Travel Throwback: Susie’s Travels From Australia to Qatar

I want to learn from women who traveled before my millenial generation took the social media world by storm. Women traveled before people announced their engagements on facebook statuses and used selfie sticks to prove where they’ve been. What were their fears? How did they discover the world and themselves?

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Susie with her daughter, Lauren, at Yosemite National Park.

Here is fellow Wellesley Alum Susie Billings‘ story.

1. Where are you and your family from originally? Where have they been and why?

My dad only ever “lived abroad” when he was stationed in England during WWII. He never got his three day pass to London, as his plane was shot down, and then he was a prisoner of war in Germany. He passed through the Paris rail yards on his return home. When I was 11, we made a trip to London and later to Paris as he wanted to see the places he didn’t get to see. They took me when I was young, as I traveled on a child’s fare on the airplane, and they hoped I would be old enough to remember.

My dad’s family traces its history to the Mayflower and I qualify through his side to be a “daughter of the American Revolution”. My mum was 5th generation Australian – originally from Britain but post convict era. My mum had a major tragedy just before she was 17- her father was murdered and the guy tried to get my mum and her mum too, but was unsuccessful.

I believe this was her major impetus to “get away”.

When she was 20, she had moved to the opposite side of the country, to West Australia (she is from Melbourne), but she came home to celebrate her 21st birthday. A couple years later she and a friend (who is now my mother in law) went to work in New Zealand. A few years after that she moved to London and worked there to find travels around Europe. I know a few of her friends did similar things. It was very common for Australians to travel to the UK and then travel around Europe before returning home to marry and have families. All Australians travelled on British passports until 1967, I think.

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Paris, the Sunday after the November attack. Photo by Susie Billings.

2. Did Wellesley College influence you to travel at all? What was it like going there for you?

Wellesley didn’t influence me to travel as I already had the travel bug. I had grown up in California so the climate of Boston was a big shock, needed a new wardrobe and did call come pretty regularly but really wanted to get away from where I grew up. I had always said I appreciated where I grew up, but it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to live.

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Rice fields of Vietnam. Photo by Susie Billings.

3. What did your loved ones think about your mom traveling? What did they think about you traveling?

I know my mum’s sister moved around Australia due to her husband’s job and my mum was overseas so I know my mum’s mum was sad she was away. I think it was understood that she wasn’t settled anywhere – she didn’t meet my dad or get married until she was 33. She had me at 36.

My parents always encouraged me to travel and they were able to help fund it when I was younger. However, none of my friends traveled, and we were considered very unusual. In fact, we often didn’t say much about our travels as there was some jealously about us traveling. On the other hand, other people had fancy cars and bought bigger houses, fancy TVs, and sound systems. We had second hand cars and stayed in the same subdivision house as our funds went towards travel.

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“We had second hand cars and stayed in the same subdivision house as our funds went toward travel” Photo of Venice by Susie Billings.

4. What was it like staying in touch with loved ones thousands of miles away?

Calls home to my mum’s family when I was a kid were for three minutes at Christmas. The line used to beep so you knew your three minutes were up. Otherwise, we called only for emergencies or major news. Sometimes cassettes would be recorded and sent in the post.

We would get a half hour news reel of what is going on in our loved ones’ lives.

We sent the annual Christmas letter to everyone “back home” so they would know what was going on in our lives. We filled every square inch of airletters – really fine paper that folded over so there was no envelope to make the airmail postage as inexpensive as possible. And we always did gifts and Christmas letters early so they could do the international portion by sea mail. That way, it was much, much cheaper!

My now husband and I have a stack of letters we wrote to each other over 18 months of our long distance relationship. We sometimes wrote four page letters as we knew it would be several weeks between exchanges of letters.

I recently ran across a letter from my mum’s mum to my mum berating her for not keeping up her correspondence!

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Bryce Canyon. Photo by Susie Billings.

5. Some people say that people traveled as much back then as they do now. We just make a bigger deal about it now with social media. How do you think social media has framed how we view travel today?

