Just a couple of days ago I had the pleasure of Skyping the lovely Rita Golden Gelman, Female Nomad, who has an incredible passion for people and personal connections. I found her to be vivacious and lively, exuding a level of wide-eyed engagement not found in most people.
Her enthusiastic approach to life seemed to thrive somewhere between life experience and a thirst for excitement. I found her to be a true inspiration, not only as a traveler, but in finding the sunny-side of life. With every question that I asked, she had more stories to tell; there simply wasn’t enough time! Rita, it was a pleasure. To my readers, I’m sure you’ll find something to love.
What made you want to give up “real life” in the first place?
My kids were gone and I was divorced. My question was, “what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” My answer: “live the dream!” I sold everything I owned so I had the security of knowing that if anything ever happened I had some backup. But I never touched it–I lived on what I made. I knew I could write more. I had 50 children’s books but lived with very few royalties.
One of the things that makes your travel experiences so different from those of most people is that you embedded yourself in the cultures you visited. How can a traveler best experience a culture if s/he is finding it difficult to embed him/herself in it as you did?
When I travel I like to stay with families. I don’t stay in hotels or hostels. People ask me, “How do you connect with people? How do you find places to stay?” In Bali I met a Balinese guy on a plane who asked me where I was going to stay. I said I was going to go to Ubud. “He said no, that’s much too touristy!” So he wrote something in Balinese on a piece of paper and I said “If I give this to the taxi driver will he know where to take me!?” He said yes, I did exactly that and an hour and a half later I arrived at a royal palace where this man was a prince! I lived there for four years.
In one of your stories you wrote, “Laughter is the same in any language.” How important is it to interact with others during one’s travels? Do you have any words of wisdom for those traveling solo?
Smile! Be the first one to say “hi!” Respond when people talk to you. If they say “come sit on my porch,” go sit on their porch! Sometimes you have to be careful, but just be wide open! Tell secrets so they will tell theirs. Talk their language, wear their clothes!
When I was in Tanzania I wore a big long colorful thing that the women wear. Just interact. When I was in Mexico, the first place I ever went, people weren’t talking to me–they ran away. One woman in the village came over to me and said, “why don’t you wear these clothes instead?” and she loaned me a skirt and a number of other items. All of a sudden the people who were running away were saying “Buenas dias!”
If you try to tell people you know better, a) it’s arrogant, b) you’re not learning, and c) you’re maintaining a position that you’re better than them. Get involved with the people, learn their cultures. If something funny happens, then it’s funny and they’re laughing at you and laughing with you!
You have an ethos that reads as a creative, adventurous, welcoming and engaging spirit. How can people adopt this idea into their own lives?
You have to take the first step. It’s not easy…it’s scary! If you do it once, and you do it again and again you realize it’s easy. When I published my first book in 2001 I put my email address in the back. My publisher told me “no, you can’t do that–your email address is a very private thing!” I told my editor “you can’t have the book if I can’t put my email in it!” Since then I’ve gotten thousands of emails and invites! I’ve been to New Delhi, Tanzania, Suriname. I get invitations and I go!
People write me all the time asking how I do it, saying “it’s so courageous!” Really, it’s not. Once you’re out there people are good! They’re honored and asking about your customs and food. For me connecting is joy! Even here, in this country, I work hard at talking to people.
It’s also important to try new things! I even did clown school for a week! I learned how to do balloons, paint faces and do makeup! It’s wonderful. In New Delhi I became friends with a lot of the local kids. I had a day where all the boys came over and I pulled out my clown makeup. I had half a dozen early teen boys in clown makeup and it was such fun! In Tanzania I taught goat herders how to make animal balloons! It’s absolutely wonderful and fun!
I think that anybody can do it but you’ve got to get yourself out of the “I have to be a good girl” mentality. I’ve made a list of travel tips…ways to bring joy into your life by stepping outside of the box, but you feel naughty if you’re doing them!
What is your Let’s Get Global program and how will it change the world? What is the goal and how do you intend to reach it?
After 25 years moving around world and not having a home or a place, I come back to the US frequently, about once a year, and more and more every day I see intolerance. I see a fear of the unknown out there…a fear of so much. I’m working on a non-profit to create a gap year in the States. I want to get lots of high school graduates, before they go to university, to spend their year traveling around the world. We would have a different country if more people spent time abroad.
We have a very unethical mentality in this country, not caring about immigrants and education. My goal is to get the word out and let people all over the world know that there is another option. I don’t want to run programs, I want schools to tell kids that they don’t have to stay on track. It’s an informational, educational idea. When parents speak to their school counselors I want them to know that there’s another option. It will put your kid ahead, not behind, if you get them out there in the world.
What have your many experiences in traveling taught you about the nature of human beings?
Most people don’t have joy. They’re content, maybe, but joy comes from taking risks. The other day, here in Seattle, WA, I walked down to the water and there was a picnic bench and there were some men sitting there, one with darker skin and one with a slightly lighter dark skin. I wondered who these men were and where they were from so I abused my white hair, walked over and asked if I could rest here for a while. I spent an hour speaking with them! One was from Ethiopia and the other was from Somalia. People are welcoming!
What are the most valuable things you have learned about yourself from traveling? How do you feel travel has empowered you as a woman?
Just doing it. Most women are afraid to go out alone. When I’m alone and having a great time, there’s not much that I wouldn’t do! I’m missing two genes: one is the organizational gene, the other is the fear gene! I’ve never been afraid of people or experiences. I’m not afraid to talk to people.
I spent many years living in New York City so there’s an instinct as well. You have to have some kind of intuitive sense of which people to smile to and who you should cross the street to avoid. I have that, it’s a part of me. It disarms people if somebody with a big smile walks by and says “hi!”. If you smile a lot you live in a world that smiles because most people smile back. It’s pretty nice!
Not everyone could be content to live without a home, as you have done. However, do you think everyone can learn from your story that we need a lot less than we think we need in order to be happy?
I think that’s going around all by itself in this country. Absolutely, we need less than we have. I don’t own a sheet or a chair or a towel. I don’t even own a spoon!
After this many years as a nomad, do you think you will want to settle down with a home, or do you think you will want to remain peripatetic?
I’ll do it for as long as I can move! When I’m stuck in bed then I’ll stop but then I’ll have all my emailers to connect to! I don’t want to stop; I want to keep going. And I want to create a legacy of the gap year in this country.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know?
I have a second book (Female Nomad and Friends, Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World) and all the royalties are going to help slum kids in New Delhi go to vocational school. The proceeds go from my publisher to my agent to Rotary International who then sends them to New Delhi. $46,000 have already been sent! There are 41 authors, none of us have seen a penny and everybody is thrilled to be doing it.