"What was your best trip ever?" the fellow asked. "You can tell me ."
No, in fact, I can't. Trips are made up of days and nights, and nights are made up of moments: A full moon blitzing a mountain sky. A hug from a jubilant stranger. A laugh that erupts in a small cabaret. A note slipped under a door.
Sometimes the "where" of travel gets lost in the "who" or "when." Sometimes it does not.
Among my top adventures would be the morning in Tanzania when I stood at the breeze-ripped rim of Ngorongoro Crater and had to mask disappointment. I had expected to peer into a deep pit filled with snarls and cries from animals bigger than life.
Instead, stretched before me was a shimmering cup of dusty gold, an empty cup with not a tree or watering hole in sight. Where were the herds of wildebeests? The zebras and gazelles?
Descent to Crater Floor
I might have turned away in the face of their apparent migration, but for the fixed gaze of two tall Masai tribesmen who stood in beaded splendor near our four-wheel-drive van. The driver told us to hang on, we were about to descend to the crater floor.
First, the scrub came into focus, the rough brush and lean trees. Then drifts of earth mounded up near smudges of water; a camouflaged lion was sleeping off a big meal just a leap away. Other animal forms began emerging from the whole cloth of rumpled beige that covers the 10-mile-wide floor of this crater. Distant flecks became herds.
Two armor-plated rhinos turned their massive heads to stare at our van. Their glance was of boredom, or even disdain, right up to the moment they charged us. They veered off within a horn's length of our vehicle and chased after an ostrich.
It is easy to lose perspective amid such tawny grandeur. I stared back at the crater's walls, which I now knew rose 2,000 feet; they rippled like a mirage. After more than an hour of stops and starts, another vehicle approached. Our driver slowed, at our request, to ask if Jane Goodall happened to be in residence. Yes, came the reply. She and her research team were encamped down the trail.
We came to a canebrake compound. The wispy anthropologist emerged from a tent wearing shorts and a shirt and sandals. She held her infant son as if he were a newborn chimpanzee whose behavior she was studying, which means that she held him with love.
Much time has passed since that September morning, and I have heard her lecture in many places.
But no words or pictures will ever replace the memory of finding the woman at work in what had seemed a deserted crater in East Africa.
But the best trip ever? I do not know the answer.
One cannot compare London and Bali, for London has no rice paddies.
One cannot weigh Casablanca versus Bodo, because Casablanca has no children's choir singing Norwegian carols in a steepled church by the sea.
One cannot measure the joys of driving through the orchard-rich valleys of Washington state against the joys of driving past citrus groves in California: It's a matter of apples and oranges.
I like to believe that the best trip is yet to come, which is a sure sign of overwrought optimism.