June 11, 2013

Traveling Before Parkinson's: A Love of Independent Adventure

My first cruise ship trip this week opens a new chapter in my personal travelogue. Until now, one theme has run through all of my travels -- a decided preference for solo independence. But these days, I need to make some accommodation for my age and afflictions.

So, as I get ready to do a test drive down the new road, I decided to look back. Here's what I find:

Chapter 1.  Home Alone  -- 1929-1951
A shrink would probably say my travel addiction has its roots in my early years. From birth (1929) to age 22, I rarely traveled more than 10 miles from home. My family wasn't poor, but we couldn't afford a car or out-of-town vacations.

I can remember one family trip in 1939 to see my aunt in New York City and visit the World's Fair. We also had several bus trips to see my grandfather in Patterson, NJ.

I grew up in Ithaca, NY, so I was able to live at home and work my way through Cornell University. I ended up in Cornell's School of Industrial Relations which encouraged students to take summer jobs related to their fields of study. That first summer, I got a job in the state unemployment compensation office in Binghamton, NY. This was my first experience living away from home, and I hated it. As soon as the workday ended on Friday, I was on the bus back to Ithaca for the weekend. The next summer, I had a better experience in a work-study program that involved living in the dorm at Wayne State University in Detroit. I took classes in the morning and worked the afternoon shift in a factory.

Chapter 2.  California Here I Come -- 1951-3
Eight months in San Diego transformed me from a homesick young man to a lover of travel. I graduated from Cornell in January 1951 and registered to attend Cornell's law school in the fall. An Ithaca pal was in a similar situation, so we pursued a crazy deal we'd heard about. We took a bus to Detroit and scoured the local help-wanted ads in local newspapers seeking people to drive new cars from Detroit to a West Coast dealer. Drivers got no pay, only gas money.

We ended up with a car to deliver to a San Diego dealer. We found a cheap one-room apartment in a remodeled garage in San Diego's Mission Beach section. My friend got a day-shift job in one factory and I got a second-shift job in another.

I loved those next eight months. Our "apartment" was two blocks from the beach. I'd spend every morning at the beach and catch the bus to work around 2pm. My job involved making sure the machinists had all the parts they needed, which took about three of the eight hours on my shift. I spent the rest of the time reading books.

I'd finish work at 11pm. Sometimes I'd stop at a bar on the way home, but more often I'd end up cruising through Balboa Park. That's where I learned how wrong I was back in Ithaca, convinced I was the only fellow who hadn't outgrown same-sex encounters.

I was having such a great time, I actually considered bagging law school. But I didn't.

The next summer, I traveled to Los Angeles with several new law school friends to find summer jobs. We didn't have much luck and gave up after a month or so.

Returning from both San Diego and LA, I hitchhiked across the country -- the start of my predilection for independent travel. (It was also the cheapest way to get home.)

Chapter 3.  All in the Family -- 1957-1978
OK, let's speed up this narrative. After coming to Washington in 1955, I married my much smarter and more talented co-worker Diana LeBlanc in 1957. A son and daughter arrived in the next three years. We rented beach houses in Rehoboth, Lewes, or Bethany Beach, DE; Nags Head, NC; or Cape Cod, MA. We made several trips to visit my brother and his family in Ithaca and to see Diana's relatives on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

All fairly typical travel for a middle-class family in Washington.

Chapter 4.  Europe on $25 a Day -- 1978-1982
1978 brought major changes. My wife died in May. My son was living on his own. My daughter started college at Northwestern's School of Journalism.

In the fall of that year, I began a travel pattern that would continue for five years. I had (still have) a good friend, Terry, in London. I decided to take a three-week vacation, visiting Terry for a few days, then heading to Europe with a 15-day Eurail pass. Clutching my Eurail pass and the latest edition of Frommer's Europe on $25 a Day, I'd pick a city, hop on a train, get off the train, and head to the traveler's aid desk in the station. I'd provide my price range, get a list of hotels, and go find a place to stay.

After a few days, I'd pick a new city to visit and repeat the process.

