Monday, March 5, 2012

An Incredible Life's Moment at The New York Times Travel Show

On Friday I spoke at The New York Times Travel Show and while that was an enjoyable experience, it was not nearly the highlight of the day; though the highlight would not have been possible without the show.

Just prior to the presentation I met one of the two other participants.  I almost immediately had that, “Oh, no! I am on a panel with a typical overbearing travel agent who thinks she knows everything, but knows nothing” feeling.    So I excused myself, took a deep breath, checked out another panel and then met with a colleague.

As time was nearing when I was to speak I went to the appropriate venue and met the other panelist.  She, fortunately, was an absolutely charming and intelligent woman, Sara Kearns, who runs a safari company.   I had just told her about my two safaris and what an incredible experience the private safari was. 

Sara’s friend walked up and began speaking with her.  I couldn’t read her name tag and inquired.  She gave me her card:  Clair Mathews Crawford, of Mathews Safaris.  

My private guide those years ago was Rick Mathews, but he had died tragically many years ago.  Could they be related?  I mean what was the chance of that being it is 25+ years later and 7,000 miles away.  And if so, should I even mention his name considering the tragedy?

But me being me, I had to ask the question, so I said, “I used a private guide in Kenya and Tanzania years ago.  His name was Rick Mathews”.  Clair smiled and said, “He was my husband!”

And the rush of stories about Rick started to flow.  The moment gave us both chills.  But it was time for Sara and my panel. 

During the panel Sara and I quickly shared with the audience that this incredible moment had just happened, but I didn’t want to overtake the panel by telling the story.  The moderator insisted and, after relating the story, I discussed how Rick (who was in his 20’s at the time…25+ years ago) actually taught me how to travel.  It was the first time someone said to me, “Slow down and observe.  Don’t just tick off that you saw a lion.  Sit and watch.”  And he also showed me what real customer service was about…being prepared and thinking ahead.  And with Rick we did sit and watched and observed and listened and smelled…for hours...

Courtesy of Mathews Safaris
One day in Tanzania we watched a pride of lions lazing in the late afternoon sun.  Off in the far distance was a topi (a weird looking purple antelope) meandering along.  As time passed some of the lions sauntered out to the left and then some strolled to the right.  And then, with a flip of a tail, they silently converged and killed that topi, who had foolishly wandered towards the pride.  Out of nowhere a huge male lion came leaping over the tall grass with the sun at his back and let out a roar.  (It was then that I understood that the sound of a lion’s roar was not what impresses; it is how it vibrates your body that does it.)  And with that he leaped onto the kill and threw the other lions off of it.  (Unlike what you have been told, none of the females voluntarily leave the kill for the male.) I didn't sleep for two nights reliving this experience.

I then explained to the audience that from that moment on I never traveled trying to tick things off…and that is the message a successful travel agent must give to his clients.

But speaking of not “ticking things off”, I was not done with my new friends.  Sara rushed up to me a bit later and asked me to join them for dinner…but I had a doctor’s appointment I couldn’t move back in New Jersey.  So…I did what I had to:  I went to the doctor and then came back to the city for dinner.  

(And while I wasn’t ticking meeting Clair off my list, I embarrassingly found out that Clair hadn’t ticked me off hers:  She sat in on our talk and heard me boast about her late husband.)

During our four hour dinner at Giorgione in The Village we traveled back in time sharing stories of Rick, talked of the present and even of the possible future…like a possible “Wine & Wildebeest Safari” hosted by Goldring Travel and organized by Mathews Safaris during the Migration.

It was truly a Life’s Moment.  It was a moment delivered to me through the love of travel. 

So when your cruise ship has a port of call in Sorrento or Le Lavandou, or you want to see all of Spain in a week, don’t think first about what tour you should take or how many museums you can visit; think about just slowing down and observing. 

You just may experience something that touches your soul a quarter of a century later...rather than merely filling a photo album.