November 25, 2014

Travel is not a dangerous activity

Nine years ago, bedridden with a debilitating case of chronic Lyme disease, I examined my life. For 36 years I’d slaved away in jobs I detested because they provided me with a good living, but despite having all the material things that money could buy, I was miserable. In that rare moment of clarity, I thought, Is this all there is?

Three-plus decades after entering the work force, I was no closer to achieving my dreams of being a travel writer and photographer. Instead, I’d become ensnared in a web of mortgages, car payments, and a seeming unending desire for more “stuff.” I promised myself that, if I recovered, I would walk away from corporate life to pursue the only thing I’d ever wanted to do.

Hiring an "Easy Rider" motorcycle to see Nha Trang, Vietnam in March, 2007

Hiring an “Easy Rider” motorcycle to see Nha Trang, Vietnam in March, 2007

A year later, at the age of 54, I slung a backpack over my shoulder and headed out on my first round-the-world trip. I was excited and a little scared. Vietnam was my first destination, and for weeks my friends and family had been alarming me with stories of the dangers of the country. My first night did not go smoothly. I checked into my guest house, found an Internet cafe down the street, and settled in to work. A couple of hours later I stepped back onto the street, only to find that metal shutters had been rolled down over all the storefronts. Everything looked the same.

By the time I’d spent two weeks traveling solo around Vietnam by bus, I was  confident in my ability to travel the world solo.

Rather than panic, I calmed myself with the idea that, at  worst, I would have to move to another hotel for the night. I did eventually locate my guest house and, after a few minutes of banging on the metal door, woke the night watchman, who let me in. It was my first lesson in rolling with the punches. By the time I’d spent two weeks traveling around Vietnam by bus, I was  confident in my ability to travel the world solo.

My second experience in Vietnam was even more profound. In Hanoi, I visited the War Museum and was shocked to learn that Vietnamese refer to the 20-year conflict as “The American War.” This one small fact translated into a fascination for the differences between cultures that has influenced all my subsequent travels.

In the eight years since my initial round-the-world trip, I’ve visited more than 50 countries, traveling slowly whenever possible in order to immerse in the local cultures. In 2009, I gave up my apartment and became a perpetual traveler, with no permanent home base, and I have no plans to stop anytime soon.

Standing in front of the Brandenberg Gate i n Berlin, September 2014

Standing in front of the Brandenberg Gate i n Berlin, September 2014

When people learn what I do, they often exclaim, “You’re so brave,” or ask, “Aren’t you afraid?” I tell them there is no reason to be afraid, that people the world over are more similar than they are different. Though we may wear different clothes, speak different languages, and practice different religions, at our core we all want the same things: a safe place to live, enough food to eat, freedom from oppression, and a better life for our children.

Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” Miriam Beard

Miriam Beard, daughter of the American historians Charles and Mary Beard, said “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” Without a doubt, travel has irrevocably changed me. I have no interest in owning a home and never purchase souvenirs. My wardrobe is limited to what fits in a 25” suitcase. Material possessions are of no interest to me.  And I have never felt so free.

I now realize that my initial fears were foolish. Travel is not dangerous. Despite traveling solo to numerous developing countries where poverty is rife, I have never felt the least bit threatened. Strangers have gone out of their way to help me and even welcomed me into their homes. Lifelong friendships have resulted. Travel, more than any other activity, eliminates the fear of others whom we see as different from ourselves.

Perpetual travel is not for everyone, however, long-term travel is becoming popular with more than just ‘gap year’ travelers. Baby boomers especially, who are healthier and more active than ever before, are looking for ways to make valuable contributions in retirement, and many are opting to do so by volunteering overseas. Having mastered the art of long-term travel, I plan to share my wealth of knowledge in this monthly column. So, whether you’re an armchair traveler or are contemplating long-term travels of your own, be sure to watch for my future articles. It should be an insightful journey.

When Barbara Weibel realized she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside, she walked away from corporate life and set out to see the world. Read first-hand accounts of the places she visits and the people she meets at Hole in the Donut Cultural Travels. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter (@holeinthedonut).

