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In this month’s interview in our GlobetrotterGirl of the Month series we talk to Bonnie Kassel, a true adventurer, artist, weaver and author of Without a Spare, her memoir chronicling her four decades of travel. Bonnie has lived for months at time in India, Turkey, Mexico, Europe, Africa and has arranged her life entirely around her love and passion for travel. We were able to meet up with Bonnie in New York this June and insisted on her being our July GlobetrotterGirl of the Month to share her stories, lessons, travel advice and inspiration for women out there looking to create a life around travel.
Grab a coffee or a glass of wine and settle in for this inspiring interview – it’s a long one!
Where are you currently based?
New York City and I love the international feel of it. If there’s a Brazilian movie playing at a film festival, an extensive Brazilian community turns out and the same goes for Iranian, Japanese, etc.
You have traveled more than anyone we know! How long have you been traveling and how much time per year do you spend abroad?
I have been traveling since age fifteen, and I continue to travel about four months of each year. Of course, there were years in between when I lived abroad or traveled almost constantly. When I left home at age twenty-two, I was basically gone for six years until I returned at twenty-eight.
What was your first overseas trip, and how do you think that influenced your lifestyle?
When I was fifteen, my father sent me to Switzerland to spend the summer with a Swiss client and his wife in the village of Anières on Lake Geneva. Every single thing in Anières was done differently than it was at my home in New York, and in less than two weeks I knew that everything suited me better. The others kids my age seemed so much more sophisticated than me. Each spoke several languages and they liked to discuss politics. I might have left home a typical American teenager, but my parents didn’t know who I was when they picked me up at JFK at the end of the summer.
Have you ever had the urge to settle down for good?
Absolutely not. As a teenager I remember going to Pathmark supermarket with my mom, walking down aisles the length of city blocks, filling up a cart, unloading the cart contents into a car trunk and unloading them again to put away at home—week after week, month after month, year after year. It took staggering odds for one sperm to find an egg to make me, and I believe I am not on Earth to just keep doing this routine over and over.
However tedious the routine at home, however, doing the exact same things in other countries can be like studying anthropology while learning the basics of a foreign language. I love adventure and arriving in a place where everything is unfamiliar.
What countries have affected you the most? Why?
Switzerland may sound bland compared to the more exotic places I’ve been, but it was in Anières that I first realized there was another way to live a life. My sister now lives in Zurich, so I continue to appreciate what this small, clean, safe, enlightened country has to offer (including hundreds of artisanal cheeses!) My two nieces have effortlessly learned four languages; an hour in each direction one can experience Italian, French, German, and Austrian cultures.
My time in Syria also affected me dramatically, so it makes what’s happening there today particularly painful. I would have described the Aleppo market and its 1090 Umayyad Mosque as the last authentic market in the world; a day wandering its narrow lanes offers a glimpse back into history. But the mosque fell in April fighting and I read that neighbors were running with buckets of water to try to stem the fire that had broken out within the souk.
When asked, I always say the year in Africa was the greatest year of my life.
Globetrotters know that it can be cheaper to travel full time than to take one or two vacations per year. What aspects of travel are always expensive and how do you keep your budget low in general?
I know exactly what you mean. I believe in long term visits, not fast vacations. I once rented a house in Turkey for 7 months and tried to explain to incredulous friends that a seven-month trip to Turkey was cheaper than living three months at home in New York. As a long-term visitor, you don’t pay property and school taxes, car payments or cable bills. The biggest expense is airline tickets, especially when you only take a week-long trip. Cost decreases the longer you rent a home or a car, so that a two-week house rental can cost just slightly under what a monthly rental would cost.
How have you financed such an inspirational life of travel?
I’m proud to say that I managed to support myself from my art all my life. In my twenties I painted 8′ fresco-like batiks inspired from sketches I made traveling. By my late thirties, I was executing large commissioned murals in woven copper and brass for hotel and office lobbies, restaurants and cruise ships.
I’ve always loved the expression ‘There are all different ways to live a life.’ How does one decide to live near the sea or forest, in the city or country? Without a Spare is essentially the story of another way to live a life. I chose not to have children and to work freelance earning less money in order to continue doing what I loved. And it turned out to be a pretty extraordinary life.
When I first sat down to try to write a few short stories for a magazine to help pay for travel (everything always goes back to that), it never occurred to me to write a book. But before I knew it, the articles developed a life of their own, and through a serious of events, suddenly I was self-publishing a memoir!
Can you tell the specific story behind the title ‘Without a Spare’?
Early on in our travels, my friend Barbara and I discovered we had a flat tire on the morning we planned to leave Khartoum, Sudan to cross the Sahara. We didn’t want to wait another day, so we changed the tire and left without a spare. But the literal event turned out to be the perfect metaphor for most of my life. For me, planning eliminates a lot of the surprise and adventure and I plan almost nothing. If I knew where I’d be or what I’d be eating a week from now, I’d just as soon stay home.
