I have an older friend, an aerospace engineer by profession, who spent most of his career working on top-secret rocket projects for the Department of Defense. At the height of the Cold War, if you called his office, they would disavow any knowledge of his existence, much less his actions.
As it happened, he met and married a woman whose family had escaped from Hungary during the height of World War II. Although she still had cousins in Budapest, there was no way in the world the U.S. government was ever going to give her, much less him, dispensation to travel behind the Iron Curtain.
(For those of you who don’t recognize the terms “Cold War” and “Iron Curtain,” savor your youth.)
But then came the Fall of the Wall and my friend’s eventual retirement from all things jet-propelled, and to my utter delight, he and his wife finally departed this past spring on a long-delayed vacation to Budapest. His trip reminded me of all the restricted or inconvenient places I’d like to see before my traveling days are up. Some of them, of course, are more likely than others.
Havana, Cuba. On New Years’ Eve, 1958, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces took over the Caribbean island of Cuba, inciting an embargo that is still in place today. There are lots of ramifications to this, but the one that intrigues me the most is the fact that the streets of Havana are apparently a rolling car show of 1950s American automobiles, nursed along long after they would have been abandoned here in the U.S. I sense that visiting Havana would be like stepping back into time.
Damascus, Syria. The capital of Syria has a distinction that entices someone who studied as much Latin and Greek as I did – it’s the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Although archaeologists have estimated that people settled in the area as far back as 9000 B.C., it wasn’t until 2000 BC that it began to have influence as a city. I’m not sure how much of that era is preserved, the way it is in Athens or Rome, but I would still – if I wasn’t such a wimp about worrying about opening my mouth and speaking English deep in the Middle East – want to walk down an ancient street.
Srinigar, Kashmir. My first job out of college was at a company that published adventure travel guidebooks, magazines, and newsletters. One of the most intriguing places we wrote about (but never went, of course) was Kashmir, a stunningly beautiful mountainous region in northern India, and especially the floating houseboats on Srinigar’s Dal Lake. Unfortunately, both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir, and my idea of a vacation destination does not have soldiers aiming rifles at the tourists. Rumor has it that tensions are easing in the area, so that day may come.
Casablanca, Morocco. Truth be told, I visited Casablanca back in 1984, on assignment for another travel magazine (it was the first foreign country I visited besides Mexico and Canada). Although most of the Humphrey Bogart movie was filmed on either the Warner Brothers’ lot or at the Burbank Airport, the winding alleyways of the medina were wonderfully vibrant and reminiscent of the movie. The trip encompassed all of Morocco, and, if possible, Marrakech’s medina was even more dazzling. For the same reasons I’m reluctant to go to Syria, I’m hesitant to go back to Morocco.
I know what you’re thinking – that, with enough imagination and the right tour guides, I could figure out a way to get to any of these destinations any time I wanted. But at my age, I’m nowhere near as daring as those poor hikers who accidentally crossed the unmarked border between Iraq and Iran and ended up on trial in the latter.
One of two things needs to happen – either I need more of an adventurous spirit, or there needs to be more peace in the world. I could work toward cultivating the former, but I’d prefer to have the latter.
What’s your dream off-limits destination?