If You Can Only Visit 6 Countries…..

Heading into Month 9 of the Big Wait, I thought I would indulge my travel fantasies by responding to a question people often ask me that I never really know how to answer:

“What’s your favorite country?”

I usually say, “It depends on your criteria.” By now, I have had plenty of time to think about my own criteria.  Of the 54 countries I have visited, the countries I love most are those where I am most likely to:

Feel a sense of adventure and personal discovery

Learn about history and culture 

Find moments of magic with people and the natural world

Of course, all countries I have visited meet these criteria, mas o menos. It mostly depends on circumstances, my frame of mind, and how much time I spend there.

But, I do have favorites. I picked 6 of them that are wildly different and, together, might be a perfect short course in world history, culture and geography.

Japan — There is no place like Japan. It is one big art project. Every object and action seems to be an expression of metaphor, beauty or humor, or some combination of the three. The cities are buzzing with inventive youth culture, raw capitalism and history. The landscapes are dramatic, but somehow intimate. You can hike from temple to temple. You can bike from island to island. Japan’s Buddhist and Shinto temples invite a connection with something bigger. Food is prepared as if every color, flavor and arrangement mattered. The people are kind (and will forgive how crass you are), I could go on and on…..

Mexico — I never learned much about Mexico in school even though I grew up in Los Angeles.  In the past couple of years, I have spent about half of my time in Mexico, and learned a little about the country’s rich culture and history, and how Mexicans celebrate all of it often. Mexico is full of incredible art and architecture, and hundreds of indigenous tribes with fascinating traditions. The people are warm and patient and fun. Since we’re neighbors, let’s be friends.

Israel/Palestine — Israel/Palestine is a mess — apartheid, maybe genocide, children with automatic weapons, all supported by the US and only quietly condemned by the rest of the world. We need to understand it. But even if you don’t want to understand it, this is the center of the world’s major religions and all the history that comes with that. I personally love places where I wake to the call to prayer. And there is something there that transcends politics and war.

Italy —  Italy is too touristed for good reasons. There are few places on the planet that are better for indulging in art, food, historic cities, and gorgeous countryside. I am especially crazy about Florence. I didn’t like my visit to Venice because of the crowds, but I will remember what was magical about it forever.

India — Everyone says India explodes your senses. At first, it is overwhelming. After that, you think maybe everything else in the world will be boring.  Like the US, India is a big country with many subcultures. Of what I saw, I loved Rajasthan best. The camels, the ancient forts, the vast expanse of desert, the Wednesday water buffalo market crossing the road while you wait for an hour on a major highway. The colors, the temples, the gods. Varanasi to the east is also full of magic.

Cuba — Cuba is a miracle. In spite of the United States’ punishing and nonsensical trade embargo, Cuba has become highly self-reliant. It is one of the only countries on earth that operates mostly outside the (also punishing) neo-liberal economy. All Cubans have health care and education, housing, and a feeling of solidarity (although some feel more solid than others). Cuba has had many civil rights problems over the years, but it has made a lot of progress. The people are warm and friendly, and there is local art work and music around every corner. Cuba Libre.

The runners up are Spain, Cambodia, Tanzania, Mongolia, Colombia and Greece. And there are 141 countries I still haven’t visited!

So keep praying for that vaccine…..

17 comments

  1. Wow, Kim, this brings back happy memories of many of the blogs you have written from all over the world. I love your criteria for selecting the six best. I haven’t been to many places you’ve been but my own would be Japan, Spain, France, Argentina, Australia, and a huge tie for sixth. Mexico and Brazil would be there, too, but they have become too complicated in recent years.

  2. Kim, I love your fav criteria and how you capture a spark of magic for each country. You just put Japan on my travel list! Looking forward to having the chance to travel together… Karen

  3. So fun to contemplate, remember, dream. I haven’t been to many of the places you’ve mentioned, nor as many countries, but I must now reconsider Japan after your comments. There was a time it was first on my list because of their strong pottery traditions and unique approach to imperfections being exactly perfect, but then the prices for travel and meals seemed prohibitive.

    My top six would be…. Italy, Croatia, Peru, Bhutan, Mexico, and southern Chile
    Runners up….. England, Costa Rica, India (unforgettable, but emotionally challenging), New Zealand, southern Spain, Bolivia
    Top six places yet to visit…. Turkey, Israel, Indonesia, Tanzania, several parts of Canada (esp. Banff), and Greece.
    Dare I add….. Cuba, Panama, Tibet, Viet Nam, Norway

    Thank You Kim!!

    1. Japan’s not as expensive as I expected! Eat street food or at the 7/11’s (yes, the food is great at 7/az11’s in Japan!). Don’t stay in a ryokan. You get me thinking about my next six….probably Ghana, Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Chile, and Tunisia.

  4. Loved the post. Wrote a comment yesterday posting my Top 6 (plus some bonus entries) which apparently disappeared into the ether and now I don’t have the energy or inclination to re-write it because I keep on changing my mind. Good conversation starter Kim!!!

  5. Thanks for your observations, which I read avidly:) That said…

    I’d love to visit Cuba, but “civil rights problems?” Really? It is a communist regime that brooks no political opposition whatsoever. And as an economist, I have to say…well, read through the last paragraph below. (Nice rhetorical trick, no?)

    Talk to people who left Cuba because of Castro. I’ve never heard people become so emotional. Except one friend who left Venezuela, yet another regime based on the cult of personality. (Think Trump and shudder). They speak of drinking sugar water as children instead of milk. A friend who wanted to be an architect was banned from the profession because he was gay. And repression could be far worse: see the almost halucinatory “Before Night Falls.” There have certainly been dictatorial regimes that have provided fewer services and killed more people, but Castro killed many, and repression continues. See https://cubaarchive.org

    As recently as a year ago, the government supressed an independent gay pride celebration in charge of one managed by one of Fidel’s relatives. I heard this from a friend who visits his late partner’s family and knows Cuba well. On his last visit, he had to bring narcotic painkillers for the family because those medications were utterly unavailable in Cuba. Artists know they can’t criticize the regime directly; one explained to him the cryptic satire in a collage. When he hears people lauding the current regime, he just shakes his head. And he’s anything but a conservative warmonger; he used to work for a Quaker political action group.

    As for Cuba’s economic troubles: well you can blame it on the embargo but you’re ignoring the miserable performance of centralized socialist systems worldwide. The regime is allowing more market activity, but that seems to be creating two classes of citizens. In any case market freedom and political freedom are not the same.

    Lots of nations provide even better health care, etc, along with political freedom. Note that before Castro took over, Cuba’s GNP per capita was roughly the same as the US’s. It’s not as if Cuba started from abject poverty. I suppose someone might be able to rebut my argument by pointing to the huge role of organized crime in Cuba, but let’s leave that for another day. That the US’s record in health care, income equality, and perhaps education is dismal hardly justifies the Castro regime’s depredations.

    Just to make my views clear, any one who claims that that more than a few US Democrats are socialist in the Communist sense are ….Ignorant. I almost used another “I” word ending in “-diot.” Now, the Green New Deal’s inclusion of guaranteed jobs for all might fall in that category. IMHO, AOC and her friends do have tin ears politically. I’m not saying the goal is bad, not at all, but there are ways of going about it that might actually generate enthusiasm politically. Her’s isn’t one of them.

    I’m so glad I’m not opinionated 🙂

    1. Hi Mark, Thanks for the insights. Sadly, most countries, including and most tragically our own, have been guilty of systematic human rights violations. I don’t make apologies for any of them, including Castro’s. But if you compare Cuba to other countries in the region, Cubans have a better standard of living, less violence and better environmental quality. But that’s not why it’s on my list and my posting here isn’t an assessment of the success or failure of governments. It’s just a list of places that have rich cultures and traditions, and helped me put the bigger world in context. And for those reasons, I love Cuba.

  6. Hi, lovely list dear friend. Japan, Cuba, mexico infant whole of south america are dream like, even though India is lucid dreaming.

    If its in the thoughts, it may all soon happen. But lets just get this virus take some sleep now.

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