In the beginning was a nagging dissatisfaction with the status quo, a sneaky suspicion that life had more to offer than the marriage, mortgage, and monotony most of us are herded into at the beginning of our adult lives. I’m not sure where this suspicion came from. My family were certainly ordinary folk, and no one did more to prepare me for an uneventful life more than my parents. “Life is composed of ordinary days,” my mother was fond of saying – restlessness should be directed into worthwhile projects, like cleaning one’s room or mowing the lawn.
I grew up in church, married young, got a sales job, bought a house and car. After a few years, the wife left, took the car, so I sold the house, quit the job, and went to church less frequently. At 26, I thought perhaps the college life would offer some answers, and it did – chasing girls and drinking heavily are both great diversions from pondering the purpose of one’s existence. I did learn a bit of French and Russian, got hooked on the writings of kindred malcontents like Oscar Wilde and Albert Camus – but still had no clue as to what I wanted to do with my life.
Near the end of my college days, I stumbled upon a small paperback book that altered the course of my life forever. I was at the university bookstore going through the same ritual I had gone through each semester I attended – trying to decide if I had enough money to pay for my textbooks. You always know in advance what tuition is going to run, so you can plan – work a few more hours over the summer, eat out less often, drink at home – whatever. Textbooks, on the other hand, were completely unpredictable. If luck were smiling, every course required a single paperback book, and you’d be out a hundred bucks. Get stuck with new hardcovers, however, and the tab could be five or six times that amount.
Without question, there are methods of getting around buying textbooks, but none of them are surefire solutions, and all of them require a bit of work. You can see if the professor has placed a copy on reserve in the library, and resign yourself to doing all of your reading there. You can photocopy relevant pages from a friend’s book. If you have a reputation for making decent grades, you can get other people to simply give you their books in exchange for your reading notes. You can develop single-semester relationships with the opposite sex that are based on equal parts physical attraction and the fact that your temporary soul-mate has already purchased a couple of particularly expensive books you need – or so I’m told.
I can remember that particular semester that the first book on my list cost $300. It quickly went downhill from there. I hadn’t saved nearly enough money. I wandered about the bookstore, sulking at my misfortune. I’d have to drop classes that I needed, simply because I couldn’t afford the books.
I found myself standing in front of a book entitled The Frugal Globetrotter, by Bruce Northam. I had always been attracted by these kinds of books and magazines, and nearly as often severely disappointed. They always promise travel opportunities ‘anyone’ can afford, then spend page after page describing ‘budget’ European travel, meaning thousands of dollars more than what you’d spend on a seaside vacation here at home. But this book was different. The back cover said nothing about Europe, but instead conjured images of adventures I had never before imagined:
Trek around the world’s highest peaks on the Annapurna Circuit. Explore the forgotten temples of Cambodia. Cycle from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, hitting some of the most beautiful beaches in the world along the way.
Growing up in the American South, I had never been exposed to this kind of travel; I had certainly never met anyone who had traveled to those kinds of places. Intrigued, I bought a copy – more as a distraction from my current dilemma than anything else.
I went home, I opened the book – and I didn’t put it down until I had finished it.
Northam was selling more than adventure – he was selling an escape from the humdrum American existence. He wasn’t writing a travel guide – he was creating a manifesto. “Back off the lawn mower throttle,” he advised, and see the amazing planet. Not just the cushy parts – those air-con tour buses shuffling the blue-hair, white-shoe crowd around the capitals of Europe; the wild parts, the parts that would turn your preconceptions upside down. Why spend a hundred bucks a night to stay in a two-star hotel in Paris, when five bucks would buy you a bed and breakfast in Bangkok?
I devoured the book in one sitting. Northam referenced guide books I had never heard of, like Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, and I could hardly wait until morning to check them out as well. Was it possible that round-the-world airline tickets could be had for as little as $1000 US? Could you really find clean, safe places to stay around the world for the price of a Happy Meal?
I decided to find out. I went to the bursar’s office two days after paying my tuition for the semester – and asked for a refund. I phoned a travel agency in San Francisco called Air Treks and asked them to price out a round-the-world itinerary. I told the manager at the restaurant where worked as a bartender that I would work any and every available shift for the next three months if I could have the three after that off. I arranged for someone to buy my car 90 days out. I moved out of my apartment and on to my brother’s sofa – much to the chagrin of his wife, who thought of me as a bit of a slacker, and a bad influence on my brother as well.
I thought three months on the road would be a great change of pace; little did I know….
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