In today’s travel chat with Heather from Heather Begins, full-time travel blogger Heather Markel who speaks an amazing six languages, shares how an early introduction to travelling got her hooked on travel, and why she quit the 9-5 for a life of exploration, adventure and inspiring others.
It’s been a fascinating journey for this mature travel blogger who loves travelling to places she’s never been before and immersing herself in the new culture. Here’s Heather’s story:
Hi, I’m Heather, an American currently residing in New Zealand.
After 25 years in corporate America, I quit my job to pursue my passion. After two years on the road, I’ve been able to sustain myself and create additional income as I travel.
Q1. When did you start travelling?
My family took me travelling as a kid. The first trip I remember hearing about, repeatedly, was to the Canary Islands, when I was 2. Apparently, I was so jetlagged that after my parents ordered me spaghetti for dinner, my head dipped into it and I fell asleep. We then took annual trips to the Caribbean.
My first trip without them was as a teenager. When I was 16, I lived a month with a family in Normandie, France. I grew up in Manhattan and got placed with a farm family, in the middle of nowhere, learned to speak French fluently, and milked their cows.
After this, I became hooked on travel, studied abroad, and have gone overseas every chance I got until I was able to make overseas travel a way of life.
Q2. Where did you go on your first trip, and why?
I spent my junior year studying in England, France, and Italy, then worked in France post-college so my first real trips were during this time. I went all over Europe – Ireland, Wales, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Norway to name a few.
At that time, I was in love with the idea that I could cross nearby borders and be in another country, instead of just a state in the same country. Changing currencies, languages, dress styles, and foods were things I craved (and still do) to see how different people and life can be just next door.
Q3. How would you describe your travel style?
Before quitting my job, I was more extravagant! I sometimes splurged on business class travel, chose nice hotels, and ate out every meal. Now that I travel full time, I’m more budget-oriented.
At this point in my life, I don’t enjoy sharing a room with 13 strangers, so I opt for either my own room at a hostel, an Airbnb, or a budget hotel, depending on which is least expensive. I’ve shared rooms with roaches, lizards, and frogs (separately!) because continuing this amazing lifestyle has become more important to me than living in luxury every moment.
Q4. What do you love most about travelling? And what drives you crazy?
I love variety. Seeing different landscapes, trying foods I’ve never heard of, learning new languages, connecting with people of completely different backgrounds, learning about other cultures and traditions. I don’t have a bucket list and seeing “the big tourist sites” has become much less important to me than discovering local hangouts, going places with local friends I might never have heard about without them, and developing beautiful friendships around the world.
What drives me crazy is figuring out where to stay! Every time I change location, I feel like I spend hours on all the different travel sites trying to understand what area of a town to stay in, then read reviews, then research prices…it takes a long time.
I also hate packing! I’m willing to do it because I love travel, but folding things up and stacking them neatly in a bag has never been a core strength for me. Go figure.
Q5. How do you most like to travel? (Mode of transport)
I absolutely love the bus! If I could bus across the world, I would. It lets me choose to look out the window at the sights or have a nice snooze. The train is also great because I can stretch my legs more easily and there’s always a toilet onboard, but many of the places I love to travel to don’t have that infrastructure, so I’ve gotten used to the bus.
Q6. Are you a planner or a last-minute traveller?
I used to plan out every detail of my travel, but now I totally wing it. I love nothing more than deciding one day to go someplace random and figure out plans in the moment, or even arrive with no accommodation and pick someplace on the spot.
Q7. Are you a full-time or part-time traveller?
Full time and loving it!
Q8. Do you travel differently today to how you did in your 20s and 30s? What’s changed, and why?
Yes, absolutely. I used to book more expensive hotels and then book lots of tours to see all the sites so I could say “been there, done that!” With only a few days or a week to enjoy a place, rushing to see everything was the goal.
Now I travel mostly solo, meet other travellers more than ever before, and slow travel. I enjoy getting to know a culture and its people whereas, before, I would literally run in, see all the sites, and run out. It was like a passport-stamping contest. I love the way I’m travelling now because I get to know, and experience places rather than just say I’ve been to them.
Q9. Has Coronavirus made you think differently about your future travels?
Yes. Firstly, it has made me realize how much I absolutely love travel and how important it is as a way to experience and understand both the world and our place in it. I still plan to travel but will definitely take the time to watch how things go. I’m so fortunate to be stuck in New Zealand at present. Having handled the virus well, so far, we don’t wear masks, and hugs and handshakes remain acceptable behaviour.
