The World Traveler Getting Back into the Game

Kevin, a traveler I helped over the course of four months and twenty very long, rambling email sessions, was eager to remind me that he’s almost double my age.  He also trumps my “country conquest numbers”; by July 2000, he’d been to 80 countries around the world.  He took a break for a year to have surgery on his knee.  By September 2011, he was ready to travel again.  On September 15, 2001, he canceled his his scheduled trip to Cape Town, South Africa.  Then over 14 years passed.

Kevin’s granddaughter grew up and majored in international relations.  Kevin’s passport expired.  He stopped making weekend trips from his native Edinburgh to London.  “I used to be able to make that trip on a bike,” he said.  Sure, it would take him a couple days.  Now it would take him a couple days to dig out his bucket list, read it, realize he was “better off” at home, and go back to watching National Geographic lion cub videos.

I wasn’t sure how to help him at first because I didn’t know what the problem was.  Fear of terrorism?  Fears of violence or illness in South Africa?  I told him I happened to be going to South Africa on May 24, 2016.  I could work through his fears as I confronted my own, and we did a lot of that through our emails.  It eventually became clear what he was most afraid of: not living up to the “standard” he’d once set as a younger traveler.  He would be ashamed and embarrassed to tell anyone he knew that he did what he secretly wanted  on a trip– sit around and enjoy his hotel room all morning, eat a deli-mart breakfast on the beach instead of eating shark meat or something else to tell his friends about back home, and then go on a day safari instead of renting a jeep and plunging into the backroads to see the lions in what he said would just be a “stressful” experience.  He said he wanted to take it easy and see the animals, not have to constantly monitor them.  But…

“Travel is like a sport to me,” he wrote.  “I have this feeling that if I’m not going to make a great accomplishment, and get every minute out of every hour, then I shouldn’t even bother playing, Rita.”   How do I get an ambitious perfectionist to relax and do what he truly wants with his hard-earned vacation money?

“What if you didn’t tell anyone where you were going?” I asked him.


“Don’t tell anyone,” I said.  “Then there’s no updating your Facebook page with travel “accomplishments.”  There’s no racing around town to find people the “best” souvenirs.  There’s no exhausting yourself just so you look like a hero with a passport.”

I lost contact with him for a week.  Then, all of a sudden, an update on his Facebook page: he was taking a three-week bike trip from Edinburgh to London.  He wasn’t taking his iPhone, much to the chagrin of a lot of his 733 FB friends.  He was going off the grid.  Don’t even bother looking for him in the hills outside London, he announced on his wall.  Then he wrote to me: “Need you to help me buy a three-week trip to Africa.  Never bought airline tickets online before!”

Conveniently enough, British Airways flies nonstop from London to Cape Town and back.  I didn’t dare mention the escapade last year to Kevin about two South African refugees who hitchhiked in the plane engine all the way back from Cape Town to England.  He wrote to me a few hours after he checked into his hotel overlooking the Table Mountains.

“This doesn’t feel like Country #83,” he said.  “It feels like Country #1.”

We agreed he should avoid all subliminal reference to anything being “#1.”  But, dang, Kevin, you beat me to it.  My flight for Cape Town doesn’t leave for three more weeks.


Alpha male with a plane ticket

The Cruise Ship that’s Still Waiting for You

Rotterdam in The Netherlands is often overlooked as a tourist city.  It’s big, it’s cosmopolitan, it’s flashy, it’s gritty, and it looks and feels nothing like Amsterdam.  Perhaps it’s “the other Holland ” — a maritime wonder, a reflection of multicultural Europe, a port that is just secluded enough from the Atlantic to make you feel like you’re in the heart of the mainland.  I found myself there this February as a matter of curiosity, and a desire to explore more of The Netherlands than just its canal-laden tourist treasure.  The SS Rotterdam hotel was my stop for just one night.  Yes, a hotel entirely consisting of a massive docked cruise ship.  The receptionists are dressed like sailors, and the guests are among the more unique and colorful you’ll find on the travel trail.

Henry and Laetitia, I think, were the only other people on my floor (level?  cargo hold?), and they were both wearing enough navy blue and white to embarrass a  J Crew himself.  They were both about 70, and they saw me doing my aerobics out in the nice flower gardens in front of the ship at 3 am to burn off my jetlag.  Now, I’m not normally that talkative at 2 am, especially with French people who are ballroom dancing on a balcony in the middle of the night, but it didn’t take me long to engage with this couple from Toulouse, France about just why they were enjoying their stay so much.  They had never been on a cruise before, although they dearly wanted to.

“This is as close as we’re going to get,” Laetitia told me.

“We’re afraid,” Henry confessed to me.  “We’re older, we get on a cruise, there’s an epidemic on board and we both get sick, the winds or the water kick up and one of us slips on the deck and breaks our leg, or who knows, the thing sinks.  We don’t trust cruise ships.”

