My first international trip was in 1967 when I flew on a chartered airline to Vietnam to serve for a year with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the Vietnam war.
My last international trip was in 2000 and 2001 when I flew from Washington D.C. to Moscow to begin serving as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. On September 12, 2001 I was scheduled to fly from Moscow to New York and connect with a flight to Detroit to meet my wife there. September 11, 2001 changed all that and all flights into and out of New York airports were cancelled indefinitely. Several days later I arranged flights from Moscow to Amsterdam and caught another flight from Amsterdam directly to Detroit.
In between 1967 and 2001, I logged countless miles of international business travel to Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia. The list of countries is long and I am sure I have forgotten some of them, but here are a few: England, Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Latvia, Italy, Colombia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Philippines, Kenya, and Canada. I am not sure if Fiji and Saipan count, but I have been there also.
International travel can be exciting and tiring and frustrating all at the same time. We took a family vacation to India one year during the Christmas holiday season. After spending several days visiting Mumbai (Bombay) and Agra (to see the Taj Mahal), we finished our visit to India in Delhi. When we arrived at the Delhi airport for our departure back to Hong Kong, there was a heavy fog. All flights were grounded indefinitely. It is impossible to estimate how many people were in the Delhi airport when we arrived, but it felt like millions. Everyone was trying to fly somewhere and none of the airline employees were able to tell anyone anything about when flights would begin flying. After hours of waiting and no flights leaving we returned to our hotel for another night. The next day was the same, but after about six hours the fog began to lift and some flights began taking off. With all the people from the previous day still in the airport and all the new people planning to leave it was total chaos. The airline personnel were overwhelmed with the crowds. I managed to get to a ticket counter, and tried to calmly explain our situation that we needed to get to Hong Kong, but I would settle for a flight anywhere in that direction. I gave the attendant my American Express card and said I would buy three tickets on any flight going east toward Hong Kong, leaving as soon as possible. My plan was to get home and worry about arguing about the cost of the tickets later. Miraculously, the young lady was able to get us on a flight leaving for Hong Kong in a couple hours. I didn’t know how she did it and frankly I didn’t care. A couple hours later we flew out of Delhi bound for Hong Kong.
Anyone who travels much internationally has at least one story about immigration or customs. I have many but will choose an immigration story about Indonesia. Again, we took a vacation to Bali, Indonesia one year when we were living in Hong Kong. We had an excellent travel agent in Hong Kong that my company used for most of the business travel arrangements. We also used them for our personal travel. They arranged our flights and visas for our vacation to Bali. A little known rule is that a foreigner must have three things to enter Indonesia: a visa to enter Indonesia, a ticket for departing Indonesia, and a passport that is valid for at least six months from the date of your arrival. It doesn’t matter if you only plan to stay in Indonesia for a few days, you passport must be valid for at least six months. My wife and daughter and I arrived in Indonesia, showed the officials our documents, and found we had a problem. My wife and daughter’s passports were fine, but mine was only valid for an additional four months. They would not permit me to enter. I calmly talked to the immigration officer with no success. After a short time, because I was delaying the line of others trying to enter the country, the immigration officials took me to a private room. I waited and waited and finally an official joined me in the room. I politely explained my situation, the fact that we were planning a seven-day holiday, and pleaded with him to allow me to enter. He said he wanted to find a solution to my problem, but he didn’t know how to solve the problem for me. This was code for, “I want some money”. I was not going to offer him a bribe. He was very patient, but never directly asked for money, and I was just not going to bring the subject up. Finally he said he would grant me a three-day visa and at the end of three days I could visit the immigration office on Bali and request an additional four day visa that would be valid until our flights were scheduled to leave. I thanked him for his help, and walked out of his office exhausted, but glad we would be able to spend a week relaxing on Bali.
The companies I worked for during my business career had no formal multi-cultural training programs. We were expected to learn whatever way we could. Luckily, we had local employees in all the countries where I traveled on business, and they were very helpful in teaching me the cultural sensitivities of their country. I used that knowledge to help me during my business career, and incorporated some of it into my book, Life of a Double Agent.