[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hough not avid travelers themselves, Mckee’s parents endowed their daughter with a sense of wonder that kicked into full gear at the age of 42, when she set out on a round-the-world (RTW) backpacking adventure. Mckee’s mom, an against-the-grain school teacher, let her skip school to read about exploration. Her dad’s only regret in life was never having traveled.
Who or what initially inspired your wanderlust?
Books. Mom and Dad.
I can say this now without raising the ire of any truant officer, but sometimes my mom would let me stay home from elementary school, even when I was perfectly healthy, so we could pour over stacks of “National Geographic” or read Robert Louis Stevenson. She was a conventional woman with an unconventional mind.
Before he died, my Dad became ill with a recurring melanoma, and I was his caretaker. During his illness I learned more about him in a few months than I had in my previous 40 years. One night, as he was telling me about his time stationed in Japan as a communication specialist during the Korean War, he stopped the story and said, “You know, Heather, my only regret in life is never having traveled.”
That was his benediction and exhortation to me.
When did you make the decision to take this trip, and was it difficult to leave your life, at the time, behind?
It was after both my parents had passed. I was at a crossroads in my life – I’d left my job to take care of my dad, I was single at the time, had saved money, and my brother was getting married on the other side of the world – it took planning, but at such a point it wasn’t hard to say, ‘Yes!’
What do you do for work?
Well – I haven’t had one of those clearly defined, spend 40 years with the company, get-the-gold-watch careers, that’s for sure. If I had to label myself I’d say bioethicist/policy analyst/healthcare executive. I actually started out as an accountant before going to post-grad seminary, though, and I majored in Psychology as an undergrad before that. It’s a long story.
Interviewer’s Note: Mckee’s solo adventure was her first big trip abroad since she was part of a youth volunteer trip to Haiti at the age of 17. Her round the world trip took her six months to plan, and she visited nine countries.
What countries did you decide to visit, and why did you choose them?
In list fashion:
- Western Samoa – inexpensive, traditional Polynesian culture, literary and anthropological significance with unspoiled outer islands.
- Australia – My brother lived there. He was getting married there, and I adore Thorn Birds!
- Vietnam – I have a lifelong fascination with this place and questions about the U.S. involvement there. I’m intrigued by the “mystique” of the French colonial influence, the food and the culture.
- Cambodia – My reasons for visiting were similar to that of Vietnam. I had historical interest in the place, and I wanted to see how it was recovering after thirty years of genocide.
- Thailand – Thailand just seemed fun, and I wanted to learn about their reputed laid-back lifestyle.
- Myanmar – I was there with a group for about 30 minutes. We were looking for elephants and snuck across the border before we came to our senses and ran back to Thailand.
- Greece, Austria and France – These places I explored for their food and history – they delivered.
You took a cooking class while in Chiang Mai, Thailand. How was that?
It was a hoot! It was a group class. Our instructor was a saucy (no pun intended), middle-aged Thai woman, Miss Sami, who must have learned her English from bad 1980s U.S. sitcoms. We assembled early in the morning to buy our ingredients – the market tour was worth the price of the deal in itself! She sent us off in small groups to haggle for our assigned contribution – I was part of the “root crew” (onions, garlic, ginger, galangal). After we’d all been ripped off (at least according to Miss Sami) we drove to her house and, again divided into teams, started cooking or carving. We made ornamental watermelons, a variety of curries, spring rolls and learned about the finer points of fish sauce. Sami emphasized proper wok technique, which meant if the gas flame wasn’t searing your arm hair, it wasn’t hot enough.
Did you do any other organized group activities while abroad?
I got a scuba diving certificate and did a three-day, live-aboard, scuba trip on the Andaman Sea. I also attended a Muay Thai boxing camp.
Would you recommend finding classes in different areas when traveling?
Certainly, it’s a great way to meet new people and gain cultural experience.
Interviewer’s Note: You can find many group activities in the places you visit simply by searching for them online. Make sure you check the currency-exchange rate before agree to pay for a course, and look for good deals. There are super-expensive courses out there, but don’t get ripped off; there are good courses at good prices.
