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by Stan Klein, AARP The Magazine, February 20, 2007
My wife, Marcia, hates when people ask her where we live. You'd think this would be an easy question to answer. But in fact, it's rather complicated. We don't really live anywhere. Or rather, we live everywhere. When we retired in 1997, at age 60, we sold our house in suburban Connecticut, disposed of nearly all our belongings, and we have been traveling the globe ever since. We're living on a shoestring budget, but our experiences are priceless, as we spend much of our time doing volunteer work and meeting the people in the countries we visit.
It actually started for us at age 55. I was in real estate, mainly urban revitalization, and Marcia was a social worker, which she'd been for most of our married life. When my business flattened out, we decided to use what was left of our savings and do something we'd always dreamt about—take a trip around the world. Our daughters were grown, one living in North Carolina and one in New Mexico. We felt that we had paid our dues as "solid citizens" who had led a life of responsibility, and now it was time to discover the next phase of our lives.
We had what we hoped would be enough money to sustain us for about a year if we traveled backpacker-style on a tight budget. With our house rented and two one-way tickets to Japan in hand, we set off for what turned out to be a two-year adventure, as our money went much further than we had expected. (We spent only about $12,000 that first year, including transportation.) The journey took us westward beyond Japan to Southeast Asia, India, Nepal, China, Africa, and, finally, Mexico, where we house-sat for four months. Along the way, we stayed in youth hostels and budget hotels, as well as with local families, traveling second class at a pace that suited us, without advance reservations or hard plans. After a nice, middle-class life tied to careers and raising children, with mortgages and car payments, this was a new sense of freedom for us.
We learned so much on this trip, about ourselves and the world we live in. All those possessions we had accumulated throughout the years suddenly seemed less valuable. Comfort became less of a priority, and the rewards of the trade-off were greater than we had expected. Prior to this trip, we had stayed at good hotels with fancy lobbies, where guests remained at arm's distance and minded their own business (and where I'd call down to the front desk if my pillow wasn't soft enough). But now, staying in simple youth hostels, we joined our fellow backpackers—many of them half our age—in endless discussions about where to go and what to see, and how to find cheap transportation and reasonable accommodations. This often led to the exchange of ideas and life dreams, and other meaningful conversations. Marcia and I were delighted to find that we were very popular, almost like parental figures for some of these young people far from home. They were surprised by the choice we'd made to do what we were doing, and we often heard, "Gee, I wish my folks would do something like that."
We met more new and different people in this two-year period and had more new experiences than at any other time in our lives. Seeing the Taj Mahal was a treat, but the connections we made with like-minded travelers made the experience that much more memorable. And perhaps even more special were our homestays with local families, arranged through People to People International and Servas International, which gave us glimpses of real life in the countries we visited. That set the stage for what was to come.
By the end of the two-year trip, Marcia and I knew what we wanted to do: retire and live a simpler life that included much more travel and greater opportunities to immerse ourselves in other cultures. We put our heads together and outlined a plan. We needed to save, so instead of moving back into our mortgage-heavy home, we continued to rent it and looked into house-sitting opportunities. Searching through the classified ads in our local paper, we found several people looking for responsible long-term house-sitters, and with our grey hair, solid résumés, and years of experience as homeowners, we found ourselves in demand. It was pretty amazing: while others paid us to live in our house, we stayed rent-free in someone else's home 10 miles up the road. We both returned to work and began saving as much as we could.
Being frugal became a great game for us. Every dime we saved brought us closer to our dream. We were surprised by how much less we could live on and how many things we used to buy that were unnecessary. We stopped spending money on meals at mediocre restaurants, for example, and kept to the bare essentials. We had assumed that living a more budget-conscious life would be one of the sacrifices we would have to make; instead, it was turning out to be one of the benefits. We were really much happier when we stopped spending. It meant we would be free that much sooner.
Three years later, we were ready for the next phase of our plan: rid ourselves of most of our possessions and sell our house. At this point, we felt not just financially but emotionally prepared to embark on our retirement journey, having had enough time to mull over the essential questions: How would we adjust to our new lifestyle? Would we feel too distant from our daughters, our grandson, and other loved ones? Would we be happy living out of a backpack? There were a lot of unknowns, but we'd already had a taste of life on the road and were excited about our decision.
It took several weeks to go through our belongings—furniture, artwork, books, clothing, appliances, etc. This was a catharsis for us. We priced everything carefully so that our giant garage sale would be successful. Initial despair evolved to a point where we couldn't stop laughing. That wonderful Eames chair that was so expensive was still beautiful, but 30 years had certainly aged it. My favorite leather jacket was not nearly as new as I'd thought it was. The onyx coffee table we'd spent six months picking out wasn't so pretty after all. What an eye-opener it was, taking a realistic look at all those "treasures" of ours.
We each had a few things we hated to part with. For me, it was my motorcycle and mechanic's tools. For Marcia, it was all the memorabilia—scraps of material from dresses she'd sewn for our daughters, the kids' childhood drawings and all the cards they'd made for us, our photo albums—much of which we wound up storing in a friend's attic.
Before we started selling things, we invited our children, nieces, and nephews to take what they wanted. Then a few special pieces went to dealers. Our weekend-long garage sale took care of most everything else. It was a wonderful process.
A few days later, we closed on the sale of our house. We left the attorney's office with a fat check in hand and two backpacks—a "his" and a "hers." Off we went in our two cars, one going to each of our daughters. We delivered the cars and said our farewells before going to the airport for the initial flight to Africa and the first leg of our new life.
We had realized that as enjoyable as our first trip was, essentially we were tourists, seeing the sights and tasting the food, but rarely getting involved with the locals, except for the few families we'd met during our homestays. So this time, we had reached out to a nongovernmental agency, American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which would place us as volunteers in different locations, and we planned to stay with a lot more host families.
Our first stop was Zimbabwe, where shortly after arrival we began a three-month AJWS assignment with a grass-roots agency called the Organization of Rural Associations for Progress (ORAP). Suddenly, there we were in Bulawayo, a part of the life and among the people. We became totally immersed in our work. Marcia started with grant writing and later branched out to teaching grant writing, working with the unit engaged in microcredit financing, and reorganizing ORAP's library. My assignment was to help people start small businesses, but I soon saw where the agency's greatest need was and began supervising and reorganizing its construction department. I helped get it back on its feet, trained a young man to take over as department head after my departure, and within three months we saw it turn a profit. Having originally been skeptical about what I could do as a volunteer, I was surprised to find how much I was able to help by using many of the skills from my working life. It was challenging and immensely rewarding—and just the start.
The lifestyle that has emerged in our retirement is satisfying to us both. We have become citizens of the world and yet have maintained close ties with our loved ones, thanks in part to the widespread availability of e-mail. A pattern that agrees with us has taken shape. We spend some time each year in the United States, visiting friends and family—going to our grandson's school to be his "show-and-tell," and tending to tax returns and medical checkups. We house-sit in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, five or six months a year, taking classes, doing volunteer work, reconnecting with friends. The rest of our time is devoted to travel and volunteering. We have had AJWS placements in South Africa, West Africa, India, and South America, and are looking forward to the next one, wherever that may be. We also have stayed with many wonderful host families both in the United States and abroad.
Right now this is a balanced and meaningful life. But who knows? For us, everything is subject to change, and we can go anywhere at a moment's notice. There are so many options, so long as we continue to keep ourselves unencumbered.
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