Forum: What’s The Favorite Foreign Country You Have Traveled To Or Lived In?



Every week on Monday morning , the Council and our invited guests weigh in at the Watcher’s Forum, short takes on a major issue of the day, the culture, or daily living. This week’s questio
n: What’s The Favorite Foreign Country You Have Traveled To Or Lived In?

The Colossus of Rhodey: This is pretty easy for me. I’ve visited Canada, Iceland, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Colombia and Nicaragua, but my favorite above all these by far is … Costa Rica. I first traveled to this jewel of a country in 1986 as a college junior. I spent my entire spring semester there, which was a good idea considering Spanish was my minor. I lived with a wonderful host family in downtown San José, the capital city. They were considerably less well-to-do than my own family, and lower middle-class by Costa Rican standards. This mattered not a whit to me; however, it certainly served as an “eye opener” on how incredibly fortunate we Americans are.

Two things immediately spring forth to visitors to CR. The first is the incredible climate. San José is approximately 3,800 feet above sea level which serves to cut its humidity considerably. In its “winter,” or dry season, virtually every day is like that one or two “perfect” spring days we get here in the northeast corridor of the US. Closer to sea level (like at any its lovely beach resorts), the humidity increases substantially, but the ocean breezes help to counter it.

The second thing that you notice is the friendliness and kindness of its people. Unlike many other Latin American countries, the degree of “Go Home Yankee” sentiment in CR is very small. Since the country has a very long tradition of democracy and a solid, strong middle class, they’ve a history of being pro-United States. Many speak English to some degree, but even if there is a complete language barrier, most Costa Ricans, or “ticos” as they call themselves, will go out of their way to help you if they’re able.

If you’re into nature, then Costa Rica is a MUST visit. This West Virginia-sized country contains over six percent of the entire planet’s biodiversity. Think about that! You will see things in CR you’ll never encounter anywhere else. Imagine sitting on the deck in your backyard and seeing macaws flying right over head. Or a toucan hanging out in a nearby tree. That’s Costa Rica.

The aforementioned beaches are, well, beyond a dream. The Pacific coast resorts, in particular those in the Guanacaste province, are the best. The other benefit of the west coast is the mesmerizing ocean sunsets!

Lastly (and this probably won’t be of much interest to female readers!), Costa Rican women are among the most beautiful on the planet. When I say it is hard to find an UNattractive woman (not that guys actively seek them, of course, but you know what I mean) in CR I am not exaggerating. They’re gorgeous. Period.
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(“Disclaimer”: Some of you know that I was married for 20 years to a woman from Costa Rica. We have a daughter, Vanessa, now age 20. I remain on very good terms with all my Costa Rican in-laws, all relationships, and still have many friends there. Since my college semester, I’ve been back to CR for lengthy visits in 1988, ’89, ’92, ’95, ’99, ’02, ’05 and ’09. In 2009, we celebrated Vanessa’s “quinceañera.”).

 The Razor: I lived in Tanzania for a year 1994-95 with my wife, assisting in the conservation of wild chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains National Park on Lake Tanganyika (that’s south of Gombe, the site made famous by Jane Goodall.) I was young, green (“mbichi” in the local lingo) and lost 40 pounds on a diet of fresh fish, beans and rice. We lived in the bush in a small research camp about a kilometer away from a small village composed of the families of the workers who supported the research. In our camp I awakened to red tailed monkeys knocking figs off the trees onto the metal roof of our concrete block house (the aptly named species Ficus exasperata). Chimpanzees regularly passed through camp, and one, Msudi, even learned that we kept bananas in the store room. From that point on he always checked the door to make sure it was locked. I remember in December we started hearing what sounded like sawing coming within our camp. We went out to investigate but didn’t find nothing. The workers asked us the next morning if we had heard the leopards passing through the area the previous night. I asked them what they sounded like; one tracker made a sawing sound. Later in my stay I was confronted by a growling leopard alone on a trail, but it’s one of those experiences that you can’t decide whether are absolutely wonderful or terrifying.

