Vagabond Teacher – Melissa Ruttanai

The world is filled with extraordinary vagabonds. While this feature has covered a lot of the great vagabonds of the past, this year – it will be our pleasure to introduce you to some of the extraordinary vagabonds of the present as well.

Melissa RuttanaiTo start, it seems fitting to introduce you to one of our own featured travel writers. Melissa Ruttanai. Melissa’s great adventures and fun writing are not strangers to Vagobond readers, but we thought it might be fun for you to get to know her a little bit better.

Vagobond: What’s your personal travel philosophy?

MR: After 32 years of following the prescribed norm of accelerated high school courses, dual majors in university, and all the hoops required to earn a post-baccalaureate degree in Education, I was simply tired of doing what “I was supposed to do”. Get a house? Have some kids? Carry a mortgage for 30 years?

None of that interested me. So when I quit my job and sold off everything I owned, I made a promise to follow what I believed to be right, what felt good for my own spirit.

As a traveling nomad, I believe that travel is about going beyond the limits in which you were born: learn a new language, make friends across the planet, and especially to help others see the innate value of travel. Travel is a state of mind, a noun, and a verb. It’s what my husband and I have built our lives around. And when we have the house, kids, and mortgage; travel will still be in our lives.

Vagobond: How many countries have you visited?

MR: US, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, The Dominican Republic, Aruba, Ecuador, Peru, England, Greece, Austria, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Japan, S. Korea, Singapore, Australia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam (23)

Vagobond:What made you start to travel?

Melissa Ruttanai GreeceMR:My parents had a touch of the travel bug. When I was a kid, they’d pack our station wagon full of sleeping bags, coolers, and suitcases for crazy east coast and cross-country road trips. We went to Hershey Park, Disney, Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls—all on a budget. Then every 2-3 years, we’d have our big summer trips to Thailand where we’d spend a month visiting my grandparents and relatives in the old country.

My extensive backpacking trips began after university. Neil and I taught English in Japan which was a fantastic experience that introduced us to expatriate living. With our earnings in Japanese yen, we were able to travel for 4 months afterwards.

Vagobond:What’s your scariest travel moment?

MR: Before my final semester at Rutgers University where I was studying for my master degree in education, Neil and I went to Mexico. While on the Yucatan Peninsula we decided to snorkel in underwater cenotes or caves. The flooded tunnels are unlit with pointed stalactites and stalagmites jabbing into the murky waters. I’m not a good snorkeler and also suffer from a touch of claustrophobia. The walls seemed to squeeze in and then the strap of my camera caught on a rock skewer. Panicking, I slammed my head into the rock ceiling. My mask flooded and water streamed into my mouthpiece. As I yanked the strap harder and harder, our guide continued further and further into the tunnel. And his small torch began to recede in the darkness. Finally, I jerked my arm so hard that the tether snapped and my camera sank 15 feet below me.

I never swam so fast in my life to catch up.

Vagobond:What’s your funniest travel moment?

Melissa RuttanaiMR: 5am, Seoul, South Korea. Neil and I were waiting for a train to take us to the airport. The station was busy with commuters headed to work, backpackers looking for trains, and all-night partiers shuffling home with walking hangovers.

Standing at the entrance to a narrow hallway that led to the bathroom, we saw two young men stumble out, both obviously had been drinking all night. When they bumped into each other, they immediately started fighting with lazy, drunken fists. They slammed each other against the wall and blocked anyone who wanted to get down the hall.

Then, an older gentleman emerged from the bathroom. His silk tie lay flat against his pressed shirt and suit. When he spotted the two brawling drunks, the hallway turned into a crazed scene from a Kung-Fu movie. The businessman grabbed both youngsters by the back of their heads and bashed them together. Both slumped to the ground. Picking up one by the scruff of his neck, he started pounding his fists into the kid’s face, finishing him off with a slap that sent him back to the ground. At that second the other drunk managed to scramble to his feet. Turning with the smoothness of a Shaolin priest, the man backhanded him and followed with a fist to the gut. The drunk spluttered against the wall and the businessman chastised both with one wrinkled finger for making a scene in front of tourists.

Both youths on the floor and fight over, the champion calmly smoothed his suit, straightened his tie, and continued on his way to the trains with his suitcase held tight. It was the funniest fight ever.

Vagobond: What’s your greatest adventure?

MR:I was lucky enough to see the Galapagos Islands on the M/V Evolution’s 8-day cruise that zigzagged the equator. The wildlife is amazing there. I swam with hammerhead sharks, penguins, sea turtles, and sea lions. Once more I tried cave snorkeling but this time my guide held my hand and helped me.

Vagobond: What’s your dream destination/vacation/trip?

Melissa RuttanaiMR:The snarky, Sci-Fi kid inside me, says: The Moon.

But in all seriousness, I’d love to receive a writer’s grant to Alaska or California in the summertime where I can live in a cozy cottage with Neil, a rack of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, and my Mac Book.

Vagobond:Are you a traveler or a tourist? What’s the difference if there is one.

MR:Traveler, no doubt.

For me, travel is about learning and experience. I want to really get to know a city, have coffee in local cafes, dine with locals, converse in the indigenous language (or try to), visit little-known museums, and eat authentic meals made by someone’s nana. Traveling is about taking it slow and enjoying what’s around you, not rushing from one sight to the next as you work through a checklist of must-see things.

