Traveling Then and Now Part 2

Hope you enjoyed the first part of our interview with Della’s parents about what it was like when they traveled around the world back in 1979-80. Here we will continue to hear more about their life on the road then and compare it with ours on the road now!

How hard was it to communicate with the local population at every stop?

Peggy and Wayne (P&W): In some countries like Egypt, Turkey, Taiwan, Greece and even, Germany, there was not much English spoken or understood (and needless to say, we didn’t speak their language). Taiwan was especially rough because we didn’t understand the weights, measures, or street signs because they were in a different script. Even if someone wrote the street name on a paper, we found it impossible to compare the two different renderings of the same name. A lot of countries were easier because they were former British colonies. That meant there were English speakers and even English language newspapers. We found more English spoken in India 35 years ago than during our 2008 visit.

Chatting with a local in Burma

Chatting with a local in Burma

Della and Eric (D&E): For the most part, it has been incredibly easy. English is the universal language and there have only been a very few times where others didn’t speak it. We feel quite lucky (and lazy) that we never have to work very hard to communicate.

How did you get money?

P&W: Except in Europe, almost no place we stayed, ate, or shopped accepted credit cards and the only card of any value at all abroad, was American Express. Each of us had an American Express card and it was important to be one of their customers. Once every 30 days you could use the card to cash a check by going in person to the American Express office. Not many places had such offices however. We carried some US cash and $4800 in American Express travelers checks in relatively small denominations. We would carry these in our money belt or in pockets we had sewn inside our pants both at our waist and near the cuffs. Halfway through the trip, we had American Express re-issue some travelers checks, since they were so sweaty and worn out. At airports and near border crossings there were always currency exchanges They usually took large commissions so we would only use these to get a minimal amount of local currency, sufficient to tide us over until we could get to a bank. Exchange rates were better there, but foreign banks often kept short and sometimes erratic hours and the money exchange process was tedious and time consuming. Most countries had established exchange rates (rather than market driven ones). You could almost always get a much better rate on  the “black” market, on the street. Doing so, however, was illegal. As part of your entry and exit, you were supposed to declare all your cash and then show official receipts demonstrating official exchange for the difference in dollars between the amount you came in with and the amount you left with. Some countries required that you exchanged at least a minimum amount. We never ran out of money, but other travelers did. And that was a big deal. They had to send home for money to be wire transferred to a bank. It cost a lot to do and could take a long time.

At the beach in India

At the beach in India

D&E: We almost exclusively get money from ATMs along the way. It has been easy to find them at almost every stop. We make sure to use debit cards from accounts that charge no foreign transaction fees. Eric uses Charles Schwab and Della uses Fidelity. Many places also accept credit cards and we use those as often as we can. Again, we have ones that have no extra foreign transaction fees.

How did you budget / find inexpensive options?

P&W: We didn’t have a budget, we just tried to be as cheap as we could be. We had enough in savings that we knew we wouldn’t run out before the end of the trip. The bigger worry was always having access to cash if we should need it and not having our cash and/or airline tickets stolen.

We wrote down all of our expenses in the back of our journal. We would keep tabs by category of spending for each country and divide by the number of days. Our records show that  it cost $12 a day for two people in Nepal (and about half that while trekking).

We spent almost $13,000 overall during the nine months we traveled. Airfare figured prominently in our budget – costing almost $3500. We spent about $1600 on things – souvenirs and gifts. Excluding airfare and these purchases, we spent about $30 per night. That includes $1700 spent on internal transport. We had relatively high costs in Europe and in Hong Kong. We also had high daily costs in Burma because the visa there was very restrictive and required that internal transportation be done by air, rather than by boat, train or bus. When looking for lodging, we usually started by looking at recommendations from Lonely Planet or other travelers. We would go to the area where the recommended guest house was located. If the recommended place was full or was no longer cheap, we could usually find other cheap places nearby. Booking ahead really wasn’t an option since there weren’t many phones. Sometimes we would follow touts. Perhaps most important to keeping costs down was that Wayne loved bargaining with everyone and about everything. Even when he didn’t want to buy, Wayne would bargain just to get a sense of what things really cost.

Negotiating over something in Greece

Negotiating over something in Greece

D&E: We try to say we have a general budget on average of about $100/day. However, that is a pretty arbitrary number that we have chosen for ourselves. Our general rule is to be as cheap as possible. It is often easy to pick affordable accommodation because you can compare all prices in one sitting on the computer before you book. Sometimes it is even the same with restaurants, though we count more on fellow travelers and outside menus generally. We try to eat out only as much as is necessary, cook for ourselves occasionally, take public transit as much as possible, and stay in dorm rooms when we feel like we’re spending too much! Check out our budget posts to see how much we’ve been spending in each location.

Were there opportunities to work or volunteer abroad?

P&W: In Greece, we think we picked oranges for one day for $5.