When I think of future travels, I now think about whether the places I want to go have good healthcare, and I’d rather go places where masks aren’t needed because the virus has been well handled.
Q10. Tell us about the most memorable place you’ve visited so far?
There are so many! I think South America and Africa top my list. 2019 was my first time on both continents and I fell in love. In South America, I’d say Argentina and Peru were my top two places. The yerba mate tradition in Argentina is beautiful and the country has such a variety of landscapes and animals.
Peru blew my mind with all the amazing food and Machu Pichu amazed me because of the intelligence of the people that built it long ago to understand architecture so well it’s still standing. I also survived altitude sickness without western meds, so felt very proud.
South Africa and Namibia, however, captured my heart. I’ve never felt so viscerally connected to a land before. The people of South Africa and the endless land in Namibia stir something in my emotions. Seeing The Big Five, the little five, the ugly five, and every animal in-between in their own habitat was addictive. If not for COVID, I would be in Uganda now seeing gorillas.
Q11. Is there anywhere you wouldn’t go, or a type of travel/experience you wouldn’t be comfortable with?
I don’t like boats. I was in Ushuaia and could have jumped one to Antarctica but didn’t because I don’t like travel by water. I got seasick on the ferry from Picton to Wellington! I also don’t fancy going on a cruise ship. The idea of the “vacation” being mostly on the boat with minimal time to discover different countries would be disappointing for me.
In terms of places I wouldn’t go, it’s more timing, than location, that would keep me away. I would be hesitant to go to countries in the midst of civil wars, for example. Apart from current danger and seasickness concerns, there’s no place I wouldn’t go. However, I prefer to travel internationally. Domestic travel in the United States has never been as exciting to me as going overseas.
Q12. If you could live in one other country, here would you choose, and why?
That’s a really tough question for me to answer because I want to experience as many places as possible in my life. Cape Town, South Africa, was one of the few places I would eagerly live. The diversity of landscape, people, and experiences there captivated me. I think, as we all recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, however, it will likely shift where I’d want to live in the short term.
Q13. What’s the worst travel mistake/regret you’ll admit to?
All the times I went on vacation, wanted to stay longer, and didn’t, in the name of returning to the responsibilities I had created for myself that made me unhappy.
Q14. What do you do first when you arrive somewhere new?
I ask whether it’s safe for me to be out alone after dark, find out if there are any areas I should avoid, then go for a walk and see what’s nearby and let my feelings guide me someplace new. I’m not keen on following directions or going where all the tourists go.
Q15. How do you stay healthy when travelling?
That’s tough! I do a lot of walking and hiking and have been lucky that this keeps me in some sort of shape, though it is a challenge. Having a smaller budget also limits my intake of food which is another blessing in disguise. While stuck in New Zealand, apart from hiking, I’ve been working with my gym trainer who created an online class for us to follow.
Q16. What wouldn’t you leave home without in your cabin bag?
The first thing that came up when I read this question was my camera and my computer. But thinking about it more deeply, I probably don’t need anything more than a change of underwear, and even that, I could find locally if I needed to. I do love blogging and taking photos, so these probably are the two things I would rather not leave home. But, sometimes I find “stuff” gets in the way of being present.
There is actually one essential item. I didn’t realize how awesome it was until I found out that it seems I can only get it in the US – Cold Calm, by Boiron. It’s a natural remedy you take when you feel a cold coming on. It’s awesome, works great, and is the one thing I can’t seem to easily replace on my travels.
Q17. Which movie(s) or book(s) have inspired your travels?
“The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” mirrored my feeling stuck in an unexciting life and daydreaming about travel and inspired me to go to Iceland. That was the trip that paved the way for me to travel full-time!
“The Way” made me want to hike El Camino de Santiago, and spoke to my desire to travel to find myself.
I envied the star of “Under The Tuscan Sun” for having the guts to jump off her tour bus to buy a house – the idea of following your heart to create the life you want has been a major theme for me, and this movie is a great example of how that can happen.
I watched “Mia And The White Lion” on my flight out of Africa and cried at all the scenes from the land I was departing. This film spoke to a great sense of integrity and beauty and adapting to a new life and a new place. The sorrow of leaving friends and comfort and the challenge of making new friends, all things I deal with on a regular basis.
