On her deathbed, the old woman said:
"If I had my life to live over, I'd take more risks!"
When we retired, we decided to shake ourselves up rather than settle into a routine. Because travel is a strong antidote to routines and habits, we decided to go out and see the world. Almost overnight, we made plans to sell our house, leave Hawaii, buy a new home closer to our extended family and travel extensively.
HERMIT CRABS BETWEEN SHELLS
Wait a minute. Why did we need a home if we were going to travel extensively? Why not put our belongings into storage and just take off for a year or two? The more we thought about the idea, the more it appealed to us. We'd be like hermit crabs – traveling from one shell to the next.
So in June 1999, we retired, sold our house and furniture, put the rest of our
stuff into a small storage closet near family in California, bought backpacks and took off. What
we originally thought would be a year of travel has turned into several years of
rambling around the world.
“How does it feel to be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?”
It’s strange how these years of roaming the world have changed our sense of home. Every time we move - whether it’s to a new campsite or to a foreign country - we find ourselves almost immediately “at home.” Such a shift seems to be psychologically necessary in order for us to continue this nomadic lifestyle.
Homeless. Just saying the word brings a twinge of sadness. We have no home to share with friends and we left behind our friends, book club and volunteer work. We can't garden, take guitar lessons, enroll in college courses or help protect the environment. Of course, while we like to joke about being homeless, we're able to have a home again at any time - unlike the many people in the world who are involuntarily without a home.
Fortunately, we've been able to rent the same beach apartment near Santa Cruz,
California for several months each winter. This apartment provides a sense of
continuity and feels like home - especially because we take out of storage our
books, music and colorful carpets. Each winter we watch sea lions, dolphins and
pelicans from our deck, read by the fireplace and take long walks on the beach.
Then we put everything back into storage and take off again.
Are we ready to stop being nomads any time soon? Not yet! We're delighted to be free of home maintenance and routine obligations, and it's great to be more focused on experiences than on possessions. We feel more youthful and enthusiastic about life than ever, and are learning a lot about the ways of the world. We're even learning some geography - a real plus for geographically-challenged Americans. Happily, we've been able to stay in close contact with family and friends through the Internet. We couldn't travel for such long periods if we weren't warmly supported by the e-mails we receive. (Joan's 87-year-old mother had a computer and e-mail address, and sent letters to us regularly until two days before she died.)
The real difficulties of non-stop travel are: 1) dealing with logistics, 2) regularly confronting the unknown, and 3) being together with one another "24/7." In reverse order. There definitely are days when one of us wants to wring the other's neck! Of course, most retired couples have to make adjustments when they find themselves with overlapping lives, so that's really a retirement challenge rather than a travel problem. As for the rest - Lou is great with logistics, while Joan does a lot of the pre-travel research.
For sure, most people would not want to travel for months at a time as we do, and traveling the world isn't the only way to be meaningfully retired. We have friends our age who are active in environmental conservation and politics, are caring for grandchildren, learning advanced photography and computer techniques, and so on. Someday, we hope to be doing the same. Meanwhile, we're....
GATHERING NO MOSS
Travel has shaken up our attitudes toward the world and our place in it. As we move around, we gain new perspectives on the relationship between the U.S. and other countries. Because we're spending a lot of time learning about our inter-connectedness with rest of the world, it's no longer possible to think America can "go it alone."
Years of travel have taught us some sobering truths about U.S. foreign policy. For example, while in Pakistan in 2000 we learned firsthand about the Taliban - the militant Islamic fundamentalist regime then in power in neighboring Afghanistan. Our Pakistani guide explained how the Taliban was financially aided by the CIA in the 1980s as a means of counterbalancing the presence of the USSR in the area. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. quickly pulled out - leaving a power vacuum behind that triggered a huge civil war and the U.S.-trained and -armed Taliban took control of Afghanistan. When the U.S. was attacked on September 11, 2001, we had a perspective on the root causes of militant Islamic fundamentalism that the American news media didn't fully provide. (When our Pakistani guide took us up to the famed Khyber Pass to gaze down into Afghanistan, we had to hire two fierce-looking guards armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles because of the continual tribal warfare in the area. Below is one of our guards.)
