My friend Betty Lee returned in August this year after a backpacking jaunt from Singapore through Europe, the Americas, Antarctica and Australia. We were schoolfriends but while I’ve been hammering at my keyboard from the time she left in June last year, she has gone up and down mountains, made many new friends, and swam topless in an Austrian lake. Woohoo!
Seriously though, she’s our poster girl for the oldies-but-goldies as she prepares to gallivant some more at 61. And she now weighs 45kg, the weight she was at 16. How I hate her!! So, Betty, I asked, what made you go traipsing off into the great blue yonder without a camera?
- How much preparation did you do before embarking on your round the world backpacking trip? Route planning, fitness, financial etc?
It took me one full year to do my sums and summon enough guts to resign from my banking job. Reason for leaving – travel round the world while I still have it, physically and mentally. From then on, there was no stopping me pursuing a dream of travelling far and wide on a budget. As I’m fortunate to have invested prudently, financially and physically, there wasn’t much preparation. It was more building the courage to let go of security in terms of a regular income and comfort zone.
- What made you take off on such a daunting backpacking trip?
I am someone who enjoys setting milestones for myself and believe in doing things at least once. After age 50, I told myself I’ve got to do the full marathon. I trained myself and completed the Standard Chartered Marathon in December 2003 at age 51. When I was nearing 60, a solo RTW trip was compelling. It would be no mean feat as I’ve been an avid traveller throughout my working life, having saved hard for a well-earned vacation since age 21. In 2010, I met a Brazilian Japanese lady in her 50’s in Paris. She bemoaned the fact that she had a couple more years to retirement. I was puzzled and inquired on Brazil’s retirement age. She enlightened me that Brazilians retire after 40 years of service, regardless of start age. I thought that was very logical, let’s say, graduates starting work at 25 retire at age 65, and so on. I worked out that I’ve crossed the threshold and deserve my quality life. That’s why I took the plunge at 59 and handed in my resignation.
- Were there any worries?
Definitely – tons!! But the Vipassana Meditation course I took helped me to overcome obstacles e.g. make a firm decision and go with the flow. It is pointless to be overly concerned over a matter that is beyond my control. Like all other travellers, topmost concerns were getting confirmed transportation and accommodation, knowing I had a bus ticket to reach the next destination and that there is a bed waiting for me. As I was travelling “green”, my mode of transport was basically land and sea viz. buses, trains and ferries – no planes, unless deemed necessary. Albeit, some budget airfares are much cheaper than land transport, but I saw more on the road than up there in the clouds. And of course, the currencies – which of my cards would work at local ATMs, how much should I withdraw so that I don’t have too much left over when I venture onward to another country. In Europe, it was much easier but since I was travelling in the eastern bloc, I did face problems as the countries in the Balkans were not EURO-centric. I was in Bulgaria for 3 weeks and had too much cash left. As I didn’t want to miss my bus out to Croatia, I had no time to switch the Lev to EUR as the neighbouring countries of Bulgaria did not want the Lev, since it was the weakest currency. After 4 months on the road, I was only able to convert Lev to Sterling pounds in London, suffering a loss of 30% in the foreign exchange.
- What was the most memorable destination/s and why? Did you encounter any sticky situations?
Tough question to answer as I found every country impressive. That said, I can name a few:
*Pergamon (Turkey) – stayed in an old house at the foot of Pergamon. It had a vine covered patio where breakfast was served. I splurged on this guesthouse which cost me USD50 per night. Pergamon was not on my original route in Turkey but a visit to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin before Turkey inspired me to take a detour to see this ancient city.
*Bulgaria, an impoverished country – it was like travelling back in time, riding on buses through villages and farms to reach another town. Old fashioned farms with muscle and time – horsedrawn carts, ploughs and sheep, chickens, sooty children running out of ramshackle houses – I felt like I was caught in a time warp. However, the boneshaker bus I was in had a wi-fi sign above the front windscreen! An overnight stay in Rila Monastery up in the Rila mountains (south Bulgaria, near Greek border) was creepy but the smell of pine and sonorous chanting of monks are still in my mind. From Rila I bussed down to the little wine town of Melnik – source of Churchill’s red wines. In Melnik, the locals use old fashioned water pumps. I was about to trek to the mountain, but a fruit seller encouraged to taste the water. With much reluctance, I cupped the water in my hands and drank it. It was so refreshing that from then I drank from water fountains in the towns of Bulgaria. It was potable and my stomach didn’t complain. Bulgaria was not on my travel list but on the advice of a young German student whom I met in Bucharest (Romania), I made my way there. And based on a book which I picked up in Cappadocia (Turkey), I followed the route that the author took.
*Cote d’Azur (France) experiencing a drive along the scenic cliffside roads hugging the French Riviera coast – I do understand why the rich and famous retire in the French Riviera! It’s the ultimate in gracious living.
*Antarctica – what a continent, white and penguinned. I was amazed by the various spectrums of white and how the daylight dances on the humongous icebergs, gorgeous shades of blue and white. And the silence – silence broken only by wind or birds flapping in the sky. It was a surreal feeling of being at the end of the world.
