Long strange trips

Want to know what fermented mare’s milk tastes like? Talk to Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) — she has the skinny on Mongolia’s traditional drink.

“It was really strong,” she says, recalling the time she tasted the beverage while on a congressional trip in July. “Mare’s milk is interesting.”

Or if you want to commiserate about losing luggage on a long international flight, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) can lend a sympathetic ear. Franks says his bags get lost every time he flies through Paris; Graham laughs as he recounts going to Kuwait while his luggage ended up in Australia.

Lawmakers know they have to adapt and respect other cultures while abroad. Many will remember when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) traveled to Syria last year and wore a scarf inside Ommayad Mosque during her tour at a popular market in downtown Damascus.

Official business often takes lawmakers to faraway lands to fact-find, discuss policy or assist other governments. Though they usually have the benefit of a staff to do advance work, a military air fleet to provide charter flights and high-ranking hosts who grant them VIP access to international sights, their trips can derail as easily as those of common American tourists. Congress members routinely encounter itinerary hiccups, cultural mix-ups and other unexpected events while traveling abroad.

“You don’t have enough room in your newspaper for mine,” Graham says when asked if he has any funny stories from the congressional trips he’s taken.

Like Graham, many lawmakers keep a sense of humor about travel foibles and happily share stories lest others find themselves in similar predicaments.

Graham, like Hirono, has also faced questionable local cuisine.

He remembers a trip to Afghanistan with, among others, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). The two had sat down to a meal, but something wasn’t quite right.

“The rice kept moving,” Graham says. “It kind of had a heartbeat.”

Still, he braved it.

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), too, has been on several overseas congressional trips as chairman of the House Democracy Assistance Commission, but one sticks out.

He attended a luncheon in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where the meal’s centerpiece was a camel hump, from which guests were picking meat.

Did he join in?

“Very gingerly,” Price says.

“I tried it once, and never again will I try it,” he said, explaining that the meat is “very fatty” and “not very good.”

Those lawmakers survived their international food encounters, but Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) wasn’t as fortunate during a visit to Tanzania. At an event where then-South African President Nelson Mandela was scheduled to speak, Meeks ate a big helping of a “chicken and corn mix.” Just before Mandela took to the podium, Meeks collapsed from food poisoning. He spent the rest of the trip being cared for by the doctor on the plane of former President Bill Clinton, who was also in attendance.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who estimates he’s been on between 20 and 25 international trips for Congress during the last eight years, gives advice to American travelers who want to taste the local food. Try it, he says, but in very small quantities, as he does — “just to make sure I don’t get sick.”

With unfamiliar foods, he says, “Your system rebels and says, ‘No more.’ ”

Not all members get Air Force One-like accommodations. As a result, many suffer through delayed or canceled flights and uncomfortable accommodations along with the public.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) confirms that on a House Democracy Assistance Commission trip last month to Kosovo, Ukraine and Macedonia, the military flight from Germany to Kosovo was so cramped that one of the staffers had to sit on the toilet during the trip.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), meanwhile, experienced a flight delay last month that curtailed his trip to Brussels. He, along with Sens. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and their wives, were stranded in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, during a refueling stop after it was discovered a part was missing from their plane. They spent the night there and never made it to the conference.

Casey recalls the city’s cold temperatures, five-foot-high snow banks and lean selection of entertainment options.

“My wife and I were in a hotel room, watching television,” he says. “There was no place to go.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) had no issue on the arrival leg of his 2002 trip to Ethiopia, but the return trip became tricky.

A tribal chief gave Isakson a 200-year-old family-heirloom spear — not your typical travel memento.

The senator had no problem getting the spear onto the plane in Ethiopia, but that wasn’t the case during his stopover in Frankfurt, Germany. With post-Sept. 11 airport security in effect, officials refused to let Isakson on the plane with the spear, so he had to disassemble the weapon, ditch the shaft in Frankfurt, and head home with only the spear tip.

“It was amusing,” he says.

While Hirono fondly remembers her run-in with mare’s milk in Mongolia, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who has also traveled there on official business, was most surprised by the traditional throat-singing some locals performed for his delegation.

“I didn’t know the human body was capable of singing in the way these folks sing,” he says. “It was [like] a songbird buried somewhere in their intestines.”

The delegation was also asked to participate in an archery-like activity while there, Moran recounts.

Most members shot their arrows either way short of or clear over the target. Moran says he was happy that his shot was long.

Other American politicians get happy feet while abroad. Long before President Bush was caught on tape dancing in Liberia, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) joined in on a dance set to drums while visiting the same country last year.

“I found it very motivating,” she says, explaining that she was participating in “dances I’ve done all my life.”

Moore had the benefit of being familiar with the country’s cultural aspects. But for lawmakers and other Americans who aren’t sure about what they’re getting into when traveling abroad, Hirono has some advice:

“I just go with the flow. When you’ve been in politics a while, you just go with the flow.”

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