Before we set out on our trip one of the things we were interested in was different ways of living. We wanted to see if we could work out how to get a balance in life, working, preferably at something we enjoyed doing, and travelling or doing other enjoyable stuff.
Thanks to the people we’ve met, we’ve come back not so much with ideas about how we can live our life, but living proof of the fact that it’s possible to live in the way you choose, rather than the way society dictates.
I always thought that people were far more important than places and our trip has confirmed that. We’ve met people who are living life in all sorts of different ways and I want to remember them all and the fact that it can be done.
Blair and Marc live their lives unconventionally in many ways but what was marked about them was their refusal to be trapped by fear over protecting possessions. They live on an upmarket estate in Queens, New York, that is patrolled by security cars paid for by the residents. But they never lock their doors or windows. Despite owning antiques and family heirlooms they are not sentimental about objects and refuse to compromise their lives for the sake of protecting their stuff. This was brought home to us when we borrowed their two bikes and they were promptly stole. We walked back contemplating our confession and the cost (maybe $1,000) of replacing the bikes. But when we told Marc and Blair they laughed and said as long as no one was hurt they didn’t care. They were only bikes after all!
Tom lives in a Mayan inspired house he is building himself in Louisiana. He’s been building it for about 40 years and has a heritage centre there. Tom is 80 years old and his knees are pretty much crippled with arthritis but he is full of plans for the future, for completing the house, for carrying out weddings in the beautiful setting, and for expanding the work of the heritage centre. It felt a real privilege to spend a week helping him and being inspired by his enthusiasm and tenacity.
Edgar is a young man (19) who lives on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. He comes from a large family in a society where education is not available to all and people marry and have families young. Edgar works in the herb garden of Maya Traditions, an NGO supporting women weavers. He takes a real pride in his work. He also has a job in an office, and is studying Agronomy. He doesn’t want to get married until he has a good job and a house of his own. It was great to meet a serious, focussed youngster who has thought things through and is making the best of life in a very difficult society.
Geraldo is a Dutch ex backpacker who runs Via Via hostel in Copan, Honduras. He’s full of energy and enthusiasm but what was really encouraging was that he employed local people on a fair wage and in no way exploited either the locals or his guests.
Heather used to work in Los Angeles as a PA to the stars. A few years ago she wrote a book about her experiences and made enough money to enable her to leave and return to the area she grew up in. She’s a single mum and she’s now teaching with enthusiasm and living the way she wants to live. It can be done!
John Thomas was an Anthropology lecturer. When he retired he decided he’d like to learn to play the violin. This proved more difficult than he’d thought so he started to repair violins instead. At the age of 64 he now has a thriving business. It can be done!
Americans are not perfect but so many of them were open, welcoming, generous and friendly to us. In the words of Barbara Kingsolver, why can’t America be more like Americans? Keith springs to mind.
Sarah and Rhys were our hosts in Kuala Lumpur. They are a young English couple who have decided to make a better life for themselves in a country where they see more opportunity. Sarah is half Malay. They both work hard, Rhys is learning the language, they’re generous hosts and will go far.
Shade is a reformed alcoholic who married late in life, gave up his career as a chef and now lives in an idyllic spot on an island in the Andaman sea. He has a boat, eats fresh fish from the sea every day, coconuts from the trees and quite disgusting tea and coffee. He lives a tranquil life welcoming guests from all over the world as the perfect host. Inspirational!
Pedro and family are from South Korea. They have chosen to go against the grain by not sending their children to cram school and by moving out of Seoul to an island. Every school holiday they take their two boys on impromptu trips abroad so they are broadening their education in that way. We met them while staying in Shade’s bungalow. The money saved by not sending the kids to cram school will support Pedro and his wife in their old age so they are not dependent on their kids who, in turn, will be free to live their own lives. This seems a new approach for South Koreans and a courageous way for them to live their lives.
The Mancunian. We never knew his name but he advised us to go to Koh Jum. He has a big house and all the trimmings in the UK but he and his wife spend every winter on a Thai island living in a simple two room bungalow and travelling round on their scooter. His wife catches fish that she sells to local restaurants.
