How my travel habits have changed after nearly 45 years
Last week I received a picture of the day my life changed forever.
It’s above. It’s from my first day of a year-long solo trip around the world in 1978-79. I had just graduated from the University of Oregon and landed in London carrying an odd over-the-shoulder duffel bag filled with ugly clothes and a “Let’s Go: Europe” travel guide.
I’m in the first row, second from right. Note the ‘70s rugby shirt and blown-dry hair. Note the beer in my hand. Note the ear-to-ear smile of a 22-year-old discovering he has the world at his fingertips. I was so excited when I landed that I bounced around the train in from the airport, spewing platitudes of everything I saw as if I landed on Mars.
The photo made me think. Next month will mark the 45th anniversary of that epic trip, one that launched me to a lifetime of travel and, eventually, my dream retirement in Rome. It was a lifestyle choice at an early age. It’s one that led to major sacrifices. I never married. But the day I stepped on that plane to London alone, spurred by aching insecurity and ignited by friends who’d done the same, remains the best decision I ever made.
However, my views on travel have changed. I’m 66. This is the age many Americans travel for the first time. They spend a year exhaling after retirement then head to a foreign locale they’ve dreamed about at their desk their entire adult lives.
Meanwhile, I’ve been to 110 countries and am a little jaded. I want more exotic locales. I want certain creature comforts. I would no more sleep in a youth hostel than I would a cobra pit.
So I sat down and thought of all the ways I’ve changed these last 45 years. I wound up with 10. And they aren’t little tweaks such as no longer blow-drying my hair. These are significant.
What they say is I no longer look at travel through the wide eyes you see above, but of a world-weary wanderer who knows what he wants. I still have the foundation I built during that first year. I still love everywhere I go. I still keep a journal. But now I have certain requirements. My patience is less, primarily with myself.
Those of you who have traveled for years might relate to these. Those just starting to travel? Considering the below list warning signs:
In that year (a little more than 10 months to be exact) I spent – you won’t believe this – $4,000. That included $1,000 in airfare. You could do that in 1978. Laker Airways launched its $99 New York-London flight and competitors cut their prices at the knees. I flew one way Portland, Ore.-London for $240, Athens-Cairo round trip for $100, Athens-Bangkok for $260 and Bangkok-Los Angeles with stops in Taipei, Seoul and Honolulu for $360.
I lived on $15 a day in Europe, $7 a day in North Africa and $10 a day in Asia. I counted every penny. My journals are filled with passages about how to save and where to cut corners. I always asked myself, do I need this or do I just want this?
I still keep track of expenses, but if I want this I get it. If I’m thirsty, I stop at a bar and buy a beer. If it’s late, I’ll take a taxi. Expendable money gives you the power of freedom.
I still believe the more you spend on accommodation the further you get from local culture. As a sportswriter for 40 years, I was a Marriott whore. It’s a wonderful chain but they look the same from Boston to Bangkok. Staying in Marriotts everywhere, you could travel around the world and never leave the U.S.
On my first trip I took “local” to extremes. I once paid 75 cents for a room in El Lahun, Egypt, where the shower drain doubled as the toilet. My lock in Algeciras, Spain, hung, broken, from the rotting door like a Do Not Disturb sign. I slept four nights on a beach in Crete.
Now I need a hotel with a breakfast buffet.
I blame my girlfriend, Marina, a woman who nibbles breakfast in Rome but insists on endless tables of goods when we travel. Turns out, she’s right. Now I’m spoiled. (Bonus travel tip: Best breakfast buffet we’ve had is the Danubius Hotel Helia in Budapest.)
Traveling with a woman also changed me. I don’t travel with guys; I don’t travel with platonic female friends. But with Marina I always upgrade. Our week in August at the Panoramas Beach Hotel in Skopelos, Greece, sporting a big pool on the beach along the Aegean Sea, cost more than my entire round-the-world airfare.
I grew up a picky eater. I punted that trait when I traveled on a bare-bones budget. I ate anything free. I would walk an extra mile if I knew a bowl of noodles was a dollar cheaper. I ate a water buffalo brains sandwich in Egypt because it was 50 cents. I ate in places so filthy, rice would march off my plate on the backs of ants.
But it had its surprises. In Taiwan I got picked up hitchhiking by a restaurant owner who took me to his establishment before it opened and served me a seven-course meal, on him. A man in Yugoslavia took me to his home to have dinner with his family. I couldn’t pronounce the dishes I ate. I didn’t care. I ate every crumb. Eating cheap in expensive Sweden is how I discovered yogurt.
Today I seek, not the most expensive restaurant in town, but the most authentic. I don’t scrimp on food. I’ll pay for the atmosphere. I like dark lighting, soft music and fresh, local cuisine.
I want views of oceans. In Abu Dhabi I took Marina to BBQ Al Qasar behind the Emirates Palace hotel (rooms up to $30,000 a night) where we had a private gazebo surrounded by palm trees right on the Gulf of Oman. I paid €171 and didn’t even blink.
I ask locals where they go for the best local food. They’ve never steered me wrong. And I don’t stray. Marina, being Italian, likes to taste pizza in every country. Meanwhile, I had chateaubriand in Chateaubriand, France, and a sandwich in Sandwich, England. And in Phnom Penh I know a terrific place to get fruit bat.
Believe it or not, I rarely drank water on my first trip. I don’t remember ever buying a bottle, even in places with undrinkable water such as Morocco and Indonesia. I got my fluids through citrus fruit and beer.
Now I drink at least a liter a day. In the summer it’s three. I’ve met travelers who drink six and tell anyone who doesn’t they will die. Seals don’t need that much water. But three liters on a hot day keep me hydrated and maintain the dwindling energy I still have at 66.
But it must be cold. Add one more item to my hotel needs: a refrigerator in the room.
When you travel in the third world, you learn patience fast. You won’t last without it. Everything goes slow except the traffic. In Haiti, the public bus I boarded didn’t leave until it filled. Youth hostels closed from mid-morning until about 5. I hitchhiked through Central and Eastern Europe, Malaysia and Taiwan. Patience is the foundation of hitchhiking.
I’m still patient. It helps living in Rome where I stand for 20 minutes to pay my electric bill at the post office. I once waited 3 ½ hours for my dinner in Pokhara, Nepal. I didn’t care. I wasn’t going anywhere.
However, I’ve lost patience with myself. I am unforgiving for mistakes, however small. I’ve traveled for nearly 45 years. I shouldn’t get lost. But everyone gets lost. I tried telling myself that while cursing out loud trying to find a trailhead in the Republic of Georgia.
I once left my novel in a hotel in Nice, France, and acted like I left my cell phone.
I miss travel agents. I am terrible at websites. I once accidentally booked two flights to Moscow and didn’t discover it until it was too late to cancel one of them. Booking flights online causes me more stress than crossing the Kenyan-Tanzanian border.
I am unforgiving.
As on the first trip, I’m all about meeting the locals. What’s the point of going to exotic places if you don’t meet exotic people? However, now I’m more wary. I’ve learned an important lesson: When a local approaches you, they want something; if you approach a local, you might have a friend.
Many years ago, my then girlfriend and I just checked into our hotel in Tobago and got drinks at the local bar next door. A man immediately sat down to chat us up and was way too eager. My girlfriend, too friendly for her own good, kept engaging him while I kicked her under the table.
After we left, the man came running after us. I knew he wanted something. He said I should buy him a glass of rum. He didn’t say why. I stared at him. He stared at me. Then I thought about the potential hassle we’d have if we returned to the bar. I bought him the rum.
In the Seychelles, I sat next to a local at a beach bar and started talking. He was a well-known chef and we had a great chat – until another local saw me and asked if we could talk. We walked outside and I couldn’t understand much of what he said except one word: money.
I said no and walked back inside. The point is not everyone you meet in this wonderful world wants to be your friend. Not all people are good. Don’t let yourself be used.
During that first trip, I looked forward to returning home and regaling everyone about my adventures. It turns out, few people care. My dad told his colleagues at work that his son traveled around the world. A co-worker said, “So? What’s the big deal?”
On my return to the U.S., I landed in L.A. and crashed at a fraternity brother’s house before hitchhiking back to Oregon. He never asked me a single question about my trip, nor did the other “frat bro” who drove me to a hitchhiking spot.
I’ve lived in Rome for nearly nine years and my oldest sister has never asked me one question about my life here.
Traveling isn’t for everybody, and I must accept that. So I don’t discuss my travels unless asked. I will write about them here because, dear reader, I know you care about travel or you wouldn’t be on this site.
When you’re overseas the first time, everything is new. You’re like a baby that sees his first toy, his first puppy, his first moon. I was like that with my first pub. What, each town in the United Kingdom has its own beer and the neighborhood gathers regularly? What a country!
I was like that with my first castle, my first camel ride, my first scuba dive.
Now I need more. Wow me, planet Earth. Atop my bucket list is Africa. I want to canoe past hippos in Botswana, beachcomb in Cape Verde Islands, bar hop in Dakar.
Somewhere down the road I want to see Bolivia’s Amazon and North Korea.
Three years ago I spent a month in Central Asia. By the end I was tired. I was culturally burned out. The cultures of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan started blending together. I was in awe that I once traveled for nearly a year.
I’ve slowed down. Most of my trips are long weekends with Marina or 10-14 days to new countries. Now I don’t move much. In fact, take me to a beach destination such as Skopelos and I can be an absolute sloth. I ask Marina to pass me the sunscreen.
I also can’t drink as I once did. Back in ‘78 I did some major damage at the Oktoberfest in Munich. In Sokcho, South Korea, I traded tequila and vodka shots with a troop of South Korean Marines. Now I have two or three beers – always local – and I’m ready for bed. Nightclubs do not exist on my itineraries.
It helps that Marina, like nearly all Romans, is a teetotaler. Since moving here I’ve cut my drinking in half. I’ve learned hangovers are the same everywhere, even in paradise.
Yeah, I did drugs overseas. When you’re 22 and straight out of college in the ‘70s, drugs are one of the four major food groups. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. In Bangkok, I smoked Thai stick, which is marijuana wrapped around a small bamboo stick and dipped in opium, at a local’s house over a pond. I remember taking a tuk tuk, Thailand’s little three-wheel, open-air taxis, back to my hotel. I drove past a Buddhist temple.
I swear to this day it looked just like my old high school baseball stadium.
I got scared straight when I entered the lobby and saw on the message board dozens of hand-written messages from Westerners thrown in jail for years over simple possession. They were begging for visitors, just to talk.
Thailand has changed. Today it’s in the process of decriminalizing marijuana after becoming the first Southeast Asia nation to legalize medical cannabis for the use in food and cosmetics. I learned, what’s the point? You’re already living a fantasy life overseas. Why increase the fantasy and risk hell?
Isn’t traveling fantasy enough?