“Would You Do This For Me?”, part 3

This is the final installment of my posts entitled “Would you do get this for me?” but this one is a slight variation from the first and second parts.  In this case, we weren’t being asked to bring something back from where we were traveling;  it was a request from someone back home to do something very special.

Through my Spanish Conversation group, I had met a very nice Spanish woman who had just come to the US to work.  She needed help with her English for her job, so I set her up for a language exchange with my wife who wanted to learn Spanish. During her stay, her English improved greatly.  Meanwhile, she helped us decide where we wanted to spend a month in Spain later that year. 

We had originally thought that we would like to stay for a month in Girona, in the heart of Catalonia, where I believed that my wife would be able to learn Spanish and I could pick up some Catalán.  Lucia cautioned against this, instead recommending that we choose Madrid since we had never spent more than 3-4 days at a time in Spain’s capital city. 


This turned out to be a good decision because when after spending two days in Girona, we had seen almost everything we wanted to see.  Our month in Madrid was full of exciting surprises, including the discovery of many excellent Chinese restaurants. 

At the end of our stay in Madrid, we still had 12 days before we had to be in Malaga from where we were returning to the US.  We wanted to spend at least three nights in Seville and Malaga, so we had time to take a leisurely route through the west-central part of Spain known as the Extremadura which borders on central Portugal.  We stayed in the city of Cáceres, a walled city dating back to the 12th century Moorish times. 

Our trip took us from Madrid to Cáceres to Sevilla to Málaga

When we wrote our friend Lucia that we were in Caceres, she asked us if we would do her a favor.  Her mother’s family came from the city of Brozas, 25 miles from Caceres which was on the road to the town of Alcantara which is famous for a Roman bridge across the Tagus River. 

Placing flowers at the gravesite

Lucia’s request was that we leave some flowers at the tombstone of her mother in the public cemetery of Brozas.  She had explained earlier to us that when she was about 10 years old, she had been brought to Brozas to spend time with her grandparents.  While returning to their home city in the northern Spain, her parents and her younger sister were killed in a car accident.

As we entered the city of Brozas at noontime, the area around the main church was unusually quiet.  We were able to find a small store where we purchased some flowers.  Our GPS wouldn’t show us the  correct route to the town cemetery but a person we met along the way offered to lead us to it just outside the city.   Only one person was working there when we arrived and when he saw me taking pictures, he approached me.  

“Why would you be taking pictures in a cemetery?”  he asked. 

When I began to explain that I wanted to record our search for Lucia’s family plot, his eyes lit up. 

“I knew the family well and I was a youngster when this happened,” he said, recalling the accident from some forty years before.

“I didn’t know that Lucia was in the United States right now,” he told me, as he brought us to the mausoleum plot of Lucia’s family.

“Last time I spoke to her, she was living in Madrid,” he said.

I immediately called Lucia on the phone.  She was deeply moved by our visit to her family’s burial site.  She was amazed that the caretaker of the cemetery was someone she knew since childhood.  You could tell that she appreciated this personal favor.   

For my wife and me, the real joy of traveling has always been the opportunity to have these authentic experiences.  We have been on many trips or excursions where we have visited places on someone’s “must-see” list, but after a while, they are not especially meaningful.  But we will forever remember the cemetery in a little town in Spain and the Indian city of Jodhpur because of the personal connection we had with these places.      

“Would You Get This For Me?” (Part I)

Have you ever been on a trip and someone asked you to get them something specific from the place where you were traveling?

On our trip to India last year, we had a few interesting experiences as a result of special requests from friends back at home. 

The first was from a friend who asked me if I would pick him up a specially-colored bowtie.  He wanted a “saffron-colored bowtie” which would go well with an outfit his wife was wearing to a holiday party. 

We took his request seriously, so anytime we were in a clothing store during our tour around the country, we looked for this special item. After checking in many locations, we determined that this was not something that was going to be easy to find.  We decided to wait until the end of our trip when we were going to be traveling on our own to the city of Jodhpur. 

Jodhpur is in the northwestern part of India in the state of Rajasthan.

As an aside, we often like to end our trips with a separate independent excursion.   After we have been traveling with a group where all the details are being taken care of by a tour leader, it is fun to see how we can function on our own within the country. 

We have done this almost every time we have traveled, both after cruises and group land trips.  Rather than rushing back to the airport to head home, we have found that this additional three or four-day excursion is a memorable way to end our time abroad.  We call it our “cool-down period” and it literally gives us the opportunity to slowly and deliberately enjoy a slower pace than what we had become accustomed to while we were with a large group rushing around with a tour guide.

After our tour in India ended, we had stayed an additional three days in Mumbai so that we could we met up with cousins of Indian friends from back home.  Then we flew from Mumbai to Jodhpur which in itself was an interesting experience because we didn’t have the services of a tour guide.. When we arrived in Jodhpur, we were met by a driver who took us to RAAS, a luxury hotel which was within a walled compound directly in the city.  We felt very comfortable venturing out into the city but it was a pleasure to come back to the quieter, protected confines of this hotel.

We began our search in earnest for the bowtie in many of the shops near the hotel.   By chance, one shop owner recommended another store down the street which was the outlet for a European NGO (non-governmental organization).   The owner showed us his inventory of ties and shirts but suggested that if we wanted to have something custom-made in a special color, we should visit the home base of the NGO and they would be able to make it while we waited. 

Sambhali: Self-esteem, Unity and Independence

The NGO turned out to be a group home in a large, converted mansion located about a half-hour outside the city. 

This converted mansion, known in India as a “bungalow”, is the home of Sambhali.

We arranged for private transportation (a motorized rickshaw) and spent the morning learning about how over the years, hundreds of women have been rescued from poverty through the generosity of European donors.  Mothers and their children who would have otherwise been homeless were given the opportunity to learn a skill (in this case sewing) and were subsequently set up in business for themselves after they had completed the training course. 

The women and their children seated on the floor where they were sewing customized yoga mats.

While we were at the home to about 12 women, we were shown their workplace where we selected the material in the specific saffron color. 

Cutting our chosen fabric to make the bowtie
Applying decorative henna to the arm of her colleague who was getting married that weekend.

While we waited for our item to be completed, we talked to the women who were busy sewing yoga mats for a Swedish donor who had traveled to India to see the working conditions of the women who were creating her product.  We also watched as one of the older women applied the decorative henna to the arm of her co-worker who was getting married that weekend. 

After returning to the area near our hotel, we visited one of the successful “graduates” of the program who had her own shop selling many of the sewn items. 

Sanju’s boutique

It was wonderful to hear Sanju’s story and to share her pride in having risen from poverty to a middle-class shop owner.   

Sanju

We love these “authentic experiences” while we were traveling especially when they are spontaneous and unplanned in advance. This was a welcome break from the tourist sites that we had been visiting for the past three weeks.   These “field trips” provide us with a much more realistic view of the foreign country.   

In next week’s installment, I will tell you about the next request we were able to fulfill while visiting the same city of Jodhpur.