The Acid Test
“I don’t collect fashion, or toys. I’m anything but a mass consumerist…I like music, so I have a stereo, but I don’t need new things. I need travel.”
Catherine ‘Cat’ Nesbitt tells me this as we discuss her rationale for having lived most of her life on the road. The loquacious 70 year old moves around animatedly in her chair, always gesticulating in rhythm to the drama and cadence of her tales that encompass life in the streets, deserts, jungles and savannahs from all far sides of the planet. Infused with vitality, considering her OAP status, the slight American woman’s aura is still somehow resonant of the flower-power 60s era of which she was a child. When talking about the life of a “vagabond” – a word in which she ascribes a romantic interpretation, rather than its more conventional unfavourable connotations – you might imagine her running around the Parisian Underground aside Jean Genet, both with pockets full of stolen croissants.
“I first left on my own in 1966 to find work as an au pair in France, that’s about all you could do back then in France,” she explains. “I took a freighter from New York and spent 10 days at sea and we had the worst storms the crew said they’d seen in years. But I chose March because I wanted a storm. I’d go to the front of the ship and grab on to the side with fifty foot waves above me. The crew was frantic.” The ebullience she felt from this first experience, of being alone, of enticing danger, of moving to unknown places, she says set her up for a lifetime of travel.
Living in San Francisco before she left the US, Nesbitt was privy to transformative epoch of the hippy movement. She recalls life around the Height Ashbury in those days. “I was there for the first day of the Longshorman’s Hall concert in January of ’66,” she says.
“Wasn’t that where they spiked the Kool Aid?” I ask.
“They spiked everything,” she answers, grinning.
And ten months later she was back in America, where Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters were seeing the results of their ‘acid tests’. In 1967 she was off again, this time on the ‘hippy trail’. “Istanbul was awesome,” she says, “I had the best hash there in my whole life.”
But, as with most people that make travelling a lifestyle, the problem was staying away without having to beg, steal or borrow.
“I studied microbiology, so I could work in research. It’s hard to find any job if you keep leaving, but with research once the grants run out, you have an excuse to leave. And then when I returned to the US, I could take up research again. This was perfect. In all I think three years is the longest I ever had to stay in the US after 1966.
She then shows me her two published books: ‘Safari na Paka’ (2004) and ‘If You Haven’t Been Pinched, You Haven’t Been to Rome: More Memoirs of a Solo Traveler’ (2008). The books detail her adventures, tribulations and ecstasies of life moving around100 countries – the experiences that have defined her vagabond credo.
Even though research suited her requirements, Cat also worked in the Peace Core as a volunteer in Sub-Saharan and West Africa in the 80s and 90s. Africa is a continent she has returned to many times, and not always with the Peace Core. Contrary to what our ‘safe’ countries advise us about when visiting the developing and third worlds, Cat would almost always travel alone, even in areas of the planet deemed as ‘no-go’ places. “I usually went solo. I might meet up with people on the road, but it’s always better to travel alone. If you go in a group, as I once did in Russia, you don’t get the in-depth experience. A group is self-contained, but if you go solo people are not intimidated by you. You do things like stay in people’s homes, and you get the real experience.”
Fear and Loathing
Readers of guidebooks, tabloid newspapers or those with no trouble in suspending reality when watching the fetishist genre of ‘backpacker slasher’ movies may think that Nesbitt’s solo travelling in such a ‘dangerous and unforgiving’ world might be a form of madness (William’s Syndrome?), or alternatively, they might think just she’s been having a good time. After travelling around some of the ostensibly most dangerous places on earth her most violent experiences have all been in the US. “I’ve been called ‘bizarre’ for travelling solo, and many have asked me ‘Why do you wanna go there, it’s so dangerous?’ People are scared of getting lost, running out of money, they fear the language barrier, they fear the unknown, but you can’t live your life full of fear.”
Nesbitt travelled through Nicaragua in the late 70s during the Civil War, and barely made it out. “Something told me to leave,” – a traveller’s ‘Guardian Angel’ that she has come to rely on – “and because at the bus station there where 5 Costa Rican girls and only three seats on the bus, I and two more people got the seats. The next day the road was bombed. If we hadn’t have taken those seats, we’d have been trapped there.”
I was also in Jerusalem, just a few weeks before the 6 Day war,” she says, and explains that she has travelled extensively around the Middle East – modern America’s enemy number one a propos (un)friendly parts of the globe – and has no stories of woe to tell. She recalls fond memories of hitching to the Syrian border and acquiring not only a free sandwich, but a one dollar visa: “It was a multi-entry visa that was open-ended, until my passport ran out!” she says.
