Have Love, Will Travel

Travelling the world on a budget is not an easy affair. It is not just about adventures but also unforeseen illnesses and challenges. However, Ellen and Theo, now avid and experienced world travellers refuse to be defeated by diseases, mosquitoes and ant bites. Instead, they revel in adventures that involve sleeping under the stars in the desert or swimming with the whale sharks

Not many people can dream of world travel in their 50s. Even if they do, the dreams don’t include hiking up the mountains or swimming with whale sharks and definitely not a bout of dengue or breast cancer. But Ellen and Theo have done it all and they don’t plan to stop anytime soon.

Theo had always dreamt of swimming with the whale sharks. His dream came true in 2018, when the couple went swimming with the fantastic creatures in La Paz, Mexico. Ellen says, ‘‘Theo went twice. The first day he went (mid-December) was windy and chilly, so I opted to go the following day when the wind was forecast to diminish. Theo loved it so much the day I did not go, that he went again the next day with me. Following advice on TripAdvisor, we went down to the Burger King and went across the street to look for the panga boats that take tourists out to swim with the whale sharks. It was easy to find a boat. The cost was $38 each, and it included snorkel gear and fins, a guide who spoke English, and the boat ride. I use my own prescription snorkel mask but I did take the fins, and I’m glad I did because I had to swim like hell to catch up with a large whale shark.’

Whale sharks

She says, ‘The experience was wonderful one! To swim with whale sharks was oddly calming for me. I loved seeing Theo alongside a large one – my husband looked so small and human. It’s an image burned in my mind forever. Thankfully the whale sharks don’t mind humans swimming next to them but if you move too fast or too close, they will swim away fast!’

But then not everyone was as lucky as they were. Ellen says, ‘Unfortunately, a woman in our group was a slow swimmer who didn’t try to go fast, and she went into the water last. She only saw one whale shark from a distance for about one minute before it sped away. She said the trip wasn’t worth it for her. (I’d add she didn’t really make the effort.)’

But this slow travel around the world hasn’t been exactly a cake walk for this couple. While Ellen got diagnosed and treated for breast cancer while travelling in Split and Zagreb in Croatia in Eastern Europe, Theo battled dengue fever in Jaipur. Ellen believes that they were at the best place when it came to battling and overcoming the cancer and the fever. She says, ‘In fact, we are in the best possible place for Theo to recover. We had planned to stay in Jaipur for one month anyway. The apartment we rented is comfortable and nicely furnished, great mattress, air conditioning, spotless bathroom, many fans, well-equipped kitchen and a washing machine. It’s also ideally located around pharmacies and other essential shopping. Dengue is endemic here, and locals use things like goat milk, fresh coconut water, papaya leaf extract juice — a home remedy elixir said to bring up platelet levels. Our hostess made sure Theo was well supplied with the elixir.’

She believes that the costs are way lower than the Western world. ‘The blood tests for Dengue cost between $3 – $21, depending on what exactly was tested. I can only imagine what such tests would have cost in the Western world. Even for cancer I considered treatment back home in the U.S. without health insurance, but with a price tag exponentially higher than abroad, that route seemed foolish when I knew I could get quality care elsewhere in the world for a fraction of the price.’

But Jaipur has not just been a dengue experience for them. Ellen says, ‘One of the really cool things about Rajasthan’s capital city is that its people have a long record of trying to figure out the universe and humanity’s place in it. From karmic beliefs and kingly crematoriums, to a giant outdoor astronomy lab that has lasted centuries, there is a significant soulful vibe if you are open to it. We loved visiting Jantar Mantar, Hawa Mahal and Gatore Ki Chhatriya, which was quite a serene place to sit and relax near gorgeous architecture.’

As travellers around the world, what is the experience that they would never forget? Ellen and Theo promptly reply, ‘Sleeping under the stars in Jaisalmer.’

Theo says, ‘For two consecutive nights we laid and gasped and pondered and cuddled and eventually slept in the total blackness and silence of the universe that is the Thar Desert at the Indian-Pakistani border. Hardly any other tourists were around on this authentic, rugged adventure. Truly, the only audible sound in the night was the faint tinkling of the bells worn by our camels as they grazed freely in the distant scrub.’

