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Friday, July 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Travel Essay

The best vacation memories are simple as a boy and puppy

McClatchy Newspapers

Even buying a cup of coffee can be an adventure in another country. The exchange rate, the language, the gesturing, the line behind you growing longer and more impatient.

You're outside the bubble, stripped of the usual comforts and maybe even your luggage. But you surrender and laugh because, after all, you are on an adventure. You wind up taking home something that can't be packed in a suitcase or just remembered. It changes the way you live.

A Paris cut

I tried to blow-dry my hair in Paris one morning using a selection of electrical plugs I'd brought along. After less than a minute, the blow-dryer smelled like it was about to blow up.

I did Paris with bad hair, and my blow-dryer still comes on randomly if I leave it plugged in. But before the trip was done, I got a haircut somewhere near Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussman. No matter that it didn't help (my hair was already much too short) — it was a Paris haircut.

I got to see how Parisian women enter a salon, get the cut and then stand and style their hair themselves before the mirrors in their self-assured way. They finish, apply a little makeup, drape their unbearably chic purses over their tailored shoulders, and go out looking like everybody wishes they could look.

Which brings us to maroon hair — women of every age had it. (That was four years ago; it's gotten across the ocean now.) I decided I, too, needed maroon hair.

When I returned to the U.S., my colleagues got that look on their faces, the same one they get when you're in your 40s and not skinny and wear something that probably would look just fine on, say, Kate Moss. I didn't care. I felt Parisian. Way ahead of the game.

When I think about that trip now, my most vivid memories are of two things: the self-assurance of the women, and the fact that I cried in front of a van Gogh at the Musee d'Orsay, because I saw his brush strokes so near it felt as if he had reached around me to make them.

No souvenir could do that.

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The grace of geraniums

When I went to central Mexico earlier this year and rode a bus from Mexico City to Patzcuaro, I came back and had to change the patio.

Plants are manageable inside my house, but I am one of the laziest gardeners ever to (seldom) lift a hose. My patio was bare of life — something like a prison, if they had patios.

On the bus, I was torn between watching a De Niro movie in Spanish to improve my language skills and staring outside at the desert and the houses. Every one of those bright, simple homes with black water tanks on top had a porch, and every porch had a row of potted geraniums. Most of the time, the pots were recycled in the real sense; they'd had previous lives maybe as food containers or buckets. The geraniums flourished.

I came home with the usual stuff: great inexpensive jewelry, a box painted with calla lilies, hand-woven napkins. But after a week I couldn't stand it.

If people who had to grind their own flour and butcher their own sheep to eat could take the time to plant geraniums purely for the sake of beauty, how selfish and lazy was I?

Six geraniums are blooming on my porch. They remind me to be grateful.

Boys of Belize

Some little boys in Belize accosted us once after a tour of Mayan ruins in the sauna that is tropical heat.

One had a parrot, and they wanted us to take photographs with it, and them, and of course pay them. We obliged. But then we noticed another little boy standing to the side, dirty-faced, his brown eyes sad and hopeful. He wanted to be in the picture, too. He smiled a gap-tooth grin and pointed.

His exotic jungle animal was his skinny puppy, waiting patiently, a frayed rope tied around his neck for a leash.

Yes, there were alligators and brilliantly colored birds, but that boy will always be Belize for me.

Sometimes the most important thing you bring home is the desire to help other people — and the ability to want what you already have.

Judy Wiley works at the Fort Worth, Texas, Star-Telegram.

The Travel Essay runs periodically on Sunday in The Seattle Times and online at seattletimes.com. To submit, e-mail to travel@seattletimes.com or send to Travel, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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