The man who dropped everything to see the world

Elliott Hester has been on the go for three years -- and loves it

Uncommon Traveler

September 18, 2005|By John Flinn | By John Flinn,San Francisco Chronicle

At one time or another, perhaps on the bus ride from that heartbreakingly perfect beach bungalow to the airport, the thought must have tempted you: What if I didn't go home?

You probably started calculating: If I sold everything, I could stay out here on the road for years, drifting from one idyllic destination to the next, from one adventure to another, following my whims around the globe. And then, when the bus got to the airport, you snapped out of your reverie and boarded the plane for home.

Elliott Hester never let go of the fantasy. In the fall of 2002, he set off on an 18-month, around-the-world adventure. But instead of coming home, as he originally planned, he cashed in the return ticket and has been on the road ever since, living, as he calls it, as a "continental drifter."

Hester is a flight attendant on leave from American Airlines, and the author of the best-selling Plane Insanity. His latest book, Adventures of a Continental Drifter: An Around-the-World Excursion Into Weirdness, Danger, Lust and the Perils of Street Food (St. Martin's Press), arrived in bookstores recently. Curious to know whether the reality lived up to the fantasy, we recently interviewed him via e-mail .

What did you do with all your belongings?

I sold just about everything. My car, bicycle, every knickknack and piece of furniture I've accumulated over the years. Gave most of my clothing to a homeless shelter. Donated all my books to the Miami Public Library.

How much stuff do you bring with you?

Whatever fits in my computer backpack and rolling duffel: a few articles of clothing, toiletries, an iPod, digital camera, cell phone, notebook computer, guidebooks, etc.

Give me a very brief overview of where you've been and how long you've stayed in each place.

Since October 2002, I've visited perhaps 25 countries in South America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Northeast Africa and eastern and western Europe. Recently, I went helicopter hiking in Canada's Purcell Mountains, chugged across the South Pacific on an aging cargo ship, sailed across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary II and partied my butt off at Carnival in Trinidad. Sometimes I stay a week. Sometimes a month or more. It all depends on which way the wind blows and how strong the gust.

Don't you get sick of living out of a suitcase, of wearing the same clothes all the time?

It's been almost three years since I began living out of a duffel bag. And no, I'm not sick of it yet. As far as clothing is concerned, I've got some threads stashed at my mom's apartment in Chicago. I replenish my wardrobe during occasional visits.

Do you stay in hotels? Rent an apartment? Or Kato Kaelin it on someone's couch?

All of the above. But "living la vida Kato" is my favorite way to go. It's amazing how often foreigners will invite you into their homes. In Berlin, I lived with two German sisters I met in Bali. In Mysore, India, I spent two weeks living with a prominent local family after being introduced on the Internet.

How do you decide where to go next?

Often I choose the next destination based on what transpires at the current one. In June, for example, I stayed at my buddy Gilles' apartment in Paris. While I pondered my next stop, Gilles mentioned that he had a friend named Mateusz who lives in Poland. Two days later, I found myself schlepping my duffel up the stairs at Mateusz Sikora's fourth-floor flat in Warsaw.

What's your budget? Roughly how much does this cost per month?

Because I spend much of my time in inexpensive countries (Venezuela, Indonesia, Thailand, etc.), I spend maybe $2,500 to $3,000 per month on average.

How do you stay on top of things back home, like your bank account?

The Internet cafe has become my home / office away from home / office. They're everywhere these days (even in the tiny village of Lalibela, Ethiopia, where five years ago there was no electricity). I own exactly three credit cards and an ATM bank card, with which most of my financial transactions are conducted. My literary agent periodically wires royalty payments to my bank account. My monthly Universal Press Syndicate check is forwarded to a relative in Chicago and deposited into my bank account. I pay my credit card bills online. I get my news online. I communicate with friends and colleagues online, or with my world cellular phone, or via a land line and calling card.

What do you miss most about not having a fixed residence?

My own bed. In the past three years, I've slept on more than 150 different beds, cots and living room sofas.

What's the best thing about not having a fixed residence?

Not having to clean it. I haven't swept and mopped a floor, or cleaned a bathtub, in three years.

How long do you intend to keep doing this?

Until I meet a woman who convinces me to stay in one place.

What most surprised you about this lifestyle?

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