle,” shouting fraternity and sorority songs to stay awake: “Give a rousing cheer/For the boys are here/Lift your glasses high…”
After we’d been married a year, Charley was assigned to Vietnam. We met in Honolulu, halfway through his year-long tour in ‘67. He arrived at the agreed-upon hotel at 3 a.m., but the desk clerk swore his Rolodex didn’t have any record of my being there. “Try under my name,” Charley said to the man.
“No, sir, no ‘Charles Carey.’”
“Try again, under ‘Pamela Carey.’" That’s spelled C-A-R-E-Y.”
"Wait a minute! Here she is! Her card was stuck to the card in front of it.”
“Honey, it’s me,” Charley said quietly, knocking on my door. Since I was expecting him the next morning, I was sound asleep, with my hair in curlers and a mud-gunk mask all over my face. Today, cell phones would prevent such tragedies.
“Open the door!”
Half asleep, I stumbled to the deadbolt and slid it back. Thirty seconds later, bits of my mud mask hung all across Charley’s stubble.
We began to travel with another Air Force couple, but he was a pilot and none of us stayed in one place very long. Eventually we travelled with friends from each town where we settled. We learned quickly there are close friends you can travel with and close friends you can’t. After we had kids, we gave up travelling with other couples. It was less exhausting not to have to make decisions for four or more, some of whom qualified in the “bitch” category, were ALWAYS thirty minutes late, or simply couldn’t make up their minds. Charley and I needed our “quiet time,” without any explanations for the hours we might be missing-in-action.
Travel is one of the things we enjoy doing together the most….unless there’s an argument. And on foreign trips, especially, one of us will always get pissed off, probably from a lack of sleep. Let’s face it – we all dream of an idyllic trip before we leave, but no trip can be perfection. There can be miscommunication, unforeseen emergencies, as well as plain old physical discomfort. No accommodations are quite like home. A sense of humor and the ability to “roll with the punches” are essential, even if the punches come in the form of a stolen car or poison ivy surrounding your torso.
When our sons were playing amateur and professional baseball (college and the Red Sox organization), we travelled across twenty states to watch them play. During Charley’s professional life as a banker, we travelled around the world. In retirement, we devote several weeks a year to international travel. In addition, we continue to drive from Massachusetts to Florida and back as “snowbirds” each year. On one of those trips, we didn’t speak from Massachusetts to South Carolina. It wasn’t smart to have an argument before leaving on a 1,200-mile ride together in a small metal cylinder!
When we travel, we are on a figurative journey without a map. We know memories of the unexpected, the funny, the touching, and the exasperating will remain with us long after we get home. We will always have that! It’s mind-blowing to immerse ourselves in another culture, even if it is within our own country. It teaches tolerance and respect. It’s about “crossing borders into foreign regions of the soul,” as Sue Monk Kidd said in Travelling with Pomegranates.
I developed some unwritten “rules” along the way to help us survive our trips. Sometimes we follow them; sometimes we don’t. May those who journey together do so in reverence, excitement, and never-ending repetition of the mantra, “Zip it!”
Rule # 5 - The label “First Class” in the U.S. means superior quality. Not so in other countries! Understand the terminology for what you're booking.
Jack and his grandson took a train from Cairo to Luxor, up the Nile River. The cost of each “first class” seat in a compartment was seven Egyptian pounds, or about two dollars. Jack understood the train would be a “local” rather than an “express,” but he wanted to see all the little towns along the river. “We’ll get to see some scenery and ride with the Egyptians,” Jack said.
His name was in a data base in Egypt for those doing U.S. government work there. Mandatory body guards accompanied him everywhere. When the guards got to the compartment Jack had booked in the vintage ’39 train, there was no room for them to sit. In fact, there was no room for them to even turn around. The entourage had to step into the hallway to turn sideways.
“Let’s see if there’s anything to eat,” Jack said to the group.
After walking through three cars, they gave up. No attendant was in sight. Jack and his grandson headed back to their seats while the bodyguards squatted on the flat metal platform between the cars.
“I’ve got to find the bathroom,” the grandson said.
“All right. We passed it the next car up. I’ll wait in the hall.”
With Jack’s protruding belly blocking the narrow hallway, other passengers did a shadow dance with him to get through. “Sorry,” Jack said to an Egyptian woman covered in black wool that hid her ample girth. It was a tie as to who had more poundage. Jack flattened his navel against the wall. The woman turned backwards and shoved her ample buttocks against Jack’s, shifting her first hip past him. Eighty pounds of flesh wiggled through. She repeated the process for the second hip. “No thrill at all,” Jack mumbled to no one.
“Sorry,” he said again, this time to an Egyptian businessman in a suit with a briefcase. Jack’s belly was getting chafed against the raw wooden slats on the walls. “What the hell is taking so long?” he yelled through the bathroom door.
His grandson appeared, wiping his mouth. “I got sick. It was just a hole in the floor.”
