The Enchilada
Cape Cod Times 1/23/04
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Around the world in a year
Newscasters make a dream come true by traveling the globe


Thumbs poised for hitchhiking and fitted with two backpacks, a tent that made snuggling a must and $50 a day, Karen and Garvin Snell left family in Yarmouthport 13 months ago and made their way around the world.

They say they traveled on less than a shoestring and more like a "dental floss budget."

Bolivia: Alex, their guide's 7-year-old brother, joined the Snells on a trek into the Andes mountains.

All told, the trip cost an estimated $30,000. Sometimes they were lucky enough to find places to stay for $1 a night. In Laos, they noshed on rice patties brushed with egg yolk for 10 cents each. They had to blow their budget in Germany to spend $60 for a one-night stay at a youth hostel, where they had twin beds in separate rooms. However, the payoffs were always extraordinary, filled with magical vistas, jaw-dropping landscapes and kind people.

The Snells are better known as former Boston newscasters Karen Crocker and Garvin Thomas. They gave up their coveted jobs in late 2002, along with a terrific apartment, to fulfill a dream many often talk about but rarely accomplish: exploring the nooks and crannies of the world.

The Snells wed in 2001 and soon after hatched their secret travel plan. They code-named the great adventure "the enchilada," waiting to reveal it to family and friends. Crocker initiated the idea of Mexican chow as code prior to their wedding, dubbing her bridal gown "the tortilla" to keep details a secret from her groom.

After months of saving and carrying brown-bag lunches, the Snells formed an itinerary that took them on a drive across the U.S.. Although they started by heading south, they ended up setting up the tent in snow on many occasions. After leaving their car in California, they hopped on a plane for a relaxing stay with family in Hawaii and then trekked on to New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia, South Korea and Mongolia, Europe, South Africa and South America.


See more photos from Garvin Thomas and Karen Crocker's trip.

The SARS outbreak in China erupted in the midst of their travels, quashing the visit to that country.

"We were two days from China," says Crocker. "We had a shortwave radio to keep up with the news and we were in contact with family and friends back home through e-mail. We were not afraid to get SARS so much as the consequences of a Chinese stamp in our passport."

After leaving Hawaii, the couple discovered a real appreciation for how much their backpacks weighed and instituted a new meaning for the essentials. Until then, they had the luxury of a car. "In New Zealand we backpacked about a mile and a half when I said 'I can't do this. I can't walk with all this, but nothing can possibly go,'" says Crocker.

Soon many things did go, shipped back to family in the States. "It takes a while to get to that point," she says. After paring down, Crocker carried 35 pounds on her back and Thomas lugged about 40.

The best plan: don't
Aside from narrowing down general destinations, the couple has this advice for fellow globetrotters: "Don't have a plan," says Thomas. "And, other than the first night, do not book anything ahead of time. We always found it cheaper to arrange lodging and activities when we got there. All of our fun experiences we heard about once we got there. The more we see, we realized, the more there is to see."

Thailand: A box of buttons for sale in a Bangkok market.

They say their mantra became, "We'll figure it out when we get there."

They purchased just five plane tickets ahead of time, and bought the remaining four on the road. They hopped on every mode of available transportation: buses, horses, bicycles, jeeps, motorcycles, the sidecars of motorcycles, cars, ferries, sailboats, canoes, kayaks and trains. Hitchhiking proved a prime means to both make their way and meet "real" people.

"One traveler can change your life," says Thomas, who graduated from Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School in 1984.

Crocker says a fellow traveler told them about Mongolia. While the Snells cannot narrow down one favorite place from their travels, Mongolia is near the top of their list. "We could camp just about anywhere because it is a nomadic culture," says Crocker.

No language barrier
The Snells often trekked Mongolia's makeshift roads squeezed into the back of trucks stocked with mail, lumber and vegetables. Once they traveled atop a pile of goat hair headed to market. "They use every part of the animal," says Crocker. "They even use sheep ankles to make game pieces."

"Running into people is such an important part of the culture," says Crocker. "Seeing people is not very common. They really value people. If they see a Jeep broken down, they don't pass it. They stop to see if everything is all right and then end up talking about cattle and land. They are very curious."

