My Travel Soundtrack – Music on the Road

DanDan, the twenty-year-old daughter of my Chinese host family, had decided that we would go to KFC for lunch.  I wasn’t thrilled, but when in Rome do as the Romans do, and in China, American fast food was immensely popular.

I had been in Asia for less than a week and couldn’t order for myself, so I stood back and waited as DanDan went to the counter.  As I waited, I listened to the music that was playing.  The melody was familiar- Da, da-da-da-da, da, da-da-da-da …Guantanamera. Reality check- I looked around.  Yes, I was in an American fast food joint, but I was also definitely in China.  Latino music didn’t fit in.  So I assumed that the music I was “hearing” must be in my head.  Then the singing started.

It was Guantanamera, but it was not Pete Seeger or Celia Cruz or any of the versions that I have on my ipod.  Very strange- if what I was hearing was not a version of the song I knew then the implication was that the music was not in my head.  I was in China, in an American restaurant that was playing a Cuban folk song.

Music often seems to punctuate my travels. Certain songs take on special meaning and become favorites, not necessarily because of their musical quality, but because they remind me of special moments in my life.

I had tapes (remember tapes?) that I would take with me on every road trip- filled with songs about being on the road: Take It Easy by the Eagles, Running on Empty by Jackson Brown.  There seems to be a certain genre of radio station that I hear in travelers havens all over the planet- 80% Bob Marley with some other happy stuff thrown in.

For the first several years that I lived in Mexico, whenever I got on a intercity bus they would play Habanera from Carmen followed by the opening of Carmina Burana.  (This served as a prelude to the inevitably bad movie that was about to be shown.)  Whenever I hear those notes I feel like I’m going places.

Sometimes the songs I hear seem to be profoundly symbolic of my experiences. One night in Israel, a group of us decided to go dancing at the bar of a nearby kibbutz.  The “bar” was a basement, a basement with no building on top of it. Later, I would realize that it was a bomb shelter, but that night it served as a disco.

Having been in Israel for a while, I had gotten used to seeing guns.  But combined with the strobe light and the blaring music, they made for an eerie sensation.  I felt like I was in a war movie.  The song changed and I watched the faces of two young soldiers light up as they heard the opening chords of what was obviously one of their favorite tunes.  Then, without exchanging a word, they simultaneously began playing air guitar on their machine guns.

It was a sight and sound I’ll never forget.  These were young men, and I know that children much younger carry guns.  Still, watching them act out their rock and roll fantasies gave me pause.  It brought home the reality of their lives- still adolescents, but with the responsibility of life and death in their hands. The song was Bloody Sunday by U2.

So if the music I hear becomes an auditory symbol of my travels, is Guantanamera somehow representative of my trip to China? Oddly enough, I would have to say yes.  Standing in that restaurant, hearing that song so utterly out of context made me feel completely befuddled and confused.  And that is exactly how I felt in China most of the time!

Published in China, Israel

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Meet the Author

Seasoned traveler, avid reader, over-eater, clumsy but determined hiker and wannabe Spanish-speaker.


  1. loredana valles

    you’ll be more confused if you visit the philippines. filipinos are fond of foreign music even though they do not understand the lyrics of the song. korean pop music is everywhere and also there were times when mexican music becomes a hit here.

  2. EJ Juen Jr

    Hi Jenny, people really loves variety. I agree with Dana here in the Philippines, you’ll hear some Mexican, Korean and Japanese songs but we’re undeniably dominated by Western songs. We have dubbed soap operas which are Mexican, Korean, Japanese and Indian. And if you talk about food variety, going around malls here, it would be like a Miss Universe Pageant where almost every country are represented. 🙂

  3. WYNNA

    I can’t agree more! 🙂 Hey dana and EJ, do you remember Macarena with matching dance steps? haha 😀

  4. Jennifer Choban Post author

    I heard some Korean pop music in Laos. And of course the Mexican music would make me feel right at home.

  5. Lane

    When on road trips, Bob Seger’s “Roll Me Away” is essential.

    When we were in China, every Chinese person wanted to direct us to KFC or McDonald’s for lunch. Every. Flipping. Time. I don’t eat that at home — and we couldn’t make them understand that.

  6. Jennifer Choban Post author

    Indeed! Kentucky Fried Chicken made me a vegetarian and the effect has lasted over 20 years.

  7. Judy

    Well..I saw a news program that said “Hotel California” is the most popular song around the world and you can hear it in just about any country you visit. It happened to me in La Ceiba, Honduras where just about every pension and restaurant had it blaring night and day!

  8. Jennifer Choban Post author

    Yes, I believe that was the first song I had to sing when I was dragged to the karaoke palace in Panjin. Fortunately I was doing a duet with Ally. I pretended not to notice that my mic wasn’t on.

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