“Travelling was great back in those days,” she adds, but it could also be tough, painful, and at times scary. “I travelled on some gruesome journeys, sitting on the tops of buses, at the sides of cliffs where there were no real roads. I got attacked a couple of times, but I got out of it, it was nothing to worry about.”
She says she loves Africa, though it does have its drawbacks. “In urban centres you have to be constantly alert about crime, especially in Johannesburg or Nairobi. You just can’t put things down and let your mind lapse. And that can be a bit draining.”
When she left home for the first time in ’66 she says that the world did seem like a safer place than it is now. “I developed road smarts on the way, but I guess if I did that travelling in the present day I would be more vulnerable. People just seem a lot more conniving and scheming these days,” says Nesbitt and reflects on Tops Supermarket in Chiang Mai where they have recently installed anti-shoplifting equipment. “I don’t like this,” she laments, “Chiang Mai is also changing.”
She has little, if no criticism towards any of the places she has visited, though she does admit to not being too keen on Jakarta. Many of the places she has been to she has returned to time and time again. Jamaica she visited seven times in the past. “Jamaica was cheap then, I could just kick back and enjoy myself. I loved reggae music, the Rastafarian culture, and I had a Rastafarian boyfriend at the time,” she says smiling.
As a microbiologist and having travelled in parts of the world where all sorts of exotic infectious and deadly diseases lurk, Nesbitt was savvier than the average traveller concerning staying healthy. She tells me that some of the diseases we hear about are not only arrantly misunderstood, but drugs are somewhat pushed on travellers whom relate too easy to capitalist generated fear.
“I know what jabs you need, what you really need. I know what should be ‘off the list (travel vaccinations)’, but I also know some drugs that should be ‘on the list’ and are not,” she says, and adds that some of the reasons for getting sick abroad is our own fault. “Through fear, people do things like brush their teeth with bottled water. You can’t develop immunity like this. Your body has to make a shift and get used to a new environment by slow introduction.”
On malarial prophylaxes, of which there has already been much debate, (the drugs making many people ill and almost psychotic in some cases, while not cheap), she says they are not always efficacious and if you do take the drugs and still contract malaria they may have weakened your immunity.”The pharmaceutical companies, let me tell you, are just trying to make a lot of money from you. The cholera shot for instance is only really recommended if there is an outbreak, and you are in the middle of it. It’s a bad bad vaccine. ”
Though some vaccines she says are worthwhile, such as tetanus or yellow fever. But, she explains, many travellers take shots they just don’t need. “You’re not going to get malaria in the city, and mosquitoes carrying malaria only come out at night, so just cover up. I never took anti-malarial medication, not even in Africa.”
Getting Back on the Bus
“I like Thailand, I like Chiang Mai. I loved Thailand when I first came here in ’74. I knew I would come back some day and I did in ’81,” she says, and explains that on her first trip to South East Asia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, were “not open” so she ended up in Thailand. “In 2002 I was looking for a place as a base, and so I checked out Chiang Mai as a place to live. It had all of the conditions I wanted,” she says, which weren’t just the fact that we have “the best second-hand bookshops Thailand” but also things like cheap medical care and dental care.
Although she writes stories of her travels, and is currently writing a third book, she admits to not having used a travel guide since the 1981 ‘South East Asia On A Shoestring’, which was the forbear of the Lonely Planet. “I loved it,” she said, but then I tried guides to Africa later and they just tried to do too much, the standards dropped, so I never used a guide again.”
Seeing new age travellers with their GPS, headphones in their ears, and chatting to their friends online back home, as they experience the trip to Asia they booked, browsed, and virtually toured online before arriving, while walking down the street, she expresses some regret about adventure not being quite as adventurous as it used to be. Getting lost is hard to do these days, she acknowledges. She talks of the thrill and excitement of meeting a friend she’d been apart from for a while in some far flung part of the world at the request of a “poste restante” letter. “There was just something special about that,” she says.”
In spite of not owning a telephone, having a Facebook page, GPS, or a guidebook, Cat Nesbitt will be itinerant again soon.
“New adventures,” she tells me emphatically, “new experiences, they broaden you. Life is an experiment to broaden yourself. You just can’t let fear hold you back. And now with globalisation you have to be a part of the world, you can’t hide from it anymore – so get with the programme.”