For two peripatetic retirees, travel's not a vacation but a way of life

January 03, 1993|By Melissa Huff | Melissa Huff,Knight-Ridder News Service

They have a Christmas card from a man who picked them up hitchhiking on the northern coast of Borneo.

They have visited more than 100 places in the last 16 years.

They call themselves "peripatetics," or people who move from place to place. For the couple wintering in Myrtle Beach, Fla., traveling is more than hobby. It's a way of life.

Meet Jack and Maria Stiles, retirees who sold both their homes in Massachusetts in 1977 and have been living wherever, whenever, ever since.

"We just take things as they come," says Mr. Stiles, who is 78 years old and full of pep.

"We travel with one suitcase apiece and a tote bag," says Mrs. Stiles. "We hear about things, we talk to people, and I have a knack for languages."

They never take the touristy tours, instead preferring to meander around and meet natives. More than once it has resulted in their being invited in as guests.

And they never plan far ahead. Until April, they are staying at the Reef motel in Myrtle Beach -- an oceanfront apartment they made homey with cards from friends worldwide and a modest assortment of travel mementos, such as wood-carved camels from Iran and a brightly colored tablecloth from Chile.

The only real souvenirs the Framingham, Mass., couple have kept are the lowest denomination bill of all the many countries they have traveled to.

Though many who retire dream of world travels, some would find rootlessness a little disconcerting. The Stiles, who met in the Appalachian Mountain Club and raised six children, have never been bothered by it.

"Oh no, not a bit," says Mr. Stiles. "Wherever we are, we consider it home."

They have managed to tour all continents -- except Antarctica -- simply with an American Express card and an attorney friend in Massachusetts who can relay any important messages.

"We do not stay in first-class places," Mr. Stiles says. "We do not eat in first-class restaurants. [Many people met in local hangouts] have invited us in. And, for example, in the Far East, it's been the YMCA, YWCA and Chinese hotels, which are simple, unadorned and clean."

It all started when Mr. Stiles retired from a job in electrical engineering in 1977. Mrs. Stiles also retired from selling school books.

Their children were grown, so they headed to Mexico, where they spent six months living in a bungalow while Mrs. Stiles learned Spanish.

They returned to Portsmith, N.H., where they began a cruise that led to 2 1/2 years abroad. "We told the kids if anything happens to us, we would not call upon them for anything," Mr. Stiles says. "If I died, I'd simply be buried at sea. And if something happened to them back home, we wanted to know about it, but we weren't coming back."

Says Mrs. Stiles, "We brought the kids up to be independent, and then we let them be."

The Stiles' cruise on a schooner led them to the island of Bali in Indonesia. "And we decided to stay there," Mrs. Stiles says. "The ship was leaving in three-four days, but we stayed a month."

Asked how they planned to go forth from there, she says, "We had no idea."

But they caught other cruises and toured Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar, among other stops. They more often took trains and ships than planes, preferring the scenery and the economy of it.

Mr. Stiles explains a typical travel experience.

"For example, we spent [spring] 1981 in Florida, and we decided to go to Russia," he says. "We landed in Belgium and we got out of Brussels the next day and went to Copenhagen by train. We went to the travel officer, and he suggested we go to . . . Sweden, above the Arctic Circle, and from there we went to Norway by train along a beautiful [scenic] fjeld. We went to Finland, . . . to Helsinki. . . . We attended a music festival there, and then we headed to Russia, to Leningrad."

That was the one trip they had to plan for, as the then-Soviet Union required them to submit a complete itinerary. After visiting Kiev, they took the trans-Siberian railway to Asia. They found the passengers to be reticent and uncommunicative, fearful of talking to them.

"As a personal guideline," Mrs. Stiles says, "we never talk politics or religion to anyone. When I told [one of the travelers this] he really opened up and told us about his life."

The number of experiences they have had could fill a book. Indeed, they have been written about in various local newspapers around the world and were featured in the Christian Science Monitor.

But among their most memorable were being blessed by the King of Nepal one New Year's Day; visiting the Taj Mahal -- "which is more beautiful than you could ever dream," Mr. Stiles says -- as well as visiting the shrines in Nara, Japan, flying over the Himalayas, camping out for a month in the east coast of Australia, and touring numerous islands, among them the Galapagos, the Cardinal Islands and, one of Mrs. Stiles' favorites, New Zealand. Mrs. Stiles also has climbed Mount Olympus in Greece and Mount Kenya in Africa.

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