Friday, August 29, 2014
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Travel destinations that have captured our imagination

Sally Macdonald is fitted for a skirt in Tanzania by one of the women workers at a collective farm that raises goats and a special breed of stingless bees.
Sally Macdonald is fitted for a skirt in Tanzania by one of the women workers at a collective farm that raises goats and a special breed of stingless bees. JOHN MACDONALD

We found ourselves poring over an atlas again the other day, trying to decide - as many readers must be - where to go to escape this dreadful winter. And how soon we could get there.

And the question came up, as it often does when we talk travel: Where have we been that so captured our imagination that we'd really like to go back?

Many people are screaming "Beach!" right about now, as this winter melts into spring.

But we're not much for sunny beach vacations; John has fair skin and can't take tropical sunshine, and Sally would rather dive into history than into a turquoise pool at a tony resort.

We love places that offer us more than just sightseeing or relaxing. Places that surprise us. Places whose stories help us understand our own time and history. Places that make us want to stay awhile longer, that make us long to see more than we have time for.

All that said, a few seaside destinations often do come to mind when we travel-daydream.

Several of them have World War II histories.

There are France's Normandy beaches, of course, where Allied forces from the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain landed to initiate the beginning of the end of Hitler's notions of world domination. You can still see the cliffs that were scaled by unbelievably brave Allied troops and the German gun emplacements they ran right into as they stormed the French countryside.

But a little set of islands that dribble off the northwest coast of France into the English Channel also has a moving wartime history for us.

Britain's Channel Islands are within hailing distance of France. The people of Guernsey, Jersey, and the smaller islands in the group were rattled by the explosions that announced the presence of the Nazis in nearby Cherbourg, and they were occupied along with France for five years.

But they are as British as they come. You can still sit for a proper afternoon tea in St. Peter Port, Guernsey's city. You can also visit a wonderful World War II museum or walk along the south coast cliffs and run into the ruins of German fortifications.

But one destination that always comes to mind when we have these conversations has nothing to do with beaches.

That is Israel.

We were there to write about the 50th anniversary of the founding of the state. It was 1994 and the country was in a relatively tranquil period, when Palestinian rockets, Jewish settlements, and an unbreachable wall hadn't succeeded in making life there so complicated.

We stayed for a week in a kibbutz run by Orthodox Jews. There was a dairy farm and an orchard, a small factory that manufactured church or synagogue pews, and a spartan hotel for visitors. Down the hill, only a few miles away, was an Arab village, where the locals hosted us during the Jewish Sabbath, when most of the kibbutz guests were busy with worship services and the kitchen was closed.

It was all very bucolic, but every evening several men of the kibbutz took their shotguns to the guardhouse to watch for interlopers they feared might come from the village below.

They were friends until darkness fell. And then no one could be sure.

We loved exploring that heart of three great religions - Islam, Christianity, and Judaism - and imagining what it must have been like to live in Jerusalem in antiquity. We'd like to go back, to see what 20 more years of uncertainty have done.

But certainly not all our favorite places have to do with conflict.

Many of us have met friends in our travels that we'd like to get back together with. Our friend Zakia, originally from Bangladesh, now lives in London. We bunk in her guest room whenever our travels take us through London. And she takes us on adventures best led by a London local.

One of our best afternoons with her was spent in a neighborhood populated mostly by Bangladeshis, buying the ingredients to make her favorite foods for dinner that evening.

It's a memory we'll try to re-create next time we're in London.

Even tours can result in memories worth reliving.

After several days on safari in Tanzania, the tour company we were traveling with planned a day trip to a village in the highlands nearby.

When we got there we were surprised to find the women of the village had formed a collective farm. They were raising goats and a special breed of stingless bees and selling cheese and honey in a shack out front. They had gotten the goats and bees from Heifer International, a U.S. charity that furnishes livestock to needy villagers as a step into financial independence.

We went to Africa to see animals on safari, to thrill to elephants, hyenas, primates, and big cats in their home. But we had donated to that charity, and we were touched even more deeply by those villagers and what they were accomplishing. We hope those women are still prospering on goat cheese and honey sold to their neighbors from a shack beside the road.

As we think of our own travels and people we'd love to see again, we wonder what places other travelers remember fondly enough to heed the call of "come back."

How about letting us know, and we'll share some in a future column.

Sally and John Macdonald are freelance writers who live on a houseboat in Seattle.

Sally and John MacDonald
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