How many of us have the courage to do what we truly want to do, whether it be defying parents to become a writer rather than a lawyer, or quitting a well-paying job to risk setting up your own business, or actualizing a filament of a dream or desire that you’ve been toying with for years? Bob Pedersen can rightfully put himself among the boasted few. Quitting a stable job as a restaurant manager and shelling out a lot of dough, Bob made his childhood dream happen: to travel around the world without riding in an airplane.
But it took most of a lifetime to realize it. Although he started traveling “when [he] first got out of college many years ago,” he merely harbored the idea of eschewing the super-convenience of an airplane until the later years in his life. He finally roused himself to seize the more rugged, independent way of traveling, by starting to carefully plan his itinerary and contacting his trusted travel agent of 25 years. Eventually, he decided to take a freight ship from California to Hong Kong, then to skitter across two continents, Asia and Europe, by train, pausing for brief respites in 26 countries, to then ride a freighter back from England to Philadelphia so as to reach his home of Eugene, Oregon via train within five months. A couple of months afterwards, he reflects back on this impressive feat, smiling with perhaps a bit of wryness. “This trip I took… three years from now, I don’t think I could have done that. It took every bit of physical energy I had to do it. But I got a great big thing off my life’s to-do list. Probably ‘number one.’”
His face easily crinkles into a deeper smile, his skin still tanned and reddened, while his blue eyes still glow with a youthful twinkle below his slightly tousled mop of sandy-colored hair. Standing, he is at least six feet, making my five-foot-four self feel shorter than average. When we first meet, he challenges the boundaries of my comfort space by standing nearer than other Americans would, but I don’t feel imposed on or threatened. After we find a quiet enough place to do the interview, he snowballs past the superficial and restrained small-talk and chats like we have already known each other for a while.
Throughout the interview, Bob keeps talking about how the best part of the trip is the people he met and made friends with. He also mentions how, during his trip, he made pains to write back to readers who e-mailed him, even when the mail totaled to 60. He emphasizes that to build such connections, you need to bypass your initial wariness of strangers. “Just let yourself go, and let what happens, happen,” he says. Of course, some degree of caution should be retained – no need to be a blindly gullible and trusting jackass – but adventures abound and lasting friendships await as you force yourself out of your comfort circle.
In fact, Bob says, if pushing beyond yourself is a hard thing to do as it is for many folk, traveling solo is a “quick” remedy. “You have to rely only on yourself; you don’t have someone to buy the tickets for both of you as you take a rest by the luggage. You have a lot of more to think about,” he says.
That often means having faith in strangers and the circumstances of the situation: “Just wander, have a good time, take it in, let yourself go, and let yourself trust people.” He talks about his traveling on the train to Italy, and how he asked a fellow passenger about a quiet town he could visit there. The man suggests a town that isn’t even on the map, but that is where the man is actually from. He invites Bob to go with him, and Bob ended up staying three nights, enjoying every bit of it. “Had I been reserved and cautious and wary, that never would have happened.” He also points out another benefit when traveling alone: “Had I been traveling with someone else, it never would have happened. The car barely fit all of us, and I probably wouldn’t have talked with him anyway when I already had a companion.”
I asked him whether not knowing any foreign languages crippled him. “Not at all,” he replies. “Although, I found the guide in Hong Kong very useful when I was in Hong Kong [taking the train to Helsinki, Finland], where I don’t know how to write where I wanted to go, much less say it.” But, if you don’t have a guide, “just ask a schoolkid; most likely, they’ll know English since it’s taught as a second language,” he added, smiling a little knowingly.
Asking helped him catch a taxi in Shanghai to his hotel. “I didn’t know how to [tell the drivers where I needed to go], because a lot of the taxi drivers couldn’t read what I’d written in English,” he recounts. “And then this young girl of about twelve asks if I need help, and” – he rolls his eyes a little and smiles as he puffs out a little air – “and, I’m like, ‘Yeah.‘ I told her where I needed to go, and she relayed that to the driver.”
He scorns travelers who’re bent on bringing home everywhere they visit, and who refuse to immerse themselves in unfamiliar environments. He mentions a woman who balked at going to Mexico because “they spoke Spanish there” and had trains where the passengers rode along with the chickens and goats. He smiles. “I would be disappointed if they didn’t have chickens and goats.” He’s not fond of guide books, either: “I rarely read guidebooks, because you get this idea in your mind about what the city is [like], and you get all excited about it. Then you go see it and you’re disappointed because it’s different from what you painted in your head. So I just go, get on that train or plane, and” – he pauses with a little smile – “see what happens.”
I notice that he glances at his watch now and then, because the interview ran longer: a quarter into the interview we had to start over, after I realized I wasn’t recording. Bob is a very busy man, managing and working at another restaurant while writing, but he bides his time answering my questions, conveying no stress or hurry at all until after the interview, when he murmurs a quick “Bye!” and strides toward the doors leading outside.
The harried farewell was fine: he was very much in the present when he answered my questions, as if he were just having a leisurely conversation. He even drew a sketch of his miniature schnauzer, Maxwell, and talked of him fondly: “When I got back, he couldn’t get close enough to me; he clung to me for a week.” Babysat by a friend of Bob’s, Maxwell got to do some traveling of his own. “[My friend] sent me pictures of Maxwell camping and Maxwell on a lake; it was cute.”
Maxwell even wrote a letter to his “dad” (with a little help from Bob’s friend) while he was busy circumnavigating the globe. “My editor wanted to publish it, but it never was due to time and space reasons,” he says. But, he got all of his articles published (primarily in Eugene’s newspaper, The Register Guard), virtually verbatim and has found a new passion in writing. He looks toward it as he does life: “If it doesn’t work out-well, it just doesn’t work out (his tone conveys already brushing it off to start anew on something else); that’s fine, but I won’t fail, because I won’t have to look back when I’m sixty-five or seventy years [old] and say, “I wish I would have done that, when I had the chance.”
Below are links to Bob’s stories, published weekly while he was away. To leave this page open while you look at any of the stories, right-click the link and select “Open in New Window”:
- May 6, 2001: Well-grounded traveler plans to circle globe by freighter and train
- June 24, 2001: A trans-Pacific freighter allows you to jettison life’s excess cargo
- July 15, 2001: Tales of bad yak meat, Cat Man and the oldest lake in the world
- July 29, 2001: Train travel is all about feasts and friendships
- August 19, 2001: Budapest calls traveler back
- September 2, 2001: This is no trip to the mall; it’s Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar
- September 9, 2001: Tourism information? In the Aegean, it’s all Greek to them
- September 16, 2001: Sidewalk cafes bring out the joys and sorrows of solo travel
- September 23, 2001: American abroad gets messages of support
- September 30, 2001: A proper pint is easy; the Buchanan is another story
- October 14, 2001: Trip ends with thoughts on the best and worst of travel