*Bolivia – the most indigenous country in South America. I was drawn by the ethnic wear, in the markets, villages and towns.
*Iguazu Falls (Brazil/Argentina) – it’s on everyone’s itinerary and I almost missed it! Travelled 24 hours across Argentina from west to east and back again and I must admit I didn’t regret it. It deserves being one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. The many falls were out of this world, simply mind-blowing.
*Purmamarca (North Argentina) – the most colourful mountain I’ve ever seen in my life. I was travelling to Argentina from Chile, crossing the Andes. The bus had to drop a few passengers at a little village at the base of Purmamarca. I just couldn’t believe my eyes – the mountain was bathed in vibrant shades of purple, lilac, maroon, orange, yellow, green, grey. When I arrived at my destination, I bought a bus ticket back to this village the next day. Stayed there for two nights and trekked 2-3 times a day, morning, mid-day and evening as the colours changed with the light of the day. Unbelievably gorgeous and unplanned.
Finally, I must add that staying and spending time with relatives and friends in Lausanne (Switzerland), Hildesheim (Germany), Loreto (Italy), Vienna and Carinthian Lakes (South of the Alps) Ossiachersee & Woerthersee – only domestic tourists (Austria), Sandnes (Norway), Sunderland, Cambridge & London (England), Philadelphia, Atlanta & San Antonio (USA) and Juiz de Fora (Brazil), Sydney, Melbourne and Raleigh (Australia) were just as memorable. My visits were relaxing as I was not constrained by time. The Carinthian Lakes were memorable, not only because I didn’t come across any foreign visitors, but it was bliss swimming topless – I stood out like a sore thumb with my bikini top on, so I followed suit later on and, boy, it was liberating.
- Why did you travel without a camera or phone? In an age when everyone else is instagramming and face booking their most mundane activity you have no photos to share of this once-in-a-lifetime journey…
Hey, hey, travelling without a camera is liberation in itself. When everyone was snapping away, I was focused on enjoying that precious moment, the moment of seeing a rainbow appearing before my very eyes, or a setting sun which disappeared within a minute behind the horizon. Why waste such precious moments. I’ve also noted that when I have a camera in hand, I become trigger happy – ouch. Why have so many travel albums gathering dust? As I personally find it so boring when people show me their travel albums (give me a break!), I don’t wish to bore them with mine. And to top it all, I’m not one who flips through past travel albums to recollect the moment. Due to reasons mentioned, I stopped carrying a camera since 2002.
As it was a RTW trip with a 12kg backpack on my back, shopping was a no-no. For example, I had to grit my teeth when walking through the colourful bazaars in Istanbul. I had to be practical as anything that adds weight to a backpack (maxed at 13kg, at least for mini me, 1.56m, 46kg) will make my walk to bus terminals and hostels a torture. Thus, no souvenirs for myself or friends. Packing was also easier. However, in my last stop in Bolivia and Peru, I did do all my shopping.
- Now, with foresight, what advice do you have for someone contemplating a similar expedition? Carry cash, traveller’s cheques or card? How to purchase tickets, book accommodation, stay safe, decide where to go? What to carry in the backpack?
Cash for emergencies should be hidden away. I brought 2 credit cards (one Master and one Visa, 2 bank cards (one with Cirrus and another with Plus as ATM machines in different continents or countries either operate with one or the other provider).
As I’m a light traveller, I packed a bare minimum and would advise others to do the same : 3 undies, 2 bras, 2 bikinis (double up as undies), 3 light tops, 2 long-sleeves, 2 pairs shorts, 1 pair jeans, 1 pair longs, 1 sundress (for dinners) and 1 hand towel (remember, I’m small), a pair of slippers (for toilets), a pair of Teva sandals (for trekking) and a pair of runners (for walking/trekking).
- Has travelling solo changed you in any way, or what have you gained from the experience? Did it in any way affect your view of life? Or what did you bring back with you?
I’ve learnt to be humble and tolerant – I’ve come across young-adult travellers who are overconfident and think they’re know-alls. They talk down to travellers out of their age group. I keep quiet and don’t let it bother me, just listen to their hot air. Personally, I find travellers above 30’s quieter and more knowledgeable and definitely, more humble.
Go with the flow attitude, no hangups on what’s going to happen next – just do it – like wakeboarding sand dunes in Huacachina (Peru). I didn’t know what I was in for when I booked a jeep ride in the sand dunes. They were all young adults and I was the oldest. We went across the sand dunes and stopped at some stages for wakeboarding. Naturally, they started with low sand dune, eventually progressing to steep ones. I realised that if I didn’t slide down, I would have to walk a long distance to reach the jeep which was at the bottom of the sand dune. Thus, I closed my eyes and with heart in mouth, slid down a 25-storey high sand dune. No sound came out of my mouth but one of my jeepmates, a young lady half my age screamed from start to finish.
Less is more – as I’ve lived >400 days out of a backpack, I find that I can live with less – I’ve stopped shopping!
Don’t sweat the small stuff – live the present.
- Where next?
Iberia (Spain, Portugal), Morocco, and possibly the dark continent of Africa – will keep you posted.