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The Travelers

By Steve Hendrix
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 27, 1998; Page E01

Reto Wildschek drops his backpack in the lobby of the Residential Rosario, La Paz's most popular backpackers' hotel. He slaps the bus-ride dust from his sleeve, joins the short line in front of the desk and with a practiced eye sizes up the obvious hallmarks of a way station on the gringo trail: handwritten signs in precarious English advertise guided tours to nearby Andean villages; a bulletin board is crowded with yellowed messages left behind for arriving travelers; a young woman--German maybe?--walks through with a load of damp laundry.

"They're all here," Wildschek says, looking around at the scattering of young Europeans in the lobby chairs--chatting, writing letters, sipping coca-leaf tea in their stocking feet. "I saw that girl in Quito, I think. She's Dutch."

Wildschek predicts that it will be only minutes before one of these travelers comes over to engage him in what he calls The Conversation. Sure enough, even before he gets his turn with the Bolivian desk clerk, a bearded Englishman in a dingy cable-knit sweater stops to introduce himself and ply Wildschek with the usual questions: Where are you from? Switzerland. Where have you been? Mostly just Latin America on this trip. How long have been traveling? Almost two years. How much longer to go? I hope another six months, if the money holds out. I haven't even gotten to Brazil yet.

Wildschek's answers are unremarkable to the bearded Brit, who recounts a similar history of his own: 15 months on the road in Asia and South America, another year to go with any luck at all.

Wildschek and the Englishman--along with most of the people in this $6-a-night hotel--are citizens of a world that is all but invisible to typical tourists. They are Travelers, the name often adopted by the underground population of ultra long-term tourists--people who spend a year or two or three journeying about the globe. They are a large, mostly hidden network of cultural vagabonds riding planes, trains and rusty buses throughout Asian jungles, South American mountains and African cities. English is their common language, the dollar is their benchmark currency and with backpacks and dog-eared passports, they hitchhike and island hop from country to country. They navigate the world via word of mouth, while special guidebooks tip them on where to network with other Travelers in La Paz (El Lobo Restaurant), where to work on the sly in London (the pubs of Earl's Court) and where it's safe to hitchhike in Africa (Gaborone--yes; Lagos--no). They live day-to-day, with itineraries that stretch loosely from season to season.

In the course of my own (much shorter) trips as a tourist and a journalist, I've become fascinated by my quick glimpses into this parallel tourism universe, amazed by the discipline and the gypsy-logistics it takes to globe-trot on a few dollars a day. As I've joined their ranks briefly--in a boat on the Mekong, or a bus in Fiji, or an island in Lake Titicaca--I've tried to move The Conversation beyond the basics to find out what motivates these nonstop Travelers. How can they afford to spend so much time on the road? How do they do it, month after month?

And why don't we? The ultra long-term tour is practically unknown in the United States, where travel--aside from one summer after college and two weeks a year ever after--is often considered little more than wasted space on a resume. But for a sizable number of young Europeans, New Zealanders, Israelis and Australians--especially Australians--the extreme grand tour is a venerable rite, an expansion of horizons valued as something more than just an endless vacation.

"You don't travel like this to have a holiday--you travel like this to have a confrontation with yourself," said Bert Von Heiningen, a veteran Traveler I met in the Andean mining city of Potosi during one of his periodic breakouts from a career as a management consultant in Amsterdam. He's afoot now for only a few months, but in previous trips, he's ambled about Asia and Africa for more than a year at a time. "It's the best thing I've ever done for myself as a person. If you haven't traveled, I mean really immersed yourself in it, you're a slave to your preconceptions--you see what you believe. If you have traveled, you learn to believe what you see."

There are as many explanations for acute wanderlust as there are Travelers who suffer from it. But common to them all is the desire to break through the protective bubble that surrounds ordinary tourists as they move from one homogenous, CNN-wired hotel to another. Travelers are unabashed, wide-eyed cultural voyeurs. They seek destinations as radically different from their own hometown worlds as possible. They're willing to endure discomfort bordering on the osteopathic to get there, and once they arrive they don't like to be rushed.

"One month to see a country! That's ridiculous," says Wildschek, looking at the standard 30-day Bolivian tourist visa stamped in his passport as he checks into the hotel. "But this Australian guy told me I can get it extended if I cross into Peru for a day and bribe the guard when I come back."

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