During my earlier family travel years, vacation planning had required consulting with and considering the needs of a wife, two children, and a dog. I loved this new do-it-yourself Eurail travel so much I repeated it every fall for five years.

Chapter 5.  Business Travels -- 1972-1987
For these 15-years, I was the associate editor of BNA's employee relations publications. The job came with some nice travel benefits, and I visited most major U.S. cities. Then -- best of all -- came the two summers when BNA co-sponsored two-week conferences with Oxford University in England. Attendees lived in the student residences at Merton College, Oxford's oldest.

Chapter 6.  Travel Beyond Europe
Gradually I began to broaden my travel horizons beyond Europe. I signed up for a People-to-People mission to Russia and China with a group of labor relations specialists in 1987. The contrast between then and now in both countries is mind boggling. The next year I tried Egypt and Israel. But Europe remained my primary vacation destination.

Chapter 7.  Post-Retirement London-Based Travel -- 1995-2000
After my retirement at the end of 1994, I thought London would become a second  home for me, a base for continuing to explore Europe. My dear friend Richard had a two-bedroom flat in a lovely mews a few blocks from Paddington tube station, with its direct connection to Heathrow Airport. At the end of the mews there was a horse stable that opened into Hyde Park/Kensington.

Richard loved having me stay at his flat, which I did many times. London may be my favorite city. (As soon as I say that, Paris, New York, and Chicago come to mind.) We'd drive out into the beautiful countryside around London most weekends. We also made frequent trips to the Borders in Scotland, which had Richard's heart and now has his ashes.

Richard took his own life in 2000.

Chapter 8.  The Nepal Decade and Beyond
After a week of grieving that revolved around Richard's memorial service, Terry, our friend Patrick, and I met for lunch. The next day, I was flying back to Washington and Patrick was flying back to Bangalore. We decided we needed to do something to lift our spirits. We agreed to tour India in 2001.

My son, an inveterate backpacker and mountain climber, told me if I was going to India, I had to visit Nepal as well. So we added  Kathmandu and Pokhara to our travel plans.

I fell in love with Nepal and its people. I've mentioned before that I'm a confirmed neophiliac, a personality type characterized by a strong affinity for novelty. After years of traveling almost exclusively in the Western World, travel in Nepal certainly was new and different.

My introduction to Nepal in March 2001 resulted in an email friendship with a young Nepali who ended up asking if I would be interested in going with him to celebrate Dashain (the major Hindi festival) at his family's home in a mountain village near Pokhara. Getting there required a three-hour bus ride and a two-hour climb up the mountain. I booked a flight immediately. I barely made it up the mountain, but the experience ranks near the top of any list of my most memorable travels.

That did it. For the rest of the decade I made two trips to Nepal each year -- one in the spring, one in the fall. I became an adopted member of my friend's family and made many other Nepali friends. I stopped feeling like a tourist on my return visits.

On just about each visit, I'd take a side trip to another Southeast Asian country -- Thailand, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Laos, Sikkim and -- my favorite -- Bhutan. Each of these countries is very different from the others, and each is fascinating.

My trips to Nepal -- and my continuing involvement with its people -- have greatly enhanced the quality of my life. If I were a believer, I'd say that Richard's death was another example of the adage "when God closes a door, He opens a window."

Reviewing my own history this way, I certainly see my predilection for independent travel. It'll be interesting to see how I react to taking a trip with 700 other people.


Lenore said...

You were a genial son-of-a-gun when I first met you, but 56 years later, you're an unstoppable pistol!! Great going!! (Playing with words a little to try to express my amazement!)

cheryl said...

I finally have a little more hope for my neophiliac problem and my future. Please please may I send you an email or may you email me. I have had recent breakdowns and my life feels out of my control because being 27 and a female from south Africa I had always thought my different way of life and love for not only travel but more change were intriguing ,but unless I learn how to curb it in the right direction my quick impulsive decision making and lack of fear but more of an addiction to jump onto a plane to any destination, I may destroy my life. May I email you? cherylsmart@ymail.com