How these senior nomads are reinventing retirement

By Marchelle Abrahams Time of article published Apr 12, 2017

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They’re not on holiday, but they’re no gypsies either. Marchelle Abrahams caught up with a Seattle couple who are leisurely living all over the world...

Michael and Debbie Campbell have visited more than 160 cities in 56 countries, including all of Europe as well as Morocco, Turkey, Israel, Russia, Mexico and Cuba, and documented it all in print and digital.

Their blog reveals a distinct effort to be relevant: the last movie they watched was Trolls, in a matter of days in Cape Town they’ve already shopped at “Woolies”.

The Senior Nomads, as they’re known in the blogsphere, arrived in Cape Town on March 6 and intend to be in the country until June.

Their model is clearly different from that of the tourist or gypsy traveller. With their mantra being “We are not on vacation”, the couple have taken in the sights and sounds of the Mother City, documenting their experience on Instagram of: Table Mountain, Boulders Beach and the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra.

So, what makes a couple close to retirement age pack up and leave everything behind? “It was Christmas four years ago. We had four grown children and were talking about retirement. Our eldest, Mary, asked about Airbnb and staying in homes around the world,” says Michael, 71.

The couple sold everything they had, including their sail boat, put the rest in storage and set off with two suitcases and two backpacks in July 2013 – and they’ve been travelling ever since.

A common theme throughout their travels is their preference for staying in hospitality service accommodation. Initial thoughts were: Are they sponsored by the online holiday rental site, or given a discount when booking? Michael and Debbie both laugh, saying that it’s quite the contrary – they pay for all their lodgings. But the reason for choosing a hospitality service is because they want to immerse themselves in the local culture when setting foot in a new country.

An interesting fact, though, is that the holiday rental site did buy more than 7 000 copies of their book Your Keys, Our Home, and a hospitality service is mentioned in the acknowledgements section of the book.

“What we do is look closely at places available with a host to make us feel comfortable,” explains Michael. Once settled in, their aim is to live life like a local. “We’re not on vacation, and we’re also not in a rush. We’re life-long learners, so we want to absorb more about the country, city and the neighbourhood.”

One way of doing this is by researching what free attractions each destination has on offer. The couple always do free walking tours in each city they visit and, so far, they’ve taken full advantage of Cape Town’s free offerings.

But it’s the generosity of the locals that has captured Debbie and Michael’s hearts. Upon arrival in the Mother City, Michael went to a local soccer match at Athlone Stadium. He arrived alone with no ticket and was completely unaware of his surroundings. “A complete stranger approached me and offered me a comp ticket for the Ajax game, and then invited me to watch the match with him and his mates.”

Debbie then goes on to explain her experience of visiting Robben Island for the first time, accompanied by Mandela’s very own cook, where she was given a first-hand-account of how life was on the prison island during the apartheid era.

The Campbells don’t fit the mould of what tradition dictates. Society tells us to get an education, travel the world, settle down and then retire. They’ve done a complete U-turn, but seem to be taking it all in their stride, even passing on the travel bug to their children – with all four of them scattered around the globe.

Travelling in the digital age has made their experiences so much more enriching. Compared to 10 years ago, Debbie and Michael find that the birth of the internet has made it easier for them. They’re now able to plan their trips and schedules all online. “We don’t just rely on guidebooks any more, and we always make sure we have wifi access!” they both chuckle.

Where to next for these global senior citizens? The couple’s next stop is Zanzibar and from there they’ll travel east to Dar es Salaam and Kigali. They visit Seattle once a year for two months, and thereafter it’s on to the next destination.

Some people would scoff at their nomadic lifestyle. But there’s something inspiring about their story. They call themselves “fit seniors” because they have the freedom to go anywhere they want to. “We walk all the time so we’re in good health. And there’s something liberating about not having any baggage, literally,” says Debbie. She then adds that they have one rule: If you can’t eat it, drink it or experience it – don’t buy it!

The couple has rewritten the book on retirement at a point in our history when retirement and old age is longer than it has ever been, thanks to healthcare.

Michael says: “We encourage people to follow their own North Star. As we get older, we narrow our choices and our options get smaller. Just look out over the horizon and give it a go – life is short.”

Debbie nods in agreement: “People don’t give themselves permission any more. Just do it.”

* Visit the Senior Nomads blog:

Senior Nomad tips for couples that travel together:

They're together for 24 hours a day and still are very much in love. We asked the couple for their relationship tips while travelling:

- Be flexible when it comes to schedules and planning trips

- Be patient with one another

- Agree to stick to a strict budget

- Always have fun

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