What was the scariest situation you found yourself in while traveling?
Sadly, I witnessed sex trafficking first-hand in Cambodia.
I was in Phnom Penh – in a “good” part of town, actually, at a café on Sisowath Quay along the Tonle Sap river. I’d gone out for dinner and sat at an outdoor table overlooking the busy street. I saw a guy with two young Cambodian (and I mean like 9 or 10 years old) girls on the back of his moto drive up to the side of the patio. A group of 5 or 6 western men were sitting at a table near the side alley. The moto driver pulled up next to them, picked the girls off the back of his bike and literally handed them over the railing to the group of men. I saw one of the men put something in the moto drivers hand. The girls looked dazed as the men pulled them into their circle and began touching them extremely inappropriately (I later came to learn the girls are often drugged).
I was shocked. What is this?! I looked around to see if any of the other patrons were seeing this. I noticed a western couple sitting behind me and I leaned back and said something to the effect of what in the hell are those guys doing? Their response was, and I’ll never forget it, “Oh yes, it’s such a pity, men like that come over here and act like animals and the authorities do nothing about it.” Well, I was enraged and sickened. I walked over to the men and said some choice words, whipped out my video camera and before I could start filming one of the guys took a swipe at me and started to rise out of his chair. I ran back into the café looking for the manager. Not sure if he was the manager, but a male staff member stopped, and as I tried to tell him what was going on and to call the police, he kept shaking his head – no problem, no problem. I don’t know how the story ended for those girls – I left out the back of the café. I was shaken and furious and, yes, I felt helpless.
Later, I met a pair of UN workers who’d been in the country for several years who helped me better understand the systemic nature of the problem and gave me hope that economic development and the empowerment of women in the culture is happening. International pressure on the government to bust the pimps and prosecute the perpetrators is growing.
Wow. How would you recommend protecting one’s self in such a situation?
I hate to say it, but don’t directly intervene in a situation. While my attempts to find assistance in that case weren’t successful, try to find an official to deal with it. Don’t turn a blind eye but don’t put yourself in jeopardy.
Back to a less intense topic, how did you go about planning your RTW trip?
I took to the Internet! Even in the old days of the late 2000’s there were great sites and informative personal blogs. My “go-to-site” was Boots n’All. I wish your mag had been around then because there wasn’t much “hardcore” stuff written by and for solo female travelers. After I figured out where I wanted to go I used the internet to look into how to get there. Sometimes it takes a little while to figure out best routes, but you navigate it eventually. I decided to go with the Star Alliance RTW ticket. It was the most expensive option, but it gave me the flexibility I wanted. With the purchase of the ticket, I was eligible for a miles credit card – a great bonus.
Tell me more about the Round-The-World “Star Alliance Ticket” you purchased.
Anyone can get one! Just go to the Star Alliance website. There are other airline consortiums as I understand it. I haven’t researched similar options recently so I’m not sure if there are cheaper ways to go nowadays, but for me, the Star Alliance worked out perfectly.
When you were planning the trip, what about planning it and wanting to take it made you nervous?
I don’t recall worrying about my physical safety so much as trying to make sure I didn’t lose my documents/credit cards. I remember assessing the pros and cons of various ways to secure my identifying information. I ended up making a neck pouch using a tactical-gear-grade map holder and a flexible metal chain. I’d put it around my neck or secure it in the good old sports bra. I also set up some redundancies fashioning a small Velcro ankle bracelet with my own version of encrypted passport and credit card numbers, etc. I was proud of my McGyver-esque spycraft.
What packed items proved to be most valuable on your journey?
Clothespins, duct tape, and zip lock baggies.
Most valuable item of clothing?
The most valuable item I packed turned out to be those tropical weight, convertible pants. I think they’re Eddie Bauer. They were comfortable and water resistant, even in the jungles of Cambodia. While their “rip-stop” power was a bit overstated, minor tears were easily mendable with duct tape.
