Who We Are Lessons from long-ago travels
In business travels abroad from 1977 to 1989 I remember delightful dining experiences, those in Brussels and Singapore among the best. I remember illnesses, especially my Australian “shingles in Sydney” episode. But what I remember most are lessons learned about customs and how people lived their lives.
My first true international excursion was to Israel. Back then plane hijackings seemed to occur regularly. But my company wanted me to familiarize myself with its hotels. Shortly after landing at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport I was paged to come up front. I had no idea what might be in play. The flight attendant said, “They’re here to pick you up.”
As I walked down the ramp, two soldiers waited for me in military garb with Uzi submachine guns at their side. One of them said, “Nothing to worry about. You’re going to Arab countries afterwards. They won’t let you in if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport.”
So, I realized that governments knew about arriving and departing passengers and could circumvent passport screening procedures. For me, no James Bond encounter could have surpassed that afternoon’s drama.
My three days in Israel brought new revelations. For example, I learned that the Jaffa orange was heralded there. And that to avoid restrictions on buying-and-selling fruit, Israeli oranges were flown to Greece from Tel Aviv, re-packaged with Greek markings on the shipping crates, and then sold in Arab countries.
On another trip to that part of the world, I waited on a runway as locals carrying small appliances boarded a flight from Athens to Kuwait. Shortly after our take off, I saw smoke coming from a front row of seats. A passenger had turned on a battery-operated skillet. He was trying to fry food! Who knew that in some parts of the world, a hungry airline passenger could grill his own lunch on a flight?
Two years later in Cairo the hotel’s manager surprised me. He held my hand as we strolled through his lobby. Embarrassed, I bit my lip hoping no one saw us. Eventually, I learned that hand-holding, as well other ways men expressed their collegial friendship, was acceptable then in some foreign countries.
On trips across the Pacific, my education about folkways continued. In Manila, the Jeepney buses with their colorful painted sides reminded me of the New York City graffiti craze. I rode on them a few times. I was amazed to learn that when all seats were taken, passengers just hung on the outside backs of the Jeepneys, much like hitchhikers cling on the rear of freight trains.
On that same trip, one afternoon a guide took me on a tour of its Chinese Catholic cemetery. Lined with rows of magnificent mausoleums it looked like a wealthy American suburb. The guide added, “Most of these mausoleums have baths and overnight accommodations. People come here on All Saints Day to honor their deceased relatives.”
I later read that some sections of the cemetery were known as Millionaires’ Row and Little Beverly Hills. A fence-like structure surrounded the entire conclave. I walked up an inclined street so I could get a look at what was on the other side. Three or four children, completely naked, played seemingly joyfully in muddy water. Their homes stood behind them, a world far less opulent then the mausoleums on my side of the fence. I started tearing.
Closer to home, my cultural consciousness continued to expand. In Montreal, Canada, several times a year my employer’s training center hosted management development seminars for 24 to 28 department heads from different countries. Two attendees were assigned one hotel room. In one seminar, Moshe, an Israeli, and Mounir, an Egyptian, bunked together.
These two gentlemen became close friends. Because of their different backgrounds and the politics of that time, their bonding seemed inconceivable to me. I hesitated probing but finally asked how their friendship was possible. One of them said, “It’s our governments, not the people, who can’t get along.”
I could write a book filled with vignettes about my going to virtually every continent during my 12 years of business traveling abroad. As I went from country to country, I gained a deeper understanding of its people — and learned that every culture has a life uniquely its own.
Juan Negroni, a Weston resident, is a consultant, bilingual speaker and writer. Email him at email@example.com. His column appears monthly in Hearst Connecticut newspapers.