|(note: the following article appeared in a major Jewish Israeli daily newspaper on Sept 17,1999. We're mentioned at the end. The same article can also be found at http://www.haaretzdaily.com/htmls/kat24_5.asp)
Along with water bottles and a change of socks, these global wanderers put satellite phones, laptop computers and digital cameras into their backpacks - and set up websites so that you can come along
In an impressive farewell ceremony held in mid-August 1997, residents of the Western Australia city of Augusta sent Almitra Von Willcox on her way. And she's been making her way down that road ever since, always pulling a little wagon behind her. It has all the equipment she'll be needing in the next decade and a half. A few articles of clothing, a raincoat, toiletries, a small backpack, a couple of cameras, film, a digital camera, cables, transformers, batteries, battery charger and laptop. The computer is connected to a solar panel that enables Almitra to operate it almost anywhere in the world, without any need for an AC hookup. Von Willcox calls herself a photogypsy. She is walking - literally - around the globe, hoping to complete a full circumnavigation and register tens of thousands of close encounters of the first kind. By the time she finishes her projected 12 years of pacing the pavement, her name will no doubt find its way into the Guinness Book of World Records. She stays in touch with friends and with the world at large through her own Internet site, which she frequently updates. This modern nomad sends e-mails and photos from the road, invites surfers to keep track of her whereabouts, provide guidance and join her on her incredible journey.
Von Willcox belongs to a not-so-small group of people who have opted to break out of the routine of house-family-debt-salary-pension. The difference between them and global nomads before them is that alongside the water bottles and the change of socks, they are also packing personal communication devices that allow them to wander the world and find their own personal space wherever that might be. Simultaneously, they open a window through which the rest of the world can catch a glimpse of their lives. Satellite phones, laptop computers, digital cameras and other gadgets have replaced the hobo's harmonica.
Born in Chicago, Von Willcox grew up in California and raised three children and a grandson in Portland, Oregon. "The six o'clock news on TV was always bad news, and one day I said to myself that it just wasn't possible that the world was filled with bad people and that there were no more safe places to live. I had a choice of either putting on the bathrobe, stocking up on chocolate and hiding in a closet forever, or going out on the road to prove to myself and others that there were good people all over the world."
When she delivered this manifesto to her family, it was met with resounding incredulity, even derision. "My father," she recalls, "actually forbade me from going. 'A woman traveling alone is too much at risk,' he said, and I thought to myself that there must be something else besides what you hear on the news."
In spite of the warnings, Von Willcox set out on her way. "I've been traveling for years now, without any assets, completely dependent on the kindheartedness of people I meet along the way. I am gratified to report that I have discovered a world that is full of generous, warm, honest, good people. Every so often people still warn me or make skeptical comments. They say I've had good luck so far. I've been saved from certain death twice in my life - I've beaten cancer once, and the other time I was saved in Nepal from a rock that fell on me from a height of 20 meters. I shattered 15 bones, and lay paralyzed in a hospital in Nepal. A few weeks after it happened, a minute before sunrise, I suddenly sat up in bed and knew beyond the shadow of a doubt what I was capable of doing. I knew that I wanted to walk around the planet, and do it entirely alone."
Von Willcox has walked to places others get to by helicopter, all-terrain vehicle or not at all. Her routine is to spend half the day in her hiking boots and the other half in sandals, which have been worn very thin, although she gives them another 2,000 kilometers. "As an American, I had this natural inclination to drive everywhere, as if the devil were chasing me," she says. "I got curious about those green, blue and red blots that every so often passed by the window of my car, and realized you can't experience life through the window of a motor vehicle, that you have to breathe, taste and go from one place to another at a more moderate pace. Walking is the only way to appreciate the cultural and human wealth that you meet along the way."
Her next port of call is Papua New Guinea, where she was heading last week. "It might be the biggest challenge of my whole trip," she declares. "After consulting with hundreds of people, only two believed that I'd be able to walk across the country - which is now embroiled in a tribal war - and get out alive. I don't know the languages spoken there, and don't have any friends or money, but I feel that someone will host me, that I'll find generous people. I set up my website to share this belief with others, that it's possible to build bridges between cultures and overcome racist attitudes, simply by revealing the unique aspects of each culture. The Internet allows me to reach out to millions of people in their homes, in seconds. Granted, not everyone is connected, and in some Third World countries there are people without electricity, but it's a start. I want to be a source of inspiration to other women and men, that they too can overcome their fears of the unknown. It makes no difference what those fears may be."