This is the Life: Soaking in culture leaves one open to unique experiences

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A friend dropped in to my office for a chat last week, having cut short a planned longer visit to Mexico because of health issue in his friend’s family. While staying in his friend’s small house in a not very touristy village, they slow down their otherwise busy lives, cycling everywhere, buying huge bags of oranges so they can make fresh juice each morning, wandering over to cantinas for dinner.

It is all very civilized, from what I can gather. But it got more so when he launched into another story. They were cycling past a recreation area, where several soccer fields are always hives of activity. A ball came flying over the fence from one of the games and my friend, once an avid player, jumped off his bike to retrieve the ball and kick it back to the field. Then he was back on his bike and off they rode. Until they realized a few of the kids were chasing them down to ask him to join in their game. There were only five players — nine to 11 years old — and they needed a sixth to play on the small paved field.

Startled at the invitation, he nonetheless accepted. He took off his sandals and for two hours joined his barefoot compadres in a spirited game. The kids were good players, he said, and some worked especially hard at challenging their new 60-ish buddy in one-on-one confrontations. They don’t like to pass, he said, laughing.

My friend admitted he was in pain for the next couple of days, especially the soles of his feet, which were rubbed raw by the hard surface.

But as the game went on, parents gathered to watch this older guy competing with their kids, and his presence brought a lot of intention. His friend, meanwhile, headed off to a nearby store to buy post-game treats for the youngsters. The game was played with a badly scuffed ball that sported a bulge on one side. When he got back to Canada he fulfilled a promise to himself and headed to a sporting goods store, where he bought some soccer balls. They will be gifts to the neighborhood kids on their next trip.

I can’t explain what a great experience that was, he said. Magic, I said. Yes, he agreed. Magic.

It is exactly those sort of moments, I think, that many of us quietly hope for when we travel. Another friend recently reported that she had completed a swim of more than a mile on her Hawaiian vacation. She had long dreamed in making the lengthy crossing, but probably wouldn’t have attempted it, except that an older male who she knew was once an accomplished swimmer, joined her in the water and encouraged her the entire way. Because he made her feel safe, she was able to achieve her goal, she said.

In another recent conversation, a couple of friends spoke of cycling into the nearby mountains from their Arizona condo, seeing the landscape from a much different perspective than one gets from behind a windshield. They also take joy in riding to various arts and culture venues. From my perspective, that is much more meaningful than spending half the day on the golf course and much of the next half at the nineteenth hole.

We have had a few winter vacations to Mexico and thoroughly enjoyed them. But I am much happier wandering around the Old Town section of Puerto Vallarta than I am lying on a beach and sucking back bottles of Corona by the pailful. And happier still hopping onto a rickety bus and heading south to lesser known beaches, and further away from the gated all-inclusive resorts that draw visitors by the thousands, many of whom rarely venture outside the fenced areas.

Our winter getaway this year will be to New Orleans, a city I have longed to visit for much of my life. We could have chosen to go during Mardi Gras, but I don’t really like crowds and chaos, so we will visit after the madness has died down.

I want to experience the local jazz and blues music scene, see some of the historical sites and dine on the southern cuisine that so well matches my own taste preferences. Bring on the oyster po’ boys. Mostly, I want to witness firsthand the culture that has helped the city survive in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and an emergency response that made it clear that the U.S. government would have been just as happy to relegate the city, or at least its less affluent sectors, to the history books.

Like our recent vacations to New York and Europe, where we had stays in London, Paris and Barcelona, I want to take the time to wander without aim, to just soak in the culture that I have learned about from books and movies. And I hope I am as open to the experiences offered as my friend was when he joined in that kids’ soccer game.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.