Travel is both simple and profound. It’s about micro-moments like when I looked up at fireworks over the Plaza de Armas at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and I thought: Dang, I’m in Cusco!

Vagobond:What’s a great travel tip most people don’t know?

MR:Neil and I have not paid for any international flights in over 3 years, in which time we have visited Japan, Thailand, Italy, Ecuador, and Peru. As of this week, we’ve already booked our next flights, a roundtrip ticket from Lima, Peru to New York with a lovely stopover in San Jose, California. We’ve saved over US$4000 each because we travel via Star Alliance and have credit cards that feed directly (one mile per dollar spent) into our United Mileage Plus Accounts.

The Tip: Always call the airline company and make your reservations directly even if there is a fee. Most people don’t know that airline tickets are structured for inclusive stopovers. So if you want to go from New York to Shanghai, you can weave in a nice 2 weeks in Hawaii along the way.

The Trick: Buy necessities with the cards and pay the balance in full at the end of each month. Even after our tickets to New York, we still have a combined 60,000 miles that are dog-earred for a trip to Europe in late July or August 2012.

Vagobond: What are your travel plans for 2012?

MR:More travel, more writing.

We met a great Brit in Lima who invited us to join him at the circus. At first, I thought he was using some sort of new slang. Then I realized that he was seriously inviting us to stay in a wagon and travel with the show across Great Britain. That would be a highlight of 2012!

Check out some of Melissa’s travel writing here at Vagobond. You can also follow the adventures of her and her husband Neil at World Winder and here are her Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ accounts.

Come back each Saturday for a new Extraordinary Vagabonds or check out our archive by clicking the link.

A Magnificent Galapagos Cruise

By Melissa Ruttanai exclusive for Vagobond

Galapagos Cruise“There is no predation here.” My guide Rafael Pesantes swept his arm across the landscape on our Galapagos Cruise. “Animals are not aggressive because there is no need to fight.” On the beach, sea lions lounged on organic, white sand, soaking up the equatorial sun. Iguanas clustered near by. Red crabs scuttled across black rocks. In the Galapagos Islands, everything was peaceful and quiet. As I made my way along the marked path, blue-footed boobies barely opened an eye to question my presence on their nesting grounds. Animals live in diverse communities, accustomed to each other and the occasional curious human prowling through the brush. And so, I got close, real close to the wildlife.

Yellow land iguanas moseyed past me on a path. Giant tortoises mashed grass in their ancient jowls. At night on the boat, I witnessed sharks, sea lions, and pelicans swim to our ship, drawn by the white lights off the bow. Baby albatross chicks cocked their heads at me focused on my camera and red-breasted frigates puffed out their chests, enticing females around them. The Galapagos is the perfect place for tight portraits of wildlife. With a 200 mm lens, I was able to zoom in for detailed shots.

But the best scenery was underwater.

Scuba in the Galapagos“Snorkeling here is a good way to see how you handle the water.” Rafael leaned over the side of the dinghy, called a panga. To the right, a black rock promontory rose from the ocean waters. Ten-foot waves slapped against it, spraying white water halfway up the precipice. “Just be careful of those rocks.” He shrugged, and one by one people around me plunged into the choppy tide.

Even with a life vest, I was tossed against the waves. In my head, Rafael’s words rattled around: be careful of those rocks. Water swelled and dripped into my mask, slid down my air tube, and pooled in my mouthpiece. I’m a terrible snorkeler and harbor a fear of drowning as well.

But I’m also a decent actor. I kept up with the group, followed the guide into the waves, and forced sweet smiles as we saw multi-colored fish and neon coral. After twenty minutes, four swimmers called it quits and signaled the panga. Seeing my opportunity to retreat with honor, I allotted myself two more minutes before joining them.

“Come! Follow me!” Rafael said as the others obeyed and my husband encouraged me to swim on. The panga remained where it was, with four swimmers lounging in the sun. As I spotted the guide, I saw that he was leading us directly toward the rocks. I hesitated, still contemplating my escape. But then I heard: “This is amazing! It’s my favorite place!” Rafael pointed. Past the jetty of rocks, a black cave emerged from the surf.

Underwater GalapagosI hesitated. I locked up and leaned into my life vest. I’ve snorkeled in a cave before and didn’t like the claustrophobic memories. Other snorkelers moved into the mouth of the cave, swallowed by darkness. Then, Rafael was beside me. “Give me your hand.” I trusted his smile and clutched his palm. Together, we cut across the water and entered the darkness.

My eyes adjusted. Green rocks lined the cheeks of the cave. Waves pummeled stonewalls like thunderous applause. But when I submerged my head, everything muted. Underneath the surface, thousands of fish fed on the stone floor, swirling in the current and clustering in a knot of yellow tails and blue fins. Rafael released my hand. Unafraid, I floated atop the tide and swam with the fish in their underwater world.

Visiting the Galapagos
Visitors to the islands have two options: a multi-day cruise of the Galapagos Islands or an island-hopping trip.

Prices vary greatly depending on the service level you choose. The cheapest cruises, a four day trip on a tourist-class boat, start at around $1,300. Diving, sailing or luxury cruises can cost many times that.

Although most people arrange their Galapagos cruises in advance, it is also possible to arrange a flight from Quito or Guayaquil to the Galapagos and organize your trip once you arrive.

%d bloggers like this: