Footloose and Fancy-Free
A Bethesda couple's global travels
The couple in Vilcabamba, Ecuador.
SUSAN AND RICK JOHNSON had lived in the Washington, D.C., area for 40 years, 25 of them in Bethesda, where they raised two daughters. “We were pretty well settled in, and gliding toward our retirement years,” Rick, 62, says. “We imagined ourselves staying in our home.” But that plan changed—a lot—when a colleague of Rick’s accepted a position at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, a fishing village on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia, in 2009. Johnson wrote to congratulate him, and to tell his friend that he was envious of the adventure he was undertaking. “Almost immediately I heard back from him,” Rick says, “saying, ‘If you’re envious, I’d like to talk to you.’ ”
Johnson landed his own job at KAUST as the manager of research services, and within six weeks the couple was ready to go. “We sold our house within 24 hours of putting it on the market, sold our cars, got rid of about two-thirds of our possessions, and put the rest in storage,” Rick says. For the next 3½ years, the Johnsons worked (Susan did contract work at KAUST as a business adviser and student recruiter) and traveled around Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
After they retired in 2013, the Johnsons decided to stay overseas, living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for three months, Bali for a year, and Cuenca, Ecuador, for 2½ months. Next stop? Seville, Spain.
In addition to the four countries where they have lived, the Johnsons have visited 22 countries. “It’s not a matter of seeing every sight,” Rick says. “It’s a matter of absorbing the place.”
We asked the couple for thoughts on their peripatetic lifestyle, and advice for other travelers.
Lessons From the Road
GREATEST ADVENTURE: “We took a trip to Nepal where we did a lodge-to-lodge trek around the base of Mount Everest,” Rick says. “Just beautiful. [We] trekked around for two weeks with no roads or electricity.”
MOST LIVABLE CITY: Cuenca, Ecuador. “The entire downtown (El Centro) is a UNESCO World Heritage site,” Susan, 63, says. “The weather is always springlike, with highs in the 70s every day, with plenty of sunshine, and there’s no need for AC or central heating. There are three rivers that run through the city, and each has broad bike paths. There are plenty of beautiful parks that are impeccably maintained. The food is great, with tons of restaurants and cafés, and there is easy access to modern health care at low cost. For hiking, the Cajas National Park is just a half hour out of town. People are friendly, and there are plenty of Americans living there.”
LIVING LIGHT: “The big realization is how little you need,” Rick says. “The two of us are currently living out of three carry-on-size suitcases. We started out with much more and have discarded lots of items along the way. Life is so much less complicated with less stuff.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: It can be difficult to make friends in new cities, especially big cities, so the Johnsons say they can feel a bit isolated. “It helps that we’re traveling as a couple,” Rick says, “but if you don’t have a strong relationship, the togetherness might be dangerous.”
BEST HOME BASE: Kuala Lumpur. “It’s an AirAsia hub,” Rick says, “so you can really use that as a base to travel around Southeast Asia quite easily and inexpensively. We could fly from Kuala Lumpur up to Bangkok for something like $25.”
JUST LIKE HOME: Susan says a Kuala Lumpur neighborhood called Bangsar reminded them of Bethesda. “It’s an upscale bedroom community. It has nice shops, a lot of restaurants, lots of boutiques, and yoga. We just looked at each other like, ‘Gee, this looks a lot like Bethesda!’ We thought we could live here, and it would be a fraction of the cost of Bethesda.”
LUGGAGE: “For years, we’ve sworn by Patagonia Maximum Legal Carry-ons,” Rick says. “We take three pieces of carry-on luggage. We’ll check one, and carry two.”
KEEPING IN TOUCH WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS: The Johnsons use Facebook, email and Skype, and recently began using a free mobile messaging app called WhatsApp. Says Rick: “We have a family messaging group set up on WhatsApp that allows us to schedule Skype calls and to share tons of photos of our grandkids among ourselves without putting off Facebook friends who might find them a bit much.”
Susan Johnson enjoys a boat ride in Vinh Long, Vietnam.
TRAVEL TIP: “Find places you think you might enjoy exploring for a month or more,” Rick says. Renting accommodations by the month, he says, helps keep costs down and avoid travel burnout. “If you like the place, you can stay longer. If you’re bored after a few weeks, it’s easy to move on.”
FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN: “Our main concern was whether full-time travel would be practical—financially, logistically, emotionally,” Rick says. “It turns out that, for us, it’s more economical than returning to the States, at least until we’re old enough to start collecting Medicare and Social Security. And it’s a lot more fun and interesting.”
WHAT TRAVEL HAS TAUGHT THEM: “We are able to adopt a more patient attitude, take things slower,” Rick says. “Patience is the only way to survive the frustrations that travel can bring.” They’ve also learned that they are capable of living happily in relatively humble circumstances, which gives them a new feeling of freedom. What they like best is planning the next destination. Says Rick: “We’re always dreaming of the next move.”