An intrepid world traveler embraces the adventure of discovering small surprises around every global corner — and his life is much richer for it.
“I wouldn’t have the courage to travel like you.”
My friend Larry has told me this several times which has made me think about the real reasons I go off to far-flung places like the Tips of South America (both southern and northern), Africa, China, and Bhutan, as well as nearby places like Cuba, Guatemala, and the Zuni and Acoma Pueblos of New Mexico.
What I have come to realize is that I thrive on the small challenge of discovering big surprises.
Sometimes it takes 20 or 30 paces to find that surprise awaiting me around the next corner or bend in the trail, but sometimes, without taking a step, big surprises come face-to-face with me.
The surprise is usually a person — like Kimpei Ohara and Hisako Matsuda in Japanese cities, Ou Gong Hua and Lu Zheyong in a Chinese ethnic village, Juan Gonzalez Castillo in the Cuban mountains, or Maribel on a Havana park bench. I’ve returned to visit each one of these people, some several times, because our lives are so much richer for having friends.
When I met Kimpei at an Osaka youth hostel in 1970, little did I know that this Japanese college student would become a professor of English who would welcome me to his home and classes in Kanazawa, Japan many times over the decades. And how would I have known that Kimpei would introduce me to Mrs. Matsuda and her husband who invited me to live in their old samurai house? And that my real mom and I would one day visit Mrs. Matsuda, who called me her “American son” and wanted me to call her my “Japanese mother?”
Then there was Maribel, who I met sitting on a Havana park bench. She surprised me with her tales of seeing Ernest Hemingway walking nearby, and dictator Batista and his family driving around in his limousine until frequent gunfire put a stop to his cruising, and then after Batista’s overthrow, of watching Fidel Castro ride the streets with his guards, and of Che Guevara driving a jeep around Havana by himself.
Although I dispatched a short email to friends after meeting my surprise Cuban acquaintance, how was I to know that I would meet Maribel many more times in subsequent years — each time on the same park bench quite by chance because I didn’t have her phone number or address? When I next returned to Cuba, I looked forward to walking the streets of Old Havana with Maribel, lunching in a sandwich shop, meandering through parks, and then sitting down in the welcome air-conditioning of an ice cream shop for her favorite flavor (and mine): chocolate.
After our first chance park bench meeting, it was not even a blip on my personal horizon that I would write a book about my world travel adventures. But the stories slowly became a book titled The Shots Maribel Heard.
So many people, so many stories, so many amazing challenges and surprises!
For instance, I once heard that a man in a remote Cuban mountain village was an eyewitness to the Fidel Castro revolution of the 1950’s. Later, sitting with Juan Gonzalez Castillo and his family in rocking chairs and at a table in a dirt-floor kitchen, I learned that Juan, as an eight-year-old, witnessed danger and bloodshed as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and others planned and fought a revolution against the corrupt Batista dictatorship and his powerful Army and Air Force.
A few years later in 2019, I video-recorded Juan’s incredible memories, as well as the daily life of three generations of his family who still lived in the mountain village. Juan’s life is weaved into stories in my book, as is the first photo-blog I posted on my website.
Before I published the names and stories of my friends, I made sure that I got their permission. The general consensus was: Make my story travel! As the owner of a Miles City, Montana shop reflected after we talked about Juan, Maribel and others…
“Sharing one’s stories with the world brings greater value to one’s life and experiences.”
A lesson I’ve learned through travel: We, the people of this planet, are all human. And as I relate in my book’s introduction: “I meet people by chance, and every person is a treasure to behold — the smile, laugh, determination, dreams and pain.” It’s like a booster shot to my own well-being to learn something about another’s family, friends, play… and stories.
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