And, I can’t answer this question without mentioning the most valuable item of clothing I acquired en route. The lavalava is the go-to, all-occasion, “little black dress” for every Samoan. It’s so much more than a big piece of printed cotton fabric! I bought mine from an old woman in the market stalls of Apia who kindly initiated me into all the various ways of tying and styling it. I still pack it with me wherever I go.
Is there a backpack you’d recommend?
I had an REI mid-sized hybrid backpack with detachable daypack. But if I had to do it again, I’d recommend a fitted back with a sturdier internal frame. I have an Osprey now that I just adore.
Would you recommend this sort of trip to other women?
I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s deeply averse to discomfort, uncertainty and isn’t okay with being alone. For those who don’t mind the aforementioned challenges and/or want to stretch their limits, by all means, do it! Especially women – women should do it! I would say you need to be fairly physically fit and in good health. But, I saw women of 60+ sporting bigger packs than I could handle (then again, they were from New Zealand). Seriously though – any woman with a desire to see the world can do so.
Tell me more about you and Jane and your recent adoption of your puppy, Pokai.
I’d be remiss not to mention Buttons the Cat – she’s a Wyoming Maine Coon I adopted back in Pinedale. She made the trek East with me and was contentedly ruling the roost until the appearance of Pokai. Pokai’s very interested in Buttons, but the feeling isn’t mutual – at least not yet.
Jane and I have no such problem (obviously). We’ve known each other for thirty years – we met as freshman in college. We were friends but nothing “romantic” back then (for a number of reasons).
As fate would have it, we reconnected through the magic of Facebook a few months prior to our 25th reunion. She was an Annual Fund volunteer so I think she was hitting me up for a donation at first, but we started corresponding and decided to get together the day before the reunion to catch up and play some golf (we both played on the varsity golf team back in the day). Things progressed from there.
Jane is a Navy Captain. For our first real date, she invited me to join her at the first ever Gay Pride event at the Pentagon. I was impressed. She not only helped arrange the event, which included a welcome from Secretary of Defense Panetta, a presentation from former Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson, she also moderated an incredibly moving panel discussion including out civilian, retired, and active duty military members. Not resting on her laurels, next she asked me to be her date at the first same-sex wedding in the West Point Chapel. Another amazing time. I countered with an invitation to explore Jackson Hole and Yellowstone.
And your wedding in Hawai’i?
Another testament to serendipity – we started discussing marriage this fall. About a month after the DOMA decision, the Department of Defense announced it would recognize same-sex marriage, an important step in practical and symbolic terms. In deciding where to go, DC was the logical choice – it’s close, we have friends there, so we thought, ok, we’ll go up to DC in January 2014.
Jane and I had previously planned to go out to Hawai’i for the week of December 7, 2013 for a work/vacation trip. Jane was the Public Affairs Officer at Pearl Harbor Naval Base and remains very good friends with some of the Pearl Harbor Survivors. Around the first of November we started hearing Hawai’i was poised to pass a same-sex marriage bill. Our ears perked up but we weren’t overly optimistic. Lo and behold, the bill passed and Governor Abercrombie signed it and officially announced Hawai’i would begin issuing marriage licenses December 2. Hmm – now there’s an option.
To make a long story short, we landed on the 3rd, got our license on the 4th, and got married at sunset over Pokai Bay, Oahu the 5th.
Do you anticipate much travel together?
Very much so. We’ve already successfully negotiated two big trips. Hawai’i, of course, and Jane came out to Wyoming last winter to join me on a 4 day winter safari through Yellowstone. We had a great time together, but also enjoyed separate activities. We’re both very independent, yet have very similar travel styles, tastes, and interests. Of course we’ll have to think about puppy Pokai right now, but when she’s ready to stay with a babysitter, or, better yet, join us on the road, we have a long list of destinations.
How do you navigate separate lives and your travel plans?
We haven’t had to worry about that – yet. We’ll see what the future brings but I have no doubt we’ll be able to compromise.
Any additional advice you’d like to give to women travels or female travelers-to-be?
Humans are Good and Trust Your Gut!