MINSTER — Mary Ann Olding, of Minster, is not an ordinary tourist.
She returned Sunday from a 10-day trip to Peru, but since Sept. 3, she has been in 10 additional foreign countries.
Nine of those comprised a 47-day visit to Europe in September and October, and the 10th was a five-week stay in Cuba in November and December.
“Nine countries, 25 cities, 12 languages,” Olding said. “I saw so many gorgeous downtowns and buildings and thoroughfares.” She went alone, staying with friends and relatives in most places.
“It was my farewell trip. People came out of the woodwork that I’ve met through the years. I won’t see a lot of them again. I wanted to see them all one more time — friends I’ve known for 30 years. They’re all getting older. We were all very honest with what’s going on in our lives,” the inveterate traveler said.
In going from place to place, she rode on trains, trams, buses, cars, bicycles and a ferry.
“I didn’t get sick, fall or get lost,” she said. That was not the case in Peru, where altitude sickness in Cuzco knocked her for a loop. She was still recovering when she talked with the Sidney Daily News, Monday. Symptoms of altitude sickness include dizziness, headache, nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath, problems with sleep and less appetite.
“I had all of them,” Olding said.
She had gone to Peru at the invitation of a friend she had met several years ago in Cuba.
The European sojourn took her to Denmark, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, France, Belgium, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. She carried “two tiny suitcases, one with a laptop,” she said. Two pairs of black slacks got her through the entire trip.
Olding had spent a lot of time planning that six-week adventure, but even so, she had to make some quick decisions along the way.
“When you’re on the train and they’re telling you there’s a problem and you have to get off the train and get a bus, they do that in the language of the train. So I had to make sure I was going in the right direction. I was always staying with people, so I wasn’t where they were trained to speak English,” she said.
In spite of that, she found train travel to be an easy way to get from one place to another.
“I was never afraid. Train stations are such an equalizer among people. You see everyone in the train stations,” she said.
Olding took her first trip to Europe in 1968 and had gone back many times in the intervening years. But she had never been to Norway or Sweden.
“When I looked out the windows in the Scandinavian countries, I could have been in Ohio or Iowa,” she said.
Always inquisitive about cultures, architecture and what people think, Olding, a trained historian, tends not to frequent museums.
“I’m skeptical about anything mass produced to bring in a lot of people,” she said. “It doesn’t tell the real story. It’s meant to put forth an idea. Captions and detailed information are out of date. They don’t use original sources and they’re meant to promote their town. Many are done by amateurs.”
The exceptions, she noted, were in Stockholm — the Nobel Museum — and the Nuremburg, Germany, Hall of Justice, where the post-World War II trials of Nazis took place.
“(The museum) was brutally frank about what the Germans did. They’re acknowledging that ‘We did something bad.’ They did not mince words and made no excuses,” Olding said.
In Lichtenstein, she met with its former ambassador to the U.S., and although she’s been to Paris 50 times, this time, she got to experience something new. She went with a journalist friend to a soup kitchen to interview Algerian refugees who are living under bridges and behind rocks in the City of Light.
“One hundred per day arrive. The French government is empathetic, but how do you help 100 a day?” Olding said.
As she talked with residents she knew and met those she didn’t, Olding focused on what they could tell her.
“I tried not to say, ‘In the States, we do this.’” I just said, “How do you do it here?’” I felt I could soak up so much of the way they do things. Their values are different. What they need to live happily, comfortably, is different from in the U.S. It’s a lot easier to get old there,” she noted.
A quick trip to New Orleans filled time between her return from Europe and her leading of a tour group to Cuba. When the tour ended, she remained in Cuba for a few weeks, staying with a friend she has known for several years. For research projects and art brokering, she has made more than a dozen trips to the island nation.
But January’s was her first trip to Peru. There, she made sure to see the non-tourist side Lima, as well as Peru’s biggest tourist attraction, Machu Pichu.
It was summer in the southern hemisphere, but Olding found Cuzco temperatures in the 50s and 60s because it was at a high altitude. Homes are not heated there, so residents bundle into wool sweaters, even inside, and sleep under heavy alpaca blankets.
“I tried to fit into their lives,” she said of the friends she stayed with in all the countries she visited. “I’m not there to be a tourist. I have to throw out everything I’ve learned and try to see things from their point of view, read their promotional materials. It takes a lot of energy. Most people have had pretty extraordinary lives if they tell you the truth, if they don’t have to pretend.”
She was impressed by the Inca stone constructions at Machu Pichu. Getting around the ancient ruins was difficult, a “rugged adventure,” she noted, but worth the effort.
“I’m a closet archaeologist,” she admitted. “The Inca stonework is stronger than anything built today. People today don’t know how they did that. How could the Incas build with no equipment like today? Any engineer could say it’s superior constuction and today, people live in houses of mud brick that last a season. When it rains, they dissolve. We have smashed down these civilizations (e.g., the Incas) before we learned anything from them.”
At home now and recovering from the altitude sickness, Olding won’t stay put for long. In February, she will lead a tour of Masons to Cuba and plans are in the offing for trips to Greece and Hong Kong this year, too.
She will see old friends and make new ones. In Peru, she talked for hours with an Australian visitor who now looks forward to hosting her in Queensland the next time she goes “down under.”
“The international language of curiosity and enthusiasm will get you a long way when you’re traveling,” she said.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.