“Welcome to the cradle of civilization,” Jack said.
In the morning a Ful Medames recipe arrived on plates—at their bunks. Eggs enveloped black fava beans and onions. The dish had been liberally seasoned with cumin. Next to each plate was a cup of black coffee that looked and tasted li the Nile.
The flight back to Cairo was no better. Next to Jack an Egyptian woman squeezed chickens under her seat and between her legs.
But Jack wouldn’t give up. On another trip he booked a Nile River cruise. On his first day he relaxed with a drink on the top deck of the barge. Along the River kids fished, women washed their clothes in the muddy water, and oxen plowed the fields while their master kept one hand on a cell phone.
When he returned to his cabin below, Jack found his room had been cleaned and everything put away in the chest of drawers or the closet. However, the air was stuffy. The bedroom smelled of cinnamon air freshener the staff had used.
Jack stood by the screened window. The afternoon was as still as a sleeping baby. No breeze ruffled the water. He pushed on the screen to stick his head out for a deep breath.
Immediately his room went dark. Locusts whizzed around his ears, his mouth, and into his eyes. Black and buzzing, they descended on his head, his arms, and every inch of his cabin. He slammed the screen shut and stumbled toward the phone by the bed, shielding his eyes and batting away the whirring pests with his other hand.
“Help! There are insects all over my cabin!” Jack yelled into the phone.
The stewards were stationed at the end of the hall. Six of them carrying flit-guns appeared within a minute. The war between the locusts and the flit-gunners began! The stewards won, of course. But they used so much bug spray that dead locusts lay in soggy heaps on every surface. Jack couldn’t breathe. He slept in the lounge that night.
Rule #8 - Find out exactly what’s included in the package you’re paying for.
We didn’t spend many family vacations in restful tropical getaways while our two sons were growing up. Aside from the obligatory trip to Disney World, every winter break found us in ice hockey tournaments in frozen tundras like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or a far-flung province of Canada. During spring breaks their baseball teams would somehow make it to state or regional playoffs. In their college years, their Dartmouth and Brown baseball teams traveled to tournaments across the country in the spring, including a year both teams participated in the same tournament in Hawaii. So it was a rare occasion one year when all four of us spent a week together in Florida between Christmas and New Year’s.
The boys had requested a deep-sea fishing excursion while we were there. I visualized sunbathing on the back deck of a yacht while the men wrestled with behemoths from the deep. I knew Charley had a problem with seasickness, which is one of the reasons we didn’t take cruises. He was OK on big, heavy ferries that carried vehicles and he consented to tour the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador on a one hundred-person ship. Well, I really gave him no choice. Tiny islands with no air strip - how else would we get there? The blue-footed boobies and just-born sea lions were sweet toppings after entrees of filet mignon and a luxurious ship that never rocked.
Around 7:00 a.m. the morning of the Florida deep-sea excursion we swallowed coffee, juice, and a muffin before heading to the dock in Boynton Beach. Just to be sure there would be no upset stomachs, I insisted everyone take a Dramamine pill. “Oh, Mom, we won’t be sick,” my college boys told me. I appealed to the possibility they had inherited their father’s gene for seasickness.
At the dock two fishermen stood working over a wooden plank. Scales jumped in the sunlight as the men ran their knives up and down, up and down over pink twelve-inch snappers. The smell of disemboweled fish had enticed five pelicans, waiting for morsels as they paddled between the boats, while the seagulls created a raucous cacaphony overhead.
The Captain of the Jolly Roger stepped off his boat. The wooden vessel was definitely NOT what I’d had in mind! “How y’all doin’ today?” he said. “You must be the Careys. I’m Bill, fillin’ in for Cap’n Roger.”
I guessed Bill was in his fifties. He wore rubber boots but his plaid shirt and denim overalls made him look more like a farmer. Ruddy jowls swayed as he moved toward us with a smile more like a grin, not really welcoming but not inhospitable either. My eyes went immediately to his forehead, inflamed with sunburn sores. Next to his temple sat a large carbuncle.
“Hi, Bill! I called to book a half day deep-sea fishing,” I said. “This is my husband, Charley, and our sons, Jack and Todd. How much do we owe you for half a day?” I asked, after the handshakes.
“That will be $350. Be back around noon. Put on your sun block and stow your gear down in the cabin.”
He offered a hand to help us onto a wooden step in the stern of the boat. Beside him on the dock were pails of stinking bait and a large wooden bin with holes in the bottom and a lid. I presumed the bin would hold our catch. Bill moved the pails and the bin into the bow. Six-foot fishing poles stood upright like swords in their sheaths against wooden planks on each side of the boat. Attached to the fishing lines were iridescent blue, white, and green feather lures.
I went down into the cabin to find a niche for my tote. Since there was no niche, I lifted one of the lids on the wooden seats that ran along the starboard and port sides and inspected for water before dropping the bag into the dankness. Straps hanging overhead were the only other things in the cabin. Hope we don’t need those, I thought.
