Pleasant travel surprises (Part 5)

This item appears on page 18 of the August 2021 issue.

Ron Carlson of Lakeland, Minnesota, asked ITN subscribers to write in about serendipitous experiences that they had while traveling outside of the US. We’ve been printing a few stories each month since the April issue, and this time we’re sharing a few more accounts of “invitations” being received out of the blue.

While visiting Tibet in June 2010, my wife and I were wandering around in Lhasa when we noticed a very small Buddhist temple, maybe 20 feet by 30 feet. The front side was completely open, and the inside was filled with three large prayer wheels and 10 to 20 people who were turning them.

The prayer wheels looked like large hot water heaters that were elaborately painted with inscriptions on the sides. They were mounted on vertical axles with bearings, so they turned easily. Each had a circular brass ring, about midway up from the base, with which people could turn the wheel.

As we were looking in, one of the worshipers started motioning with his hand for us to join them. I shook my head no, but then other worshipers started motioning to us. They were quite insistent, so we decided to go in.

They put me on one prayer wheel and my wife on another, and we turned the wheels for 5 to 10 minutes. After a while, we felt that we had done enough and started to leave. One of the locals who was leaving at the same time motioned for us to follow him, which we did.

Instead of going straight out to the street, he walked around the temple, and we saw that, about 4 feet up from the ground, there was a niche that ran all the way around the outside of the temple. The niche was about 5 inches deep and 15 inches tall, and every 2 feet or so, there was a small prayer wheel.

Our “guide” spun each one as he passed it, so we followed suit. When we had walked all the way around the temple, our guide turned and, before rejoining the crowd on the main street, gave us a huge grin and a thumbs-up!

Dave Smith
Irvine, CA



Whenever my parents and I visit London, we always shop at the Covent Garden location of Molton Brown (9B Royal Opera House Arcade, London, England; phone +44 20 7240 8383, We are big fans of Molton Brown’s body wash and hand cream, and the sales associates are friendly and helpful.

On a May 2017 visit, while making our purchase, the sales associate asked how long we would be in London. When we told her that we had several days left in our vacation, she handed us an invitation to attend the launch event that Thursday evening for the fragrance Coastal Cypress & Sea Fennel.

We debated about whether to attend the event but finally decided to go. We had a great time! The small shop had a DJ, special cocktails served at a pop-up bar, snacks, hand massages and, of course, many opportunities to experience the new fragrance. We enjoyed chatting with the sales associates and the mixologist and are so glad we decided to attend.

Diane Harrison
Chesterfield, MO



About 10 years ago, when my husband (now passed) and I were planning for a trip to France and Andorra, I asked him what he wanted to do there. He mentioned he wanted to go to one of the caves with ancient paintings in it. In a tour book, I found an email address for the Cave of Niaux, so I sent them an email requesting permission for the two of us to visit it.

I received an email back, in French, asking us to resend the email in French, as they didn’t know English well enough. I used Google Translate and resent the email in French. The response included dates and times when they would have an English-speaking guide available. I listed the dates we would be in the area, and they picked a time and sent a confirmation email, which I printed and took with us. There was a cost to enter the cave [in 2021, €9.40 (near $11)].

Before the date of our Niaux tour, my husband and I took a bus from Barcelona to Andorra for a stay, as we also wanted to hike through the Pyrénées. Waiting for the bus in Barcelona, we met another couple who lived in Andorra, and we continued talking to them during the bus trip.

When they learned of our plans for Niaux, located a couple of hours’ drive from their home, they offered to take us directly to the cave as well as pick us up after the tour. It turned out that they were going to visit her mother the same day our tour was scheduled, and her mother lived near the cave.

From the cave’s entrance, it was about a 20- to 30-minute walk to where the paintings were located. The walk was an easy one, though there were several steps. It was very slippery as we entered and left the cave, as that part was open to the elements, but the rest of the cave was dry.

A timer was set when we arrived in the room with the paintings, and we were allowed to stay for only a few minutes. Special flashlights were provided to us that would not harm the paintings.

From the start, our plan had been to take a taxi from our timeshare in Andorra to the Niaux cave, 30 to 45 minutes away, and have the driver wait for us. During our Andorra stay, I asked several taxi drivers if they had heard of the Niaux cave in France, and none had. One driver said he could Google the location and drive us there, so I’m sure we would have made it, but it was a much more pleasant experience to go with the couple we’d met by chance.

