Long before I packed my bags and left my life in New York City behind to travel across South America, I wrestled with the notion that I was making an impractical/rash decision that could have dire implications for my professional career. After months of weighing the pros and cons of leaving my job with friends and family, I came to the realization that at the age of 33, a four-month break wouldn’t do irreversible damage to my career and I reasoned, I’d much rather travel while I was young-ish, instead of waiting till I retired. The notion that I could complete this type of trip in my twilight years, seemed . . .well not only daunting, but also impossible.
While traveling to the small town of San Agustín, in the south-west region of Colombia, I had the privilege of meeting someone as awe-inspiring as the sheer physical beauty of the Colombian landscape, a person so dynamic and interesting that I was forced to re-evaluate my own views and perceptions of growing older; his name is Johann Waldmüller.
While talking with another traveler about his impressions of Colombia and his experience in San Agustín, an elderly gentlemen quietly sat down next to us and started flipping through a small book. While unobtrusive, it was clear that Johann was actively listening to over conversation and when possible would offer his opinions and thankfully soon started sharing his own travel stories with us.
To call Johann a world traveler is a vast understatement. He has visited almost every continent with the exception of Antarctica (because he doesn’t enjoy cold places). Travel has been such an integral part of his life and now that he is retired, he often spends half the year on the road. He shared his insights as simple observations, his stories were understated and reserved. He would often say, by the time you are my age, you will have seen way more of the world than I (if only I could be so lucky).
I don’t think I have ever met anyone with such a strong, tangible, and infectious curiosity, nor such a strong sense of wonder and openness to experience all the of the diversity our planet has to offer. I listened eagerly as he told us stories of traveling across countries that I am embarrassed to admit I could scarcely spell, let alone pronounce. By the end of the evening, I went to bed hoping that I too will still be traveling the world with my backpack hoisted upon my shoulders at the age of 73, excited to discover new countries, new cultures, and new people.
Here is Johann’s story:
Name: Johann Waldmüller
From: Munich, Germany
Occupation: Retired Teacher
Languages: German, English, French, a bit of Russian & also a bit of Spanish
Duration of trip: 2 months
Countries: Colombia & Venezuela
When did you first start traveling? Well, I started traveling a long time ago at the age of, let’s say, seventeen. At that time, it was a habit of mine to hitchhike. My first trip, the long one was from Europe to Morocco to Algeria (that was during the war in Algeria), and Tunisia and back through Italy to Germany.
How long was that trip? It was about two and half months, with little money.
We were talking last night and you mentioned that there are some people who don’t like to travel because they are comfortable with their daily routines and their environment . . . yes that’s true. Why do you enjoy traveling? Well, just its a change. Different cultures, meeting people on the road, as well . . . having the same interests. Because people who travel, more or less, have the same mentality.
You’ve mentioned several places that you’ve been to, I think the only continent that you haven’t been to is Antarctica, can you give me some of the highlights of your travel experiences? Yes, well some of the highlights, one of the was Cambodia. Cambodia, Angkor Wat, sometime ago when the Khmer Rouge was still there, when it was not touristy, but even today it’s nice. So, this is one of the highlights. I’ve been to Angkor Wat four times. Yes, Asia is my favorite area of traveling.
Why is that? Well, because it is so different, exotic. We are in South America now, South America it resembles a bit of Europe. People from Europe have settled here, they have formed the country, but Asia is different.
Had you been to Colombia before? Yes, ten years ago.
What would you say has changed in the ten years? Well, I didn’t go very far inland because it was dangerous with the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) at that time. I only stayed in Cartagena and Santa Marta, so I can’t really tell the changes here. I can tell the change in other countries, but not in Colombia.
You mention traveling in places during war, civil unrest, or countries that are under the rule of oppressive regimes, do you ever feel like visiting these places is dangerous or unsafe? Well, you know, there are some places that are dangerous and I had problems, yes. But, in most places its peaceful. It is more peaceful than people think, you know? In Europe, they think it’s dangerous, but once you’re there, it’s peaceful. Especially in the countryside. In big towns, you have to be a bit more careful, of course.
Do you often revisit countries that you’ve traveled too? I am keen on finding out new things, discovering new countries, but it’s getting difficult now. I’ve been traveling for quite some time . . . all over Africa, Asia, and South America.
How many trips do you normally take in a year? Well, now I am retired. I travel about twice or three times a year, for about two months at a time, and then I look forward to going home again.
What is that you look forward too? Well meeting my family again, of course. Meeting my friends. Having the food that I’m used too, although I do enjoy exotic foods as well.
Do you normally travel by yourself? Yes, it’s easier you know? And, it’s easier to make decisions and it’s also easier to make friends when you are just a single traveler.
If you would, take me through the process of how you plan your trips. How do you decide where you want to go, what sort of research do you do? I don’t do much research before I go, I just think about it on the road. I change continents, South America, Africa, and Asia. It’s a spontaneous decision sometimes.
So you don’t really put a lot of thought into where you want to visit? No, not at all.
Do you keep a travel journal or record of your travels? No, I regret it. I should have done so, you know, because so many memories, they are fading away . . . and you want to keep track of them. It’s a pity.
Can you tell me about some of the people you’ve met while traveling? I met for example, some French people in Costa Rica, fifteen years ago, and we traveled together for some time. I am still in touch with them. And in Iran, in Tehran, I met a person there. He is one of my best friends now and we are still in contact, writing emails and such. And this happens quite often, that you met people and you keep contact with them.
You mentioned, yesterday you hiked down to the river to go swimming and you met a yoga teacher who taught you a few yoga poses, and you both practiced yoga by river. Is this type of experience common for you while traveling? Yes, yes it is amazing how many strange experiences you have while traveling. That’s awesome! Yes, it is.
We’re both currently staying in a hostel and sharing a dormitory with four other people, are you comfortable with this type of environment? Of course, I’m open to any kind of experience.
How do your friends and family members view your relationship with traveling? Some of them say it’s stupid to travel to other continents, that Europe is just as beautiful. And others, well they are interested in it, but most people don’t take that much interest you know. And, I’m not that talkative, showing photos, and giving long talks.
In all the lifetime of travel experiences that you’ve had so far, is there one trip or experience that stands out? Well, I’ve got so many positive impressions, it’s difficult to sort out any singular . . . Well, of course in India last year, I was very lucky because I saw a tiger in a national park and I had tried three times before and I didn’t succeed in spotting a tiger. But last year, this was a great experience. . . and Egypt, it’s a great country. The history, the tombs of the pharaohs, it is one the greatest experiences I’ve had. Luxor, Aswan, and Abu, Simbel.
Where do you want to travel to next? Next, I think I’ll be going to New Zealand. I’ve not been to New Zealand yet, and I like hiking – it’s a great country for hiking.
That reminds me, you mentioned a hiking trip last night that you really enjoyed, do you mind telling me a little bit about that? Of course, this is a recent experience. Before, I did most of my traveling by bus of course. But in between, I always try to take advantage of that kind of experience as well. But, I only started three years ago, I went on a trail in Turkey from Fethiye to Antalya, the Lycian way it’s called. It’s 500 km along the coast, and that was great. And last year, I hiked from Munich to Vienna across the Alps. Which again, was a great experience. It is more enjoyable than traveling by bus, just walking along you can watching everything and you have time.
Any advise for people who are considering taking a long-term backpacking trip? Well, of course take little luggage. You need a guide-book, it’s useful in some cases, but you have to find out for yourself. It works out quite automatically. You shouldn’t worry too much about it before you know? Some people worry too much and they try to get as much information as possible on the internet . . . you get some much information now . . . just concentrate on a few things.