In this month's Talking Travel series we chat to respected TP blogger and photographer Jonathan Shapiro (aka jonshapiro). A semi-retired psychologist, Jon has travelled all of his adult life. Wanting to spend more time on the road, however, he left his full time practice seven years ago to undertake a nine month journey to Central and South America. Since then he has also spent time teaching in China, traveling in Southeast Asia, Burma, India, and most recently in Europe, Morocco, and Turkey.
He lives in an old house in upstate New York with his wife of many years, Nanette. He has two grown children, both girls, one of whom is a therapist in California, and the other a surgical resident in New York City. When at home, Jon teaches English to Burmese refugees, writes and edits his blog, Vagabonding at 60, and spends as much time as he can outdoors, hiking and skiing. He also spends time fantasising about—and planning—his next adventure.
What does travel mean to you?
I travel because there is a world out there, far greater than my own, and I want to experience it first hand. Why not just read about it and experience it from the comforts of my living room? Why do I go to out of the way places and put myself out there? Why take the risks? Isn't that the point; to go beyond your comfort zone so that you can have a fuller understanding of yourself and how you cope with experiences and cultures that are alien to you. How can I, and you the reader, really understand your own culture without getting outside of it? How can you understand yourself?
So I travel to gain this understanding. An understanding that can only come from deliberate dislocation. This dis-location creates the space for me to see what I could otherwise only intuit; what it is like to be a foreigner, to be "the other." Of course, many people experience this as immigrants or refugees, often under duress. My experience will never be that and yet it gives me some insight into their lives, not so different than my own ancestors. It is so easy to forget what their lives must have been like. I see the children of my Burmese ESL students, already so American in the few short years they have been here and so different than their parents, who will always remain foreigners. Perhaps if I was not two generations removed from the immigrant experience, I would not be so eager to seek it out. And yet, unlike my forebears and my literacy students, I can and do return home. I climb down from the rarefied air of the high mountains of travel and return to the everyday, the mundane, the easy ways of the familiar. I bore my friends with stories and pictures of where I have been. I resume the everyday chores of cooking and cleaning, and the not-so-everyday projects of filling in a large area of erosion and building a retaining wall, so that the stream on my property does not swallow up more trees along its steep banks. I hurry to take care of other neglected areas, both inside and out, in order to maintain my old house before the winter sets in and before I set out on my next journey.
I consider the ways in which my extended trips have changed me. I find that with the richness of my experiences of the past few years, the real question is not 'why travel', but rather, why stay home? And home doesn't feel quite the same. Despite living here in upstate New York for more than 35 years, I find myself less attached. Perhaps it is partly cutting way back on my work life, but perhaps some of the bonds have been loosened by being a vagabond. The paradox is that I'm somehow more connected to any number of places and people but less so to my home.
A question that I am often asked is, after being away from home for long periods of time, am I really glad to be back? "Well," I hesitantly answer, "in some ways, but not in others." "Aren't you glad to see your children, your family, your friends?" "Of course, but...." It's hard to explain to someone who has not had the experience of long term independent travel. Many of my friends have traveled, but not in the same way. The people who do understand are out there traveling, working or wandering, and perhaps creating new homes in far off places. In some respects I feel more of an affinity for that community than to my own. These folks understand the ambivalence of ending a journey and yearning to plan the next one. No need to explain. Perhaps some of them choose to become permanent expats, or else wanderers living on a shoestring, avoiding all but temporary attachments. Are they just running away? No doubt some of them are, but aren't all attachments temporary?
And my own attachments? My wife, Nanette, comes with me when I travel, and my children have visited me abroad. My extended family has never been that close. My close friends are still here, but the peripheral relationships seem less important. Yet I have made some new and important relationships both with fellow travelers, and with the local Burmese refugee community, which I never knew existed before. My attachment to things, to stuff, was never that great, but it is even less now. Living out of a backpack and wearing the same clothes for months on end makes it easier to realize how little I really need. Okay, so I do have five pairs of skis in my garage. And yes, I'm attached to my house. It's been here a long time, 200 years or so, and I want to see it loved and cared for. Yet in some respects it's become an albatross, preventing me from getting away and taking up my time. My cat Nala, very recently deceased, was another impediment to getting away. On the other hand, she held a grudge if anyone moved her, and was known to counter-attack hours later. Now, her death serves as another reminder of my own mortality. Another reminder that I can't wait too long before setting off on the next journey. Is this a temporary, fleeting stage of my life? No question, but one that I feel blessed to have, thankful for what I have seen and done, and looking forward to the next great adventure.
