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Sam Cook column: The pleasures and pitfalls of exploring the world

Sam Cook

We were looking for a fish market we had heard about near the west coast of Costa Rica. Four of us, driving a rental car, some years ago. A friend back home had told us about the place, tucked away in the jungle. Told us about the primitive road to get there. Told us not to worry about driving through the washout, a creek really.

"You'll make it," he said.

Told us just to keep going. We had survived the washout. But now we'd lost faith in the route. We needed some confirmation.

The road passed through the front yard of a small home. I drove past, then backed up. On the front porch, an older sister appeared to be cutting the hair of her younger sister. I got out, motioned down the road and hollered out one of the few words of Spanish I knew.

"Pescado?" I asked.

Spanish for "fish."

"Si, si," came the older sister's reply.

She motioned vigorously down the road, the way we were headed. On we drove with renewed confidence and eventually came upon the market, a tiny hut in the jungle.

Such a small thing, that bit of communication between two strangers — an old guy from Minnesota, a young Costa Rican girl on her front porch.

I was thinking of that brief exchange this week as we packed for an upcoming trip to Ireland and Scotland. And thinking of so many other trips, some for work and some for pleasure. Zihuatanejo, Mexico. The Yucatan Peninsula. Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Panajachel, Guatemala. Baffin Island, Canada's Nunavut. Ellesmere Island, Canada. Bettles, Alaska. Nairobi, Kenya.

Two disparate feelings come bubbling up inside me before these trips. One is the anticipation of discovering cool places and fascinating cultures. The other is a gnawing insecurity about throwing myself out there in the maelstrom of the world, into unfamiliar territory.

Always, travel is punctuated by unique and gratifying experiences — a candid conversation with a Maasai guide about his Kenyan homeland; a supper-table discussion of a polar bear hunt in Pangnirtung, Nunavut; butchering a caribou on the ice of Great Slave Lake with a friend who has homesteaded there.

And yet, traveling almost anywhere outside your home territory requires a leap of faith. Flight connections will be missed. Luggage fails to show up. Sometimes, despite Google's best efforts, you'll wind up navigationally flustered. Far from home, one travels with a vague sense of bewilderment a fair bit of the time.

What you discover along this bumpy road is that kind and generous people populate all parts of the globe. You emerge into daylight from the Paris Metro trying to get oriented, and a woman with a French accent walks up and says, "Bonjour. Can I help you?"

This kind of grace has occurred so many times: A bush pilot offers you lunch and a nap at his cabin in the northern Manitoba bush. A Dene family from Behchoko, Northwest Territories, gives you a ride 110 miles from their village to Yellowknife — with warm fry bread to boot. A Guatemalan woman takes you into the kitchen of her tiny restaurant so she can show you what's for supper.

To a traveler, these simple kindnesses inspire deep gratitude. They also inspire us to offer the same sort of hospitality to those traveling in our part of the world.

Sam Cook is a freelance columnist for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or on Facebook at facebook.com/SamCook.