I don’t think people travelled as much at all. We would save for years and years to travel to Australia for special occasions. Dad would bank his holiday time and we would have to travel with lots and lots of stopovers. We lived in the Sacramento area and we would have to fly first to LA, then to Hawaii, then to Fiji, then to Sydney, and then to Melbourne. It was very time consuming and costly.

Today you can fly non- stop from San Francisco to Sydney in under 14 hours – the same journey used to take closer to 24. Also, with the advent of much more competition with international flights, frequent flyer programmes, and budget airlines, relative prices are so much cheaper.

In fact, overseas travel was so uncommon that people would hold slide nights at their homes to share their experiences with their friends!

There weren’t web sites to google- only some picture books at a store or library. I have an ongoing project of going through both my parents and grandparents slides. They are labeled in cartridges and I remember pulling down slide projection screens mounted in some people’s homes.

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“Overseas travel was so uncommon that people would hold slide nights at their homes to share their experiences with friends!” Photo of London by Susie Billings.

6. Do you remember your first flight? How did you feel?

I don’t remember my first flight, as I was two. My mum took me to Australia for the first time to meet her family. To save money, my dad didn’t come. My mum was so proud I was “potty trained,” but then when I had to use the airplane bathroom (which makes a VERY loud sucking sound when you flush), apparently all that training went out the window- much to her dismay.

7. Traveling has become pretty normal for you. I’m the first in my immigrant Mexican family to move and live abroad by choice and not necessity. Did you face pushback for leaving home?

Not from my family, since my mother had already done it herself. But, I still have family friends in California asking when will I move back home, even though I left in 1986!

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A balancing act in Vietnam. Photo by Susie Billings.

8. How and why were you able to travel so much?

Initially support from family until I was 20 – for family trips and a religious camp and school trips, then I prioritised savings and lived fairly minimally so could continue to travel. Also, worked for an international company so I took advantage of lots of business travel. Other than my initial self-funded move to Australia after graduation, the rest of the moves have been on a company’s dime. I have stayed in a lot of youth hostels – even now in my late 40’s, I have been known to stay in a hostel from time to time and have a favorite one star hotel in Paris that we have stayed in when we took the Eurostar from London. I believe more in traveling for the experience, than for the luxury. I’ve also developed a broad network of people who host us.

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Scuba diving in The Great Barrier Reef! Photo by Susie Billings.

9. Where are you now? What’s next?

I am kind of in two places at the moment. I have lived with my husband and two kids in Qatar for over 8 years. He has a great job and they are in a good school, but I was treading water. I am now in London for an academic year doing another masters and visiting “home in Qatar” when possible. I also use Skype/FaceTime iMessage to stay in touch with my family’s daily life. We have a bank of air miles (my husband travels a lot for work) so I am hoping to go home once a month. We may be in Qatar for another six years to get our kids through high school, but we never know for sure.We also don’t know for sure where we will end up or where we will go next.

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On Safari with Brett, Lachlan, and Lauren in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Susie Billings.
Traveling (and then working abroad) has been very enriching for us intellectually, socially, financially.

We got one of Hotmail’s first “free” email addresses back in 1996. In those days, you had to have subscriptions with a service provider like AOL. That way, we kept in touch with family and friends while we backpacked around the world for about 9 months in 1997. There were no cell phones to travel with then, and we would drop into Internet cafés every couple of weeks and send a long note to let people know we were still alive.

Given how I hover over my own kids now, and how I want them to text me back immediately, I am amazed at how relaxed my parents were about me traveling like that.

Lastly, I remember in my first job out of college in Melbourne, Australia, where I met colleagues who were originally from England, who had migrated to Australia, and had never returned. Airline travel was really a major expense and families from Melbourne would road trip 16 hours up to Queensland for their holidays with packed lunches. My husband, who is from Australia, didn’t travel on an airplane until he was in his late teens. Most Australians “did Europe” once in their early twenties and then maybe traveled overseas when they retired. Now with cheap airfares tons go to Bali or Hong Kong. Sometimes now it is still cheaper to travel overseas from Australia than to fly within Australia!