“Did you put block on?” I asked Charley, laying a towel across a padded seat in the stern.
“We all used it before we left,” he said, snuggling next to me as Bill revved up the engines. The boys were up in the bow.
I sat back and adjusted my visor. With the temperature expected to rise into the mid-eighties, I anticipated stripping down to my bathing suit once we got out of the inlet.
Beyond the Intracoastal Waterway, open ocean glistened and jumped in the sunlight like the snapper scales. The first buoy we passed bobbed with the grace of a weaving top. We sped across the azure glass for about thirty minutes to a point where Bill figured the fish would be worth catching. He’d been on the radio with other charter boats, which began circling and cutting their engines. Bill took three of the fishing poles out of their holders and handed them to my men.
“Sure you don’t want to try?” he asked, pointing another rod toward me.
“No thanks. I’m fine here. Is there any water to drink?”
“We don’t provide drinks,” Bill said. “Guess you should have brought some.”
“Guess someone should have mentioned that for $350 we weren’t getting any!” The sweat was already glistening on my forehead.
I pulled my cover-up over my head and stowed it in my tote in the cabin. Next I pulled out Caleb’s Crossing and buried my fury in its pages. At least Caleb had something to drink while his boat crossed from Martha’s Vineyard to the mainland. Bill took the lid off the pail he’d positioned on the floor of the starboard side and brought out large chunks of bait fish. The breeze caught the reek, as he tossed the chunks overboard. “Now I’ll just hide a hook in one of those pieces that drifts down. They never see it. It’s called ‘chunking,’” he yelled to me.
“Fishing’s not my thing,” I yelled back at him.
Two-foot waves slapped at our hull, rhythmic and hypnotic. An hour passed without one bite. I had turned over three times and was roasting.
I headed down into the cabin. It provided some shade but no amenities. Raw plywood on the built-in seats showed through the whitewash. There were no windows, probably a good thing so glass wouldn’t shatter in a storm. My throat was like thin-gauge sandpaper. I resorted to TicTacs from my tote and went outside to share. My three males were half asleep under their baseball caps, holding their rods. No land was visible in any direction. “Be careful you don’t burn,” I said, startling them awake. I threw the sunblock next to Charley on his seat.
Another hour in the cabin reading and still I hadn’t heard, “I’ve got one!” or “Look at the size of that baby!” What exactly were we getting for $350? A view of other fishing boats? I supposed it wasn’t Bill’s fault the fish weren’t biting. He’d maneuvered us to three different locations but hadn’t offered any conversation after the explanation of “chunking.”
Around that time some slate-tinged clouds created a shadow over us. The water turned to steel and our sea of glass started to jolt us, as if we were in bumper cars. In the distance blue sky and seas continued to surround four other boats. Bill moved us toward the others and cut the engines. The slate clouds followed, but the Carey men still clung to their poles.
When the boat began to rock, I stood at the door of the cabin and steadied myself against the frame. I wanted to catch a glimpse of the horizon, since I didn’t trust my stomach entirely to Dramamine. The men were wide awake but immobile.
Within ten minutes the slate clouds began to disgorge their contents. We weren’t the only recipients. The other fishing boats were engulfed, too. The Jolly Roger rocked at forty-five-degree angles from starboard to port. “Come on in!” I yelled to my men from the door of the cabin. None of us were getting any jollies from our boat, the Roger!
Within seconds they’d hung up their poles and grabbed the straps above our heads in the cabin. A final speck of blue disappeared from the horizon at the same time a thunder clap announced something more ominous. The slate clouds had turned to ink. While we held onto the straps, lightning darted into the water in the distance. Bill still hadn’t turned the engines on.
“We’d better head back,” Charley yelled to him from his strap position. The engines sputtered and revved. We turned to starboard and retreated toward safety. The Jolly Roger bumper car ride had turned into the Coney Island Cyclone.
After ten minutes of rock-n-rolling on our way to the inlet Bill yelled, “You’ve got a catch!” The four of us looked at each other but our hands were frozen in death grips.
“I’ll reel it in,” younger son Todd said.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” I screamed into the wind. The bobbing lines kept disappearing and reappearing as whitecaps engulfed them. Only one rod was bent like a willow with a line unreeling.
Todd took his place in the same chair he’d abandoned. From the look of his shirt and shorts in the downpour, he could have been on the other end of the line. Bill cut the engines.
Todd captured our only fish of the day – a ten-pound tuna. After he’d deposited it in the wooden bin, we wrapped him in towels and Bill started us up. Dramamine had saved our stomachs but made us so sleepy we headed to bed as soon as we got back to the condo.
Bill made sure the tuna was cleaned, filleted, and wrapped before we left the dock. We gave it to the guard in our condo building. “That’s the most expensive tuna you’ll ever eat,” Charley told the guard. “I figure it cost us $35 a pound.”