Traveler not a tourist…

If you happen to meet Ellen McGregor Kortan (51)  (Ellen) and Theodore Kortan (59) (Theo) at the first glance, this couple would seem like ordinary American tourists. However, when you start talking to them, you realize that they are way different than the other jet-setting, destination hopping tourists who frequent Rajasthan. They call themselves ‘slow travellers’ and have been travelling the world on a budget (less than $200 per month) and been to more than 20 countries across four continents since 2015. They have visited Mexico, Belize, Guatemala in South America, Morocco in North Africa, Portugal, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece in Europe, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines in South East Asia. Now they are on a tour of India and have visited Mumbai, Jaipur, Ajmer and are planning to visit Chennai, the whole of North East India and more.

My rendezvous with these slow travelling retired journalists happened in Jaipur, Rajasthan. I met them at a bakery where they were eating rice crackers and drinking milk. They had just gotten off the train from Udaipur and were looking for their Airbnb. When I met them Theo was trying to ask the bakery owner a question which the latter could not understand. I helped by translating for him. On a closer look, Theo faintly resembles the well known actor Pierce Brosnan (his older version). He and Ellen have a perpetual twinkle in their eye which makes people approach them and even taken photographs with them. Theo says, ‘ I don’t know what is it with us that people love to take selfies with us’. He throws up his hands and says, ‘We are no celebrities!’

This couple has been together for more than a decade. When Cupid struck, Theo was a videographer in Channel 5 in USA while Ellen worked there as a producer. When they talked about their dream of world travel, it didn’t take them long to realize that they were meant to be together. After marriage, they started planning their retirement and consciously decided not to have children. In Ellen’s words, ‘We call ourselves ‘Earth Vagabonds’ as we love wandering on this planet. We didn’t want to retire and relocate to one specific place. Instead, we chose to wander around and see the world. Theo retired at 52 and I retired at 43 in 2015.’

So, where does the money to travel come from? Theo says, ‘From a very young age, my dream has been to travel the world. So, I have always lived frugally and well below my means. When Ellen and I started dating, I shared my dream with her and travelling the world on a budget became her dream too. We started saving very early (in America, you can ask your employer to save a percentage (in my case 19%) of your salary  and put it in a different account, which can then be withdrawn as a lumpsum). We also made a lot of wise investments. Plus, we also own a modest home in Cleveland, Ohio which we have rented out for a modest passive income of $700 (INR 57,400) per year.

Ellen says, ‘Theo is a very shrewd shopper. Whether in America or foreign countries, he always hunts for the best deals and the lowest prices, which makes saving easy. We often hunt for discounts. We don’t buy a lot of clothes. We have a few pairs; we wear them out and then buy new ones. In America, I had just one car for most of my adult life as compared to other Americans who buy a new car every two or three years.  Moreover, we don’t spend a lot of money on five-star hotels or ordering food. Instead, we rent Airbnbs everywhere we go. We don’t use airplanes where we can opt for trains or buses or cars. We have our own kitchen where we cook our own food, shop at the local market and live like the locals. There are times when we have been over charged by the locals but then soon, we make friends with them and they charge us normally. For example, just the other day, I went shopping for coconut water. I found a shop some blocks away from my Airbnb. The first day, the guy charged me 80 INR. The next day when I went again and started talking to him, he took just 40 bucks for a coconut water. In fact, he even invited me to visit his own and I met his family!’

Theo agrees. ‘The one thing that we have realized in slow travel is that people are almost the same everywhere. No one is really bothered about politics or religion or caste and creed. All they really want to do is live a good life and raise their children well.’

So, what has been their travelling experience like? ‘Oh! It’s been an amazing experience,’ says Ellen. ‘We have walked the Sahara Desert, we swam with the whale sharks in La Paz in Mexico, we have hiked over night to see the active Fuego volcano in Guatemala. We also lived with the elephants for eight nights and eight days in Thom Pai’s Elephant Camp in Northern Thailand. We also jumped off waterfalls in Bali. But perhaps one of the most challenging experiences was in 2017 when we hiked overnight to see the active Fuego Volcano in Guatemala. This was some days before Theo’s 54th birthday and before the deadly eruption of June 2018 which nearly killed 200 people. Interestingly, Theo was the oldest male tourist and I was the oldest woman in that group (everyone in that group was in their 20s or 30s). But then one of our guides, Florencio was 55 years old which made us realize age is just a number. We hiked up the Acatenango Volcano (11,88 feet above the sea level) to see the Fuego Volcano eruptions. My legs burned, my knees throbbed and my hands were filthy, yet it was one of the best experiences. For Theo, the hike was like a walk in the park. His quads are in excellent shape, having played ice hockey for many years. I never took care of my physical fitness the way he did throughout life – until I got sober. Theo has always been extremely fit. For this hike, he carried up our two-person tent, sleeping bags and foam mats. Also, he carried the extra weight all the way down.

We camped at Acatenango and thankfully it didn’t rain that evening but it was cold. We slept in our tents and we listened to the rain pelt the tent. At about 2 a.m., I saw lava spew from the volcano against the night sky. I couldn’t make it up to the summit. The steep trail was slippery from the rain the night before and my cheap sneakers weren’t exactly getting a good grip. Hiking boots would have been ideal – but we don’t usually hike so we didn’t carry hiking boots. I probably would have fallen as much with the proper shoes because my legs were so tired and sore. But one thing that I can say is that it is quite crazy to see an active volcano. At first, the volcanic eruption (which happened in the day) caught us quite off guard. It was an explosion of lava and almost like red vomit coming out of a mountain! I could never get used to the subsequent eruptions through out the night and next morning.’

Would she do it again if given a chance? Ellen says, ‘This was quite an experience I won’t ever forget. Though I would love to repeat it, but I don’t think I could do it again.  At that moment, I loved it – pain and all. I’m not really a hiker. I’ve done Observation Point and Angel’s Landing at Zion Park in Utah, USA, along with the whole Bryce Canyon. I hiked up Guatemala’s Pacaya volcano. Those hikes were all like ‘walks in the park’ for me compared to this one. My legs were quite stiff after the hike but the views the entire way are incredible – not just Fuego and Aqua. The various forests, the volcanic scrub areas, the incredible feeling to have hiked up high enough to be above clouds.’

Does she plan to hike again? ‘Yes, we are planning a low hike in the Himalayas but not as strenuous.’

To be continued..

This article by Shailaza Singh was published in Rashtradoot Newspaper’s Arbit Section on 25 November 2022

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