My term as the president of the Travelers’ Century Club will soon end and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the club and the board of directors for giving me the privilege of being president the past two years. By any metric, our club is in a healthy and strong position with our membership at almost 1,600 members. We are diversified with thirty chapters around the globe; our monthly Virtual Exploration program continues to produce an entertaining and educational product and we anticipate another successful conference in the Azores next year.
At a recent TCC meeting, the subject of traveling alone was raised and I was surprised there were so many positive comments on the topic. This had me reflect on my own personal experience and was able to determine that of the 193 UN Nation countries, I have visited one-third of these alone. There were no tour groups to guide me, no family to share experiences with and no friends to encourage each other. It made me think that one is more open to meeting people if you are not with anyone and I recalled a number of unique experiences I believe I would only have by traveling solo.
In one particular journey, I was in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and had the opportunity to meet a very special plastic surgeon. He had been there for several months performing corrective surgeries on many victims of the rebel group, Revolutionary United Front. The group was known to use amputations as a form of terror against their opponents during the country’s civil war from 1991 to 2002. When we walked together, it was noticeable that he shielded his face from pedestrians. The doctor shared that he rarely walked the streets of Freetown as he feared being recognized as the medical person who performed excruciating painful surgeries on the victims.
Imagine jogging one morning in Sana’a, Yemen. (In this group, I’m sure a few of you have done this.) In 2015, as I was jogging one morning, a man ran up beside me and speaking perfect English, asked if I was a foreigner. Foolishly, I invited further conversation by saying,“Yes.” He started to list government scandals he wanted to tell me about. Even though I tried to run faster, he kept pace with me and recounted a long list of failures of his government. It was particularly embarrassing, or even uncomfortable, because he was talking loudly and I was afraid a police officer would hear him. I tried stopping, but his animated talk continued. As this went on for ten minutes or so, I thought I was better off running than standing on a street corner listening to him. He eventually relented and let me continue with my run.
I have visited Ethiopia three times and generally speaking, the people there love and support runners. One time though, I had been running for several hours in the Omo Valley near the South Sudan border when a thief stopped me and demanded the two rings I was wearing. Because I had been running that long, my hands were swollen and he couldn’t remove my rings. He tugged and tugged and I almost feared losing a finger by other measures. Surprisingly, he gave up and let me go. I never felt like I was in any particular danger.
How many of you have a 10-inch scar on your stomach caused by a yak? The Mount Everest marathon in Nepal was a must for me in 1999. Envision a narrow trail. I then came face to face with a farmer and his huge yak. I motioned the farmer to proceed, but he insisted that I come first. Within four feet of the yak, it was startled and suddenly dropped its head, huge horns were ready to do damage and it lunged towards me. Somehow, I was able to grab the horns, but the yak was still able to lift me off the ground. It violently shook his head from side to side throwing me into the air and shallowly goring my stomach from one side to the other. Fortunately, it was not a deep wound and I was able to finish the marathon, but required medical attention at the end of the race.
In 2001, I was jogging in Shiraz, Iran when I passed a sports stadium. I could see that a large number of people were gathering and decided to enter. I assumed it would be a soccer match. However, it was the anniversary of the Iranian revolution, and the quote “Death to America” was the theme. (Good timing, Steve.) Although speeches were in Farsi, disparaging references to the USA were obvious. It was surreal to watch the two-hour propaganda exercise. Nevertheless, again, I felt safe and anonymous during the program.
These are extreme situations of independent travel, but I still recommend that the next time you’re planning a trip and your travel partner backpedals on going with you, don’t cancel your trip. GO! Have faith that the rewards you receive from your solo journey will be one of your most rewarding vacations.