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More than just a bird’s eye view of Doha, Qatar. Photo by Susie Billings.

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Susie!

Want to read more “Travel Before Facebook” stories? Check out my Wanderful column! I interview Barbara Bergin, whose grandmother traveled the world on freighters.

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Sound travels.

Whether we travel abroad or stay at home, they orient us in time and place.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer living without the distractions of Internet in my house, I’ve been able to focus on the sounds I hear in Nicaragua…

Read more of my latest interactive Wanderful travel column here!

Adventure Travel Nicaragua: Hiking Cosiguina Volcano, Pt. III

This is the final installment of my adventure travel story. I hiked Cosiguina Volcano near Potosí in Chinandega, Nicaragua. Read Part 2 here.

Saturday, 4:45 AM

Again, I was waking up before dawn, but this time, I’d be hiking a Volcano instead of running down a hill to catch a taxi. Rafael, the hotel owner, woke up with us and gave us cups of hot, instant coffee, which I appreciated. Just about the same 1% of people who use air-conditioning are the same kind of people who are wealthy enough to brew their coffee. “Ramon’s here, but take your time”, Rafael said. Jen and I would be hiking up the volcano with our private guide for just $25 split between the two of us.

We finished our coffees and met Ramon outside. He was a skinny, dark-skinned man who must’ve been in his 70’s. He had a grey baseball cap and grey mustache, and held a machete by the blade, not the handle. “Hola Ramon, mucho gusto”(“Hi Ramon, Nice to meet you”), I said, while giving him a firm handshake. He had a deep voice, a kind smile, and he didn’t say much. He wore a yellow button-down shirt, khaki pants, and worn-out Sperry boat shoes.

We wasted no time and walked briskly into the darkness. Our feet sank into the sandy road that winded through endless farmlands. The crisp air smelled of manure. It reminded me of my early runs in Moses Lake, Washington. Roosters crowed to announce the daybreak. As soon as the sun peeked out, the temperature began to climb. We walked quickly, is if we could beat the sun to the summit. We climbed further up past meadows and into the jungle. I turned around to see the Gulf of Fonseca and it’s shrimp farms behind me. Leaves covered the trees to make dinosaur-looking figures. It felt like we were in a Dr. Seuss book, except I’m sure Dr. Seuss never wrote about cowpies. It was hard to avoid them. I must have stepped into at least five. Throughout most of the three hour hike, cows and bulls walked behind, next to, and in front of us. They triggered bad memories for Jen, who was nearly attacked by a bull on a hike in Spain.

Ramon’s determined walk intimidated the cows-they moved right out of his way. We followed our quiet, fearless guide through the jungle, occasionally pausing so that he could hack an obstructing branch with his machete.

8:17 AM

Finally, we reached the summit of the Cosiguina Volcano. I was sweaty and hot, but the peaceful, cool breeze at the top made it all worth it. It blew against my skin, rewarding me for going through all the trouble of endless bus rides, stepping in cow pies, and nearly tripping into jellyfish infested waters.

It was quiet.

All we could hear was the wind and crickets. The view of the crater lake, along with the Salvadorian and Honduran volcanoes in behind it, was my favorite view to this day. Behind us was the Pacific Ocean and the San Cristóbal Volcano (Nicaragua’s tallest volcano), sitting majestically with its crown of clouds.

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At peace at the Summit of Cosiguina Volcano. Oh hey there, Honduras and El Salvador!

Clouds drifted past, casting dark, clumpy shadows within the green crater. The crater lake’s blue water sparkled. I hoped that if I stared at it long enough, that I could be teleported to the bottom for a swim. “Ramon, have you been to the bottom?” I asked. “Cómo No? I’ve rappelled down the crater. It took four hours to descend, and six to climb back up. Half of the water is cold, and the other is hot. It’s 90 meters deep”, he replied. I wanted to rappel down it.