Ellen further adds, ‘Compared to the Sahara, which can stretch for hundreds of miles without a single tree or plant, the Thar is alive – especially in October. The monsoon just ended weeks before and it was a wet year, so small greenery abounds. Still, the terrain reminded me of West Texas or New Mexico. Farm folk worked the one crop of millet or wheat they scrape from valley fields before the parched dust is abandoned until next monsoon. We frequently passed grazing goat, sheep, and cow herds. In addition, over the next days, we saw plenty of deer, birds, lizards, beetles, eagles. The guides said poisonous snakes and scorpions are not an issue until the super dry summer time of April and May.’

Theo says this was the best experience of his life. ‘The first afternoon we rode about 1.5 hours to the ‘preset’ dune-top camp where Ellen and I watched sunset with fresh tea (chai) and cold beer. As we left Barna, a car delivered six big, cold Kingfisher beers to our guides. We waited as they prepared dinner of tasty fresh vegetable masala, rice and handmade chapati bread. It was more than we could eat. More beer, a few shared stories, time for the stars. The guides put our cots far out where the Milky Way seemed to touch the sand. We loved the silence, solitude amidst a magnificent moonrise, the faint clanking camel bells and gentle night winds. We woke up to a pink desert sunrise with coffee, fresh fruit, porridge, and bread. We broke camp on camelback by 9 a.m. and rode three hours as the sun climbed and baked bush and bodies. At noon, we arrived at the one huge shade tree under which we had our lunch, chai, a warm beer and dozed off amidst some ant bites.’

The adventure doesn’t end here. Theo reminisces ‘As the sun set again on this Thar Desert camping trip, we zigzagged the biggest dune yet, eventually arriving at another camp site where beds and cookware were kept under wraps. The camels were again released to graze, chai prepared. In the distance, the camels from earlier appeared. Guide Suru was now leading two young French women and a solo South Korean guy. They arrived at sunset with a surprise — a cooler with cold beer!

They interacted with other travellers too. ‘Around the campfire, and food, we chatted with the other travellers. As always, our story of nearly seven years of vagabonding was a big hit. The French women were just beginning a one-year ’round the world journey. Early retired and comfortable in our 50’s in an uncertain world is a blessing indeed. As the skies darken, the guides accommodated each bedding request. We were spaced out over the huge hills of sand and time. Soon the endless blackness was broken only by star twinkles and bell tinkles. It seemed only minutes between the midnight moonrise and dawn of the day. Sleep was easy in the void of the Thar.’

Looking at this couple, I wondered what is the secret of their staying and braving so much together in a world where marriages fall apart at a drop of a hat? Ellen says, ‘We have lots of common interests. We love travelling and we like doing the same things.’ Theo agrees, ‘We do have fights (big ones) but we know how to resolve them. We don’t keep grudges and egos. Whoever is wrong apologizes and makes it a point to mend the fences.’

So, what advice would these seasoned world travellers give to other people who aspire to see this planet at least once? Theo says, ‘I think the most important thing is that you need to take care of your health. Medical expenses can be crazy. Keep fit, exercise and eat well. Then you also should plan for your retirement and travel way in advance. Don’t spend money just because you want a big car or a house. Spend on what you really need and write down everything you spend on. If we can see the world on a budget, so can you!’ He adds, ‘More than the budget, it is the sense of wonder and curiosity that makes us travel the world. We love knowing and understanding different cultures, experiencing different cuisines, and marvelling at this amazing planet called Earth.’

This couple reminds me of lines from Farhan Akhtar’s movie, ‘Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara.’ (You don’t live twice) ‘Dilon mein tum apni betaabiyan leke chal rahe ho,toh zinda ho tum. Hawa ke jhokon ke jaise, aazad rehno sikho, har ek lamhe se tum milo, khole apni bhaayein, jo apni aankhon mein hairaniyan leke chal rahe ho, toh zinda ho tum. (If you are walking restlessness in your heart, you are alive. Remain free like the wind, meet each moment with open arms. If you are walking with curiosity in your heart, you are alive.)

This article by Shailaza Singh was published in Rashtradoot Newspaper’s Arbit Section on 26 November 2022

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