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Category: Female Travelers, Senior Travel, Vagabonding Styles

October 29, 2012

Retirement, vagabonding style

A couple, strolling in New York.

A couple, strolling in New York. Photo: Ed Yourdon / Flickr

The Wall Street Journal had a story titled, “The let’s sell our house and see the world retirement.” A couple, Lynn and Tim Martin, decided to ditch the stereotypical retirement lifestyle and hit the road.

Here’s how Lynn describes it:

In short, we’re senior gypsies. In early 2011 we sold our house in California and moved the few objects we wanted to keep into a 10-by-15-foot storage unit. Since then, we have lived in furnished apartments and houses in Mexico, Argentina, Florida, Turkey, France, Italy and England. In the next couple of months, we will live in Ireland and Morocco before returning briefly to the U.S. for the holidays.

Nice to read that anyone can be a vagabonder, regardless of age, gender, income level, etc.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Just under the headline, click on “Interactive Graphics” to see a map with a breakdown of the Martins’ budget.  Most of cities they’ve lived in turned out to be cheaper than their California home, even expensive destinations like London. Lynn gives much of the credit to the vagabonding ethic, as she shares here:

We follow some simple strategies to keep our budget in line. Stays in more expensive locations, like Paris or London, are balanced by living in less pricey countries like Mexico, Turkey or Portugal. We dine out several times a week but eat at home much of the time. I like to cook, and food shopping is a great way to learn about a country. (Finding baking soda in Buenos Aires isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds.)

Have you retired and are currently traveling?  Please share your experiences in the comments.

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Category: Lifestyle Design, Senior Travel

May 10, 2012

Want to travel? Wait until you are old

As I was sitting in Patan’s Durbar Square a few weeks ago, I noticed a couple elder tourists escorted by a guide: they were taking pictures, bending into unnatural shapes. The DSLR cameras they were shooting with looked like some sort of futuristic gear they could barely handle. They seemed quite clumsy and out of place, as they had been cut out from a lifestyle magazine and pasted into another wrong centerfold.

Instantly, I was reminded of the persistent, conservative way of thinking I was pushed to accept back home: before you may travel and enjoy your life, you will have to work a day job and bend your spine behind a desk for 30 years. Kow-tow to the Gods of corporate business. Enjoy the rat race. Then, maybe, you will be able to travel and see the world on a pension.

With a smack of teenage angst, I would promptly reply: “Cool. See the world, on a wheelchair?”

Seeing those tourists made me think that the way I travel in Asia now may not be replicable in about 30 years. Who would be able to take that umpteenth bone melting night bus ride after hitting the 50 years old line? Who would be able to enjoy the tastes and smells of an Indian public bus crammed to the roof with humans and sometimes cattle? And ultimately, who would have the strength to travel slow, soak into a culture or trying to fit into the holes left by mass tourism?

Certainly, not the average Old Joe.  Let’s face it: the older you get, the lesser you would be likely to travel hard, especially when you have not been used to it as a young man. And furthermore, when the kind of world we live in constantly conceives travelling as a recreational activity that cannot be taken as a lifestyle, or not even as a part-time occupation.

Me with two "Incredible Old Joes": Ibrahim and Saida from Spain. (Picture by Kit Yeng Chan 2012)

Nevertheless, it is quite a contrast – and a funny one – to observe the travelling habits of many older people, some at their very first foray oversea. It appears that so many years spent leading organized, normal lives have not been able to gift these people with a natural inclination to feel relaxed in foreign places. It seems like their movements are harder, slower, filled with the atavist fear of the unknown. They attempt to do what they may have dreamed for many years, but they are doing it with a total regret of having left their comfort zones.

But let me say that I have also met some “Incredible Old Joes”: some were biking from Europe to South East Asia, or doing the same route by walking. Some decided to avoid taking any bus ride longer than 2 hours, to stress less, and see more of the countries they visited.  All of them, however, had a common feature: they had been travelling a lot in their younger days. You could clearly see how travelling had enriched their souls… these people may have also been grinding at the office, but oh boy, how freer they were than any of my friends’ –and my own – parents!! I could sit in awe for hours just listening to their life stories.

