Meet The Stamp Collectors: Kelly of Living Large in Limbo

Meet The Stamp Collectors is a series of interviews with travelers who've reached the milestone of visiting 50 countries, hence they've collected 50 passport stamps. This elite group of adventurers share real-life insights about their love of exploring our precious planet. They are voyagers who seek out unique experiences and develop their own perspective through immersive travel experiences. I hope their stories and sage advice will inspire you to push your boundaries and continue to travel near and far. This is not a contest about who's been to the most countries but a reflection on what it's been like to visit at least a quarter of the world's nations.

Kelly introduces herself to us by saying, "I sleep around." Before you come to scandalous assumptions hear her explination– "I can’t afford to live in my own home in Los Angeles, so I rent it out while I travel fulltime." Kelly has visited 65 countries since becoming a nomad almost a decade ago. Her first sabbatical took her to the Middle East where she worked with refugees and begun to tell their stories about their experiences. Her devotion to traveling authentically and locally started from a young age. When she was 12 she went on a cross-country road trip with her family where they ultimately spent some time in Mexico. There she learned Spanish by playing with local children and bargaining with her mom in the markets. Originally from Buffalo, New York she now travels the world "for free" by housesitting everywhere she goes. Luckily, she's released a book about her housesitting experiences and her expertise into breaking into the competitive world of house sitting: How to Become a Housesitter: Insider Tips from the HouseSit Diva.

What's your favorite phrase in another language you've learned through your travels? 

Alla rossi a Syrian phrase that literally means above your head, but more colloquially means "I'm in your hands" or "I'm at your service." It's such a uniquely Syrian phrase that it always brought a quick smile! I picked up the phrase in 2008 when I co-led a delegation of international activists to Syria to help Iraqi refugees. 

Is there a book that has greatly influenced you as a traveler? 

I loved Rita Golden Gelman's Tales of a Female Nomad. When in her 40s, Rita decided she needed to shake things up: She and her husband divorced, she got rid of all her belongings, and she decided to travel permanently. She's now in her 80s and still "nomading"! Her book is filled with fun anecdotes and her enthusiasm for connecting with people is infectious! Her sequel, Female Nomad & Friends: Tales of Breaking Bread and Breaking Free actually includes three of my essays.

What is your favorite travel quote?

"I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list." - Susan Sontag

Which country cemented your love for travel?

France in 1989. I lived in Paris by exchanging my small apartment in Santa Monica, CA, with a Parisian for his flat. I was 28 and it was the first time I traveled alone. Being alone with oneself can be transformative. Having time away from daily life's distractions gave me the emotional freedom to work through the sudden loss of my brother and embrace my new mantra "life's too short." I reveled in the art museums, the history, the gardens...and just walking around Paris.

Which was your favorite country for food?

Any place with street food! I've had some of my best meals handed to me on brown paper napkins in India, Vietnam, and Mexico. When I die, bury me in London's Borough Market right next to the shop that sells the hazelnut hot chocolate.

Which was your favorite country for nature?

Any country where I can be underwater! Nothing beats diving in the Great Barrier Reef although the Maldives come close. Puerto Princessa in the Philippines was surprisingly lovely. I was bitten by a triggerfish in Malaysia, so that experience is etched not only in my memory but also on my leg. I'm thinking of covering the scar with a tattoo of an octopus!

Which country left a lasting impression on you?

Iraq changed my life. I joined a women's delegation in February 2003, five weeks before the U.S.-led invasion. We interviewed women about the impacts of the first Gulf War and the ensuing 12 years of sanctions...and about their fears of the impending war. I returned a few months later to find the people who had touched me so deeply. I reported back to radio and TV news stations via a satellite phone. I'm now writing a book about my experiences there. Here you can hear me read the first chapter, an award-winning essay about a beggar girl I met in a market. 

Is there a country that changed the way you travel? 

Not a country, but a city: London. It's where I had my first lengthy housesit and it made me realize I really can travel and "live like a local" by housesitting. I had joined a housesitting platform and landed a two-month housesit in London during the summer Olympics! I fell in love with London and with the concept of housesitting. Since then, I’ve housesat in some of the world’s most glorious cities: Berlin, Amsterdam, Hanoi, Osaka, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Maputo, Mozambique. I spend half of each year at a recurring housesit in Ajijic, Mexico, living in a four-story house with panoramic views of Lake Chapala. 

Which country exceeded your expectations?

India was off-the-charts! The pungent colors and infiltrating chaos shook my very essence. After India, nothing lands in the same place; one either loves this or hates this. India is not a place of ambiguity. Just crossing India’s streets was a lesson in going with the flow, except to my foreign eyes, there was no discernable flow. Motor scooters weaved precariously, dodging the ruts made by buses that bulldogged ahead with people dangling off them like Christmas tree ornaments. Taxis invented their own lanes, careening onto sidewalks or into oncoming traffic, whichever best suited their reflex to bypass the occasional cow, donkey or elephant. Children, barefoot and openhanded, threaded the amorphous traffic lanes, their lonely pleas drowned by belligerent horns. The air was a bitter mixture of exhaust, shit, sweat, and spices. On the surface, India is a jumbled assault on the senses. Only on introspection does it calm and clarify. 

Have you had any responsible travel experiences? 

While housesitting in Mexico, I visited FM4 Paso Libre, a shelter in Guadalajara that helps Central American refugees seeking asylum and migrants seeking a better life. For years, I’ve written about refugees’ struggles, pains, and losses. In response to the increased U.S. restrictions on refugees who flee persecution due to their political activism, ethnicity, or sexual or gender orientation the number of people seeking asylum in Mexico has increased rapidly.

What is your top travel tip?

Smile. A lot. It will help you appear more courteous, likable, and non-threatening. Smiling as a way to appear harmless dates back more than 30 million years, according to primatologist Signe Preuschroft, who studied monkeys’ and apes’ barely clenched teeth that indicates their harmlessness. Also, smiling is contagious. Since humans engage in body language mirroring, we automatically copy others’ facial expressions, so smiling bonds people together–even those of differing cultures. In his studies of the human smile, Charles Darwin noted that smiling, unlike body language, for example, is truly universal, opening opportunities for cross-cultural connecting. Smiling is so universal that the first Friday of every October is World Smile Day!

What countries are on your bucket list?

My real dream destination is the moon. But I'd love to go diving in Seychelles and in Galapagos. I want to go to Borneo to see orangutans. I want to go to Bali, Indonesia with the love of my life. Or maybe someplace where I can go topless on the beach and no one will care. In the States, I want to go to Alaska in the summertime and New Orleans during Jazz & Heritage Festival. 

Where are you headed next?

I'll be housesitting in Hanoi, Vietnam over Chinese New Year. I am so excited to return to Hanoi and to experience the city during this holiday. I have a few weeks between housesits, so I want to travel around Cambodia and Laos, two countries I've never traveled to. 

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