Travel stimulates our thinking and engages us in discussions of major world issues. If our minds are going to atrophy, they will have to wait until we're done traveling! That's WHY we travel. What follows is HOW we travel.
LOU'S LAW OF TIGHTWAD TRAVEL
THE LESS YOU SPEND, THE CLOSER YOU COME TO THE REASON YOU CAME.
We're shoestring travelers by choice, although we could afford to stay in moderately-priced hotels and eat in their restaurants if we cut back on the length of our trips. By spending less we can travel longer - and travel better. We meet more locals by using buses rather than rental cars - and by staying in small family-run pensions and eating in local-style cafes. Why travel thousands of miles to a foreign country only to surround yourself with Western tourists in Western surroundings? Spending too much money isolates you from the foreign experience you came to have.
TRAVELERS - NOT TOURISTS
What's the difference? Travelers are more likely to get deeper into the life of a country than tourists. While it’s tempting for us to be self-congratulatory about independent travel and see it as "superior" to package tours, we’ve learned from the three tours we’ve taken (Morocco, New Guinea and Old Silk Road) that it’s possible to be on a tour and still act like a traveler rather than a tourist. The way to do this is to do lots of pre-trip reading about the countries the tour would visit, try to learn a few words of local languages, and make efforts to leave the tour group for an hour or two every day to find ways to interact with the local people. Besides freeing one of logistics, the big advantage of well-run tours is that the guides are usually well-trained and well-versed in local customs and history. The guides we hire when traveling independently are sometimes wonderful - and sometimes woeful.
Independent travel is usually far less expensive than packaged tours or arrangements made through a travel agent. We don't use travel agents because we don't stay in hotels that charge rates high enough to pay their commissions, and we can get cheaper airfares on the Internet. While we have taken a few packaged tours - mainly to areas not easily explored by independent travelers - we much prefer to get out of the "cocoon" of a tour bus and beyond the canned lecture of a guide. We like choosing our own accommodations, figuring out where to eat and working out how to get around. This puts us into direct contact with the local people. Independent travel isn't as comfortable or convenient as having someone else do all the work, but if you have the time and energy to do the logistics yourself, we find it's the most rewarding way to travel. See PLANNING
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
The further we've strayed from the HRMMS syndrome (travel focused on Hotels, Restaurants, Monuments, Museums and Shops) the more vivid our experience has been. We learned a lot about the landscape of New Zealand by making three hut-to-hut mountain treks and kayak camping along the coast. In Australia, we climbed to the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, walked around Ayers Rock and hiked up close to a big monitor lizard in King's Canyon. We lived several weeks with families in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia while studying Spanish, and Lou drank whiskey with miners deep in a silver mine in Potosi. We trekked through part of the Himalayas in Nepal and to hill-tribe villages in Thailand, ate burnt rice in a poor man's hovel in Pakistan, danced at an Uyghur wedding in Kashgar, and slogged through the swamps and jungles of Irian Jaya to visit the people in remote tribal villages (below.)
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Servas provides one of the best ways to avoid HRMMS tourism. Servas is an international non-profit organization that aims to "promote peace, the unity of humankind, and mutual understanding of the cultures, outlooks and problems of the people around the world" by facilitating one-on-one contact between travelers and locals. We were introduced to Servas by our nephew and his wife, who spent 14 months backpacking through Asia, the Middle East and Europe. They told us that meeting local people through Servas was one of the highlights of their travels.
We joined Servas when we began this odyssey in 1999. Most of our Servas visits have been two-night stays in the home of a host family. If the family does not have room for overnight guests, we meet with them for a meal or two. Servas visits are not free crash pads, but opportunities to share lives and have experiences we wouldn't otherwise have. Thanks to Servas hosts in New Zealand, we helped throw a party in Christchurch and watched sheep dogs working on a ranch in Lawrence. We went hiking and sailing in Australia and to a birthday party in Bangkok. In Budapest, our host took us to a contemporary dance concert. We stayed with a mask-collecting psychiatrist in Berlin (below left) and in Kutna Hora our host (below right) showed us a church ossuary with chandeliers made from human bones.