As much as the mode of travel we use will most likely change or evolve overtime, it appears that to do it with ease we better start young. It surely does not matter how young; but that attitude needs to be embraced early in life, in order not to appear lost in a foreign square taking a bunch of pictures later. In order to actually fit in the broader World, and not be forced to end up lonely on a couch, hypno-entertained by a flat Tv screen.

Have you ever met some experienced older travellers, and do you agree with me? How do they compare to your own older folks at home?  I would like to hear some stories.

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Category: General, Notes from the collective travel mind, Senior Travel, Vagabonding Advice, Vagabonding Styles

December 21, 2010

Experimental travel via Latourex

Joel Henry of Latourex

Latourex, short for Laboratoire de Tourisme Experimental, is a couple of French charmers who developed their experimental travel techniques to make their trips more interesting.  Instead of just doing the same old same old — go to a place, look at its museums, drink coffee at coffeeshops, attempt to blend in while suavely writing in your journal, hit on local members of your preferred gender — they offer numerous travel experiments one can perform, in as controlled conditions as you like.

Their list of potential experiments is available here, and their list of experiments and case notes from people who have committed them can be found in the new volume from (you guessed it) Lonely Planet, if you like actual bound books.  Most of these trips can be done solo or with a partner (or a small group), so being alone is no deterrant…and it actually might improve those feckless evenings when you’re sitting in your hostel twiddling your thumbs thinking, “I sure wish I’d been here long enough to develop a social group.”

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Category: Adventure Travel, Backpacking, Family Travel, Female Travelers, General, Senior Travel, Solo Travel

March 24, 2010

Following in the footsteps of seniors

I’d never thought much about senior travel until a wrinkled yet muscled man sat down next to me on the Pokhara to Kathmandu bus. Preston had lived in Mexico, Hawaii, Nepal, Thailand and more — he’d been on the road for most of his life.

He’d relied on his wits and his skills to take him around the world. Renovating houses, fixing up boats, running a gem polishing factory, leading troops. While working to save for travel offers a great balance, an alternative route is to integrate our work and our travels as best we can. We can still always take breaks as needed…

English teaching and travel writing get a lot of attention, but what else can drive a life of travel? In the past few weeks here in India, I’ve met a textile designer, an auctioneer, a lubricants salesman, a tiger researcher, and a stock trader getting ready to move from London to Hong Kong next month.

By finding work that requires travel, we don’t have to divide our time between work and travel. Living on the road expands from experiencing, eating, and sleeping to include pursuing and achieving audacious, oft-profitable goals.

So what does this have to do with senior travel? Most of the seniors I meet on the road have done most of their travel — and are still traveling — as a direct result of the travel-based work they’d chosen to pursue. Sometimes the job sounds boring on paper. But if you listen to these seniors’ stories over a glass of whatever, it becomes clear their lives have been anything but.

Meet any exemplary seniors out there lately?

Photo by freeparking via Flickr

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Category: Expat Life, Senior Travel, Working Abroad

March 23, 2010

Exploritas: educational travel groups

Women only at Exploritas

Women only at Exploritas

Some of you may already be familiar with Elderhostel, the hostelling and alternative travel group geared primarily towards retirees or older travelers.  Elderhostel has become Exploritas, explained as a combination of explore + veritas — meaning truth in travel.  This is a message I can get behind.

The overly slick website aside, I appreciate what Elderhostel is trying to do here: they’re rebranding as a touring company for well-read people who are interested in the behind-the-scenes at the Uffizi, rather than being designed for groups who might need walkers to get around (say what you will, but the word “elder” carries some distinct connotations).

The most intriguing part of the whole program, though, are the women’s only programs Exploritas is offering.  From a rock and roll camp for women (maybe they study Joan Jett?) in Oregon, USA to a 2-week jaunt through the Kalahari Desert in Africa, they are clearly trying to project themselves as the hip new option for older women.  I’d be interested to find out if there is a strong “older married lesbian” component to these trips, actually; so many group tours are judgemental of married same-sex couples, especially older ones, and it would be refreshing to find a company that offers comfortable options for longterm partners.

