Former Cleveland Indians, Ohio State exec Rick Bay writes about travel to forbidden lands

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Bay chronicles his adventures in a new book, 'Forbidden Travel: What I learned about the World; The

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Former Ohio State and Cleveland Indians executive Rick Bay knows something about traveling into hostile territory.

But not even Michigan's Big House or Yankee Stadium compares to North Korea.

Bay, who served as president of the Indians in 1992 and athletic director for the Buckeyes in the mid-1980s, has long been interested in travel - since his early professional days at the University of Michigan Alumni Association (yes, he worked for Ohio State and Michigan; he played football and wrestled at U-M in the 1960s).

His earliest association-sponsored trips included travel to Hungary and Bulgaria, still behind the Iron Curtain; and China, shortly after it opened to Western tourists in the 1970s. From there, he ventured even farther afield - to Cuba, before the thaw; Syria, before the civil war; Iran and even North Korea.

Bay chronicles his adventures in a new book, "Forbidden Travel: What I learned about the World; The U.S. State Department said, 'Don't Go' - I Went" (Allined Books, $12.95).

Among the journeys he recounts:

* A 2005 trip to North Korea, with a British tour company, including tightly controlled visits to Pyongyang and the Korean Demilitarized Zone. He and his fellow tourists, exposed to a vastly different version of the Korean War than is taught in the U.S., were frequently referred to as "our imperialist guests."

* A 2008 trip to Iran, where he talked politics with his young, progressive female guide, and where the people were warm and welcoming and thanked him for coming -- despite his government's warnings to stay away.

* A last-minute trip up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, with little training, to scatter the ashes of his wife, Denice, who died in a car accident.

Bay, 74, who lives in Ann Arbor, recently answered a few questions about his travels.

Question: There are 41 countries with current Travel Warnings issued by the U.S. State Department - including at least seven you have traveled to (possibly more). Do you not believe the government when they tell you not to go somewhere?

Answer: I do believe the government has our best interests at heart when it warns us about traveling to certain countries. In retrospect, in fact, I feel a bit sheepish about the apparent bravado in my subtitle. ("The U.S. State Department said, 'Don't go' -- I went.'") However, I also believe that the government, out of necessity, is being extremely conservative with its advice. The trips I took were well-researched, and I employed reputable, experienced travel agents that had made recent trips to the areas. I always had a personal guide who made certain I didn't venture into unwelcome territory. I guess I would have to admit that the "risks" were greater in Iran and North Korea, for example, than say, London or Paris, but I didn't believe I would be in grave danger, and I thought the educational value would be worth the relative precariousness of the experiences. 

Q: Do you believe most Americans are too timid in their travel habits? Give your best pitch for why more Americans should travel to more exotic places.

A: Yes, I believe most Americans are too timid in travel. As I quoted my Syrian guide, "Americans don't travel; that is one reason they don't understand other parts of the world. Oh. I guess they travel, but to resorts, on cruises, and to five-star hotels in London and Paris, but not the real world." Many folks don't want to be jarred out of their comfort zone. Western Europe is fine; it's civilized, mostly clean, and a lot like us. But asking someone to, say, look beyond the squalor of parts of Africa, India, Southeast Asia or the Middle East in order to understand their attitudes and culture can be challenging and uncomfortable. My underlying motivation in traveling to "forbidden" places was to experience these rather remote cultures personally and to hear their peoples' perspective of the world, and especially of the United States.

Q: Is there any place you haven't gone that you would still like to go?

A: I'd love to go to Afghanistan, and I am curious about Iraq and Lebanon. Afghanistan is too dangerous, I believe, but Lebanon is doable. 

Q: Is there any place you wouldn't go?

A: Afghanistan right now and probably North Korea, again. A return trip to Syria is probably not advisable for the time being.

Q: Do you have a favorite "forbidden" destination?

A: Syria was pretty civilized and welcoming when I was there. The antiquities were extraordinary. It qualifies as a "favorite," and so does Iran. Cuba was certainly more "forbidden" when I visited (2002) than it is now, and it was a favorite, for sure.

I wish I had seen much more of Pakistan, and I was probably more nervous there than anywhere. The Taliban and al-Qaeda had recently taken some Western hostages, including an American who was kidnapped in Lahore (where I spent most of my time) the year before. Still, I wish I had driven north to Islamabad to visit the U.S. Embassy there, which I believe is our largest anywhere. "Favorites" aside, however, the country that felt the most "forbidden" was North Korea, hands down.

I don't think Rwanda really qualifies as "forbidden," but trekking to mingle with gorillas in the wild makes it a distinct "favorite" and a lifetime experience not to be missed.

Q: You used travel as a kind of salve for grief, after the death of your wife Denice. Did it help with the grieving process?

A: Climbing the mountain for Denice was cathartic. As I said in the book, I cried all the way to the top, an incredible release of emotion. Just as important, however, I felt that I was doing something very special to honor her, a tribute that I would never had considered under any other circumstance.

Q: You've moved around a lot and traveled a lot as a sports executive. Frequently people who travel a lot for work opt to stay home on vacation - but not you. Do you ever get tired of living out of a suitcase?

A: Yes. Travel, especially educational travel, to places difficult to access takes a lot of planning and energy. That's why cruises are so popular - unpack once and take the ship's pre-arranged shore excursions. Don't get me wrong: There are lots of interesting places to visit here in our own country, but I'm not sure it leads to a better understanding of the volatile world in which we now live.

Related: New travel warning raises the question: Is it safe to travel to Mexico?

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