They had their laundry list of places they wanted to sail, but “couldn’t” sail: St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Canary Islands, Alaska, the Shetland Islands.  Laetitia had survived a near-drowning incident when she was 20, and it soon became clear to me that this couple was held back as much by that as by fears of shipwide contagion or starring in a reality remake of Poseidon.  How do I tell a woman who’s 70 that she could be enjoying herself so much on a Princess that she won’t even realize she’s hovering above millions of gallons of what nearly killed her?

I offered my various visualization strategies, and by the time 4 am rolled around, the “sailor” tour guide in the “control room” was starting to wonder about us.  “Is everything in your rooms to your satisfaction?” he asked

“Can you do one of your ship tours right now?” I blurted out.

“Right now?” he said.

“Yes.”  Well, we got our $100 worth in the form of a walkthrough of the engine room, the chart room, the control room, and everything else with an electrical panel on it that we could keep straight in our heads.  Why did I go?  Because I’ve coached anxious flyers to overcome their fears via cockpit tours, and this seemed like basically the same thing except for a ship.  I see that point where people are too relieved and happy to remember exactly what was holding them back.  Can two retirees still have that feeling of restless desire to make up for lost time?

“I don’t feel like I’m on water,” Laetitia said, “I feel like I’m on an island.”

Yes, I persuaded an elderly couple to go on a cruise ship tour in the middle of the night, and then to book a riverboat cruise down the Danube a week later.  I’ve been helping Laetitia work through her unresolved fears about cruises via email ever since.  Henry won’t talk to me; he says I remind him of Kate Winslet for some reason, and then he just thinks about Titanic.  Fair enough, Henry.   But send me a postcard from the world’s largest floating post office.

The SS Rotterdam in The Netherlands


Travel as a Form of Alzheimer’s Therapy: A Mother and Daughter’s Adventure

Emma and her mother, Judy, are letting me share their story on this blog.

Emma is 50 and Judy is 81.  Four years ago, Judy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  Emma wanted to spend more time with her mother, and dearly wanted to take a trip together — while they still could — but the strain of one disease on two women was evident in three short phone calls with them.    They didn’t even know where they wanted, or could, go.

Emma had pretty well-defined anxieties about traveling; she readily admitted to problems dealing with hotel noise and getting lost.  Worst, “Touring is complete overload,” she told me.  “When I travel, everything I see reminds me of something, but I can’t remember what, and it sticks with me and piles up on me, and it’s impossible to enjoy myself.

“Oh yeah,” she said, “And I also start eating too much.  Every time I can’t clear my head, I eat.”

Judy, on the other hand, was relatively carefree.  Yes, Alzheimer’s is devastating, but how would you like to forget certain things that give many of us heart palpitations?  Judy couldn’t remember news coverage of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 being shot down mid air, or suicidal German pilot Andreas Lubitz ramming a planeload of innocent travelers into the Alps.  To my astonishment (happiness?) she couldn’t even recall 9/11.

“It’s on my ICE list, dear,” Judy said.

“Pick a place for us,” Emma told me.  “We’re paying to pick the best place out there for us to go to. And it better not be too far.”

My mission was clear.  Judy was in a wheelchair, so I ruled out a trip to Latin America; there was just no guarantee of disabled access, even in the larger cities.  Still, Emma and Judy wanted an “international vacation,” so Canada became the obvious choice.  Before I knew it, I was picking out flights for them from Oakland, California to Victoria, British Columbia.  Being on an island sounded “manageable” to Emma, and Judy realized she wanted to see the Butchart Gardens.

The first thing I told Emma was to get her mom out of the electric wheelchair.  Push her around all day, I said.  You’ll interact more, you’ll get great exercise, and it will feel so different than what you’re used to. And please, Emma, don’t plan every notch of your itinerary because it will just make you feel tied down and obligated, and your mother will forget it all anyway.  Victoria is a relatively small, safe, welcoming and sedate city.  You don’t really have to plan anything.  My hope was that Emma would be so busy seeing things through her mother’s eyes that she didn’t notice the things that normally bothered her.

Emma and Judy believed in what I had to say.  On a vacation, it didn’t really matter if Judy didn’t remember anything.  They were living in the moment. It didn’t even matter if Judy wouldn’t remember much of this very trip.  We don’t go on adventures just to make mental keepsakes out of them; we go to exert ourselves with all five senses.  Memory isn’t one of our five senses.  We spend a lot of energy as a society caring for Alzheimer’s victims, so why do we emphasize “reclaiming” experiences so much?  Why don’t we think more along these lines — of the exhilarating immersion in a new environment that Alzheimer’s can’t touch?

Beyond that, the irony of Emma and Judy’s experience is that Emma feared certain aspects of traveling because her mother feared them.  Now that Judy wasn’t sensitized to the same old anxieties, mother and daughter couldn’t feed off each other’s worries.  Relief… and more proof that fear of travel is learned, not innate.  Not something that Emma would every actually admit to, of course.

I got a postcard of the Butchart Gardens that featured lipstick kisses of both ladies.

Looking back on the trip, I wrote to Emma that night, what was the worst thing you encountered?

“God,” she said, “I don’t recall.”