Column: Remembering places you’ve been
By Jim Schuh
When we realize we’re mortal beings, we sometimes sit back and think about all that’s happened during our lifetimes. My hope is that when you reminisce, you won’t dwell on whatever negatives that have clouded your life, but on the positive things that brought you joy and satisfaction.
I was reviewing the places I’ve traveled to during my eight decades and realize that I’ve been fortunate to visit many places around the world, as I wrote in an earlier column. I thought it would be fun to detail what I remember about a couple of the trips.
An article in Conde Nast’s Traveler magazine set me off – it was about the reasons someone would want to travel to Fiji. On my first trip to New Zealand, we returned home via Fiji, spending about four days there. While that was almost two decades ago, I still have some recollections of the visit.
We landed in Nadi (pronounced Nandy), on the far west side of the major island in the chain – Viti Levu. The airport has just one runway. The customs people were friendly and accommodating. We didn’t get to explore Nadi before departing a minibus for our hotel in Nadi, a bumpy three-hour drive away.
As we made our way along the winding two-lane road, mostly near the island’s south coast, evidence of the nation’s poverty is what I recall. We saw houses and schools with dirt floors. Many of the people we passed by were laboring, harvesting sugar cane, and piling it onto tiny railcars for transport elsewhere. The population was fairly evenly-divided between Polynesians and Indians.
When we arrived at our hotel – whose name escapes me – we were shown to our rooms – in a basement. We returned to the front desk to see about moving and the hotel accommodated us. We never did figure out why they booked us in the basement. Anyway, our stay was fine.
I remember that the front desk was open to the outside. It made sense when one considers it’s always warm in Fiji, which lies three-hours of flying time northeast of New Zealand – although things probably got really wet during cyclones.
The hotel was about 25-miles west of Suva, and we never ventured there. Instead, we stayed around our hotel and ate our meals there, too. When I think of the restaurant, all that comes to mind is curry. I think the Indian chefs put curry in everything – even breakfast cereal. And if that wasn’t enough, the buffet table had a dish of curry powder available for those who wanted more. I wonder why that odd fact has stayed with me.
Our major activity in Fiji was lounging along the sandy beach. I recall taking a glass-bottom boat trip to see the colorful fish species that live in Fiji’s waters. We weren’t disappointed and the photos of fish from that area you’ve seen are accurate.
It’s probably the same reason why I remember drinking numerous toasts in Rostov Veliky, Russia. That’s Stevens Point’s Sister City and I’m among a group of locals who traveled there on a goodwill trip nearly two decades ago. The people we visited were most gracious and hospitable – that’s where the alcoholic toasts come in. I recall wondering if I could remain sober while toasting Russian-American friendship and whatever else to which we raised our shot glasses several times during dinner. Custom requires a “down the hatch” approach. Sipping is out.
After a three-hour bus trip from Moscow, I stayed in a small fourth-floor apartment in a drab, gray building. My hosts were a young lady who’d spent time attending school at SPASH in Stevens Point as part of the Sister City program and her mother. The daughter relinquished her room for me and slept on an outside balcony. Her mother slept on a couch in the living room.
Mom did not speak English and I don’t speak Russian, but we got along fine, even when we were alone at breakfast one morning. She made an omelet and fried Russian sausages for me. We didn’t talk much but smiled a lot. I thanked her in Russian – Спасибо (spa-see’-bo) – one of the few Russian words I knew. The breakfast was very good.
I arrived with one heavy suitcase and wondered how I’d get it to the fourth-floor apartment on the narrow staircases. My hosts told me I needn’t worry – they assigned an older, short fellow who was nearby to haul my suitcase up to the apartment. I asked if I should give him a tip, but they quickly told me no – they said they “give him vodka.”
The apartment had no shower, so when I wanted to clean up, I had to go to grandma’s house a few blocks away.
We took a side trip to St. Petersburg, where we visited the Hermitage Art Museum that houses more than a million works of art. It’s where I purchased a set of Bill Clinton nesting dolls at a street stand adjacent to the Neva River. Nested inside were figures of Hilary, Monica Lewinski and a cigar.
Another recollection was aboard our plane as we left Moscow. Although we enjoyed our visit and were grateful for having such wonderful hosts, we felt a sense of relief in leaving Russia as the plane lifted off the Sheremetyevo airport runway and headed toward Amsterdam on our way home.
That’s enough for now. I may pass along remembrances from other trips in a future column