These and many other Servas visits put a personal face on each country we visited and have been a major highlight of our travels. (Most Servas hosts are located in Europe, India, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States; there are fewer hosts in Africa, Asia and Latin America.) For U.S. Servas information: www.usservas.org/
Despite its minor discomforts, we take public transportation whenever possible. Traveling in a rented car is more convenient, but also more isolating - and more hair-raising. In much of the world roads are poor and driving behavior erratic. Fortunately, even the less developed countries frequently have good public transportation systems; riding buses and trains (and rickshaws, tuk-tuks and motos) brings us into closer contact with the local people.
Had we driven from Tangiers to Casablanca rather than taking a train, we would have missed witnessing an exciting drama involving smugglers. In India, Lou stood in a queue for almost two hours to get tickets for a train from New Delhi to Jaipur. On one side of him was a dreadlocked Dutchman, who told about his travels across Central Asia; on the other side was a professor of economics from Sudan, who'd been accused of trying to overthrow its corrupt government - he had been one of 25 Sudanese evacuated to Canada under the United Nations protection program. Lou was so intrigued, he actually wished the queue had lasted longer! We shared a Slovokian train car with a crowing rooster, a Thai songtheaw (pickup/bus) with giggling schoolgirls, and a Pakistani truck with a goat. We hitchhiked across the Kalahari Desert with an African women - whom Lou taught to do calisthenics! On the hair-raising side, we (inadvertently) had a 13-hour boat ride on the Amazon River with drug smugglers.
Backpacks work better for long-term travel than the "wheelie" luggage most middle-aged travelers use. Bumping a "wheelie" over rough sidewalks or up several flights of stairs in a budget hotel is difficult. Using luggage is fine with a rental car, but backpacks are easier for bus and train travel. Best of all, wearing backpacks breaks the invisible barrier between age groups - allowing gray-haired travelers like us to make friends with travelers decades younger. One of our all-time favorite travel buddies is a 20-year-old German medical student, Dominic, whom we met on a Bolivian jeep trip (below). Since these Bolivian towns look a lot like the Old West of America, Lou persuaded him to pose as a gunslinger!
The startling contrast between two Indian hotels showed us why cheaper lodgings are often better. Our Silk Road guided tour concluded with a night's stay in the four-star Oberoi Maidens Hotel in Delhi ($170/night). This elegant old hotel is surrounded by a pleasant garden and located in a quiet area away from the busy center of the city. The next day we moved to Major Den's - a small hotel on a side street near the Main Bazaar. Our room was clean and simply furnished with double bed, fan, water-cooled air conditioning and a tiny bathroom. Rate: $10/night. Awakening early the first morning, Joan looked out the window to see four Brahma bulls in the street below. At last we were in India!
A couple of times a month we splurge on hotels with special charm. In Myanmar, we took a quaint horse-drawn carriage through the town of Pyin U Lwin up to Candacraig - a seven-room hotel that was formerly a chummery (bachelors' quarters) for employees of the British Bombay Burmah Trading Company during the colonial era. We were the only ones staying there at the time, and thoroughly enjoyed playing lord and lady of the manor. Later, we relaxed for three nights near the end of our ten-month trip at the picturesque Golden Island Cottages - thatched cottages on stilts on Inle Lake, also in Myanmar.
As much as possible, we try to eat where the locals do - rather than eat Westernized food in hotel dining rooms or the pasta and pizza available just about everywhere in the world. One evening in Delhi, we walked down a crowded alley to a funky little basement restaurant serving authentic Indian food. We ate delicious dahl makhni with garlic naan, while joking with the young waiter. Travelers often worry that they won't find familiar foods to eat. That's not a problem - Western-style food is available in most cities in the world. But one of the main reasons for foreign travel is to encounter the unfamiliar. Even if it looks, smells or tastes like nothing you've eaten before, chances are good that it's edible.
