World traveler keeps finding new destinations UM professor emeritus is still restless WEST COLUMBIA

December 16, 1992|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Contributing Writer

Never mind tourist destinations like Cancun and Nassau. It's far-away places with strange-sounding names that keep calling to 74-year-old Virginia Huffer.

Thumbing through one of her four atlases like a Sears catalog, she points to spots all over the world where she has traveled: remote points in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, China and Egypt.

"I enjoy most everything about traveling," she said. With the exception of one "boring" bus ride in Turkey, she said, "I can't think of anything I ever disliked. I like learning, and I enjoy people."

The walls of the study in her apartment at Vantage House in Columbia are covered with remembrances of her trips: aboriginal weapons and musical instruments, a small tapestry from Turkey, an icon from Yugoslavia.

She has an affinity for sailing -- for 37 years she raced her own boat every weekend spring to fall-- and snorkeling.

"I have snorkeled every place in the world, but I flunked Scuba diving three times," she said.

A professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Maryland Medical School, her fascination with world travel began in 1971 on a visit to Mornington Island off the coast of Northern Australia.

Dr. Huffer spent six months of her first professional sabbatical on the remote island, where she researched aboriginal women and wrote a book on them, "The Sweetness of the Fig," published in 1980. She has returned twice.

She selects many of her trips through a New York City company called Special Expeditions, which often schedules trips on boats. Some of the trips are co-sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and the Audubon Society, and they feature speakers with expertise in art, architecture, history and other subjects. On a 1987 trip, she sailed north of Tahiti aboard a 300-foot, four-mast boat. Besides fueling her interests as a fauna and flora lover, and Mayan culture "addict," the trip provided the thrill of gazing at Southern constellations on a starry evening aboard the boat.

Dr. Huffer took three exotic excursions this year. In February, she traveled to the island of Cozumel, near Southeast Mexico, and boarded a ship to cruise the area. She also traveled to Belize where she visited Mayan ruins, observed exotic birds and went snorkeling.

In May, she was off again. From a medical meeting in London, she traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia.

While there, the group was permitted to visit a Russian naval base largely inaccessible to the public, and arrangements were made for cocktails in the officers club.

While taking in some sun on a bench in front of the harbor, four young Russian men stopped to talk to her.

"They wanted to know where I was from," she said. "I told them Washington, since I knew they would recognize the name of the city.

"I wanted to know where they worked, and they indicated they were working on one of the big boats docked in the harbor. We talked for a half-hour." She spoke no Russian. They spoke no English.

"It's fun," she said. "You can still communicate at a different level, and you can enjoy each other. You can get along just fine making gestures."

Three months ago, she returned from a sailing trip to the Greek Islands, South Italy and Rome.

Scanning a map that covers one wall of her study and shows her various destinations, Dr. Huffer searches for places she has never been. She points to Venezuela and to an obscure Caribbean island, both spots she'd like to see.

It hasn't been long since her last trip, but her yen for travel beckons.

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