…from Angkor Wat to Zanzibar
“We shall not cease from exploration and in the end of all the exploring, will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.” ~ T.S. Eliot
On a tour through China a few years ago, my guide made continued reference to World Heritage Sites, specifically, UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In a perfectly British accent he would inform us, “the Forbidden City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site inscribed in 1987”, or, “the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace were inscribed on the World Heritage List of culturally protected monuments by UNESCO in 1998.” A few days later, more of the same: “The Terracotta Warriors here in Xian are also protected by UNESCO as World Heritage,” he told his mostly Western group.
Well, ignorance finally gave way to frustration as my intellect demanded to know precisely what a World Heritage Site was.
“Mr. Chang, you have referred to certain unique places as being UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Might I inquire, has this something to do with the United Nations, and what exactly is a World Heritage Site?” From the look of astonishment on my distinguished guide’s face, one might have surmised that I had asked him to reveal to me personally the secrets of the unexcavated Tombs of the First Emperor Qin!
“Mr. Michael, you don’t know what a World Heritage Site is?”
Let me first tell you that this was not my first trip abroad, nor was it even my first trip to China. In years of travel I had already seen most of the world save Antarctica. Filling two passports by studying and working abroad. So I was not stranger to a strange land. Yet, this continued reference bugged me. Why hadn’t I heard this before? U.N.E.S.C.O, that’s the U.N., right?
Slowly I began to consider that perhaps I had been mistaken. Yes, I had traveled the world many times over, this was true. But had I actually experienced this world? With this breakthrough question from Mr. Chang came awareness, a sacred “ah ha” moment. And I wasn’t even in Sedona!
Being domiciled in London during the mid-1980s as an international bond dealer for the largest investment bank in the world lifted my capacity for worldwide travel to a new dimension. This was the job to have, except for maybe playing left field for the Boston Red Sox. And London was the place to be, if you didn’t mind the food, the weather and the lack of nightlife.
As do most, this expatriate engagement afforded first cabin travel through free and not so free societies, carte blanche. Having responsibility for the major central banks on six continents and their investments in United States government bonds, one can imagine the lifestyle. Distinctive destinations, demanding deals, deluxe dinners and even a few dazzling dates, was all part of the daily grind. I loved it. It seemed my dreams had come true. Or had they? Mr. Chang had unknowingly unlocked a vault to self-inquiry. Had I really experienced different cultures? Could I understand foreign perspectives and lifestyles en masse?
Certainly, I could spend the companies’ green and do the trade; that was the assignment. That is what I was paid to do, as it were. But, this was not my original plan. No, this was not my original plan at all. Mr. Chang’s gentle probe had, by implication, made this definitive.
“No, Mr. Chang, I do not know what a World Heritage Site is.” But how could I not know? I wondered, as I waited for his reply, bewildered and bothered by my lack of what seemed like rudimentary knowledge for every traveler. Mr. Chang knew what a World Heritage Site was and he had never been outside of the People’s Republic of China.
Some of us dream of far away places from an early age. We imagine what it would be like to view the Pyramids from the Giza Plateau; walk the Great Wall in Mongolia; make the long hard climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro to see if the frozen lion from the Hemingway Masterpiece is really there, or even trek the trail of the Incas for the Summer Solstice at Machu Picchu.
My first fascination with the world came in a third grade geography class, while reading about a far away land called Tierra del Fuego. Upon learning that this meant “land of fire” (I had not yet obtained proficiency in Spanish), I was THUNDERSTRUCK! Land of fire – EGAD ! Where is this place? At the end of the world came my answer. How do I get there? Perhaps by joining La Legion Etrangere. No, too young… won’t pass muster. Got to find another way.
Well, instead of doing long division, I would plot my way to Tierra del Fuego on the world map above the classroom chalkboard. Later, I would pay dearly for my deficiency in division, but managed to magically recover with the advent of the handheld calculator a few years later.
Notwithstanding, my fascination with far away places did not diminish with time. I probably could have taught a college level course in geography by the time I reached tenth grade. After all, I had never missed a Jeopardy question in that category. Evidence enough.
Yes, I was obsessed. Maps, travel guides, glossy brochures, adventure books, airline timetables and National Geographic magazines, of course. Anything that would satiate my desire for more knowledge of the wide world, I collected and devoured. Inventing my own private game of geographic solitaire, I would consistently grow my factual database.
Name four cities in Morocco – FAST. Marrakech, Casablanca, Rabat and Fez. Of the ten major rivers in the world, which one flows east? Easy. The Niger. Name the highest capital in the world. Tricky. Lhasa, Tibet maybe? But this becomes an age-old geo-political question. I’ll leave that to those who know. (Correct answer, by the way, is La Paz, Bolivia at 12,400 feet.) And on it went.
As a teenager, I would often take the subway to Logan International and act as if I were a first class passenger headed to Rome, Moscow or Shanghai. At the check-in counter, I would participate vicariously as I watched a bona-fide flyer present his credentials, ticket and checked bags. Yes, I would even walk to the gate (one could do that in the 1960’s). Everything in proper sequence. Everything except wheels up, of course. That would have to wait, but my day was coming. My day was coming soon.
In the late 1960s, up until the early 1980s, one could still circumnavigate the globe in either direction on one carrier. Hearing the radio advertisement with the announcer’s booming baritone beckoned my soul. For me, this was not unlike listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing “A Mighty Fortress is our GOD”, when he commanded… “Take PAN AM’s Fight 2 ‘round the world… New York, Paris, Istanbul, Bombay, Rangoon, Hong Kong, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York.” Call Pan Am became my imperative. Indeed, I did call and even booked Flight 1 and Flight 2 from time to time, just in case. Yes, just in case, I stood ready. However, for me, it was always a delayed departure.
Nearly two and a half decades — and visits to hundreds of exotic lands — later, I achieved my moment of clarity. It came, from Mr. Chang.
“Mr. Michael, UNESCO is the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. It is headquartered in Paris and was created in 1946 to promote world peace. UNESCO is one of 17 specialized agencies, all autonomous organizations affiliated with the United Nations.
A World Heritage Site is a natural or a cultural (man-made) site recognized by the international community as possessing outstanding universal value and coming under a collective responsibility of the member states for its protection from a rapidly developing world.”
“Thank you, Mr. Chang.” This gracious and completely thorough answer bestowed an elevated consciousness upon this well-traveled American, who paradoxically, became enlightened once again by distant destinations and their denizens.
On August 7, 1999, 38 years after successfully completing Sister Mary de la Salle’s third grade geography class, I disembarked at Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. The Land of Fire.
James Michael Flanagan has flown nearly two million miles to more than 100 countries on six continents, and Antarctica experiencing some 350 UNESCO World Heritage Sites – from Tibet to Timbuktu – along the way. He holds numerous travel-related roles, including sharing enrichment lectures and cultural insights. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: As of April 2016, there were a total of 1,031 registered World Heritage Sites. Ever been to The Statue of Liberty? Grand Canyon? Yosemite? What about the Eiffel Tower? Chances are, you’ve already seen more World Heritage Sites than you realized. Click here to discover them all.