Raewyn is Australian. She married a Thai man in Australia 20 years ago. 10 years ago they moved to Bangkok and they now live in a oasis in the centre of the city amongst his family, renting rooms to travellers.
Alan was a man Sean struck up conversation about Tai Chi with in a park in Taipei. He was friendly and encouraging and happy.
Swallow runs a guest house in Taiwan. She speaks no English but her enthusiasm and ingenuity with Facebook and Google translate allowed us to communicate so she gave us lots of tips and advice to make our stay more enjoyable.
Linda is a Taiwanese ex English teacher, who now runs a guesthouse with her husband in a small village; and manages a pizza restaurant where her son is the chef, cooking in a wood-fired pizza oven built by her husband. The only one of two in Taiwan (the other is in their guest house).
Kiichi! Where to begin? Kiichi is an eccentric, ebullient, generous, funny Japanese man living on Okinawa, embarking on his second career (and second marriage) in his fifties. Until last year he was a DJ in his own nightclub. He’s now sold it and is working with a movie director friend to produce films in Okinawa. He loves hats, has a range of glasses, waistcoats, cut-off cords and interesting shoes. He loves babysitting his new grand daughter; he took us for the best noodles we tasted. And we all managed to communicate despite the language barrier. I would love to have his natural enthusiasm and appreciation of life.
Fumiki has clear ideas about what he wants from life for himself and his family. He used to be a singing teacher and musician and treated us to a very touching rendition of Danny Boy. He then decided to retrain as a nurse, something that he explained gives him the same satisfaction as music, through the contact with people. While training he and his family lived in a tiny apartment on a very low income but they have now managed to buy a house. Fumiki is adamant that he wants his two girls to grow up with an understanding of the international world and wants to introduce them to people and experiences from beyond Japan. He’s committed to working hard to achieve this, is devoted to his family and true to himself.
Adje, despite her faults, is an example of how life can be turned around. In her late fifties she sold her B&B in Holland and bought a farmhouse in Umbria. I wouldn’t say she has endeared herself to the local workmen but she has achieved her dream home and the lifestyle she wants through single mindedness, determination and courage.
Johnny was our host in Pisa. He is a Persian Physiotherapy student and hopes to study for his Master’s in England. After that he hopes to move to Montreal. I was impressed that he had this long term goal that he is steadily working towards and he will undoubtedly overcome obstacles (learning English, researching a different education and health system, visa regulations) that would make me give up in the early stages.
I am full of admiration for all these people who have qualities that I lack. I’d like to be more like many of them and will try to remember what they, and others, have shown me. All of them were trusting, open and welcoming and that’s a good way to be with other people.
As well as meeting people, we wanted to see beneath the surface and get a real feel for the countries that we visited. We hoped helpx and airbnb would help us to do this. We had a qualified success, initially marred by the setback of finding Maya Pedal to be a cowboy operation. The natural warmth of the Americans and the great helpx hosts we met there meant we did feel we achieved a connection with the people and understanding of the country. In Central America, too, we met and worked with local people. In Asia this became more difficult, particularly in Thailand, where we were perceived as ‘foreigners’ rather than people so we were given the tourist experience and found it difficult to share in every day life. Shade gave us a great taste of island life in Malaysia, taking us to visit a school, local cafes and his wife’s family. Kiichi helped us get to know Okinawa and Fumiki gave us a real insight into Japanese life but, perhaps inevitably, we felt more like tourists in Asia (and Italy) than earlier in our trip.
Seeing different countries has brought home to us the huge inequalities that exist in different parts of the world, the massive drain on natural resources, the huge waste that occurs everywhere (‘disposable’ water bottles and other items being most evident). We also saw widespread signs of how the rich parts of the world are keeping the poor in their place and how the wealthy sectors of society are looking after their own interests at the expense of those at the bottom.
But on a personal level we’ve been inspired by so many of the people we met and the way they’ve organised their lives. The challenge now is to use what we’ve learnt to put things in place so we can live our own lives in the way that we want to.