<style type="text/css"> .no-show { display: none; } .disable-fade-in{ opacity: 1 !important; transform: none !important; visibility: visible !important; } </style>

Wanderers in a Wonderful World

June 17, 2024

Because CIA officers crisscross the globe for work and for fun, we thought it might be interesting to ask our workforce to reminisce on some of their most memorable overseas travel experiences. What they shared with us was a wealth of unique foreign traditions, random acts of kindness, and some things that were just… lost in translation! All in all, they were delightful memories from around the world, and we hope you will enjoy their stories as much as we did.

“Fútbol Mania in Argentina”

December 18, 2022. The day Argentina won the World Cup. And, it just so happened that my family was in the country on a family vacation.

Buenos Aires is a large, vibrant city. That day, we were playing tourist, but the streets seemed deserted. The few people and vehicles we did see – taxis, buses, and food-delivery bicycles – were all wrapped in Argentinian flags.

It was so quiet… until… GOAL!!!

Both times Argentina scored a goal, the city erupted. Revelers on their balconies screamed and cheered. As the game went on, folks started venturing outside. Everywhere we went, if there was a screen, people were gathered around it: looking into restaurant windows, sitting on the ground with a cell phone.

We were with crowds near Buenos Aires’ iconic “El Obelísco” monument when the game went into overtime. I can’t think of a single event back home that would bring the whole country together like this.

Once Argentina won, countless people streamed by wearing blue Messi jerseys and carrying flags – families with strollers, young men and women swinging drinks, old people with coolers. The pure joy on everyone’s faces was contagious. Drums came out along with trumpets for impromptu marching bands. There was literal singing and dancing in the streets.

The celebrations went on and on for hours, and we were right there, part of it all! To be in Argentina for the World Cup victory was unforgettable. Soccer—or I should say, fútbol—really is life there.

“A Fijian Funeral”

I was visiting Fiji several years ago. One day, a friend asked if I had plans for Saturday. I said “no,” and he responded, “Great. Be outside your hotel at 5am. Wear some shorts and a nice button-down shirt. We’re heading to a chieftain’s funeral.”

Sure enough, a little after 5 the next morning, he rolled up to my hotel, and we proceeded to drive a couple of hours outside of the city and into the mountains. Just before we arrived, he pulled over and handed me a sulu, a traditional Fijian men’s garment similar to a skirt or kilt. I put it on, and we approached a very remote village.

After some initial introductions and a small ceremony to allow me into the village as a guest, we entered the late chieftain’s home. The house was one big, open room with no furniture. The casket was in one corner, and about 40 people were all sitting on the floor with a ceremonial kava bowl in front of them.

For about four hours, we sat in the room, largely in silence, while two people would fill up coconut shells with kava to pass to all the mourners. Then, the funeral service began.

As family members came to take the casket about an hour later, a group of seven or eight women threw themselves onto the casket and began to wail loudly. They wouldn’t let go of the casket and had to be physically removed. I was amazed at the show of emotion but found out later that the women were professional mourners, who are compensated for their role.

Afterward, the entire gathering of about 200 people followed a very narrow path into the jungle and down a hill, coming to the village graveyard. There, a group of men laid the casket in the ground and filled the hole up with dirt by hand. It had begun to rain, and everyone was covered in mud.

We walked back up the hill, and my friend and I met with one of the chieftain’s family members, who had prepared us lunch. I made it back to town late that evening, muddy and exhausted, with an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.

“An Umbrella in Korea”

One time in South Korea, I was caught in pouring rain on my way to the grocery store. I was wearing sandals and standing at the crosswalk, barefoot and soaked, when an ajumma (informal Korean term for middle-aged woman) came and held her umbrella over me.

Without any language ability except for the most basic phrases, I tried to gesture that I was already too wet for the umbrella to matter and she should keep it over her own head, but she insisted on walking me all the way up to the entrance. I am pretty sure she even tried to make me take her umbrella with me, and I said I was fine and I would buy one.

I always remember this because, despite the fact that I was already drenched and she was dry, she went out of her way to hold the umbrella over my much-taller head.

“Wedding Crashers in Macedonia”

On a trip to Skopje, my friend and I held the elevator for two lovely ladies dressed up as if they were going to a grand gala. They asked us if we were hotel guests and apologized in advance for any noisiness that evening.

The night before, our hotel had invited us to a different event that had fireworks, so I asked the ladies if fireworks would be involved.   

“No. This will be a fancy wedding.”

In good humor, I asked, “are we invited?”

“But of course!” one lady exclaimed, “Please, join us.”

My friend and I graciously accepted the offer. Later, as we were enjoying ourselves at the reception, who do we see, but the glamorous woman from the elevator.

It turns out that she was the mother of the bride and was absolutely thrilled to see us. She insisted that we dance and have a wonderful time. She wanted her daughter’s wedding celebration to be memorable, and it was. Her hospitality is something we will always remember.

“Italian Hospitality”

Back in the early 2000s, my wife and our daughter (who was 2 or 3 years old at the time) went on our second trip to Italy.

Looking for something off the beaten path, we stayed in a somewhat secluded area in the Molise region near Isernia. We found a lone restaurant in the countryside and were the only ones in there; albeit, early in the evening for Italian standards. 

Two men in suits came in and sat near us. Men in suits eating at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere… my mind jumped to the conclusion that they were mafia. I then felt bad because the waiter had put cartoons on the television to keep our daughter entertained. In my broken Italian to the waiter, I sent over a bottle of wine and thanked them with four words, “Grazie, televisione, bambina, saluto!”

They raised their glasses to us, and we continued to enjoy our meal. 

