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This page re-produced from the Tampa Tribune website, where the original is no longer available.


Published: Feb 8, 2004


One woman travels the world to cope with her ``Amelia Earhart Complex.''

It hit me five years ago, when I was 27. I was stricken with what I call ``The Amelia Earhart Complex.'' You may know it as the sudden urge to get on an airplane and just disappear.

I was the manager of a used car dealership, and I had recently bought my second home. I had it all: a great job that sucked up all my time, lots of friends to send cards to once a year and a two-week vacation I forced myself to enjoy.

If I was such a success, why wasn't I happy? I was empty, not proud. I knew a lot about racy cars, quick men, fast food and short vacations. What eluded me were the very things that define a rich life: love, integrity, patience and generosity.

Then I met a woman I'll never forget. Elizabeth Nathan, a grandmother of one of my friends, was 78 years old and had traveled through 78 countries.

Her life was filled with love and travel. She glowed with purpose and contentment. She and her husband explored a new country each year. They continued to travel so that they could say they had visited the same number of countries as their age.

She had the life I wanted. At 27, I had barely visited three countries: Mexico, Canada and the United States. That's when I got the idea of ``30 in 30.'' I gave myself three years to see 30 countries.

In a matter of months, I quit my job, left my house and checked out of my life.

My friends thought I was having a midlife crisis. But the Amelia Earhart Complex, or AEC, is the exact opposite.

A midlife crisis is when you realize at a certain age that you desperately need something you don't have, be it a new spouse, a sports car or the career you always wanted. AEC happens when you realize you have all the things you need and you just don't need them anymore.

Fortunately, AEC is contagious. My friend Kristi Bain, a mentor of mine in the predominantly male car business, came down with a bad case, and we sought therapy together in Costa Rica. Kristi and I left our jobs as managers in the same week and traveled together for three years. Happiness loves company.

What was I saving money for anyway? Why had my entire life been a continual preparation for a comfortable old age? That's when I decided my savings were going to be redirected to pay for the present, not the future.

During the past five years, I have liquidated most of my material possessions, including both houses. I was lucky in real estate - the houses combined provided $200,000 in revenue, after taxes and fees - but unlucky in the stock market. I lost half of my savings when the market crashed a few years ago.

That's why I prefer to spend my money now instead of later. If the entire economy were to crash, I would still have my memories.

Instead of packing a lunch and heading to work, I cram my clothes into a patch-covered backpack and set out to explore new cultures. After each new place, I sew a patch onto my backpack with the country's name on it.

Those patches have become my badges of honor. Since 1998, I've accumulated a lot of stories with my patches.

Pyramids And Potions

I've done glamorous things such as tango dancing in Argentina and walking down the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival and dining at the Eiffel Tower in France. But I've also chased adventure by riding a camel through the Sahara Desert in Morocco, sand-skiing in Peru, tandem snowboarding in Austria and swinging on a rope through the jungle in Costa Rica.

I've done things I've always wanted to do. I've climbed inside the pyramids of Egypt. But I've also done things I never imagined, such as watching the Monaco Grand Prix after spending the night on a 160-foot yacht.

I lead a blessed life, and I adopt every custom I can to keep my luck going. In Bolivia, I bought a witch's funky potion filled with charms, rocks, trinkets, gems, herbs and oils. The mixture was intended to give me strength.

In Swaziland, I was given a bath powder by a sangoma, or healer and diviner, and in South Africa, I stepped on elephant poop (to absorb the giant's strength).

Here in the United States, I try to find four-leaf clovers. I also hold my breath through tunnels, flip coins into wells and close my eyes and make a wish when I see a shooting star.

But life isn't all luck, and traveling isn't all glory. I've been scared, lied to and robbed. I've even slept in a train station. The way I alleviate these unfortunate traveling woes is to pamper myself periodically.

Rubbed The Wrong Way

For example, when I was in Turkey, I thought I would treat myself to a Turkish bath. New to the country, I didn't know that the exchange rate was 620,000 Turkish lira to one U.S. dollar.

Luckily, the ATM machine gave me some options, and I chose a nice round number to extract a million lira. How could I need more than a million?

That's when it dawned on me: I was a millionaire! I had given everything up and it had all come back to me. Who cares if it looked like Monopoly money? It was real.

When I paid for my Turkish bath, I realized it was going to cost me all my money. The bath was 9,500,000 lira per person. I had thought my million would last me at least a week.

Then I remembered that my bank at home charged me per withdrawal. It was nice to know I paid $3.50 to withdraw less than two bucks. No wonder I wasn't a millionaire: I was an idiot.

Turkey is filled with strange odors, and the bathhouse is no exception. I'm not going to lie; inside, it was stinky. Even though it smelled like a gym, I still forked over my first million and figured: ``It's an experience.''

This is a country that prides itself on being clothed, so I was a bit surprised when the first thing the bath lady told me to do was to take mine off. I wrapped myself in a hand-woven cloth that was as itchy as an airplane blanket.

I tried to squish my feet into the tiny plastic sandals they provided, and my toes swelled like balloon animals gone wrong. With a quick jerk of the cloth, a woman snatched away my privacy. My bath was about to begin.

In a surreal gesture, the woman took my hand and led me peacefully through a maze of misty marble. Suddenly I was sitting in a fog-filled dome on a warm slab of stone.

I inhaled the steam and exhaled my doubts. My body relaxed, and I became damp from my own perspiration. As I began to drift out of consciousness, a naked, fat Turkish lady came in and beat the hell out of me. She called it a massage.

When I thought the pain couldn't get worse, she lunged for something that looked like a sponge. I wondered how many other people's festering dead skin cells were multiplying in the crevices of that loofah. Then I remembered: I paid for this.