Living in the Bush now seems like a dream, but the memories I made there are so real that I don’t have to try very hard to bring them back. I almost said it was my first taste of isolation, but honestly I’ve lived in exile of one kind of another. Where we lived was only accessible by speedboat which was good for the animals, bad for the locals. They had once lived in the park, but during the 1970s Julius Nyerere had instituted the communist policy of collectivization, sending the army to force the people out of their huts before setting them ablaze and forcing the villagers to march over the mountains to scrubby towns in western Tanzania. Then he made it a park, and in the 1970s the Japanese began conducting chimpanzee research there. My wife was a doctoral student at a Japanese university.

After dinner we listened to the BBC World Service, and sometimes the Voice of America. But the Beeb became our nightly friend. In January it told us about the Kobe earthquake, a quake that rocked the region of Japan where we had lived 2 years prior to our stay in the Bush. I remember listening to the death toll being reported in the hundreds, then doubling every few hours. I also remember the ululation of the villagers when Mandela became president of South Africa. I don’t understand why they stopped the chimes of Big Ben and saying “This… is London.” I miss that.

I’ve been back to Tanzania once, but didn’t make it to Mahale. I’ve heard things have changed, that our research camp got attacked by Congolese pirates and some of our research staff held hostage, and as a result all researchers must be attended by armed park rangers, and their movements are limited. The chimpanzees we studied and new have all since died because life is tough for them in the bush. They had become our friends of sorts, and within a few months were as recognizable from one another as people.

I’m a simple bookish nerd from the suburbs of St. Louis but for a year I set aside all my fears and lived in what can only be described as one long National Geographic documentary. It was a magical experience, but one that I found others weren’t very interested in so I welcome any opportunity to share my experience and bring those memories back.

Simply Jews:  My brain and my heart tend to disagree on the answer to that. Of about 20 or so countries I’ve visited and/or lived in, US tends to take the first place on most of the days, when the brain wins.

The heart, however, says Slovenia, where I have spent only about 10 days all in all. That small country has all the geographical zones (well, almost) – from snow on the mountain summits to the azure sea. Its cities and villages are spotlessly clean and the houses, while not these of rich people, are cared for and full of flowers. And the central square of its capital sports a statue of a poet, not of a general!

Well, the local wine is a shame, though…

P.S. Not to be mixed with Slovakia, please!

 Ask Marion: Gosh… It is a toss up between Austria and Australia; weird huh?

Austria is where I was born and where my father’s side of the family hails from; it really is like living in the movie, the Sound of Music, in a lot of ways… I love going there and I eat myself silly. Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Linz, Graz… what is not to like? Oh yah I remember now… speaking of Graz, the only one of those cities I haven’t traveled to:

Austrian Times (2010): An Austrian has been fined 800 Euros for yodeling while mowing his lawn, according to a report.

The Kronen Zeitung (newspaper) claims Helmut G. was told by a court in Graz, Styria, that his yodeling offended his next-door Muslim neighbors.

The men reportedly accused the 63-year-old of having tried to mock and imitate the call of the Muezzin. The daily paper writes the Austrian was fined 800 Euros after judges ruled he could have tried to offend them and ridicule their belief. The Muslims, whose nationalities were not revealed by the report, were right in the middle of a prayer when the Austrian started to yodel.

“It was not my intention to imitate or insult them. I simply started to yodel a few tunes because I was in such a good mood” the man told the newspaper today (Mon). Guess America isn’t the only country going crazy… like not being able to stand on your own property or keep a basketball hoop.

But disregarding the yodeling and political correctness in Austria, I think my favorite vote would have to go to Australia either way.

I spent a whirlwind 8-days in Australia on a familiarization (FAM) trip years ago in another life when I owned a travel agency. I loved every moment beginning with the fact that Australians generally love Americans and we have the ex-British colony history in common.

We hit the ground running picking up a car mid-city in Melbourne and went on a road trip splitting our time between Melbourne, Canberra… Australia’s capital and Sydney. Melbourne very much has the San Francisco feel whereas Sydney has a combo NYC/LA feel; I’m talking character and ambiance, not politics. Canberra, a completely planned city, was marvelous, especially for a nation’s capital and even more so when compared to Washington, D.C. where you often take your life into your hands if you make the wrong turn and wander out of the government building area. Amazingly America’s Federal District of Columbia was also a planned area, but somehow the plan got away from them I’d say?!? Following an international contest for Canberra’s design, a blueprint by the Chicago architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin was selected and construction commenced in 1913. The Griffins’ plan featured geometric motifs such as circles, hexagons and triangles, and was centered on axes aligned with significant topographical landmarks in the Australian Capital Territory.

Admittedly, it has been a few years since I’ve been there, so Canberra may not be as safe as it was when I was there; there had not been a murder in that city for 5-years and there was no trash on the streets. With a population of 381,488 it is Australia’s largest inland city.

If you love lamb and fish, your dining experience will be great. If not, eating out might not be your favorite part of the trip, although sadly, in my book, they have McDonalds and a lot of other fast food to choose from. As for me I love fish and lamb! Word to the wise, we actually made the mistake of ordering a steak at a jazz club in the Rocks area in Sydney. Their cattle is range fed and if you had thrown it, the steak could have put a hole in the wall.

We spent one night in a small cabin-type accommodation in a place called Eden; the name says it all. It was absolutely beautiful and the water at the rim in front of our room was indescribable. It was exactly what you would imagine that a place named Eden would look like!

And I could go on all day about the animals… kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, the duck-billed platypus and the list goes on; fascinating!!

The Australians themselves were friendly, outgoing and anything but politically correct; they called it as they saw it… like Americans used to be. Their greatest complaint… taxes.

I have been blessed to do a fair amount of traveling, although there is a lot I’d still like to do and see, and I seldom come home thinking I’d like to move to my last vacation spot, although Australia was an exception. It was a consideration for a short time and I definitely had planned to go back and see the Outback, Perth Adelaide and the Great Barrier Reef, long before now. But if I was going to move somewhere outside the United States… it would be to New Zealand… for a long list of reason plus, it is the home of the Watcher’s Council ‘Special Ambassador’ Trevor Loudon.

 Rhymes With Right: Where have I loved visiting? Mexico — in particular one little corner of that country.

Mexico, of course, is a country that is as varied as the United States. I had the good luck to end up in central Mexico, in the city of Cuernavaca. The climate is temperate year round, there are fantastic sites to see, and it is quite hospitable to Americans. I visited there over 20 years ago to study Spanish for six weeks, and the spent my afternoons and weekends out and about, exploring the town. The Palacio de Cortes is the nearly 500 year old summer residence of the famed conqueror of the Aztecs and today serves as a museum. It was long a haven for folks such as the Shah of Iran, the Emperor of Ethiopia, and many foreign artists and authors. It is a wonderful blend of the old and the new — and if I ever find myself in a position to retire, I would give serious consideration to relocating to Cuernavaca as a means of conserving my retirement funds.

The Glittering Eye: I’ve visited or lived in Canada, Mexico, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland. Of them I liked Scotland best.

I think the reason most of all was the people. Not only were they extraordinarily cordial but I found the Scots I met to have consistently good senses of humor. You could joke with them, something I could not do with the English who were too reserved.

When I went to Scotland I felt as though I had come home. And I don’t even have Scottish ancestry.

Bookworm Room: I spent the happiest year of my life in England. I wouldn’t want to live there again. Thirty-three years ago it was a different country. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister; political correctness didn’t exist; and Bradford, one of the old English towns in Yorkshire, was 100% English, not 80% Pakistani.

I think I could be happy in Israel, but I’m such a dodo about languages I fear that would be a problem.

   Well, there you have it.

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