Sunday, February 24, 2008
At 80 It’s wanderlust for me
Meeting Dorothy Conlon is a revelation. The spry 80-year-old puts a person half her age to shame with her energy and vivacity. And just hearing her talk about her travels makes you feel like a staid homebody. Ask her how she started on her trips and she laughs. “I think I was born with the travel bug running in my veins. I was born in Japan where my parents were missionaries and went back to the U.S. only when I was seven.”
Since no one was going to let a child her age take off alone, she had to finish school and college without much wandering. Then she joined the Foreign Service. “I was never career minded,” she confides. “But I thought this would be the best way to see the world.” A posting in Taiwan led to marriage with Ned and she quit her job. “In those days,” she sighs, “they wouldn’t allow couples in the same service; so I quit.”
On the move
It didn’t matter because now she went travelling with her husband. For the next 30 years, Dorothy wandered through Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan and India. “But always cocooned in the Foreign Service.”
After Ned’s death in 1989, Dorothy’s first trip was to Bangkok where she volunteered to teach. While she didn’t have much trouble, it wasn’t very satisfactory. “I didn’t really get to mix with the people,” she muses. “Bangkok is huge and the other teachers were commuting more than an hour a day; so once the classes were over, they were off trying to get home. And I lived a few minutes walk away. No, that wasn’t very nice, except for the teaching.”
But a year in Hanoi was more fun. “These were a bunch of scientists and they were trying to learn English because they knew they’d need to write papers and give presentations … stuff like that. And it was little groups of six or seven people. They’d take me to their homes, take me around, show me the sights… that trip gave me an insight into the culture and how people live.”
Her trips were a curious mixture of touristy stuff and volunteer work. She has volunteered with Earth Watch and Global Volunteers, Global Service Corps. The package tours that she did take were “not the five-star la-di-dah tours that don’t show you anything,” she raises her shoulders and looks down her nose in an imitation of tourist snobbery. “If you’re going to a new place, take the local transport, walk around and get to see the sights… not through the window of an air-conditioned bus or car.” Her Earth Watch volunteer work led her to a programme studying the Indian wolf in Kutch, Gujarat; to a programme working for the conservation of cheetahs in Namibia; to a study of echidnas in Kangaroo Island, Australia.
“Except for the programme in Namibia, we didn’t really get to mix with the locals,” she says wistfully. “But the Cheetah conservation programme really showed us what the man-animal conflict was all about. The farmers there believe that the cheetah attacks their livestock and so they kill it. The CCF is working to educate them to better agricultural practices, to put their livestock in sheds at night. They’re also breeding a kind of guard dog, which they sell to these farmers. They’ve made a lot of progress, to the extent that now farmers call the CCF if they sight a cheetah instead of just working to kill it.”
South America is another area that she’s been exploring. Not Peru, “all the Americans go there. So I went to Bolivia.” And got caught in the midst of a miner’s strike. “Well, it wasn’t as dangerous as we thought it was,” she laughs. “They were blocking the roads; so we had to get off the bus and hike till we got another bus. We were about 20 hours off schedule but no, not very dangerous.”
What about reactions from friends and relatives? “Oh, people hear that I travel and they ask, ‘where in Europe have you been?’ As if there is nowhere else,” she raps the table to emphasise her point. “And the whole world is just waiting,” she flings out her arms as if to embrace the world. “I go to places that have colour. I need colour in my life,” she smoothes down her colourful jacket and points to the multi-coloured birds dangling from her ears.
At Home in the World is Dorothy’s account of her adventures. Her editor Sarah Seidmann chips in, “With most people, you have to tell them to stop writing and then chop away. With Dorothy, I had to keep telling her to give me more material to work with. She’s very reticent.” Dorothy smiles, “I just knew I was meant to spend my life travelling. I only hope more people realise that you can get out and see the world before it’s too late.”
Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.