We worked as volunteers for about two weeks in South India and it was an incredible experience. A graduate school friend had prior experience working with NGOs in India and he arranged the experience for us. It was at a clinic/farm, run by an elderly British lady and a Hindu couple.  They provided health care services in a rural area. Often patients had to travel hours to get to the clinic, so if they had an injury that needed ongoing care, they would stay and if able, work on the farm in exchange for their room and board. We did a building project for them and it was quite an experience to take the oxen cart to get our supplies. This place was so off-the-tourist track that locals would surround us and just stare.

D&E: We haven’t volunteered or worked yet, but we see a lot of other travelers who do. Many travelers use a site called where you can find opportunities abroad. There are also a ton of volunteer opportunities through different non-profit organizations. We hope to do some volunteering with elephants in Thailand!

How did you record the memories from your trip? Pictures? Text?

P&W: We took about 2000 pictures during our trip. Wayne’s walk-around day bag was the camera case with a 35 mm SLR camera and two big lenses: a wide angle and telephoto lens. We bought an additional zoom lens in Hong Kong. Peggy had the original “spy camera,” a small 35 mm Minox. We had to ration our picture taking because we brought all of our film from home and because film and processing were relatively expensive. We shipped our film home whenever we sent a package and had it developed there. As a result, we didn’t know whether any of the pictures we took were any good. Going through airport security was tough because the old x-ray type machines used for security could ruin film, so we carried a  lead bag to protect it. We kept index cards for each roll of film to take notes on where pictures were taken.

We also kept a journal. We wrote our experiences down every couple of days. Peggy used carbon paper to make a copy as she wrote each page in the journal, and then send those pages in lieu of letters to our families. They were to keep the letters just in case our journals got lost. We remember having to be really careful using the carbon paper. Sometimes it would end up folded and you’d lose half a page, or worse yet if you put it in the wrong way, you ended up with backwards script on the back side of the journal page and nothing on the paper to be sent home! We also bought souvenirs, which contributed to our memories. We shipped items home from several of the countries we visited. Shipping was a little difficult. We varied who we sent packages to because you would have to pay tariffs if you sent too much to the same address . It sometimes took several days to put together a package. Finding boxes was quite hard, especially in Africa. Also every country had a different process. In India, you had to find a tailor to sew a cloth around the entire box and put wax seals on seams. We shipped 13 boxes in total, including a small marble table top from Agra and Tibetan rugs from Nepal. Despite dire warning that stuff would be stolen or lost in transit, every one of our  boxes made it home eventually! We waited over a year for the Agra marble. We had a friend going to Agra and we asked him to visit the  shop where we bought it. The guy told him he had only recently completed the inlay of the semi precious stones (it was a special order) and it was in the back room ready for shipping. To be on the safe side, our friend accompanied the craftsman to the post office just to make sure that it was sent!

Peggy as the Pied Piper in rural India

Peggy as the Pied Piper in rural India

D&E: Obviously our biggest tool is this blog! However, we also keep a more personal more detailed log of every day travel. We have taken thousands and thousands of pictures – sometimes more than we know what to do with! Keeping everything digitally makes it easy to have way more than you really need. We have also sent quite a few postcards home. We have purchased a few souvenirs which we have sent home with family members when they have visited and we took some home ourselves on our break over the holidays.

How did you keep in contact with home?

P&W: We sent letters and postcards to family and friends fairly often. We would send things called airgrams. They were pretty affordable. The paper was really lightweight, almost like tissues. We had to be careful, as they could get ruined easily!

We made one or two phone calls. You would go to the center of town where there was a bank of phones for international calls. You would wait for them to get set up and then they would assign you a booth. We called our families around Christmas. We would generally call collect. It was difficult though, because there was no way to prearrange the call, so we just hoped people would be around.

We had given people a general itinerary of where we expected to be, each time we bought a batch of air tickets. We asked them to send us letters “post restante” or general delivery to the larger cities. They could also send things to the American Express offices or the American embassies. People would send us letters fairly often. When we arrived in major cities, we would check in all three of those places to make sure we didn’t miss a letter.

We traveled with Peggy’s parents in Italy at the start of our trip. Other travelers in Europe seemed quite a bit younger than we were. Later on, in Africa and Asia, we connected with quite a few other travelers and most were our age. We also managed to see some friends from home along the route. In Kenya we celebrated Christmas with a friend from the US who was working as a teacher in a small village near the Uganda border. In Delhi we stayed twice, for a week each time, with graduate school friends who had a real house, with a guest bedroom and servants who offered us “bed tea” each morning.

We  would try to stay abreast of what was happening at home through newspapers or radio. In larger cities, we we could find the International edition of the Herald Tribune and sometimes Time or Newsweek Magazine. Back then, US embassies weren’t quite so barricaded and some had reading rooms you could visit. Occasionally we would hear English speaking radio stations. We remember staying in an old hotel in Rangoon and hearing a radio playing The Voice of America in the room next door. We heard about the failed attempt to rescue the hostages held in Iran.