I wanted to do so many things: to jump in, to walk along the edge of the crater to see two starkly different views to my left and to my right. I wanted to climb every volcano I saw.

A rush of both gratitude and relief overcame me. Hiking Cosiguina reminded me that there was a world beyond Nicaragua. After having been here for 15 months and only having gone home once, it sometimes feels as if I will never leave. I do miss traveling to other countries and I miss my friends, but I was so happy I’d stayed long enough to see this amazing sight. The volcanoes jutting out of the water reminded me of the view from Seattle’s Pike Place Market of the mountains jutting out of Pudget Sound. If my body hadn’t already been partially dehydrated form the hike, then my eyes probably would have watered. It all felt so recognizable yet starkly new.

My shoes crunched on the black pumice as I climbed on rock to open my can of tuna. I mixed it with lime-flavored mayonnaise and dipped my crackers into the can. This meal reminded me of my family’s hikes around Lake Wenatchee. My mom would even bring hot sauce and limes to squeeze on top. I was happy that I’d brought something other than just granola. While Jen and Ramon spoke, I thought of how I was in the right place at the right time. Getting up before dawn two days in a row was more than worth it. Cosiguina was one of those places, like the Red Shrine in Kyoto, or the Père Lachaise cemetery, where I’d visit Edith Piaf in Paris, where I felt an indescribable sense of belonging. These are my “spots”. I felt this way here because I enjoyed being able to see so many things at once. Hiking also brought back wonderful memories for me.

Have you ever been somewhere new and felt an instant connection to it? Share in the comments.

Featured image by @Handerson406

Adventure Travel Nicaragua: Hiking Cosiguina Volcano, Pt. II

This is the second part part of my journey to hike Cosiguina Volcano near Potosí in Chinandega, Nicaragua. Read Part I of my travels here.

Friday, 2:10 PM

Jen and I had been on the bus for three hours. The bus rattled along the road into Potosí. We stopped outside of the Hotel Brisas del Golfo. “Oh, we’re here!” I said, tapping Jen on the shoulder. We hopped out and waddled to the entrance, where we saw an older woman with curly dark hair and button noise sitting with her stroller, as if she had been waiting for us all day. “Buenas!” we said to one another. She moved pretty quickly for an older woman with a stroller. She was on a mission. We had reserved dorm beds for $8 each, and luckily, we had the whole room to ourselves. We set down our things, relieved that we didn’t have to set foot on another bus for the rest of the day. The hotel didn’t have air conditioning (as 99% of hotels and houses don’t), so we tested out the three fans to see which ones could blow the hot air away from us the best.

The hotel had a quaint, yet eerie feel to it. It had colorful, red walls, and lots of rocking chairs. We laid in the hammocks and looked at how differently decorated this hotel was, compared to the others I’d been in. I felt like I was in Mexico. The walls had pictures of distant relatives, as well as antique advertisements for Spanish bull fights. There were three fat cats with healthy-looking fur. I never used to pay much attention to whether an animal had healthy-looking fur or not, but I do now, after having seen countless stray, sickly looking dogs and cats in the streets. Cat lovers as well as dog lovers would enjoy this place, since the canine hosts include a mother and a baby Chihuahua.

After having drunk a Coke and laid in the hammocks, Jen and I went for a walk on the beach. On the way there, it was as if every house had at least two pigs outside, grunting and looking for whatevever it is that strikes a pig’s gastronomic fancy. My favorite pig was a white baby pig with black spots, It reminded me of a cow. Potosí wins the award for the most pigs per capita, I’m sure. But where’s the bacon? I wondered. We passed a large swimming hole where families took a break from the heat and stared at us at the same time. Children came up to as to stare at our white complexions. One girl twisted her neck at me, as if that might change my skin color, so I did the same, and she smiled. Having staring contests with children is my new past time.

