Eight years ago, in their 60s, Alison Armstrong and Don Read sold or gave away everything they owned and set off on a globetrotting adventure. Alison shares their amazing journey with the Trading Places Village.
In 2011, when I was 61 and my husband was 69, we sold our condo and car, and sold or gave away our furniture and pretty much everything else we owned. It was the only way we could figure out how to pay off our debts and for my husband to be able to retire. We made a bit of money on the apartment and spent the next 5.5 years as homeless nomads traveling the world. Was it scary? You bet it was.
People our age are supposed to be settling into old age, downsizing yes, but not to nothing! Do we regret it? Not for a second. It was the most enlivening thing we could have possibly done.
We travelled the world (SE Asia, India, Australia and New Zealand, South Pacific islands, South America, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, China, Japan, Europe), and lived for a while in Cyprus and Mexico, but in 5.5 years the longest we stayed in any one place was four months. It was an exhilarating ride, and one that changed us in many ways.
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.
Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that.
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Howard Thurman – author, philosopher, educator, and civil rights leader.
We did things that we never would have done before and it opened us up to Life. We just went out and did things! Because we were there and we’d probably not get another opportunity.
South America Adventures
In Argentina we went to Iguazu Falls. From the walkway I pointed to a tiny boat below us in the water about to go right under the falls. I suggested we go do that. My husband replied “there’s no way I’m getting in that boat!” We did of course.
What a ride. We sat right up front and the boat headed straight into a huge wall of spray from the falls. We were drenched, deluged, soaked! There was so much water coming at me that I remember at one point not being able to breathe and thinking I might drown here and tried to turn my face away. We came out and then went back in again! All of us were screaming with excitement and then I started laughing, so hard I thought I’d choke. It was a volcano of a laugh that went on and on, at the absurdity of what we were doing, and that we actually chose to do it. I doubt I’d ever felt more alive.
Until we went zip lining that is. We spent nine days at a lodge on the Amazon River in Peru. The lodge had a zip line sixty metres (about 200 feet) high, up above the jungle canopy. It had three sections ranging from forty metres to seventy metres long. First you’re strapped into a harness and then hauled up to a platform way above in a tree, and then your harness is attached to the zip line.
So I’m sitting there on the edge of the platform. The thought arises – You’re kidding right? You’re not really going to launch yourself into space right? And then I did. Screaming. It was so much fun.
From Ice Trekking in Argentina to Caverns in Mexico
Don may have been a little wary of going in the boat in Iguazu, but it was my turn to be scared of ice trekking. I never thought I’d be able to walk on a glacier. We were shown how to strap on our crampons, and the special posture and gait required, and off we went. Every now and then we’d find ourselves silly -grinning at each other – we‘re wearing crampons and walking on a glacier! After an hour and a half the trek ended with a shot of Famous Grouse whiskey over glacier ice. I’m not much of a drinker, but I downed that whiskey, and had a second! And then carefully walked off the glacier to solid ground.
At Playa del Carmen in Mexico we watched the people dangling from the parachutes high in the air as they were towed along by boat. Every day we saw them. Finally we plucked up the courage. We’re going parasailing! What we hadn’t realised was that we’d chosen a windy day so the water was choppy, and that you get to the boat on a Jet Ski.
The Jet Ski was bucking up and down in the waves but somehow I managed to stand up, twist around ninety degrees and flop my butt down on the deck of the boat. I scrambled out of the way as Don followed me. Once on the boat we were strapped into harnesses and the winch was released as the boat pulled away. Up up up we went.
I was frankly scared. What if the harness breaks? What if the air is sucked out of the parachute? What if, what if? The wind was strong and we were dangling in the air swinging back and forth with no control over anything.
And then we were high up above it all with a clear 360-degree view of the town, the sea, the island of Cozumel. It was so beautiful. The swinging stopped, the air was warm, and we drifted serenely along, peaceful at last.