Strangely, considering we spend a lot of time in California, the best enchiladas we've ever eaten were in Bariloche (Argentina), made by a Mexican woman using a family recipe. The best pasta was rice paper ravioli in Hoi An (Vietnam) - half of it stuffed with shrimp, the other half with minced mushrooms and veggies. We were wholly stuffed - for a total of $8. We took three days of Thai cooking classes in Chiang Mai (Thailand) and bought lots of local fruit at street markets: spiky red rambutan (similar to lychee), purple mangosteen and crunchy salak. In the Mekong Delta (Vietnam) we drank snake wine (the huge glass wine jar had a dead cobra coiled in the bottom - see below) and actually liked it enough to have seconds!
We ate roast cuy (guinea pig) in Bolivia and really liked its crispy skin and tender meat. Lou swears that the beetle larvae sautéed in oil and garlic he ate in Irian Jaya tasted just like escargot. Suuuure it did. Sometimes our experiments with local food didn't work out very well. The Thai cooking instructor assured our class that durian (a pulpy fruit) was to die for. So, we tried durian ice cream - and almost died! Bleagh. It's truly awful. It has such a foul odor that some Thai hotels put up signs saying "No Durians Allowed".
GIVING SOMETHING BACK
We've found a few ways to reach out to the local people and marginally improve the quality of their lives. This is welcome relief for the sense of unease we feel for being in the most fortunate 1% of the world, and for being nomads rather than - say - being community volunteers at home. In Cambodia, both of us taught English to children and young adults in a Buddhist temple school.
In Kyrgyzstan and Nepal, we met with teachers and talked with students in English classes, giving the schools modest donations of money and school supplies. In Nepal, Joan taught our trekking guide Gam to read English, so that he could set up his own guide business.
We met Siba, a
promising Nepalese boy of 12 who needed financial assistance to continue his
education, and contributed to a foundation for furthering the education of
Nepalese children. Lou met with the officers of a Gurkha veterans organization
in Nepal, and advised them on the economics and politics of obtaining
long-overdue retirement benefits from the British government. In Myanmar, we met
a traditional pwe (vaudeville) troupe leader whose brother and cousin had
been imprisoned for seven years because of jokes they told about the military
regime. We hope to publish information about this violation of human rights.
We try to live by this thought-provoking list of "rules" for ethical travel. For the reasons behind them see: www.ethicaltraveler.com/guidelines.php
1. Be aware of where your money is going.
2. Never give gifts to children.
3. Take the time to learn basic courtesy phrases for each country you visit.
4. Remember the economic realities of your new currency.
5. Bargain fairly, and with respect for the seller.
6. Learn and respect the traditions and taboos of your host country.
7. Curb your anger and cultivate your sense of humor.
8. Arrive with a sense of the social, political & environmental issues faced by the host country.
9. Learn to listen.
10. Learn to speak. Rather than "everybody knows", try saying "I believe" or "my view is"
11. The single most useful phrase in any language: "Can you please help me?"
12. Leave your mass-media-based preconceptions about the world at home.
13. Never forget: "Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." (Kurt Vonnegut)
We don't meet many people our age living as backpacking nomads. They either can't get away for financial, health or family reasons - or they prefer a more settled lifestyle. Others, however, may have the means to travel more adventurously but are caught in habitual patterns. While it's fun to share our experiences with "armchair travelers", we also hope to encourage those who would enjoy traveling more independently.
FIVE QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF:
1. Am I curious, energetic and in good health?
2. Am I reasonably free from commitments to job, children, grandchildren, elderly parents?
3. Am I willing to give up some luxuries, if necessary, in order to travel more?
4. Am I willing to handle travel planning and logistics myself?
5. Would I enjoy traveling off-the beaten-track?
If you answered "yes" to these questions, IT'S TIME TO HIT THE ROAD!
"Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions." (Oliver Wendell Holmes)
The World Awaits: How to Travel Far and Well, by Paul Otteson is a great book to help prepare for a trip. It encourages you to think about why you are traveling, then describes various ways of traveling to help you find the way that best suits you. We can almost guarantee that your trip will be more rewarding if you read this book before leaving!
The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World, by Edward Hasbrouck is a very useful guidebook - especially for the logistics of international travel.
Joan and Lou Rose firstname.lastname@example.org