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.

Travel Writing – A Dangerous Business

Travel writing is a dangerous business. No doubt about it. Most of all, it’s dangerous for your bank account! Of course, that’s just writing in general. The travel part…

We travel because we suffer from too much curiosity Here are a couple of links you might enjoy about the dangers of travel writing.

First of all, a great article from the New York Times about one of the first budget travel writers in the business- John Wilcock.

Here is an excerpt:

JW: Today everything’s available.
NYT: So what does that make the role of travel writers today?
JW:Everyone’s turned into a travel writer. It started when people who were bankers and people like that went on vacation and realized that if they wrote something about the trip they could maybe take it off their taxes. But today, basically everybody writes about their travel. I don’t suppose you can say there’s nothing left to discover, but it certainly is hard.
NYT:Should we be happy or sad about this?
JW:It’s just an inevitable development. The way the world has gotten smaller all the time, it’s easier to get around. it’s easier to fly everywhere. That Ryanair guy started doing $1 flights to obscure towns that nobody had ever heard of before all of the sudden they became tourist centers.
NYT:You wrote in the 1970s that most most travel writing is just “public relations bull.” Is that true today?
JW: Things have changed a lot since then. One of the things I’d like to claim is that the underground press changed the nature of almost all newspaper and magazine writing. Travel writing today is much more interesting than it was in those days. When I was working at The Times everything was incredibly impersonal. Basically, you weren’t allowed to have an opinion at all. And nowadays it’s almost the reverse, almost everything is written from the personal point of view. So things have changed tremendously.
NYT:What was this Travel Directory you founded?
JW: When I first went to Mexico, I wrote in my column that I’d like to call and see people along the way. From that evolved a directory back in the early ’60s, which eventually had people all over the world in it who were willing to offer varying degrees of hospitality to travelers.
NYT: It sounds like the original CouchSurfing.
JW: It wasn’t called that back in those days, but that’s what it was, of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could still Google the Travel Directory. I bet it ended up somewhere. [Note: It did.]
NYT: I assume that at 83, you travel a bit more luxuriously than you used to.
JW: No, I still travel as cheaply as I can. I don’t look 83, I look about 60-something, and I’m actually pretty active still. I’m not really handicapped: my eyes are going a bit and my hearing’s going a bit, but otherwise I’m in pretty good shape and I live pretty much the way I always have. When I’m staying with somebody and they say “I’m sorry, we only have a couch,” I say “Listen, I’ve slept on billiard tables and in bathtubs.” I’d like to think I’m as adaptable as I always was.

So, it’s never been easy, but in terms of competition, there has never been more. Even in the ‘vagabond’ niche which I started writing in in 2001 when there were about three people using the term. Check out this great new vagabond blog.Vagabond Paris

Artemis’ quest has been to “find some new way to define personal happiness.” Answers to life’s big questions, he discovered, require mobility. “When most people are born they are taught they need to own certain things. We’re all embedded in a matrix designed to keep people at work.” People, who admire his decision, always wistfully say, “I can’t be that courageous. I can’t be that brave.” He adds, “But I’m not much any of those things… I’m just a little crazy. It’s a different mental place.”

A space that’s proved instructive. “A day has not gone by that I have not learnt something new, or met someone interesting. I spend a good portion of my time finding out what makes people happy. For some people it’s their kids, for some it’s perfecting juggling, or finding a great jazz concert, or finishing a piece of art.

Why Paris is special

Paris, a hotbed of artists, many living in squats and communes, has proved an ideal base. “It’s friendly to people who don’t have a steady job. Who opt for a free and liberal lifestyle.” The Parisians have also proved to be endearingly open-minded. “Sometimes I’ll be at a bar and start talking to some guy. As we’re leaving, he’ll say, ‘So where are you headed’ and I’ll say, ‘Turn down the street. See that lamp? I’m there.” And he’ll say, “Oh that’s cool. Why don’t you crash on my couch instead.”

And finally, here is a small feature from the blog A Dangerous Business where they showcase a traveler or writer each week and discuss the dangerous business of travel writing. Can you guess who this is?

1. How do you define the word “traveler,” and why would you consider yourself one?

It’s a funny thing, this idea of travelers and tourists. To me, a tourist is someone who has a set agenda. They know where they will go, what they will do, and when they will return. A traveler, on the other hand, operates on an altogether more free form consciousness. Plans can change, and when you travel, if you aren’t flexible, you often miss out on the best things. Yes, I’m definitely a traveler, but sometimes I don’t even like to be labeled by this definition. I almost never have the budget to travel so one way tickets usually get me to my destination. Over the past decade, I’ve learned that as long as I can carry all my possessions, it’s cheaper to actually move to a place. Not to mention the experience of living and working in a foreign culture gives you an even broader perspective than just traveling there. As such, I’m often a traveler, but more often I am what I like to call a ‘moovist’. I move to new countries more often than I travel to them.

Are you a travel writer? What do you think? Is it a dangerous business? Is there a way to earn a living at it?

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