COMING TO GRIPS
With the Concept of Plenty of Time
Who says you're never too old to shuck everything and take off on the
journey you've always dreamed about? Truth is, you're never too old, but if you wait too
long, you'll be too dead to do it
By Ron Gluckman /in Machu Pichu, Peru, the Galapagos, Guatemala, along
the Equator, up in the Andes, in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and everywhere else!
HOW WAS THE
TRIP? That's a common enough question if your routine involves lots of airlines and
hotels. I'm a journalist specializing in travel, so it's become almost like hello. About a
year ago, the query acquired a deeper meaning. Friends weren't being cordial when they
asked. They wanted details. Not about my latest jaunt to Burma or a train journey across
Siberia, but THE trip, the trip of a lifetime.
You know the one and may even have considered it. Most
of us do. Think of it anyway. Those taking action are usually fresh from school, rucksack
on the back and around-the-world ticket tucked inside. The endless journey usually winds
up after a few months in India, Thailand or Central America. Then, it's back to reality
and on to the next phase of life. Call it a youthful right of passage.
For me, the trip was timed more to mid-life crisis than graduation. Yet,
true to form, it signaled a significant change of life. Before it ended, my partner and I
had circled the globe. And I had taken my first real break in over a decade.
Snicker all you want. Travel writers are always on holiday, right? The
truth is quite the opposite. When I travel, I work. And I've no complaints, because it's
work that I love. But it's also a job without definition, since I'm a freelancer who is
always looking for a story to sell. There's never a check-in time, and, more importantly,
no punch-out clock. On the road, there's always one more temple to visit, another offbeat
route to attempt, a few more colorful characters to interview.
Yet it's fulfilling. I'm never as fully-charged as when
I'm on the run, and I've felt thusly since catching the travel bug in my early teens.
Journalism came a decade later, offering unlimited opportunity to annoy authorities, call
experts at any hour, for any reason, voice outlandish opinions and attend rock concerts
and celebrity bashes--and get paid for the lark. It wasn't until Asia in 1990, that I put
the two together and found my niche as a fledgling foreign correspondent.
By then, I had done a bit of writing in Europe, Russia and Central
America, but Asia was a perfect match for my wandering attention. Compared to my native
USA, where everything seems obvious, as if cast in stone, Asia remains a mesmerizing work
in progress; around every corner, a new culture, with its own unique and often-confounding
way of doing business, waging war or choosing leaders. Grappling to understand, then write
about these quirks, not only kept me employed, but also engaged throughout the Nineties.
So dropping out wasn't my primary aim when I did just that, romping around
the world for a year. Oddly enough, by tuning out, I inadvertently accomplished a lot.
Even now it's hard to list all that went on during that year, vastly larger than the one
that has since flashed past. During my break, I learned quite a bit not only about the
world, but my place in it. And about the true meaning of time.
Things started innocently enough. Jolanda, my partner, was ready for a
break from Hong Kong. Both of us usually are, after a month or so of pounding jackhammers.
This time, though, when we started tossing around possible destinations, the options
expanded rather than narrowed. Jolanda wanted to take the Big Break.
That was late 1997. Not long after seeing Hong Kong back to China, we sold
or packed everything and set off to see the world. Easier said than done, as anyone who
has lived in Hong Kong, and left, knows. This city has fantastic public transportation,
provided you carry nothing bigger than a pager or cell-phone. Moving is always a
nightmare, more so if you live on a remote isle without roads. Peaceful, sure, but painful
moving, a bag or a box at a time.
By comparison, the trip itself was a breeze. Not that there weren't
problems. We reached the highlands of Mexico in time for the coldest Christmas on record.
Huddled together in the mountain town of Mazamitla, we marveled at Tibet-like street
scenes, shivering in summer clothes and bed sheets. By the time we left Central America
for Ecuador and Peru, we trailed the worst El Nino ever. Coastal roads and most bridges
were gone, turning two-hour drives into a day-long series of muddy detours.
There were other mishaps: the almost predictable robbery in Rio (Exactly where our guide
book warned: "Don't go here! You'll be robbed!"--We were!) and a
near-catastrophe whale watching along Africa's Cape, when a sudden swell swept Jolanda
from the rocks into the churning sea.
Still, a certain calm set in almost as soon as we hit the beach in Mexico.
Hong Kong was behind us, everything lay ahead. From then on, we traveled mostly overland,
at a leisurely pace. We'd book a bus, boat or plane, and show up, if we felt so inclined.
In a little over a year we visited 20 countries on five continents.
At first, it was a tad overwhelming, the entire world spread out before
us, every river, pyramid and plaza offering potential to explore. Total freedom is
intense, intoxicating, but yielding wasn't easy--for me at least. Jolanda quickly adapted
to days on beaches, scanning guidebooks for surprises that lay ahead. Although unaware of
it at the time, I remained locked in my freelance rut, seeing each sight as potential
material, observing with intent rather than abandon.
Eventually the magic of the odyssey
overwhelmed me and washed away even these deep-seated inhibitions. Not all at once, but in
delightful spurts, on a boat trip to the Galapagos, a hike to Machu Pichu, and upon my
first heart-stopping view of the stone Inca-Spanish city of Cuzco, set two miles high in
the Andes, a sight that sent tears streaming down my cheeks. Boyhood dreams all.
Later on were elephants, cheetahs, and zebra in uncountable number across
Africa. Whales, sea lions and penguins in secluded coves. And bizarre birds that soared,
sulked and strolled across enormous seas of Namibian sand, stretching further than my
imagination ever had. And odd plants and trees like the Baobab, that looked more fantastic
than anything Tolkien or Spielberg had ever created.
Bit by bit, I unwound, relaxed, began to revel in the now. A decade of
travel writing experience slowly wore away, leaving me once again wowed by world wonders,
without worrying about how to depict them in some future dispatch. Even now, the images
remain riveting: simple things like slicing bread in African shops or watching women
gathering sticks for nightly fires in the desert; and overpowering scenes, like thundering
herds of wildebeest and zebra seen on the plain at Poppa Falls at sunset, or finally
grasping the import of the tango as sidewalk dancers spun slowly on a Buenos Aires
sidewalk, while tears flowed in streams down lined faces of ancient onlookers.
on the long trek down one side of South America and up the other, I stopped feeding notes
into the laptop, which was stolen anyway in South Africa along with more tangible traveler
assets, like Jolanda's pack. Even before the laptop was pinched in a parking-lot
wealth-reapportionment scheme, I had ceased reporting and just began enjoying myself,
which was the point of the journey. Sadly, this took eight months--even a freelancer
without normal work routines can be pretty wound up.
For the next five months, though, I had the time of my life. And the life
of my time. I resumed my childhood love of reading. Freed from the pressure of daily
periodicals and "urgent" research reports, I began consuming books by the
armload, a habit that thankfully continues in moderation even today.
Eventually the trip wound up, as did the exhilarating sense of freedom.
Perhaps it was all fantasy, a short detour on the road of a life whose direction is really
determined by the long, straight stretches, rather than the curves and off ramps. After
all, here we are, back in Hong Kong, among all the same Joes and Sarahs. We're even living
on the same island again.
Jolanda and I are happily married. She now works freelance, on projects in
China and around the region. I've become even fussier about assignments, preferring
challenging topics to a flood of copy that buoys the bank book. It would be nice to say
that the trip taught me great lessons, changed me, made me more humble, somber, mature,
more focused. Better, wiser, kinder. But here I am, back where I was before, doing
essentially what I did before I left, stringing words together, battling deadlines, trying
to get it right some of the time.
Yet something seemingly intangible has changed forever: time itself.
We learned that time isn't absolute, or pre-determined. It's immeasurable.
Sure, it runs 60 minutes to the hour, 24 times daily. But the myth that most of it belongs
to the boss or the mortgage company is just that--a myth. You own your entire life, not
just two weeks per year. And it's only as short as you allow it to be. Jolanda and I made
a major withdrawal from the bank account of life, and what we realized was that there were
absolutely no adverse consequences. True, we hadn't advanced in the great rat race, but we
were hardly left behind. At worst, we merely picked up where we had left off, along with
all the other rats, chasing our tails, spinning in circles, and hoping for a bit of
Yet inside us there remains a richness that is hard to
Sometimes it registers with an unexpected smile, or a shared memory. We
now have the dunes of Namibia, the weird walking birds of Africa, and the magical
menagerie of wildlife in the truly unmatchable Galapagos in our mental bank accounts.
We decided to take THE trip because we like to travel, but it isn't for
everyone. The point is, time is the greatest gift you can give yourself. You might stay
home and make a miniature space shuttle with toothpicks (I wrote about a guy in California
who actually made one, as well as a full-scale toothpick Eiffel Tower) or write a book, or
volunteer for that year in Africa you once considered, but put off, again and again, until
it seemed impossible.
Our year away taught us so much about the sanctity of time, a precious
commodity that shouldn't be strapped on a wrist or doled out in dribbles until retirement.
We found that the same year that can sail by, day in, day out, in barely a blink, can
instead be filled to the brim. If you let it.
Gluckman is an American journalist, who travels widely around
the Asian region for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, which
ran this piece in January 2000. Jolanda is a native of the Netherlands who
started traveling in her teens and continues to take me to the wildest places in the
world. The trip was her idea, and I can never thank her enough. But I'll keep trying.
Note added 2009: since publication, we relocated from Hong
Kong to Beijing, then Bangkok, then Phnom Penh, and, soon, will be based back in
Pictures: Jolanda in the Galapagos, me in Saint Ignatius, among the Missiones in
Paraguay. Jolanda in Namibia, giraffes in Etosha and elephants in Kruger parks, then standing atop sand dunes
at the edge of the endless Earth, in Namibia. Pictures by Jonkhart/Gluckman
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