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NORTH COUNTY PEOPLE

3-Year Odyssey to Australia, Asia and Europe Started Out as a Lark

May 17, 1990|CAROLINE LEMKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three years ago, Kristen Mitchell was $12,000 in debt, had less than $600 to her name and had just started a job as a financial planner.

Not exactly an ideal time to plan an expedition to Arizona, much less to Australia. But then a bargain airline ticket changed her life.

Opportunities knocking unexpectedly as they do, that is precisely what the then 26-year-old Encinitas resident did. She purchased an inexpensive, "once in a lifetime" airplane ticket to Australia, quit her job, packed a bag, and said "G'day" to her family and friends.

What Mitchell hadn't anticipated was a three-year solo Odyssey that stretched like an accordion into Japan and then throughout Asia, the Soviet Union and several Eastern Bloc countries. Along the way, she mined opals, modeled in Japan, crossed a river in a wooden bucket and found love behind a picture in a Nepalese cafe.

"I really don't know what my driving force was behind this," Mitchell said. "I did have this thought, 'You know, I really would like to go to Australia.' But it just came from nowhere."

Mitchell planned her trip very carefully. Relieving several travel agencies of all their brochures on Australia, she outlined an elaborate itinerary and set her departure date for a year in advance.

Not long afterward, however, Mitchell had the opportunity to buy an inexpensive airplane ticket to the land Down Under. The only catch was that she had to leave right away, months earlier than she had planned.

"I panicked immediately," recalled Mitchell. "I said, 'No, no! I can't do this! I've got this plan.' "

Mitchell said it was then that she learned to grab opportunity's hand before it moves on to someone else. Even so, she was half-terrified the night before her departure, trying to cram her belongings into a duffel bag two sizes too small.

"I'm basically a weenie," Mitchell confessed. "I've literally been afraid of everything I've ever done."

"But fortunately, I'm more determined than I am afraid, so, as long as I can keep the ratio 51% determined to 49% scared, I'll always be able to do what I want to do."

Besides being a "weenie," Mitchell said, she was handicapped by her inability to find her own bathroom at night (forget trying to navigate in a strange land) and an utter hopelessness at speaking any foreign language other than the international tongue of "point and grunt."

But Mitchell took to travel like lint to blue serge, and could have easily created a travel brochure of her own. In her 10-month stay in Australia, when she wasn't working as a waitress, she went horseback riding in the tropical rain forests, diving on the Great Barrier Reef and, in central Australia, mining for opals.

"I went to Cobber Pedy, which is this great opal-mining area," Mitchell said. "Everybody lives underground because the climate aboveground is so extreme, so hot and dry. It was fascinating to stay in an underground youth hostel, see an underground church, and just go opal mining."

From Australia, Mitchell extended her trip to Singapore and through Malaysia, traveling up the coast of Indonesia and into Thailand. With funds running low, Mitchell decided to head for Japan or Hong Kong, where, she had heard, there were jobs available teaching English.

"I didn't know which one to go to, so I flipped a coin, and it came up Japan," she said. "By the time I got there, I think I only had 3 cents left."

As luck would have it--and Mitchell did seem to have it throughout her entire three-year adventure--Mitchell landed in Japan during the peak hiring season for English teachers. A qualified teacher, she taught for a while, in the end at ECC, the largest language institute in Japan.

It was at ECC that Mitchell gained celebrity status. Her blond, Princess Di looks appealed to the Japanese, who used her as a model in their television commercials and in their poster ads on trains and subways.

Not just on a pleasure trip, Mitchell said she was committed to earning as much money as she could to help defray the $12,000 debt she had left back home. She worked in countries with the strongest currency, which would translate best into American dollars, she said.

When she reached a new destination, Mitchell would try to quickly learn the value of money there, and the different ways people tended to get robbed or swindled. After mastering that knowledge, she said, she could manage quite easily.

"I also traveled and lived very cheaply--I basically slummed it," Mitchell said, recounting the times she slept on the luggage racks of trains in India to save on hotel expenses, or the number of waiting rooms and banana-leaf huts she nodded off in.

"I ate what they ate and lived the way they lived," she said. "I lived in very slum-like conditions, but it was no worse than how the local people were living."

Mitchell also found in her travels that there were advantages to being a woman. She was not a threatening presence and most people were more curious about her than intimidated, she said.

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