Later, we noticed an elderly man talking to them and the three of them looking our way. Great, “The Don” is here, I thought. Soon, I felt a warm hand on my shoulder; it’s the elderly man, and he exclaims in his broken English, “Chicago, Illinois!” After our meal, he took us to the grocery store next door, unlocked it, and wrapped up dried pasta and homemade salami to take with us. 

We visited the lovely restaurant again during our trip and found out the old man’s daughter owns the restaurant and her husband was our waiter. Whether or not anyone was connected, we didn’t ask.

“Universal Refreshments”

Twenty years ago, after a very long multi-leg flight to Asia, a colleague and I just needed some dinner and rest before work the next morning. We neither spoke nor read the local language (at all) and found ourselves wandering the streets later and later into the evening, struggling to find sustenance and respite.

We finally stumbled upon a bustling restaurant – always a good sign – with people eating delicious-looking food and enjoying cool refreshing drinks – also a good sign. We plunked down at a table, tired, rumpled, and sweaty, when an elderly server came over. She didn’t speak English, and we couldn’t even read the menus.

After some wordless back and forth of shrugged shoulders and waved hands, she finally looked at us, thought for a moment, and enthusiastically asked: “MEAT!?”

“Yes, please!”

Then, “BEER!?”

“YESSS! Thank you!!”  This waitress is our kind of person, we thought.

She walked away and brought back exactly those things. We were all happy. Some things in this world are universal.

“All Roads Lead to Rome”

My first international trip was for my 30th birthday with my mom. We went to Rome for a week. As we were walking around the “Eternal City,” we kept seeing these blue and white arrow signs that read: “Senso Unico.” Given that they were blue and white and had the word “unico” on them, we assumed they were pointing to offices run by the United Nations.

About four days into our trip, we realized that “senso unico” means “one way” in Italian. Sometimes, you just have to laugh at yourself!

“The (Fast Food) Odyssey”

Let me start by saying, Kosovo loves the USA. The Kosovo War ended largely due to NATO intervention, and the US played a key role in the country’s founding.

After arriving in Pristina, I found American flags decorating the main street, and many government buildings flew our flag right next to the Kosovo flag. They also have a special place in their hearts for Bill Clinton, who was US President during the war. One of Pristina’s major attractions is a large statue of the former president.

The locals seem to love all Americans. It wasn’t uncommon for restaurants to bring me a free drink or give me a discount. I even had a taxi driver ask me to ask Congress to make Kosovo the 51st state.

One day, my travel partner became very nauseous, so I set out on a mission to find some familiar American-style cuisine in Pristina. It soon became clear that American cuisine options were limited, so I stopped by an obvious McDonald’s knock-off (complete with golden arches!) to order the “Big Mac.”

Alas, it was not a true Big Mac, and I knew this just wouldn’t do. I then headed over to KFC, the only other American option I could find. I didn’t speak Albanian, so I tried to order the #8 combo (10 chicken tenders), which was about 70 cents, by holding up eight fingers and saying, “Eight, please!”

The cashier was confused but seemed to understand, even commenting, “Oh, you are American? You hungry!”

The total cost of the meal seemed a bit high, but I figured I didn’t completely understand the currency yet. It all made sense when my gigantic bag arrived. The cashier thought I wanted to order eight #8 meal combos, and I now had 80 chicken nuggets on my hands. Apparently, I was confirming the negative stereotypes about Americans having huge food portions and loving fast food. *Sigh*

On the bus ride to the hotel, I started giving my extra nuggets away to passengers who were gracious and replied with phrases like, “Yay, USA!” and “Hey America!” You could say I did a bit of public diplomacy to make up for what had previously transpired.  

“Journey Down a Cambodian River”

One weekend morning in the late 2010s, I asked the hotel concierge in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, about an all-day "boat ride." After I negotiated "later" to "now" and received small change for a $100 bill, a really young lad in flip-flops showed up with a smile and a wordless gesture to follow him to the river.

Down the steep dirt riverbank, a 40-foot, slender, empty riverboat awaited. The only other person was the boat pilot, also very young and in aviator sunglasses; the first lad was the navigator. 

Where were the other passengers? Ah, it was my own personal riverboat for the day. 

The entire interaction was carried out in basic English and expressive gestures. But the best parts were the things that weren’t said.

Navigator:  "Where do you want to go?" 

Me:  "No idea. Anywhere."

Navigator at first stop: "Would you like to stop at a silk factory?" 

Me: "Sure."

Navigator at next stop: "Would you like to see an old temple and meet some monks?" 

Me: "Sure."

Navigator at another stop: "Would you like to bike to a rural school, and teach Chinese to the students [who will point and giggle at your Westerner appearance]?" 

Me: "Sure."

Navigator as we rowed back downriver:  "Would you like to watch the sun set over the royal palace, at that riverside bungalow [full of boisterous and drunk European tourists]?" 

Me: "Sure... Actually, let's just anchor here, in front of the palace, and enjoy the sunset from the boat."

Navigator moments later: "Would you like a refreshing American beer from this cooler [we didn't tell you about six hours ago, before we took off on this languid, sweaty boat ride]?" 

Me: "Very much so!"

 * * * * * * * * * *

If you’re dreaming up your own exciting travel plans, be sure to check out The World Factbook’s “Travel Facts” pages for practical travel information before you book your next trip, or just navigate through the other pages to learn more about governments, history, and people from all across the globe. Also, tune in to The Langley Files (File 010) for “CIA Travel Safety 101.”

Explore More Stories

Ask Molly: Travel Tips
CIA Officers Share Special Holiday Traditions From Around the World
Jazz, Spies and Games: The Extraordinary Life of CIA Founding Member Miles Copeland