MAXWELL: Journey of boundless discoveries

10/4/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


“Some journeys take us away from it all, to places where no one knows us; some take us to where it seems we’ve always been,” writes the editors of the book The Quotable Traveler. “But whether we venture to a new part of town or into an entirely new culture, travel forever changes the boundaries of the world we once knew.”

These words have guided my life for many years, and each time I find myself away from America’s shores, I feel more and more like a citizen of the world.

Real travelers see each new boundary (border) as a challenge, an opportunity to meet strangers on their own terms, a chance to witness and experience the heretofore unknown, a way to present a visa as a ticket to a new human drama.

I have not acknowledged this fact to many people, but as I boarded LOT (Polish Airlines) Flight 002 from O’Hare International to Warsaw on Sept. 10, I was, well, scared _ not of air travel but of the trip itself. I had never been to Poland and did not speak but a few words of Polish. Even more, I was the only African-American on the Boeing 767. My American self-assuredness was pierced.

Nearly 10 hours later, when we landed at Warsaw’s Okecie Airport and I walked into the terminal where hundreds of people waited for friends and relatives to appear, I felt more out of place than I had ever felt in my life. I was the lone black face in a sea of fair Polish faces.

What in the hell have I gotten myself into? I thought. Only a damned fool _ like me _ would do something so crazy. I literally walked a gauntlet of curious stares and no small number of stupefied glares. For a moment, I wanted to return to the plane and wait for the return flight the next afternoon. But, no, I had come too far for the vacation of my life.

I gained temporary courage from the words of avid traveler William Cowper, the English poet (1731-1800), “How much a dunce that has been sent to roam/Excels a dunce that has been kept at home.”

After going through passport control, my anxiety heightened: I had to face the city of Warsaw and a strange people who spoke a language I did not understand. I thought of catching a city bus, but changed my mind, opting for a taxi in which I could hide for a few minutes. But my respite was over in less than 10 minutes as the taxi pulled in front of a currency exchange office were I swapped $200 for Polish bank notes, the zloty.

That night, I forced myself to catch a bus to Old Town. Again, I was the only black in sight, but after a few minutes of walking the vehicle-free streets and enjoying the majestic buildings, I begin to feel comfortable. After walking to New Town and having a glass of wine (perhaps two), I could feel the boundaries disappearing. I had dinner at an expensive restaurant and went to bed feeling like an adventurer. Carpe diem.

Writer Larry McMurtry said that “a border is always a temptation.” Indeed, it is for me. After two days in Warsaw, I flew to Bucharest, Romania. From there, I caught an express train to Brasov, a pleasant medieval town hidden in plush hills, in Transylvania. There, I drank my first beer in a McDonald’s. Yep, I sipped suds between the golden arches. I just love Eastern Europe.

The next day, I caught a bus to and from Bran in the Carpathians. Two days later, I traveled by train to Sinaia, a beautiful southern town that looks as if it were in the Swiss Alps. There, I hiked in the mountains and visited a medieval monastery. For dinner on the second night, I had black bear sausages, fried potatoes, pheasant soup and a bottle of Vampire red wine. Talk about crossing borders.

From Sinaia, I returned to Bucharest by train. My one-star hotel had the hardest toilet paper I have ever felt. And it was brown. The bathroom, which was in the hallway, served 10 rooms. The local McDonald’s was in the central train station. I had a beer.

A day later, I flew back to Warsaw, crossing the borders of Hungary and Slovakia. From there, I caught a train to Krakow, Poland’s cultural center. Krakow is home to the likes of Roman Polanski, Nobel Prize winners Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, and, of course, Pope John Paul II was born there.

The first thing I did in Krakow was to visit what remains of Oscar Schindler’s Factory featured in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. Almost every street in this old city holds a cultural treasure.

A tough border to cross was the city limits of Auschwitz, the site of the Nazis’ largest concentration camp. The toughest border was the main gate into the camp itself. I traveled to Eastern Europe to cross that boundary. It has changed in my mind. And I have been changed by it.