Meet a traveller: Debbie Campbell, the 'nomad' who traded a rocking chair for rocking on
It’s the stuff of fantasy: stow your most important belongings, sell everything else and hit the road for a Bob Dylan-length tour of the globe. But perhaps the life of a rolling stone isn’t such a daydream after all...
To mark the new edition of The Travel Book – our epic journey through every country on earth – Lonely Planet talked to Debbie Campbell, half of the blogging couple known as the Senior Nomads. Nearly four years ago, Debbie and her husband Michael left their home in the USA for one last great adventure before retirement, and they’ve been travelling ever since.
We caught up with Debbie in Georgia – the 54th country of the Campbells’ never-ending tour – to talk about how it began, where it might lead, and what they’ve learned along the way.
How did this odyssey begin?
Our daughter Mary lives in Paris with her French husband and our three youngest grandchildren. When they were visiting us in Seattle over Christmas almost four years ago, the subject of our retirement came up. We weren’t sure what the next few years would be like, but we knew we had ‘one more big adventure’ ahead of us before settling into our rocking chairs. We just weren’t sure what that might be.
Mary asked if we had ever heard of Airbnb? We had not. She suggested we think about stopping work earlier and travelling full-time, staying in Airbnbs. At first, we couldn’t imagine doing that – but just six months later we had sold most of our possessions, including our cars and our sailboat, rented our house and put what little was left in storage. We’ve been on the road ever since.
Our philosophy is: we are not on vacation – we are living our daily lives in other people’s homes, just as we would have if we’d retired in Seattle.
What do your family and friends think?
No one expected us to be gone this long, that’s for sure. It’s like we went on vacation and forgot to come back. We know our grown children are very proud of us. And in fact, our oldest son was so inspired that he and his wife quit their jobs and took their two young children out of school for a year making a lap around the world, also living in Airbnbs.
Do you have an end in mind?
We like to say we’ll keep doing this as long as we’re learning something new every day, having fun, staying close to our budget and we are still in love. So far, so good.
Aisle or window seat?
That is something non-negotiable. I always get the window seat.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
Well, we do have a few things that could qualify. On the days when we break camp and head to our next city, we sing Willie Nelson’s hit On the Road Again throughout what we call ‘Travel Day’.
Another would be keeping our daily journal up to date. Every evening, we recount the day’s activities and total our expenses. Then we tape the receipts in the book along with any ticket stubs or other reminders. We’ve filled over a dozen books so far and counting.
And we travel with our bed pillows – that way, anywhere we lay our heads is home.
Favourite country or region or city?
We get asked this question frequently, and the answer is a moving target. Of course, we love to see our grandchildren in Paris – but otherwise less traditional locations come to mind. Both of us are interested in current events, post-WWI history and the collapse of the Soviet Union. So we have explored some countries that are not on everyone’s itinerary like Moldova, Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and currently Georgia.
How would you compare long-term and short-term travel on a psychological level?
I was just thinking about this the other day. Sometimes I feel like we are gorging on travel, too much, too fast, with no time to sit back and appreciate a place before heading to the next destination. If we continue this lifestyle, I think we will strive for more two- to three-week stays in each city.
What has been your most challenging travel experience?
Moving continuously from one Airbnb to the next can be a little disorienting. You go to find something in a drawer or turn on a light switch and realise you are not where you thought you were. That and keeping our luggage weight (let alone our own weight) under control.
What tips do you have for budget travellers?
Live like a local and use public transportation instead of taking a taxi. You’ll save money and see more of the city. Buses are great – create your own ‘Hop on, hop off’ experience! Our favourite was riding the entire route on the top of the number 12 double-decker bus in London – a $40 tour of the city for just $4.
Also, look for a free walking tour in the cities you visit. It’s a great way to get oriented for the price of tipping the guide. And last, keep a sharp eye out for free and affordable cultural events. We found free concerts at the Universität Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, a play reading in Santa Fe, New Mexico, unbelievable choir performances at the World Choir Games in Riga, Latvia, and some great lectures in libraries.
Best or worst piece of travel advice you’ve received?
Best: take a free walking tour.
Worst: wear a money belt. Those have to be the most awkward things ever strapped to man – and you are so busy struggling to get anything out of the damn thing someone could be robbing you blind in other ways.
What’s your biggest travel fail?
We have been fortunate to have had fairly trouble-free travels. So really the worst thing was nearly losing Michael’s Kindle on a bus in Cuba, and learning the hard way that the name on your international flight reservation needs to match the name in your passport, even if you’ve made an innocent typo when booking (we missed two flights because of it).
What’s the most important lesson that travel has taught you?
Three things: curiosity, flexibility and patience.
And the greatest misconception about travel?
That it is too expensive. Or that you have to go far away in order for it to count. Travel is going anywhere you haven’t been before.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil?
Well, we are living most people’s travel dream, so perhaps mine is the opposite: I’d like to be home, wherever that turns out to be, surrounded by my favourite things. Of course, my husband often sees things very differently. He’d opt to visit North Korea.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
We came across a quote the other day that we loved: ‘When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Take half the clothes and twice the money’. That, and don’t rush. The magic happens on the side streets and in conversations with locals and fellow travellers.
You can find out more about the Campbells at The Senior Nomads (beseniornomads.com), or check out their new book – Your Keys, Our Home – which is full of stories about living full-time in Airbnbs around the world.