“I’ll talk to anyone who talks to me. It’s a lot less dangerous if you’re older…. I trust people all the time. Someday I may trust a serial killer, but what a ride it has been!”
Rita Golden Gelman hasn’t had a home of her own for 30 years. Instead she’s been at home in the world, staying in one country for a few weeks, in another for as long as four years. She’s shared a room with a family and their goats and lived in a Balinese palace. Now nearing 80, she’s not as rugged a traveler as she once was, but neither has she put down roots.
Gelman didn’t set out to become a nomad. “It just happened,” she says. “There was never a decision to be a nomad for the rest of my life. I just lived it day by day.
She still laughs when she recalls how, after she and her husband separated, she was terrified to eat dinner alone in a restaurant on her first night in Mexico City.
The divorce that launched her nomadic life was not her choice, but it turned out to be her liberation.
Gelman’s children were grown up, and she had no desire to keep being a responsible person, so after giving away or selling everything she owned, she took half the proceeds from the house she and her husband had sold, quit the anthropology PhD program she was enrolled in and traded her comfortable life in a posh Los Angeles neighborhood for a stay in a Zapotec village in Mexico. From there she joined the backpacker trail through Central America and beyond.
Friends counseled her not to “run away” from the challenges of being a divorced woman. She didn’t see her sojourn in Mexico as running away. She was running toward adventure, discovery and diversity. In her best-selling memoir Tales of a Female Nomad, Gelman writes,” Once I leave the US, I am not bound by the rules of my culture. And when I’m a foreigner in another country, I am exempt from the local rules. This extraordinary situation means that there are no rules in my life. I am free to live by the standards and ideals and rules I create for myself.”
A Traveler — Not A Tourist
For Gelman, travel means exploring the world and connecting with people wherever she goes. “My heart goes out to people. I want to learn how they live, how they cook, and how they play and sing and dance. As I grow older, I’m less and less interested in museums and churches. It’s human behavior I’m interested in, not historical behavior,” she says.
During her 30 years as a “homeless but not poor” person, Gelman has returned to the US a couple of times each year to care for ailing parents, visit with her two adult children, get medical checkups and meet with the publishers of the children’s books she’s continued to write as she’s traveled. She has written more than 70 books, including two for adults: “Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World,” which is part memoir and part travelogue; and an anthology, “Female Nomad and Friends: Tales of Breaking Free & Breaking Bread around the World.“
6 Tips for Intrepid Travelers
Between the lines of the stories Gelman tells in her books, her blogs and a 2014 TEDx Talk she gave are lessons in the joys of connecting when traveling, whether you do it for a few weeks or a lifetime. Here’s a sampling of Gelman’s advice for those who want to do more than check sites off their bucket lists.
- Focus on developing countries. Non-Western countries offer truly different cultures and opportunities to learn about a way of life completely unlike your own. Traveling in developing countries is also cheaper than in European countries. Wherever she’s traveling, Gelman avoids large urban areas.
- Stay with families. “If you stay in a hotel — especially the best hotel — you’re not going to connect with the [local] people. And hotels cost a lot of money,” Gelman says.
- A good, safe place to begin is with Servas, an international nonprofit that aims to build world peace and understanding through travel and hosting. Servas has a network of hosts and travelers in over 100 countries. In many of these countries, Servas conducts face-to-face interviews with participants, so Gelman feels it’s safer than Couchsurfing.com. Although, technically, a Servas host offers to share their home for only two nights, Gelman says she’s often been invited to stay longer. “When I go to a country, I only make the first Servas reservation and then see what happens.”
- Another group Gelman recommends is Global Citizens Network, an organization that connects “globally minded” travelers with indigenous communities through volunteer work on various projects.
- Take risks. “I’ll try anything barring rock climbing, because I get such pleasure from experiencing new things,” Gelman says. She has parasailed in Peru and paddled a dugout canoe through the jungle of Irian Jaya. Risk-taking is one tip you can begin practicing now, wherever you are, she adds. “Don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what other people are going to think of you. If you want to do something with your clothes or your hair, go for it.”
- Learn to trust. “You can start by talking to strangers. I just assume people want to connect with me, and I want to connect with them. I’ll talk to anyone who talks to me. It’s a lot less dangerous if you’re older and not 15 or 20.” Gelman is as optimistic about people as she is fearless. “I’m not a worrier. I trust people all the time. Now, someday I may trust a serial killer, but what a ride it has been!”
- Smile a lot. “The most important lesson that I’ve learned is to smile. Make eye contact, smile and say hi. It cuts across all cultures. Just this week I was walking in an interesting mixed neighborhood in Seattle. I smiled and said hi to an older African-American woman. We started talking, and I learned she was once a poet laureate of Seattle. We’re becoming friends and getting together next week.”
- Eat everything you’re offered. Gelman has eaten guinea pig, dragonflies and wriggling grubs. “Accepting food is a fundamental part of forming a relationship,” she writes. “Nothing has ever made me sick.”
The Female Nomad Approaching 80
“I’m not as active and energetic, so I’m not going to do the kind of travel I used to do,” says Gelman, who’ll soon turn 79 and suffers aches and pains from arthritis in her shoulder. Then she adds in her upbeat way, “I’m not going to take off for the hills of Irian Jaya!”
Gelman’s idea of slowing down: Traveling to Madagascar, where she recently went with two friends from France whom she met in an advanced diving class in Bali. Next on her agenda is Cuba.
In between trips, Gelman is pursuing her passion project, working with the American Gap Association to advocate and secure funds for every young American to take a year off between high school and college. Gelman doesn’t know where she’ll settle in to complete her next book, “Getting Older With a Smile,” because she rarely plans ahead of time how long she will stay anywhere.
“I wait for some signal. Something tells me when it’s time to go.”