What is the theme behind your HuffPost Travel column?
The column focuses on ‘How to do Exceptional Things Inexpensively’ and emphasizes the rewards of a personal approach. Chartering a gulet in Turkey, hiring a driver in India, being shown little-known Mayan jungle ruins in the Rio Bec area of Campeche, Mexico can be arranged for half the price of a pre-arranged tour if you speak directly with the people of the country you’re in. This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people skip this step.
The biggest change is obviously technology (Jess recently wondered about technology and travel here). The whole point of getting away used to be getting away. Not being connected and doing things on your own was part of the appeal of sailing, hiking and why a “Gone Fishing” sign was posted in a shop window. No one worried because they couldn’t reach you. Lastly, there are admission fees and printed t-shirts and tour buses for everything nowadays.
I find that you have to work much harder to have an authentic experience.
You are able to jump into adventure after adventure, seemingly with no fear. What do you think has allowed you to be so adventurous? Is this naiveté, self-confidence, both?
I just always believe things are possible. I come from a matriarchy where no matter how successful or physically large the men, the women have always been boss. I have to share one funny example of this. My ex was 6’5” tall and I am 5’3”. We’d been together a couple of years when one evening I saw our reflection in a huge mirror behind the bar where we were standing. “My God, you’re so much taller than me,” I said out loud. “You’re noticing this for the first time?” he laughed and said. I laughed back as it had never occurred to me for a moment that I wasn’t the same size as he was, yet I barely reached his shoulder.
What do you recommend for people who feel held back by fear in order for them to live life on their own terms?
Why live a diminished life when we all know how the story ends? Do things you love or want to do. If you’re afraid, do them anyway. Don’t put things off. You can’t always go back.
When you look back at your life so far, are there any regrets? Things you might have done differently, knowing what you know now?
Like a lot of young women, I focused on a physical flaw—specifically, I was the only one in a family of thin-legged people to have chubby thighs. It was thirty years ago but it still pains me to think that I was such an idiot I wouldn’t join everyone else diving off a boat into the Aegean on a particularly scorching hot day. One of the better things about getting older is that thankfully your values change. Today I’d balance chubby thighs with honesty and compassion as well as being so damned grateful to have boundless energy and be able to climb up the steepest ruins without a twinge. Ah, if only we could put an older head on younger shoulders.
What are your favorite books?
Portrait of a Turkish Family written by Ifran Orga,
Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston
No Hurry to Get Home by Emily Hahn, an author of 52 books and contributor to The New Yorker for more than seventy years. An unconventional woman way ahead of her time, Emily drove cross-country to Santa Fe before there were roads, hacked her way through Africa alone in the 1930s–adventures most women wouldn’t undertake even years later.
Do you have a mantra or a life’s motto?
Live an expansive, fabulous life, killing and destroying as little as possible along the way.
What’s the Best Advice you’ve ever been given?
To maintain a debt-free life. My father took my first high school job paycheck and pretended to throw it down a sewer. “This is what happens to your money when you pay finance charges,” he explained. The concept of working hard all day with nothing to show for it made a huge impression. I saved my allowance in a manila envelope, took cash out when I wanted something, and paid myself back interest-free–and have never deviated from this system
What music inspires you when you are writing?
I like complete silence when I’m reading, painting, or writing, otherwise I’ll start dancing around the room, the way my mother also always did.
Do you actually know how many countries you have been to? If so, how many?
Absolutely not, and I never will. I travel to learn, meet fascinating people and absorb the best of other cultures—sometimes staying in one place for months at a time. It’s the quality vs. quantity thing. The only list I’ve ever made was with a friend I’ve known since high school and we wrote down the names of all the men we’d slept with. Oh, how we laughed going down that memory lane. But those details would be for another kind of interview!
What is one country you have yet to visit and feel drawn to travel to soon?
India has always been a favorite country, but I’ve never been to the southeast coast. Hopefully I’ll rent a house in Pondicherry in the state of Tamil Nadu for a month next year. Lately, the Andaman and Nicobar islands off that same coast have been calling to me.
Wherever you are in the world, people’s lives are consumed by the same tasks, so be yourself and conduct yourself as you would at home. Take the same precautions. Whether I’m walking outside at night in Rio de Janeiro or New York City, I take my gold jewelry off.
Do you have any specific recommendations for 50+ women who may have never traveled independently?
- Make your first independent trip to a small, easier place. Go to Scotland as opposed to India, for example.
- If you’re the kind of person who loses things, don’t forget copies of prescriptions for your eyeglasses and pills.
- If you are from the U.S. like me, one of the first things you will learn is that many countries have the same or even better quality of medical care than we do.
- Even the smallest B&B has a computer for reservations and will be happy to help you find something if they don’t know the answer themselves.
I tend to expect the best in people. I’ve noticed throughout the years that because I expect the best, I’m often treated better. There’s no question that more things work out when you expect them to. That may be a good summation for all my life’s experiences.