“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…..