Peg holding up the wall in Mycenae

Peg holding up the wall in Mycenae

D&E: It has been quite easy to keep in contact with home. We have email of course. We also use some other internet sites like facebook, Instagram, and this blog to stay in touch. In addition, our cell phone plan allows us free texting and data in many countries so we have been able to text home often. We have also called using online tools like Skype and Viber. We are in touch so much it is like we have hardly left! =p

What kind of contingency plans did you have for when/if you got separated?

P&W: Our contingency plan was to go back to the place we had last seen each other, or if that failed, to go to the place where we were staying. Our big fear was getting separated when we were in transit or first arriving in a new place. Our fall back plan was to go to the main post office in our destination city at noon and to do so for repetitive days. Fortunately we never lost each other for long, but we each had some nightmares in which even our fallback plan didn’t work.

Our friends almost got separated on a flight. There was room for 3 of us but not all 4 to fly from Kenya to Bombay. The ticket agent saw no issue with a couple being separated. All 4 of us stood at the counter refusing to move until the manager figured out a solution that would allow a couple to either stay together or leave together.

Didn't want to get too separated!

Didn’t want to get too separated!

D&E: When we head into a very crowded place, we typically set a point like the entrance or exit. The general rule is to go back to where you last found a person. However, we don’t really worry too much given that we both carry cellphones and have the option to call or text if need be.

Who else did you meet while traveling?

P&W: We met a lot of Germans traveling, usually in a slightly fancier style and heading to beach destinations. There were also a lot of Aussies, spending a year getting to England, then working, then travelling for another year returning home. There were fewer Americans overall but it was usually Americans that we hooked up, sometimes travelling for several days together. There were no large Asian tour groups except in Japan.

While we enjoyed the time spent with the people we met while on the road, we didn’t really maintain contact with anyone. On a visit to Alaska, Wayne did see some folks we had spent time with in Nepal.

Peggy hanging out with a travel friend... and a car that crashed into their bus!

Peggy hanging out with a travel friend… and a car that crashed into their bus!

D&E: We meet a lot of travelers from Europe – specifically Germany, the UK, and Belgium. There are also a lot of Australians on the road! We meet people from the US fairly regularly, though it depends a bit on the place. We also meet lots of Canadians. Facebook has made it quite easy to stay in touch with our new friends from the road!

What (besides friends and family) did you miss from home?

P&W: We really missed our morning coffee. Even places that said they had coffee were actually serving instant Nescafe . . .Yuck. We also missed beer and wine. Adding a drink (if available) doubled the cost of any meal, so we usually refrained.

Peggy and a monkey

Peggy and a monkey

D&E: Good Tex-Mex/New Mex-Mex food and craft beer!

What advice do you have for the travelers of today?

P&W: Go and travel the world! Appreciate how easy it is to do in an age where there is modern communications, an international monetary system and ways to get points for cheap airfare. Despite it being logistically easier, there will still be challenges and in overcoming them, you will increase your self confidence. You need to prepare and to plan, but you also need to be flexible and to change your course as you go. You’ll develop and enhance your appreciation of different cultures and of diverse people. You’ll take home images and impressions that will make world events that occur later more meaningful, though not always more understandable. And you will have memories that will last a life time! (And may even inspire the future generations to travel as much as you did through your awesome stories! – Added by Della)

Family jelfie in Greece - seeing a place for the first time (Della, Eric, and Dana) and for the 2nd 35 years after the first (Peg and Wayne)

Family jelfie in Greece – seeing a place for the first time (Della, Eric, and Dana) and for the 2nd 35 years after the first (Peg and Wayne)

10 thoughts on “Traveling Then and Now Part 2

  1. Thanks again for recording the memories.
    I also wanted to comment on costs. Given inflation from 1980 to 1914- which is hard to identify with any precision- it appears that your $100 a day for two is actually cheaper than our per day costs. However, we had to spend a very significant proportion of our expenses for international airfare-about 26%. We had no way for free airline card flights. Subtracting that amount, we were probably running a little cheaper than you are (less beer and wine I think). In India, my prepared large bottle of beer called STUD cost usually $1. A nice local Indian meal cost $1 then.

  2. It is really wonderful to have these “then and now” posts and pictures, to remind us of P&W’s trip. Then, we were on the receiving end of occasional letters and postcards, but between times we had just about no idea of how the trip was going. Now, we are delighted to be able to read Della and Eric’s blog posts just about daily. Whatever the contrasts, the spirit has certainly been carried forward! Love from Judie and Bruce

  3. Thanks for sharing. I got a little teary eyed and choked up at the last pic of all of you in Greece. You are an amazing family!

  4. […] Saigon Old City Walk – We followed the self-guided walking tour route laid out in the Lonely Planet to see some of the sights of old Saigon. Some of the highlights were the bustling Ben Thanh market, the modern Bitexco Financial Tower, the Majestic Hotel by the riverfront, the large square with the Opera House and two other historic hotels, and the People’s Committee Buildings (which is weirdly next to a fancy shopping mall). The tour ended at the Notre Dame Cathedral and the main Post Office, where we made sure to meet each other at noon to test out a potential rendezvous plan. […]

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