November 19, 2018

Around the world in five years

On their first date 18 years ago, Benny Rubinstein told Shifra “Shiffy” Raz about his dream of backpacking around the world, while he was still young enough to climb mountains and carry a heavy backpack. 

The date lasted 14 hours, and the two quickly discovered that they share the same values. Both were minimalists and adventurers who loved the outdoors. It was the second chapter for both of them: Rubinstein, a program manager in the aerospace industry, was a father of two, and Raz, a senior director at the YMCA, was a mother of four.

But Raz, who was 52 at the time and two years younger than Rubinstein, was not ready for travel of that magnitude.

“I need to help my kids, cannot quit my job. We have no money and cannot afford traveling, and we must plan for our retirement,” she argued.

And so they stayed. Seven years into their relationship, though, they lost a few close friends to illness, and their priorities changed.

“I told her I want to take one year off work to go around the world,” Rubinstein recalled. “But Shiffy said, ‘How much can we see in one year? Let’s go for five years.’ ”

The main obstacle was financing the trip. The solution, it turned out, was right at home: The couple rented out their Santa Monica condo and traveled on the rental income. 

It was 2005. Rubinstein was 61, Raz was 59; both are natives of Israel and were healthy and physically active when they hit the road, two backpacks for each of them, filled only with essentials.

“How much do you really need to sustain your existence?” Raz said.

She answered her own question in her travel journal, a collection of thousands of photos and 250 entries that she emailed to friends and family on a weekly basis: “Two pairs of pants, two shirts will do. One small bar of soap used for bathing, shampoo, laundry and dishes. Every plastic bag was saved and reused. You quickly realized that the material staff is only stuff. What you take along your journey, is your personal inventory, in our case our core and stability was our Israeli-Jewish upbringing and values. I packed a tiny Bible and a siddur and followed the weekly Torah Reading.” 

Raz never doubted that their trip would be a success, as the pair hopped the globe, exploring 35 countries in Asia, Europe, Australia, South America and Africa.

Benny Rubinstein climbing up to Torres del Paine in Chile

“Our children and friends were very supportive of our dreams, but I don’t think that anyone believed we were really going to travel the world for five years. On the other hand, I had no doubt that we could do it. I trusted our relationship and would follow Benny through fire and water,” she said.

They came back home each year — sometimes for the birth of a new grandson, sometimes for a bar mitzvah — staying with family or friends. 

While on the road, they never worried about their safety, although in Rio de Janeiro, two young thugs pulled knives on them. (Rubinstein was quick to pull his own knife and the assailants ran away.) In fact, Rubinstein said, their age was an advantage in many cases as people were more respectful and trusting, even inviting them into their homes as guests. 

The couple occasionally traveled in the company of young Israeli backpackers who were fresh out of the army. Raz and Rubinstein joked that it was their own after-army trip. (Rubinstein was a sergeant in the Israeli air force and Raz served as a lieutenant in the army’s military police.) 

They celebrated Shabbat and holidays at Chabad centers around the world, meeting young travelers who shared travel tips and stories. The rest of their intel came from Lonely Planet travel guides. It was Raz’s responsibility to read the book and highlight what she wanted to see; Rubinstein had to figure out how to get there.

They had a general direction but no schedule. They never made a reservation for accommodation but always found a place to stay. Always traveling frugally — they prepared their own meals and traveled on buses — the world became their home.

In Peru, they met a jungle man who took them into the heart of the Amazon, where they slept on hammocks hanging from trees and ate what they fished and gathered. 

In Indonesia, they stayed with naked tribesmen who, thankfully, had given up their taste for human flesh some 60 years ago.

In Honduras, they spent time on a tiny island — about 275 square yards in size — with the most amazing snorkeling sites. And in Sri Lanka, they participated in a pilgrimage to a holy mountain with 8,000 steps.

Along the way, they were caught in avalanches and floods, sometimes using chain ladders to climb up and down a mountain. In easier moments, they met kind people who opened their doors for them and invited them in for a meal. While visiting Bali, for example, they noticed preparations for a wedding. 

“I watched them curiously decorating the house and was promptly invited to the wedding,” said Raz, who along with Rubinstein wore traditional costumes as requested. “We ended up going to two weddings and a funeral and prolonging our stay in town so we could participate.”

Language was never a problem, they said, as they communicated with gestures, drawing pictures and smiles. 

The last year of their adventure was in Africa. Since, they said, that continent does not accommodate backpackers very well, they decided to travel as volunteers, collaborating with the charity organization Pagus: Africa to build a school for children in a small village in Ghana. The place had no running water, electricity or gas. 

The ground was dug with shovels and hoes and 8,000 concrete bricks were molded by hand, using two molds. Rubinstein applied his engineering skills and Raz her teaching experience. During the six months the couple spent in the village, Rubinstein supervised the construction of the new school and Raz helped out in the existing one. 

“When we arrived there, the villagers were skeptical” Rubinstein recalled. “They said, ‘You are going to be like all the rest. You just came to take pictures, and next week, we will not see or hear from you anymore.’ I proved them wrong. They now have a beautiful school: three buildings, eight [classrooms] and administration building with offices, library and toilets, where 250 students attend daily. We keep in touch with the school and get periodic updates.”

Since returning home in 2010, Raz, now 69, said the best part has been having daily contact with the couple’s kids and grandkids, as well as a greater appreciation for the United States.

“The biggest shock upon returning home was the realization of how much our society wastes — all the disposable stuff — and how people sweat over the small stuff,” she said. “When you spend time with people who don’t own anything, your priorities change. We could feed so many villages with what our society puts in our trash.”

They still keep much the same lifestyle as they had while traveling, even though a number of years have passed. No TV, no eating out. Rubinstein, now 71, even built most of the furniture in their home. 

Are they ready for their next adventure? Raz, who volunteers as a yoga and tai chi instructor at senior centers and teaches Hebrew privately each afternoon, is not so sure. 

“I have a routine now, which I really love,” she said. “If we’ll go on a trip again, it will probably be in the States. We’ll buy an RV and go coast to coast. After traveling all around the world, the United States is probably one of the most beautiful countries in the world.”