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Nomad Finds 'More Than One Way to Do Life' By Traipsing the Globe


Whenever I open an atlas or get a postcard from some exotic place, part of me wants to pack up my apartment and hit the road for a year or two. But I doubt I'll ever do it, because I'm too practical.

Rita Golden Gelman, the author of popular children's books such as "More Spaghetti, I Say!" (Scholastic Books, 1977, with illustrations by Mort Gerberg), didn't let practicalities stop her.

When she was 48 and newly divorced, she heeded the call of the road, abandoned most of her worldly possessions, left her comfortable Brentwood home and set out on a trip that has lasted 15 years and counting.

"I've been living and loving my nomadic existence since the day in 1986 when ... I looked around and thought, 'There has to be more than one way to do life,"' she says in "Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World," the chronicle of her travels to be published in May by Crown.

During the last decade and a half, Gelman spent almost two years in Guatemala and Nicaragua, a year in New Zealand and 8 1/2 years in Indonesia, spending her time writing and getting to know the local people. She made shorter stops in Mexico, Israel, the Galapagos Islands, Canada and Thailand, and paid frequent return visits to the U.S., where she checked in with her grown son and daughter and met with her editors. On occasion, her daughter visited her on the road.

Income from more than 70 children's books has helped Gelman finance her travels. And because she stays with families instead of in hotels and favors traveling to developing countries where the cost of living is relatively low, her never-ending journey rarely costs her more than $10,000 a year.

Recently I caught up with Gelman in New York, where she paused for a year to write her new book.

Here are parts of our conversation:

Question: I'm amazed that you've financed your travels by writing children's books. How many have you done in the last 15 years?

Answer: I guess ... 10. I've made anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 per book.

We sold the house in Brentwood, and I put that money away; that's my security.

As long as I stayed in developing countries, I spent hardly anything.

Q. You've been to a serendipitous collection of places. How did you choose them?

A. If today I went out and started talking to somebody who said "My family lives in Nairobi-why don't you go visit them?" I probably would. This is how I make my choices. It's knowing a single person in a country who would like me to come.

Q. Do you favor developing countries purely for financial reasons?

A. No. I'm looking for contrasts, challenge and to learn from people who are normally not thought of as having anything to teach Westerners.

Q. Why did traveling become a life for you?

A. The more I did it, the more I wanted to do it. The variety in the world beckoned to me. I wanted to experience more cultures, more customs, more ways of life.

Q. Doesn't the concept of home have any attraction for you?

A. Not one single place. Home is internal for me. I can make a home wherever I go. I come into a place and make connections. As they deepen, I feel I'm home.

Q. Some practical questions: Do you buy souvenirs?

A. Everything I buy passes through me. I used to buy earrings, wear them for a while and then give them to someone else.

Q. Do you drink the water?

A. No. In Bali, even the Balinese don't drink the water unless it's boiled.

I do eat in the street and have never had any problems. I must have a steel stomach.

Q. In your book you say you're not interested in tourist sights. What are you interested in?

A. I'm interested in process. I would rather watch someone carving or painting than see the finished product. After a while, every cathedral looks the same. But if there's a ceremony going on, I love it.

A part of why I wrote "Tales of a Female Nomad" has to do with the fact that I'm really a very ordinary person, living an extraordinary life. I'm not riding a camel across Australia or climbing mountains. I'm just going into communities where ordinary people live and trying to become one of them. For me, the most interesting thing is figuring out how to make connections. That's really what my life is about.

Q. You've lived on the edge and never had problems. Have you just been lucky or what?

A. Age helps.... I look like a grandmother. I also think it helps that most of the time I'm in villages, which aren't as dangerous as cities. When I was in Cairo, I was frightened because men kept coming up to me on the street. I would not go back.

Q. Where are you going next?

A. I'm thinking of Cuba or maybe Spain.

Q. Aren't you ever going to settle down?

A. I'm 63 now. I'll probably keep moving until I can't move anymore.

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