As we got closer to the beach, more and more men catcalled us. “Adios, mamacitas!” one man said on his bike. Jen poked fun at the monotone way at which I replied “Adios…”, because I’m used to this type of attention here. Luckily, it wasn’t the overtly sexual street harassment I’ve experienced before. They wanted to see if we spoke Spanish or not. So, in order to prove it, I asked them what the names of the volcanoes in the distance were. “That’s El Tigre, in Honduras”, one man said. I told them they were lucky to live in such a beautiful place, and they just nodded. As we approached the beach, we saw a group of kids throwing rocks at empty Coke bottles. I picked up a rock to join them, but I ended up missing by about 20 feet.

Children-beach
KPhoto by Flickr User Magda & Maciej

The beach was calm. Groups of men played soccer on one side. There were almost no waves, since we were inside the barrier that is the Gulf of Fonseca. I took off my Chaco sandals so that the dark, volcanic sand could massage my feet. We passed several fishing boats that were docking for the night. “Are those your dogs?” I asked a man, who had a handful of fish in his hands and looked as if he were about to feed the hungry dogs. “Just that one, he said” looking at the yellow Labrador in front of him. The beach reminded me of the beaches of Bahía de Caraquez, Ecuador, where I lived in the summer of 2011, during an internship with the La Poderosa Media Project. I thought of the beachcomber who took my flip flops as I’d gone for another barefoot run. I had to walk home barefoot that day-that’s not something I would do here. It doesn’t matter if you leave a Spanish plant outside, like my friend Danica did until her family advised her to put it away. It you leave anything unattended, chances are that someone will pick it up to reuse it.

It was getting dark, so we headed back and went on the boardwalk. There were shrimp exoskeletons all over it. At the end of it was a staircase, so I walked down it in order to get in the water. The stairs were so slippery that before I knew it, I’d fallen backward and scraped my elbow. “Oh my God, did you hit your head?” Jen asked. “No, I’m fine. I can’t believe I did that!” I laughed. She came down to help me and also tripped. Then, we noticed that the water was infested with jellyfish, and decided against swimming. My elbow was bleeding, so we went back to the hotel, where I rinsed it out and put antibiotic ointment on it. What a day.

5:30 PM

I ordered Chicken for dinner. While we waited, the mother Chihuahua came and sat on my lap. It was strange to be in the presence of a Chihuaha that wasn’t shivering. That’s how hot Nicaragua is, my friends. One of the cooks brought out our heaping plates of rice and beans, cabbage, tortillas, and meat, and I asked her what the dogs name was. “Is it Princesa?” I asked, jokingly, because that’s a common name here. I was correct. So, I put Princesa down on the tile floor after our cuddle session and enjoyed dinner. Just as we went to pay, the lights went out. Black outs are pretty common here. You never know how long they’ll last. Just as I was waiting for Rafael, the owner, to find a flashlight so that I could pay, “Garfield”, one of the fat cats, jumped up next to me and began munching his bowl of cat food. “We don’t feed them tortillas, or rice, or anything. They only kill the mice, but they don’t eat them. We only feed them Pedigree, Mar y Tierra (Surf ‘n Turf)!” said Rafael, who pinched his fingers together and moved his hand down to emphasize his point.

A half hour later, the power went back on, and the TV resumed its nightly telenovela. We went to bed at 7:30 because our guide, Ramon, would pick us up at 5 AM to hike Cosiguina. He would take us up the volcano for just $25 split between the two of us.

Featured image by @Handerson406

Adventure Travel: 15 Firsts of Hiking Cerro Musún, Nicaragua

My recent travel adventure was hiking in Cerro Musún, near Rio Blanco, Matagalpa, Nicaragua. It’s a very muddy mountain. Rubber boots are a must. This month, I chose to hike Cerro Musún with my friend, Deva. For safety reasons, hiking is one of the few travel activities I almost never do solo. Hiking is a fun way to feel accomplished with a friend, too!

Each month I travel to at least one new place, whether it’s a lake, volcano, or mountain. I experienced 15 firsts on this hiking trip. Enjoy!