Q18. What are the best and the worst things you’ve eaten on your travels?
Guinea pig in Peru was hands down, the worst thing I’ve eaten, ever. Besides the leathery skin, and the slimy meat, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was eating my friend’s kid’s pet.
It’s hard to pick one best food – kudu, ostrich, and warthog in Africa were fabulous. In Argentina, the asado and the beef were truly the best I’ve eaten in the world, and Uruguay has the best lamb chops, hands down.
Q19. When choosing somewhere to visit, what’s most important to you?
First, it needs to be a place I’ve never been to before. I like to feel like I’m in a place different than anywhere else I’ve ever seen. I love the challenge of speaking a new language or improving one I already speak. Because of my travels last year, I now crave fewer first-world experiences – the warmth and simplicity feel very nurturing to me.
Q20. Tell us about three midlife bloggers you follow and why their blogs inspire you.
- Myles and Karen of Motoroamers crack me up. They’re a wonderful couple who travels the world in their motorhome. I interviewed them for my podcast, The Inspired Nomads, and they’re a real hoot! I love their adventures, but I would love to meet up with them in person for a drink, they are so lovely.
- Alma from Roaming Fox because she spends a lot of time writing about Africa, which, as previously mentioned, is near and dear to my heart. I love following her adventures and feeling as if I am there with her.
- Lisa Dorenfest of One Ocean At A Time is an inspiration! She quit her job to sail the world. Her stories are amazing and capture the heart of the places she visits.
- I know it’s four, but I also love Sue from Sue Where Why What? Her story is so inspirational, and she’s a great travel writer. Like me, she began solo travelling in her 40s and I love her adventures. She’s brave, adventurous and is another person I’d love to meet one day!
Q21. What’s #1 on your travel bucket list and why?
I don’t have a travel bucket list. I have experiences I know I want to have, and others that I will begin to want because of people I meet or stories I read in the future. Right now, I really want to do my gorilla trek in Uganda and get back to Africa! Miss it so much.
Q22. Where are you planning to visit next?
That’s a tough one to answer as it depends a bit on where I’m allowed to go in the current climate. If I can, I want to get to Reunion Island and Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda this year.
A Little More Travel Chat with Heather from Heather Begins
Heather’s Top 3 Travel Tips:
Top packing tip
Leave room in your bags because you will find the weather different than you expect, or the desire to dress like a local, and buy gifts for people. And, well, just packing as light as you possibly can so you don’t have to carry all that weight is a great idea!
How to survive long-haul flying
I recently bought an airplane footrest. In economy, my legs are so uncomfortable and this straps around your tray table and lets you extend your legs. It’s not perfect, but it helps a lot.
How to stay safe when travelling
- Always ask locals about safe and unsafe areas and follow their advice.
- Find out the local numbers for the police, ambulance, and fire department.
- Check-in with someone every time you travel so somebody knows where you are and what to do if they don’t hear from you.
- Be kind to others so you attract kindness in return.
- Always, always, always follow your instinct. If something feels even a little dodgy, get out, trust your gut. Also, if it feels right, trust that, too.
Final Quick Words for this Travel Chat with Heather from Heather Begins
- Self-guided travel or join a tour? I love joining at least one tour to meet other people since I travel solo. Also, in places like Easter Island, you can’t get the rich history without a guide. For the most part, however, I like to self-guide so I can take my time and go whatever direction I choose
- Window seat or aisle? Usually the aisle so I can take a walk and get up to pee without stepping over someone else
- Favourite thing to wear for travelling? Stretch yoga pants.
- Favourite Country? South Africa
- Checked bags or carry on only? I wish I could do carry on only, much less hassle!
- Book or Kindle? Kindle all the way – hundreds of pounds stored in a device that weighs a few ounces
- Best travel resource. Maps.me – works offline and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a bus or a street with no idea where I was, save for that app showing me clearly so I found my way!
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More Travel Chats
While you’re here, why not take a peek at more travel chats with inspiring travel bloggers? They have so many tales to tell!
- Sue from Sue Where? Why? What?
- Zoe from Duende by Madam Zo-Zo
- Lisa from One Ocean at a Time
- Alma from Roving Fox
- Liesbet from Roaming About
If you have any feedback or suggestions for other mature travel bloggers to interview, please let me know in the comments box below! If you have any questions, feel free to ask too.