Member Spotlight: Laurel Glassman, Chevy Chase, Maryland, USA

At a Yazidi “mor kirin” (baptism) in Lalish, Kurdistan, where ISIS terrorists had previously abducted 3,000 women and girls; Laurel Glassman was honored to meet some of the survivors who were wearing their traditional dress.

“Why would you want to go to there?” Questions like this simply don’t compute for me. How can anyone not want to experience the magic of Rano Raraku on Easter Island, where scores of giant heads made of lava thrust out of a grass-covered cinder cone, like daisies sprouting in springtime? Or converse with a Huli Wigman, his face elaborately decorated with electric yellow paint, and his head adorned with a crown made of his own hair and the feathers of exotic birds, in the southern jungle highlands of Papua New Guinea? Or marvel at the unspeakably beautiful snowscapes of Antarctica?

By the time I graduated from law school in 1974, I’d done some conventional traveling through parts of western Europe, the U.K., and Scandinavia. That changed after I took a flyer and moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands for two years to start my legal career as law clerk to the chief judge of the federal district court in St. Thomas. Soon thereafter I met my husband, who was clerking for the federal judge on St. Croix. Life took a rather sharp turn after we decided, upon finishing our clerkships and seeing a fair bit of the Caribbean, to marry and spend three months backpacking through the entirety of South America (plus Panama) — with a total of $3,000 between us for the duration. In those days, there was virtually no tourist infrastructure. On a budget of $5-$10 a day, we got what we paid for, which was mostly flea-bitten hotels, terrible food, and crowded buses. The “hotel” at the top of Machu Picchu in 1976 was a converted military barracks; a couple we met on the train from Cuzco let us sleep on the floor of their nearly bare room. We didn’t care where we slept, because the Inca site and its setting were spectacular, and we had the place almost to ourselves. Two months later we chugged up the Amazon River from Manaus in a tiny, dilapidated wooden ferryboat; members of the crew would jump off the bow, get swept to the back of the ferry by the powerful current, grab a rope hanging off the stern, and swing themselves back onboard (somehow avoiding the piranhas).

For quite a number of years after that we didn’t travel much, as we had student debts to pay off, and then two little daughters to take care of. Eventually, they were old enough to travel, so when we had some vacation time from our law firm jobs in Washington, D.C., we traveled as a family to Western Europe, then Eastern Europe, Turkey, and Egypt (including to the top of Mount Sinai on camels and on foot). Subsequently, we took the girls to various countries in the Far East (Japan, China, Thailand). We also drove around Australia and New Zealand with our younger daughter, who spent her junior year studying at the University of Wollongong. All of our trips were independent, with occasional local guides.

The more we traveled, the more we found that we were happiest off the beaten track. Hence, in the first decade of the 21st century we visited, among other countries and territories: Cambodia (where we saw the horrors wrought by the Khmer Rouge in and around Phnom Penh as well as the delicate, refined beauty of Banteay Srei and other temples in Angkor Wat); Cuba (on a licensed humanitarian mission that took us all over the island); India (from Kolkata in the east to Ellora in the west, and everything in between); Nepal; Tibet, and brilliant Bhutan. Each trip invariably upended our expectations, and we always “came back different.”

Then in 2012, my husband died suddenly and unexpectedly, three weeks before we (and our younger daughter) were supposed to go on an extended trip from Kenya all the way south to South Africa. When I told my daughter I was going to cancel the trip, she wisely said: “Mom, I think Dad would have wanted us to go.” So we went, crying every single day. But we were so glad to have made this astounding journey. One highlight: seeing a pangolin up close in the wild (Botswana).

Following the trip, I retired after 35 years in private practice. While continuing to grieve, I traveled (solo, on tours, or with family or friends); it was a salve on an open wound (as was my work for homeless services organizations in my area).

Dr. Zahi Hawass, a leading expert on Ancient Egypt, invited Laurel to attend a TV interview he was giving at Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb in Luxor, Egypt.

Within the next two months, I will have traveled to 200 TCC destinations. My goal in traveling has been solely to see and/or experience the most amazing, spectacular and educational things our planet has to offer. I have rarely been disappointed. How could I be? It isn’t every day a person has the opportunity to give alms to 300 saffron-robed monks (in Luang Prabang, Laos); to see women (in Ghardaia, Algeria) who cover their entire bodies from head to toe in a white robe — except for a single eye; to climb the 4,053-year-old ziggurat at Ur (Iraq); to marvel at the peerless Roman ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna (Libya); to admire the sophisticated Mayan frescoes (Yucatan) and carvings in Copan (Honduras); to hike the largest and most gorgeous sand dunes in the world (Sossusvlei, Namibia); to gasp at the poet Hafez’s sublime tomb (under a full moon, near Isfahan, Iran), and to sit near a family of very chill Mountain Gorillas in the Rwandan jungle. Travel has led me to become both an amateur Egyptologist (and to explore 57 tombs in Luxor’s West Bank), and a devotee of ancient civilizations generally. In this regard, I’ve visited a very large percentage of the ruins of most ancient civilizations (and the museums holding their artifacts) on six continents. Ancient civilizations rock! I’ve also traveled in some of the poorest areas, including Haiti, and in the slums in Mumbai, Swakopmund, and Myanmar (among others). Articles I’ve written about a few of my trips have been published (along with my photographs) in The Washington Post and International Travel News.

St. Augustine famously wrote: “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” I could not agree more — and could not be more grateful to have had one of the greatest gifts life has to offer: the gift of travel.

Becoming a member of TCC has also been a gift. After all, at our meetings no one ever asks: “Why would you want to go to there?”

A toddler of the Himba tribe in the northern part of Namibia is shown her picture.

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