You've travelled extensively in South America and Asia - what are your most memorable experiences?
In terms of most memorable experiences, it's always hard to pick out particular ones to focus on, but here goes: at the top of the list would have to be our Jeep tour of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. When we left on our trip to South America, neither of us had heard about the Salar.
Tell us more about your motto in life: 'Take risks and experience as much as you can'.
My years of working with patients as a clinical psychologist got me thinking about what it is that many of my patients had in common. I won't bore you with too many clinical details but suffice it to say that most of them were risk-averse. They got stuck into patterns of self-defeating behavior and relationships because in the end, that is what was familiar and yes, comfortable for them. To some extent we all do this. We stick with what we know because it is easier and it feels safer, and yet it is very limiting, and often the feeling of safety can quickly evaporate. My personal experience with this came 15 years ago, at age 48, when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I felt like my body had betrayed me, despite the fact that my father died of the same disease when he was 70. However, I took better care of myself, or so I thought. I ate right; I exercised—how could this happen to me?
I liken it to being in the Garden of Eden and taking a bite of the apple: all of a sudden, I knew I was going to DIE. This really shouldn't have been news but it was. I knew I was going to die not in some abstract, far off way, but now I felt it viscerally and immediately. Of course, that didn't happen, or I wouldn't be writing this now, but it was a wake-up call. It made me realize that SAFETY IS AN ILLUSION; anything can happen at anytime, no matter how safe and secure we feel, and no matter how careful we are in how we live our lives. And what is the price to be paid for living a 'safe' life? It means that there is so much that we don't get to see and experience. There is so much that we miss out on because we opt for what is only an illusion.
Some of my friends might argue that I am an adrenaline junkie, that I deliberately put myself in harm's way—I guess it's all a matter of degree. I'm certainly not an extreme athlete—never have been—but I do want to get out of my comfort zone, because as I mentioned earlier, the alternative life is simply not as interesting. I don't really think there are any big answers to, as Guy Noir puts it, 'life's persistent questions'. I'm not religious and so for me, if you will, the meaning of life is to be found in living it to the fullest and experiencing as much as I can while I am on this earth; experiencing what this life has to offer in all its richness. I guess if there's something to experience later on, I'll find that out, but I'm not counting on it, and I'm not waiting around in the meantime.
Even when you're not travelling you post vivid entries about past trips. Do you have any tips on keeping a blogging routine?
In terms of my blogging routine, I never blog when I am actually traveling. The reason is that I want to take time to reflect on my experiences, and then to cull out parts that are not so interesting and highlight others. It takes a lot of time to edit what I write about, and it is very difficult to do this on the road. I do take copious notes and of course photos, so I can go back later on and reconstruct what I have seen. This gives me a little distance from the trip and, I think, makes for a better read. At times I take out whole sections of my notes, add other things that I might have forgotten, and I can take time to edit my pictures. It also gives me the opportunity to relive the experience a second time.
Will there be more wandering in future? 'Vagabonding at 70' has a ring to it…
There will certainly be more vagabonding in the future. I am currently blogging about our last trip in the Spring to parts of Europe, Morocco, and Turkey. The neat thing about this trip was that we set up our itinerary to visit several friends that we met on previous excursions—that was great. This winter we are planning another trip to Southeast Asia, which we have already visited a few times. After that I want to get back to the Himalayas, while these old bones will still carry me up there. That journey will probably include Sikkim, Bhutan, and possibly Lo Mustang in Nepal. I always say, 'never end the last trip without thinking about the next'. That way, I always have something to look forward to.
Check out these recent interviews in the Talking Travel series: