Young Buddhist monks at Mihintale, Sri Lanka.
Thank you, VIA readers. We asked you to share your vacation dreams with us, and you responded with passion and creativity. You sent us more than 1,800 essays, taking us to 90 countries and 23 states. We invite you to read the essays by our six finalists:
LAURIE ARMSTRONG is vice president of marketing and communications for the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau.
MARYBETH BOND is a travel writer and the spokesperson for CSAA Sojourns. She is the author of the recently published 50 Best Girlfriends Getaways in North America.
DENISE BRADLEY is executive director of the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.
BOB DRUMM is president of General Tours, a AAA Travel Preferred Partner and one of the oldest tour companies in the country.
RODNEY FONG is president of the Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf and a commissioner with the Port of San Francisco.
Twenty-two years ago I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka, where I trained 30 young adults to become teachers. I lived in Gampola, near tea estates, coconut groves, and a wide river where elephants bathed. In my dreams I still see Buddhist monks in orange robes, doe-eyed women in saris, the chalk white spires of temples. I can remember turquoise waters where sea turtles swam, tall coconut palms, and most important, the friendships I made there. I wish I could visit the family who shared their house, fed me meals of curry and rice on banana leaves, and comforted me in my most homesick hours with sweet, milky tea. I wish I could see how my students have survived the ongoing civil war, a devastating tsunami, and the passage of time. I would love to visit the place that changed my life and opened up the world to me.
Santa Cruz, California
The place I want to visit is Italy. I spent my entire childhood growing up in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, nicknamed Little Italy. I am not Italian, but many of my neighbors were. I am Chinese American. Nothing in the neighborhood seemed unusual since it was the environment I was brought up in. A real treat was when my non-English-speaking mother would come home with focaccia bread from the neighborhood Italian bakery. The little old Italian ladies I saw so regularly would entertain me with stories accompanied by wildly animated hand motions, and plant wet kisses on my cheek as their way of saying, "good-bye for the time being."I would hear the bells of Saints Peter and Paul Church chime from my home. The Catholic priests would say hello and strike up a conversation as I passed the church on the way home from school. Every year my family and I would watch the Columbus Day parade. The neighborhood was my domain, and I have always been curious about the cultural origins of my childhood home. I have great love and memories of everything Italian, which is why I want to visit Italy.
He loved the United States before he set foot on American soil. He had seen American soldiers ride through the streets of Macedonia, bringing peace to a land ravaged by violence. Then Kujtim arrived, a 16-year-old exchange student enrolled in my English class. I shared Capote and guacamole, and he, in turn, described his mother's bread, Albanian hip-hop, and the lights of Skopje. Soon my husband and children welcomed Kujtim into our family. We reveled in his stories of complex Macedonian-Roman ruins gazing up at a newly democratic skyline; mosques and churches flanking the Vardar River; a confluence of cultures cradled by grape-studded mountains. My husband and I could see ourselves there, weaving through the Old Skopje bazaar and dodging into a dark café for Turkish coffee. Just as Kujtim loved America before laying eyes on it, so we came to love a place we had never been.
Rancho Murieta, California
New York City
It was late September. The cab picked us up at South Ferry. "World Trade Center,"I said. "It's our first anniversary and we are having dinner at Windows on the World."The cabbie smiled, fished around in his pocket, and handed us a penny. "Keep that,"he said. "It will bring you happiness.” After dinner, we traveled uptown. From a piano bar high above Times Square, we watched and dreamed. I probably spent half my military salary that night. Later, we returned to our government housing, beanbag chair, bed, and black-and-white TV. I was 21, she 19. New York was a magic place. The people, the places, the lights. But it took its toll on us. I promised her we would return when things were better.That was 30 years and two kids ago. I want to take her back now, in style.
I still remember the look on Sister Linda's face when I told my seventh-grade class that I wasn't afraid of headhunters and I wanted to get tattooed in Borneo. Since I was a little girl I've been obsessed with shrunken heads, cannibals, and orangutans. While most girls my age dreamed of meeting sur-fers in Hawaii or rock stars in London, I wanted to meet the Wild Man of Borneo and have tea with the sultan of Brunei. I am now 50 and still dream of canoeing down a crocodile-infested river, trudging through the rain forest rife with king cobras, pit vipers, and flesh-eating plants, and forgoing the four-star luxury hotel for a few nights in a longhouse, sharing a meal with the Iban or Kelabit tribes. I realize the rain forest is being decimated at an alarming rate, and there is political unrest, but I would like to experience the forest while it still exists, and visit an orangutan refuge while there are still orangutans, and become more aware, firsthand, of the ecological and political issues that exist in Borneo. Most of all, I'd like a souvenir, and it's not a shrunken head. I'd like to return home with a tribal design inked into my body, finally tattooed in Borneo.
Santa Cruz, California
The white sand beaches of Huong Dien sloped gently toward the turquoise water of the Gulf of Tonkin. In 1968, I was a young army captain working as an adviser in a relatively peaceful fishing district north of the Perfume River in Vietnam. My job was to help the people there build schools and medical facilities and learn modern farming techniques. Unlike many veterans, I found my year in that beautiful, war-ravaged country rewarding and hauntingly memorable.The world has changed in 39 years, yet I wonder how time has changed the villages of Huong Dien. Do the fishermen still string their nets on bamboo poles? Are the beaches as white as I remember? Are the people as gentle?I dream of returning to this small peninsula of Vietnam and showing my wife the place where, for a moment in time, I tried to make a difference.
Photography by Martin Puddy/Getty Image
This article was first published in May 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.