Carol Peim
Hendersonville, NC



Traveling alone through Greece in 1964, I met an American woman in Delphi traveling with two other people. They were going to visit her cousin, who had returned to Greece to retire after living many years in the US. She invited me to go with them to his home, which he had built for his family in a village up in the mountains beyond Delphi. We traveled in a hired car driven by an exuberant Greek man, who entertained us along the way.

We all were welcomed warmly in the cousin’s home and were served what I think might have been freshly baked spanakopita. It was made of phyllo dough, with some kind of vegetables and cheese in it — a new treat, for me.

We each were served a glass of straight American whisky as well. Wow! My first time tasting it, and was it strong!

The young man of the house led us outside to show us his garden. As we passed an arbor, he plucked a rose and presented it to me.

I still have that rose pressed in my travel journal. It is a small thing, but I clearly remember the day 57 years later.

Jean Mackey
Salina, OK



In September of 2006 or 2007, my wife, Becky, and I had just retired, and it was time to work on our “bucket list.” Hiking the Swiss Alps was near the top.

I found a package sponsored by a Swiss travel agency located in the small city of Sierre in southwest Switzerland. The package was 10 days’ hiking around the valley behind the Matterhorn.

Becky and I hiked/walked, with just daypacks, between five villages, staying in quaint inns (and one night in a mountain hut), with our meals included. Having a shuttle transport our heavier luggage between inns was included in the package.

We also each purchased an optional lift ticket that allowed us to use the ski lift each morning to ride up to the tops of the mountains, from which we walked through beautiful meadows with the sound of cowbells echoing off the mountainsides. Truly, one expected Julie Andrews to peek out from behind a haystack and burst into song.

On the last morning of what had already been an incredibly wonderful adventure, we looked, as usual, at the trail map we’d been given at the beginning of our trip and consulted a book of trails I’d purchased.

Choosing a trail into the woods surrounding the village, we set off along a small irrigation canal that wound its way through the forest. After an hour or so, the woods opened up, and in front of us was a beautiful meadow surrounded by mountain peaks.

But that was not the best of it. We heard voices up and off to our left. Approaching closer, we could see a small hut and several wooden picnic tables. Curious, we climbed up the trail to find the tables occupied by locals, all enjoying fondue prepared by an old man in the hut and being served by his delightful daughter.

We were warmly invited to join them, and we spent this final afternoon enjoying the most delicious fondue, plenty of wine and the best comradeship of our trip, all out in the middle of nowhere, where we’d never have expected to find our own Swiss Shangri-La.

Chris Dunlap
Elizabethtown, PA



In 2016, two guy friends of mine (brothers) and I met a group of Iraqi men who heard us speaking English while sightseeing in the Old Town of Baku, Azerbaijan. Our guide, knowing Arabic, translated for us as we conversed with them.

After saying our goodbyes, we continued to explore Baku until it was time for a 3-hour Caspian Sea cruise. While our guide was buying tickets, I heard someone yelling my name. Confused, I looked around, not seeing anyone. “Tamara!” I heard again. This time, I looked up on the boat, and it was one of the Iraqis from Baku waving to us to come up. They invited us to join them in the private lounge.

It was lots of fun, even though we could communicate only through our guide. We became Facebook friends and continued to keep in touch over the years.

In 2019, one of the brothers and I decided to visit Kurdistan, so we let our Iraqi friends know that we were coming.

Due to security, they were unable to meet us at the airport in Erbil, but they met us later for dinner. This time, our Kurdistan guide translated. By evening’s end, an invitation was extended for dinner at their private home the following evening.

We were picked up at our hotel. We still didn’t know Arabic, nor they English, but they had hired a translator. However, the translator called and apologized; an unexpected request forced him back to work. Now what?

Google Translate to the rescue! It saved the evening through dinner and afterward, when we met many relatives, worldwide, using FaceTime.

During a conversation, one of our Iraqi friends asked me, “You know you have an Arabic name?”

I replied, “Yes, I know.”

Expecting the birth of his fourth daughter in a few months, he said, “We will name her Tamara.”

I thought that probably wouldn’t happen, but a few months later a Facebook message announced the birth of Tamara.

And that’s why traveling feeds the soul.

Tamara Michael
Winston-Salem, NC