There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.
- Robert Louis Stevenson
“Miss, Miss, you forgot your-a pass-a-porta!” the gangly young man with the crisp green suit and short, oiled hair yelled frantically after her. Normally Jane would be thrilled that someone had been so nice, but all she could stare at was the huge gun pointed upwards and the bandolier sash of bullets that decorated his uniform.
He handed her the passport with a very serious face and opened it, staring at her, then the passport, then her again. Finally he snapped it shut with a curt, “Welcome to Italy.” With that he turned on his heel sharply and marched back to the counter, behind which she saw a large German Sheppard tied to the wall. Jane Elliott was eighteen years old and on her first trip abroad.
“I never even thought about it, ITALY? Why would they carry GUNS in the airport customs in ITALY? Italy is supposed to be blue seas and fresh figs and gondoliers, not mean men in uniforms. That was my first taste of being shocked, and one of my last.”
Jane Elliott has traveled to 173 countries. A seasoned traveler, despite the first innocuous greeting at the borders of her Italian vacation, Jane has filled four passports during her initial goal of traveling to see a country for every letter of the alphabet.
“It took me ten years, but I did it. Well, all except for “X” as no country begins with “X”. X marks the spot maybe?” Jane looks at the map pinned to her wall which is dotted with plenty of X’s with pins struck through the middle.
She counts them off - “A has a lot - Argentina, Australia, Angola. B- Barbados, Brazil. C- China, Canada - does Canada count? It’s so close!” she laughs. “D-Dominican Republic, Denmark. E- Egypt, Estonia, El Salvador. You get the picture.”
Jane speaks five languages fluently - Mandarin Chinese, Korean, English, German and Portuguese. She conversationally speaks another five or six. And she can, which she claims are the three most important things to know in any language, ask “Where is the bathroom?” “Where is the train station?” and “How much does this cost?” in another twenty-some languages. Her ease of learning languages has gotten her out of many a tight predicament while abroad.
“That night I cried for the dead man - a man I’d never met and the woman I shared a tiny part of my journey with alongside her grief. That is why I travel the world.”
Jane has been abroad trekking the desert, hacking her way through the rain forest, sitting on many of the most glorious beaches on the world, back packing through the wilderness, chasing penguins across the snow, and seeing many of the world’s crumbling treasures before it’s too late.
“I’m somewhat of a nomad. I don’t really think of any place as home. If I need a home base I suppose it would be the USA, but the world to me is just a big playground full of interesting people and history and culture.”
The world traveling is financed by a large trust fund left to her by her parents, who unexpectedly died, ironically, in a small plane crash while on vacation when Jane was eleven. She believes her parents instilled into her a deep love of the world, travel, and respect for other cultures and people.
“I travel cheap. I stay in hostels or cheap hotels. I’m not into fancy things at all. I’m most happy when I have my backpack and a ticket in my hand to somewhere.” Jane laughs and her tanned skin hints at a recent run in a warm, exotic place. “I know I should settle down one day, start a family before it’s too late, get a job, but that’s just so not me.”
This desire to see every country is what drives Jane to keep moving. She wants to help bring the world together by showing them that not all American tourists live up to their notable and often unflattering reputation. “Tourists can be sh*t-heads in any language. Sometimes it just seems the Americans - probably because there are so MANY of them - get the brunt of the snide remarks."
Her one-woman foray into changing the perception of Americans around the world seems to be working. She shows her cell phone, which is jam-packed with contacts of every nationality surname - Li, Gertold, Jiminez, Bakhvalova, Nguyen, Dawodu, Czajkowski - the list seems endless. Jane says that she “pulls a Bill Clinton” and once a year she goes through her contacts list and touches base with as many as she can.
The stories she tells about traveling are hilarious, poignant, sad, and sometimes downright scary. From being threatened with a knife to the throat in the slums of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), to being chased by a lion in Botswana, to really losing her passport in Eritrea where the American Embassy was not functioning, to having all of her money stolen while sleeping in a hostel in Korea she feels she has seen it all.
“My favorite story is about a woman I met in the southwest part of China. I was traveling in the Yunnan state from Kunming on my way to Shangri-La. The truck I had hitched a ride in had broken down. The man sat by the side of his road so I sat with him for a while. After an hour, nothing had happened - no one else had driven by, there were no houses or buildings anywhere around. So I shook his hand and said goodbye and started walking.
“I must have walked for about an hour when I overcame an elderly woman walking carrying a heavy clay pot. She was really struggling with it. I was walking much faster than she was, and wanted to get to some sort of civilization before nightfall, so I kept walking. I looked over my shoulder and this woman had the saddest look on her face, and I felt so bad I went back and wordlessly took one handle and together we walked carrying this large package.
“We must have walked for two hours. Still passing nothing, I was getting really nervous, but at least I had this woman with me - worst case I’d just follow her and hope my helping her would bring out the generosity to help me.”
Jane and the woman walked the rest of the day carrying their mutual burdens. As the sun started to set, the woman sat down on the side of the road, murmuring under her breath. At first Jane thought she was singing, but then realized she had been praying, the same prayer over and over. It was a rhythm into which their walking tempo matched.
It became dark quickly. Suddenly the woman turned off the road into seeming blackness and motioned eating to Jane. Jane wasn’t afraid of pitching her little sleeping tent and spending the night by the road, but intrigued, she followed the woman, also hoping for an interesting ethnic meal.
The stumbled upon what seemed to be a dirt path. The moon was waning and threw only a feeble light in front of them. Ahead of them a light grew brighter - a village? As they approached, the light grew brighter until she realized it was a bonfire. There was a crowd gathered around, somber and quiet.
When the two figures emerged from the darkness, all of the people waiting around the bonfire - Jane estimates there were at least a hundred, they started humming the same prayer-song that Jane had entrenched in her marching (and which followed her in her dreams for many weeks afterwards). Several men approached them and relieved them of their burden, but not before bowing low before the lady, and then the ceramic jug.
Watching in fascination, the men reverently took the contents of the jar and placed them on a table. One by one they held the items up for everyone to see and then put them inside a long, narrow box. Creeping closer, Jane almost yelped when she saw a pair of feet and realized that the box contained a body. She was witnessing a cremation. From the looks of the things going into the coffin the lady and the man must have been important to the village.
Out of respect, she stood outside of the ring of people and observed quietly. She was fed a huge meal that tasted wonderful, and a young girl showed her to a place she could sleep for the night with a small, narrow but clean bed. In the morning she bowed and traveled the road again.
“That night I cried for the dead man - a man I’d never met and the woman I shared a tiny part of my journey with alongside her grief. That was real. That is why I travel the world.”
Thank you Jane, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Adara Bernstein and Story of My Life ®