The general idea of Exploritas is a good one: group travel learning activities for older folks that don’t want to just sit around sipping margaritas all day (not that there’s anything wrong with that), that you can tailor to your needs.  I’d like to see them run a bit longer, since the “hostel” part of Elderhostel implies more of an alternative lifestyle (more of a Vagabonding lifestyle, if you will) than they seem to be pursuing.  Too bad; older folks can be offbeat, and off the beaten path, too.

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Category: Female Travelers, Senior Travel

January 20, 2010

The desperate motivations of senior travel

This recent New York Times piece highlights old age as a never-ending adventure, but there are far more desperate, fundamental reasons why elderly people are deciding they’d rather be abroad than at home.

Here are three less-discussed motivations for senior long-term travel (the first two are illustrated below by Lawrence Osborne‘s unflinching Bangkok Days):

To escape physical isolation–

He added that what Bangkok offered to the aging human was a culture of complete physicality. It was tactile, humans pressing against each other in healing heat: the massage, the bath, the foot therapy, the handjob, you name it. The physical isolation and sterility of Western life, its physical boredom, was unimaginable.

“There’s a reason we’re so neurotic and violent and unhappy. Especially as we get on a bit, no one ever touches us.”

To erase anonymity –

Farlo seemed to deflate a little. Did he really come here on a regular basis? No one recognized him. But then only money and youth get recognized. At a certain point, complete anonymity overtakes us, and people–not just women–look right through us as if we don’t exist.

We respond with instinctive bitterness to this loss of visibility, but we also recognize the first taste of our future extinction, and we accept it. There will be no reprieve from now on. But Bangkok is a city which in this instance does, after all, offer a brief reprieve. It comes via a simple gesture, which Farlo now executed. The invisible man raises a finger, one could call it the Finger of Assent, which indicates that after long prevarication and weighing up of the available options, he has decided to become financially available for the sexual act. This single gesture suddenly makes the anonymous man highly visible, and within a few seconds he has returned to the field of play upon which his antics, his desires, his neuroses, and his dubious tastes are all once again invested with the vitality, the fraudulent importance, of his youth. He finds himself returned to life, and his detestable anonymity evaporates all around him.

To die with dignity —

George Lundquist, 70, rocks gently in a wicker swing on his 2000 sq. ft. deck in Costa Rica. He looks directly into the webcam and tells us he built this house eight years ago. “I’ve been here ever since. I will never leave.” And he means it. Although he sells real estate to ex-pats, his sincerity is evident. At the end of his 10-minute video, he bares one of the root reasons why Costa Rica is his permanent home:

“I think the quality of death here is better than what you will find in the United States. I feel the doctors here are more involved and interested in my quality of life and my quality of death.”

With two houses already built on a former tobacco plantation (and ready to accommodate his future wheelchair), George isn’t much of a vagabond. He does, however, represent what might be a cousin of medical tourism: end-of-life travel. Not to be confused with the suicide tourism of Switzerland or Mexico, end-of-life travel seeks the ideal conditions and company for one’s final days, months, or years. This might be hospice care in Bangalore, a live-in nurse in Peru, or passing in one’s sleep on a beach in Nicaragua.

These motivations for senior travel are driven by pain, loneliness, and the prospect of a bleak future. They raise difficult questions. What does it say about our society when increasing numbers of our elders find the lifestyle and treatment abroad more desirable and affordable than the options at home?

Further, these motivations can’t be limited to the senior crowd. We younger travelers are quick to deny that we’re running away; we define our motivations as entrepreneurial, adrenaline-addicted, or enlightenment-seeking. But how often are we driven (at least in part) by similar feelings, and when will we start admitting it? If we keep silent about any part of what pushes us from home, how will life at home ever become bearable?

See also: Frank BuresWorld Hum interview with Lawrence Osborne.

Photo by Stephan Geyer via Flickr.

Stand With Haiti

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Category: Lifestyle Design, Senior Travel, Travel Writing
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