Courtesy Seth Kugel
There's nothing wrong with the Louvre and Machu Picchu is fine, too. Snorkeling in Fiji is decent, and relaxing on the sands of Ipanema is adequate enough.
It's just that I prefer my travels to be about people rather than buildings or beaches. And my first trip as an adult, when I was a bilingual third-grade teacher in the Bronx back in 1993, set the bar pretty high.
A handful of my students then were newly-arrived immigrants from the Dominican Republic. And thank goodness for them — and their families. If the parents of my quietest student, Sheyla, had been even slightly more acculturated to American life, they would have known that inviting their kid's third-grade teacher on vacation back to the homeland was just short of insane.
But invite me they did, and on July 6, we headed to the airport crammed in the backseat of a Buick. The front was occupied by suitcases filled with gifts. By midnight I was in a van, drinking rum and deafened by merengue, en route to Sheyla's grandmother's house just outside Santo Domingo.
Nine people lived there that summer, packed into a three-bedroom apartment where a shower meant dumping cold water over your head from a barrel, and dinner meant rice, beans and fried plantains (plus meat if I paid for it).
In that month, I learned a lot: how to dance merengue in front of laughing neighbors and how to get to the city on a jam-packed and perilous public minibus. I came to accept punctuality as a literally foreign concept: My journal notes the day I was told to be ready for an outing by 11 a.m. and we didn't leave until 5:15. On the other hand, some things were surprisingly familiar. Even in a largely black country, the lighter skinned had the money and power.
But anyone who had emigrated to New York had the respect. Because of my presence, others showed Sheyla's family even greater deference, ironic considering how much they were struggling. Those gifts they had brought home? The family had borrowed $100 from me to buy them.
In my journal, I wrote: "I feel it is my duty to report on the connections, ever increasing, between this city and Nueva York. I already knew about the unbelievable flow of educated and uneducated human bodies, but it is more than that. Despite many reports to the contrary, people really believe that New York City is a promised land where they will make untold riches. Kids are dying to go, and it's easy to see why — their cousins come back better dressed, with video games and stories from the big city."
I went back to visit many times in the next six years, even studied immigration policy in grad school. But that journal entry led to the first time I was paid to take a trip as a journalist and contained the gist of the first big story I would publish in the New York Times:
"Transfixed by New York: Whether as Dream or Nightmare, the City Looms Uncommonly Large in the Minds of Dominicans, New York's Largest Immigrant Group."
Since then, I've found myself wandering onto pistachio farms in Turkey, getting off the train in a random Hungarian town and talking my way into lunch at a rural Kentucky church. I learned Portuguese and began writing about Brazil, once again cataloging cultural differences, this time gleaned from lounging with the ultrarich in their beach homes and sleeping in a hammock in a tiny riverside village in the Amazon.
My connection with the Dominican Republic has waned, but the joy I take in feeling at home in a second culture has not. That summer in 1993 became my model for the perfect trip.
Seth Kugel is a New York Times travel writer.