Hiking Cerro Musún was the first time I:

1. Was on the nearly on the edge of the RAAN, the only department Peace Corps volunteers are prohibited from going, for safety reasons I’m not fully aware of, other than the RAAN’s coast being in a strategic location for drug smugglers.

2. Had a spooky white dog, Princesa, as a hotel ghost…I mean, host. It moved around so much that I couldn’t get a clear shot of her pink, bulging eyes.

Princesa, our hotel's host dog...or ghost dog?
Princesa, our hotel’s host dog…or ghost dog?

3. Saw every other person in town wearing black, knee-length rubber boots. Going hiking reminded me of the UGG boots my friends wore in college. Except this time they were necessary. It rains every day here. This area should be called the “Wild, Wet, West”.

Rubber boots are a must in the Wild, Wet West!
Rubber boots are a must in the Wild, Wet West!

4. Wore rubber boots that were NOT wedges. All 4 years of college, I wore the coolest blue and green plaid-pattered rainboots. They were the only “heels” I wore consistently. I felt sassy as I listened to the Buena Vista Club’s “La Carretera” while stomping through puddles on the way to Italian class.
5. Saw people in rubber boots crossing a river on horseback.

Have I mentioned the importance of rubber boots yet?
Have I mentioned the prevalance of rubber boots yet?

6. Took a selfie while crossing a swinging bridge with a broken piece of sheet metal as the base.

Cheese!
Cheese!

7. Hiked straight up a muddy mountain for 3 hours. I didn’t fall into the small pits of mud, but our legs were covered in mud. I felt like a kid again. There were also eye-catching red and purple rock formations.

8. Saw 5 piglets sleeping while the mother snorted at us.

Piglets, doing what they do.
Piglets, doing what they do.

9. Saw spiders 6 inches from my face. As we hiked farther into the mountain, we put sticks in front of us to clear away the spider webs in our path.

10. Felt incredibly relieved to sit on a swing. Deva and I snacked on applies, nuts, and Doritos while overlooking the mountain.

Swinging on the mountainside.
Swinging on the mountainside.

11. Stood on the edge of a waterfall, and saw another waterfall from there.

Waterfalls abound at Cerro Musun.
Waterfalls abound at Cerro Musun.

12. Sat underneath a waterfall with my clothes on. I wore a swimming suit underneath, but my instinct told me not to strip. Another man along the way had chosen to join us. Oh, and he had a machete with him. He and our guide felt it necessary to hack at the sticks in our way. It was a nice gesture, but I still felt uncomfortable taking my clothes off in front of men I had just met. They were watching us the whole time anyway, probably because it was weird to see two American women go hiking for fun.

You can sit anywhere you want, if you believe in yourself.
You can sit anywhere you want, if you believe in yourself.

13. Wasn’t asked by my male guide if I was married. I’ve become so used to hearing this as commonly as I hear “bless you” after a sneeze in the bus, or on the street, or at the cash register. He did ask me was if I went hiking in my country, and what the lyrics to Cher’s “Do you believe” song meant. I explained, adding that the song was much too cheesy for me. He laughed.

William, our quiet, machete-wielding guide.
William, our quiet, machete-wielding guide.

14. Felt like Julie Andrews in the South of Music, as we hiked down through unbelievably gorgeous meadows. It felt like a dream. It also felt like we were in a randomly placed golf course with meticulously cut grass and thick, moping willow trees on the hillsides.

The Hills are Alive, With the Sound of Musun!
The Hills are Alive, With the Sound of Musun!

15. Took a 3 hour refurbished school bus ride home, ate beans and rice, showered, went dancing, and came home at 1 AM to my first baby tarantula.

Talk about adventure travel! Not only did I go hiking, I also experienced another side of the department of Matagalpa I haven’t seen. My hotel cost about $4, and my guide charged about $10. This experience made me realize how many activities Matagalpa offers. And that you can come home to a baby tarantula whenever.

Waterfall fun.
Waterfall fun.

Whether hiking, kayaking, or ziplining, what is your favorite adventure travel first?