Even in Distant Lands, the Welcomes Are Warm

Steven Zimmerman, the chief of operations for Room to Read, a nonprofit educational group, in Bangladesh last December.
UNTIL the age of 18, I never traveled outside of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. But in the last four decades, I’ve clocked more than two million miles and have been in more than 120 countries. Last year, I was in South Africa, Zambia, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh, all countries in which Room to Read has programs.

Travel is an integral part of my life. I love going to new countries, meeting new people and trying different airlines.

I’ve learned to take travel in stride. I have to. If I didn’t, I would be a nervous wreck.

I remember flying in a tiny plane in the Caucasus, going from Armenia to Georgia.

The cockpit door was open, and I could see the pilot and co-pilot. There was a bottle of whiskey sitting on the floor between them. Aside from the few passengers on the plane, the cargo consisted of several large drums of jet fuel positioned at the end of the seating area. We were warned not to smoke. No kidding.

After some reflection, I didn’t think it was that odd they had a bottle of whiskey in the cockpit. It was probably used to help calm their nerves. If you had to fly some of these planes, you would probably need a medicinal aid, too.

The adaptability of people from different cultures always amazes me.

I remember being in Beirut during the “troubles,” when the militias ruled West Beirut. I was sitting in an outdoor cafe on Hamra Street with a lot of other people. We heard gunfire in the distance. Soon a militia convoy was passing down the street firing their guns.

Just before they reached our cafe, everyone calmly picked up their coffee and simply moved inside. After they passed, the group moved back outside, sat down and resumed conversation as if nothing happened. I didn’t freak out because no one around me seemed overly concerned. I learned to adapt by taking my cues from the locals.

When I travel, I really do learn a lot from the local population. And I’m always grateful for that.

I went to Mongolia on a temporary assignment, and wound up loving the place so much I stayed for three years.

People always assume that living in Mongolia is difficult. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The people there make it easy for you. I think a lot of that has to do with their Buddhist faith. Everyone is welcoming, friendly and in touch with their environment.

You can drive for eight hours, and not see anyone. Eventually you may encounter a lone family of herders, as I often did.

These people will invite you into their homes, a “ger,” or yurt as we often call them. The family will feed you and share their “airag” with you.

Airag is fermented mare’s milk, similar to vodka, except that vodka doesn’t have much of a taste, and airag definitely tastes like animal. It has a very strong aftertaste and a real kick to it. It’s an acquired taste, but it will warm you in temperatures that can drop to minus 40 in the winter.

I always admired the simplicity of rural Mongolian life. But it’s changing. I remember stopping at a family’s ger. Next to it was a satellite dish, which was nearly as large as the ger itself. Everyone was watching a championship sumo wrestling match.

One of my fondest memories is being in the Gobi Desert watching wrestling on television. The match was fascinating. The company was great. And the airag? Well, that was pretty good, too.

By Steven Zimmerman, as told to Joan Raymond. E-mail: joan.raymond@nytimes.com

Source:www.nytimes.com (New York Times newspaper)


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