After a time we were winched back down to the boat, and hustled onto the Jet Ski. I accomplished an inelegant sort of sitting sliding jumping motion onto the Jet Ski as both it and the boat heaved up and down in the water. I clutched my arms around the waist of the driver as if he was a long lost lover for another pounding dash through the waves. Behind me Don was far more nonchalant, his hands resting on my shoulders. We clambered off into the waves close to shore and hi-fived on the beach in glee! We did it!
For our journey along the Rio Secreto in Mexico, 20 metres (65 feet) underground, we’re given a wetsuit, a life jacket, and a miners’ helmet. With our headlamps switched on we began the descent into the channel of the river that has carved out a system of caves over thousands of years. Wading through clear icy blue and turquoise waters we found ourselves in huge caverns of stalactites and stalagmites. It was a glorious and surreal landscape. We kept moving forward through this deep dark underground landscape, at times having to squeeze through narrow passageways with only our heads above water, at times in water so deep we had to swim, always emerging into another expansive cavern.
I felt as if I’d suddenly woken up to find myself a player in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and a frisson of fear passed through me. In one of the huge caverns, standing in shallow water we all turned our lamps off. It was uncompromising darkness; so dark we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. We could hear the drip drip drip of the water from the stalactites, the far-off squeaking of bats, the soft lapping of the water. I felt the moist air on my face, the chill of the water, and smelled the deep dank earthy smell. It was a moment of aching beauty. Emerging once again into bright daylight we knew we had been blessed with a very special experience.
Hiking a Volcano in Bali
We climbed a volcano in Bali. In the dark. We were collected at our hotel at 2.30am. After a long drive, a quick basic breakfast, and another long drive we arrived at the foot of the volcano to begin the trek. We were in a group of six, three twenty-somethings and three sixty-somethings, and two guides. We were given flashlights and then we began.
It was easy enough at first, but it inevitably became steeper and steeper. And rougher and rougher. The twenty-somethings took off and we three older folk were left with one of the guides to go at our own pace. We didn’t have to win the race; we just had to get there. It was not an easy climb. Lava rock is rough and sharp and crumbly. And the night was dark. When I looked up all I could see was a sporadic line of tiny lights slowly moving – vertically. I didn’t look up often, or for long. Best to keep flashlight and eyes on the treacherous path directly in front of me. As we climbed higher and higher into the fog we could see the dawn beginning to come and we persevered.
We arrived at the top only about ten minutes after the others just as the sun was beginning to break through the fog and steam from the still-active volcano. We drank hot sweet tea as we watched the sunrise, filled with joy and wonder.
With almost all these activities we started by saying no. It was the fear of not being able to do them, or not being able to keep up with all the twenty-something backpackers we were always surrounded by, or of being injured in some way, but we always ended up going for it anyway. And every time, without fail, it was the best fun ever! Every time.
We know we are lucky, first to have the money to have been able to live this dream, and secondly with health. Somewhere in there I needed a hip replacement, and Don needed hernia surgery, but we were committed and vigilant with rehab and fitness. At the same time I believe that traveling, and the willingness to face our fears and move forward anyway has been a significant factor in keeping us youthful and healthy. There is nothing like really living to keep you in love with life. And there is nothing like being in love with life to keep you healthy. The more we stepped out of our comfort zone the more we were willing to do it. The more we did it the more alive we felt.
Ten years ago, neither of us could have possibly imagined that this nomadic journey would have been our retirement, and now as we settle into having a home again we know we are deeply changed, and more at ease and content because we were willing to live outside of the box, and outside of our comfort zone. Our day-to-day life is peaceful and ordinary, but we still travel, and still challenge ourselves. We’re now 68 and 76 and as fit and active as ever. I think it’s living that keeps us alive. Experiences are so much more valuable than things. There’s an old saying – it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I say it’s better to have lived and lost than never to have really lived. And in the final analysis we lost nothing, and gained the world.
Alison Armstrong is an Australian Canadian travel writer and world nomad based in Vancouver. You can read more about her travel adventures on her blog Adventures in Wonderland. She has also written extensively for The Journal by Intrepid Travel and Retirement and Good Living.