Around the world

Countries visited: 17

Continents visited: 6

Nights in a tent: 111

Budget: $50 a day

What the Snells discovered while traveling

"Pedestrians don't have the right of way."

"Outside of Western countries, it's good to be a guy." Crocker's few attempts at stepping out alone proved much different from outings with her husband. She became a prime target for catcalls and peddlers.

"There are a lot of people out there in the world doing a lot of work for a little money."

Of course, so are the Snells, who set a goal to meet as many people as possible by straying from tourist destinations. The couple had only phrase books to help them with language barriers in most countries. They say people were so anxious to talk to them in Mongolia that they would take the book right out of there hands to quickly translate and ease conversation. "Every time I think of Mongolia, I forget about the language barrier," says Crocker.

Hitchhiking in each country had its own set of rules. In some, the process required a thumb, like in America. Others have a specific hand signal. In many cases, the Snells held up a sign with their destination.

The duo warns that hitchhiking is often hard work, especially in Mongolia. "There are no real roads, just 4-by-4 tracks," says Thomas. "You can spend hours and hours standing by the side of the road with no vehicles going by. If one does come along, it almost always stops."

They said hitchhiking is like a job interview: you should be clean and presentable. At times, they would see other hitchhikers lounging by the road, casually hoping to get a ride and the Snells would say to each other, "They aren't working hard."

Pigpens and Red Sox
The Snells found the culture they sought on their adventure. They worked on an organic farm in Western Australia planting vegetables and cleaning the pigpen in exchange for room and board.

In Seoul, they happened upon a lotus lantern festival in honor of Buddha's birthday.

In Portugal, they heard about festival in a small city. There they met local celebrity bullfighter Rui Periera. The Snells do not speak Portuguese and Periera does not speak of word of English, but he took the couple under his wing and traipsed them around town to meet and greet the community and indulge in food. Thomas even ran with the bulls.

Laos: A water buffalo relaxes in a small mud hole just off a village's only street.

"We felt like little VIPs," he says.

They took Spanish classes for a month in Bolivia, where Crocker volunteered to work with visually impaired children three times a week. The children were unable to see Crocker's gestures and facial expressions, which made learning the language all the more important.

In Bolivia, a revolution took place just after their arrival. "There were protests that looked like the entire city was marching," says Crocker.

"We did have to run from tear gas one day," says Thomas.

They decided not to leave the city right away and instead see how it played out. Thomas had already vowed that only a Red Sox World Series would get him back to Boston ahead of schedule. That plan ended in a South American bar when he watched the Sox lose to the Yankees.

Healthy and happy
With each new encounter, they said here we are again, "doing something we never thought we would do in a place we would have never heard of in a country we never thought we would visit."

The Snells came back to California for Thanksgiving, surprising Crocker's family. They came back with both their health and marriage intact. Spending day and night together only strengthened their relationship.

"We get along very well anyway," says Crocker. "We were both very honest with the goal of the trip: meeting people and making genuine interactions. We really stayed focused and that kept it easy. We didn't argue anymore than we would have back home. We're thankful we were able to experience this together."

As for health, they had very few problems. In terms of safety, they were robbed on two occasions. Someone stole $100 from their guesthouse in South Korea and someone else stole their empty camera bag. They consider themselves lucky considering how long they were gone.

During the journey, Crocker wrote poetry and collected children's books and recipes from the kitchens of native people in each country. Learning to make their own empanadas (turnovers filled with meat and vegetables) was one of their favorites.

The couple returned to Yarmouthport for the holidays and head west after New Year's Day in search of new positions as newscasters. They say they are up for living just about anywhere in the country. "We have not decided on any place," says Crocker.

Meanwhile, everyone is asking them what they learned, wanting to hear some profound epiphany.

"The answer will take a long time to figure out," says Thomas, as his wife nods in agreement. "I know I'll do things and act a certain way because I remember a certain experience. Right now I can't tell you I've changed this way or that."

As for their next secret mission, they say there is nothing definitive on the horizon but they are looking forward to starting a family and settling into a home.

"We're really into empanadas now," says Crocker. "If you hear us talking about 'the empanada,' something will probably be cooking."

(Published: January 23, 2004)

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