Apparently, my masseuse's goal was to scratch off my skin. The crinkly loofah felt like coral clawing my back. Just when I convinced myself my masseuse could take down the Great Wall of China with a piece of sandpaper, she started to be tender.

She lathered my body with suds and cradled my head the way a mother would an infant's. Was she suffering from a split personality? Had she forgotten about her violent massage attack just a few minutes earlier?

In the end, my body was as wobbly as a bowl of gelatin. I felt like a million lira. My legs have never been softer, but I assume that's because I've never seen the first layer of their skin before. Dazed, I wasn't sure if I never wanted to have a Turkish bath again or if I wanted to have one every day.

She Wants Her MTV

One thing you learn when traveling: Don't believe everything you hear. Trust can be expensive. Cynicism is much cheaper, but also less becoming.

Once when I was in Scotland, I trusted a guy named Ralph, whom I met at the Cannes Film Festival. Ralph was either a producer or an agent. I'm not sure, and neither is Ralph.

Ralph had one of those important jobs you can talk about for hours but can't explain. Here is what I think Ralph does: He gets people with money together with people with talent.

My travel buddy Kristi and I were in Scotland when Ralph called and asked, ``Do you want to go to the MTV Music Awards in New York next week? I have tickets.'' Kristi and I jumped up and down, did a little dance and screamed, ``Yes!'' That was the last time I remember Ralph calling me.

Kristi and I made it our mission to go to New York. But we didn't have a thing to wear. After shopping, I realized why there aren't any famous fashion designers from Scotland. Raincoats aren't sexy. Raincoats and kilts are about all I can say about ``highland fashion.''

Finally, after searching through all the kilt shops in Edinburgh, we found a store with a huge section of elegant gowns. Funny, they were all white. But it made sense. It was August; white's a great color for summer.

It wasn't until the lady asked me when I was getting married that I realized the gowns were wedding dresses.

Our choice became clear: kilts or wedding dresses. We finally decided on two Scottish wedding gowns, since the kilts were more expensive.

I called Ralph to tell him the good news. This was when Ralph's sentence construction slightly morphed. His original statement of ``I have tickets to the MTV Music Awards'' changed to ``I am sure I can get you tickets to the MTV Music Awards.''

After I hung up the phone, I recognized the switch in verbiage.

``He said he was sure, right?'' I asked.

``He was sure,'' Kristi replied.

We got last-minute bargain tickets to New York for $120 each. After we bought the nonrefundable airline tickets, we called Ralph again to share our joy. This was the last time that Ralph answered a call from us on purpose (where he recognized the caller ID).

His new and improved response was, ``I am pretty sure I can get you tickets to the MTV Music Awards.''

I'm an optimist, so I started working on ``where to stay'' in New York. We made a list of 11 friends and informed them by phone and e-mail that we were planning a three-day trip to the Big Apple.

It was the day before we landed in New York that I finally found a friend who said we could shack up with her.

Three hours before the MTV Music Awards, we still didn't have tickets. Kristi and I were in the lobby of Trump Tower after sneaking past security. Outside was a mess of 14-year-old girls who had set up camp to star-watch.

Ralph's contact found us and said, ``No more tickets.''

What we did then might be described as begging.

``We just bought formal gowns and flew all the way from Scotland to be here. There has to be something you can do,'' we pleaded.

Our story touched her. Or, perhaps it was the money we handed her? She disappeared into a secret room and began negotiations on our behalf.

Enter Scott, a guy with a big head, big mouth, big wallet and big car. Scott asked us if we would like to ride in his limousine to the MTV Music Awards. Moments later, Ralph's contact appeared with two tickets. Everything seemed perfect.

Cloaked in our formal attire, Kristi and I waited for the limousine to arrive. It never came. Determined not to let this dampen our evening, Kristi and I took a taxi to the event.

We arrived, glitz and glamour in a yellow cab, only to be told that our tickets didn't allow us to walk up the red carpet. Our nosebleed seats weren't even seats; they were standing-room-only tickets. We entered unceremoniously, smooshed in with all the other groupies. Kristi and I were overdressed in formal gowns, we overpaid for the worst seats in the house, and our oversized limo stood us up.

That all changed when we sneaked into the ``star bar'' and spent our evening budget, $40, on two glasses of champagne. As I sipped my bubbly beverage, I noticed someone watching me. I was trying to pretend that my wedding dress was hip when I noticed my admirer was Scott, the man with the disappearing limo.

Scott fed us some lame story, but he punctuated it with my favorite sentence: ``How can I make it up to you?'' And his idea was a good one. ``How about if I get you both front-row seats?''

It sounded too good to be true, so we clamped onto Scott's arm and didn't let him out of our sight. Surrounded by famous musicians, Kristi and I were giddy. The next thing I knew, we were seated in the front row.

The evening blossomed into a night greater than I could ever have imagined. We took photos with many of the stars, chatted with famous musicians, drove around in the limo and made cameos at all the exclusive VIP parties. Some people call blind trust foolish.

I call it faith.

Never-Ending Quest

I explored my 30th country, Morocco, when I was 30, but my journey still hasn't ended. At 32, I've been writing and traveling for five years. There are still huge chunks of the world waiting for discovery.

Since I have sold most of my material possessions, my mission is to inspire others to live out their own crazy dreams, even if their goals have nothing to do with a passport.

While most of my friends are secure knowing they'll have a luxurious retirement in 30 years, my fate is less certain.

Still, I don't fret about my future. Worry is a wasted exercise. One day I hope my writing will pay for my thirst for travel. If not, I'll get a job at the coffee shop to make ends meet.

By then, I bet I'll have a funny story or two to tell.

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