Pleasant travel surprises (Part 4)

This item appears on page 16 of the July 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. Starting with the April issue, we’ve been printing a few stories from travelers each month, and this time we’re sharing accounts of meeting famous or notable people while traveling.

From October 1952 to July 1954 I lived in Burma, now Myanmar. Our family’s across-the-back-fence neighbors were U Thant and his family. My younger brother and I used to play with his son and daughter, watch movies at their home and celebrate Burmese festivals together. In 1961, U Thant became the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

In 2014, I was lucky enough to return, with a friend, on an Overseas Adventure Travel tour. I told my tour guide that l needed to see my old home. He decided that two older ladies didn’t need to wander Yangon alone, so he borrowed a cab and off we went.

U Thant’s home had been turned into a museum, and it was having a soft opening. Our guide asked if we could enter so l could show my friend the inside, which was identical to my old home.

As I was standing in the foyer explaining that the living room was where we watched movies, a woman walked out of the dining room. She must have been told I used to be a neighbor because she greeted me with “You had a younger brother. Your father taught at the university. Your mom tried to see my dad in 1962 at the UN, but he had to go back upstairs and deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis. We also celebrated Thingyan (a yearly water festival) together.”

It was U Thant’s daughter, Aye Aye, my childhood playmate.

She just happened to be there, as I just happened to be there. We spent a delightful hour wandering through the house reminiscing about our lives 60 years in the past. Serendipity!

Judy Dyrhsen
Yuba City, CA



In October 1993, I was on a tour with the now-defunct Nash Travel Tours (Danielson, CT) called “Fabulous Austria” that focused on the history, sightseeing, food and culture of Vienna (where my late mother was born).

One afternoon, we took a cruise up the Danube to visit Melk Abbey. As our group of 18 boarded the boat, everyone sat inside on the main deck except me (age 40 at the time). I immediately went up to the open-air top deck, as I always do on a short boat cruise, because I wanted to enjoy the view and take pictures. No one stopped me, neither the tour manager nor any of the boat crew.

On the upper deck, there was a gathering going on between US astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. They all wore name badges, and I recognized a number of the names from seeing them in the news over the preceding decades — people who had orbited Earth or been to the moon.

The Danube boat cruise must have been part of the 9th Planetary Congress – Association of Space Explorers, which took place in Vienna Oct. 10-17 that year.

At one point, the late M. Scott Carpenter (1925-2013), one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, pointed to my Super 8 movie camera and asked, “Excuse me, may I ask what that is?”

I said that it was a Super 8 movie camera, he thanked me, and I thought to myself, “My goodness, here’s a man who has orbited the globe, but he doesn’t know what a Super 8 movie camera is?” On the other hand, who could blame him because the camera was already a dinosaur; VHS camcorders were all the rage back then.

I took movies only of the buildings and scenery along the Danube, not of the spacemen, because I thought it would be gauche to photograph the latter, plus I wanted to act like I “belonged” and not be banished to the lower deck with the rest of my group. (Watching my Super 8 movies now, the scenery along the Danube shows a profusion of fall foliage. Yes, I still have my projector, which I hadn’t used in 25 years before writing about this surprise, and what a challenge it was remembering how to operate it!)

I remained on the upper deck until we got to Melk, where I got off with my group for a tour of the beautiful abbey. To the best of my knowledge, the astronauts and cosmonauts did not get off the boat.

The part that I love best is that I never told anyone in my group about my encounter. I immediately recognized it as my own special, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and there was no sense telling the others what they had missed.

Ada Green
New York City, NY



My friend and I, being passionate opera lovers, decided to do our own tour in a rented car in 1977 to experience some of the European summer opera festivals. One of our visits was to Aix-en-Provence to experience the Donizetti opera “Roberto Devereux,” starring two great Spanish singers, the soprano Montserrat Caballé and the tenor José Carreras.

Carerras was to become even more famous in the 1990s as one of the Three Tenors (along with Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti).

The morning after the wonderful performance, we were checking out of our hotel when we noticed José Carreras standing near us. (He was staying at the same hotel.) We were thrilled to meet him and congratulate him on his performance. He could not have been more charming, and we nearly fainted when he invited us for coffee!

Unfortunately, we were running late and had a very long drive ahead of us to our next destination, so we had to decline, much to our eternal regret!

Philip Clement
Vancouver, Canada



Jerry Vetowich talking to His Excellency the 9th Neyphug Trulku in Bhutan. Photo by Nili Olay

One morning in Bhutan in September 2006, my husband, Jerry Vetovich, and I put on our hiking boots and hiked up a long, slippery trail from Punakha to the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten Monastery, which was built by Ashi (Lady) Tshering Yangdon for her son, at the time the crown prince of Bhutan (and now the king).

It was a warm and humid day. By the time we reached the monastery, we were sweaty and muddy. As we prepared to enter, our guide informed us that the Ashi was in the monastery praying, and we would enter after she left. Jerry and I walked over to the side to wait; our guide and driver were nowhere in sight.

Shortly afterward, a man in Bhutanese dress came over and chatted with us. He asked the usual question, “Where are you from?,” and we answered “New York City.” He walked away.

Almost immediately the Ashi and her attendant walked out of the monastery, and she sat to put her shoes back on. The man we had chatted with returned to us and said we could enter the monastery. We asked if we should wait until the Ashi left, and he said, “No, go ahead.”

As we walked up to the entrance, the Ashi offered us her hand to shake and said, “I understand that you are from New York. Welcome.”

We proceeded to have a whole conversation about 9/11 and her visit to New York shortly after the attack. We talked about how peaceful Bhutan felt and how much we all wanted world peace. Her attendant brought us Cokes, we shook hands again, and she went away.

How amazing to be welcomed by the Ashi in such a comfortable atmosphere! She is a beautiful woman, and her English was perfect. As we did, she hiked to the monastery, but, unlike ours, her clothing (a Bhutanese dress) was clean and looked like she had just put it on.

Toward the end of our trip, Jerry and I were to climb to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, but it was raining, so we put it off a day and, at our guide’s suggestion, took a long drive instead.

Nili (left center) and Jerry (right center) dancing at the Blessed Rain Day party — Bhutan.

While driving through Bitekha, we heard some singing in a courtyard. We stopped and looked through the gate, and the owner of the house quickly brought us into the courtyard and sat us with the other guests.

We sat next to His Excellency, the Neyphug Trulku, head of the Ney phung Thegchen Tsemo Monastery and the ninth reincarnation of a lama. At age 26, he had a great deal of responsibility and presence. He had been invited to celebrate “Blessed Rain Day” by our host, a member of the Bhutanese Parliament. On my other side sat the Forestry Minister.

The guests were dancing and singing, and we were invited to join them, which we did. We were offered food and drinks, as were our guide and driver, and felt like honored guests instead of the gate crashers that we were. This was serendipity — being invited to a party because it had been too wet to hike.

Nili Olay
New York City, NY



The Earl Spencer's signature in a copy of his eulogy to his sister, Princess Diana. Photo by Gail Wang

In 2001, well after Princess Diana’s death in 1997, my husband and I visited her childhood home of Althorp, in England’s East Midlands. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a tall, lanky, ginger-haired man dressed in jeans. He was Princess Diana’s brother, Charles, Earl Spencer. Nobody else seemed to recognize him.

We tentatively approached and found him to be very friendly. He noted that he had visited our home state of Michigan, and he thanked Americans for being so supportive of his sister.

Earl Spencer autographed our copy of his famous eulogy to his sister and shook our hands. Who would have thought that we would meet an earl on our holiday?!

Gail Wang
Troy, MI