Living the Life of a Nomad

Rita Gelman gave away her possessions and left Los Angeles to roam the world on a shoestring. Twenty-four years later, she's still a free spirit.

As told to Jennifer Connor

Why did you choose this lifestyle? In my forties I took a trip to the Galapagos Islands, and I studied anthropology at UCLA for four years. That ignited a passion to learn about the developing world. When I divorced at 48, my kids were already out of the house, and I was suddenly free to live that dream.

Where have you lived? I lived in a royal palace in Bali for four years. In Tanzania, I stayed with herders, goats, and a lot of flies and fleas in a Masai boma. I slept in the jungle in New Guinea with tribal people who still hunt with bows and arrows. We sang and danced, and we tried to teach each other songs. "Old MacDonald" had us mooing, oinking and laughing.

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How do you find places to stay? I ask everyone -- heads of villages, guides, restaurant owners, people sitting next to me on a bus -- if they know anyone I could live with. Someone always does.

Tell us about some of your experiences. I've cuddled orangutans in Borneo, slept next to sea lions in the Galapagos and gone paragliding in Peru. But my greatest joy comes from connecting with people.

Did you have a financial plan when you began? When I left, I was earning $12,000 a year in royalties from more than 50 children's books I had written. I knew I could write more as I traveled. I figured $15,000 a year was enough to live well in countries where teachers make $50 a month. I also have investments, but I've never touched them.

What do you do for health insurance? When I was younger, I chose high-deductible policies through the writers union. Luckily, I never needed more than a few stitches or some cough medicine. Since I turned 65, I've been on Medicare and have a supplemental policy.

What are you doing now? I'm in Washington, D.C., working on getting funding for Let's Get Global, a project of US Servas, a cultural-exchange network. The project will encourage and help U.S. high school graduates to experience other cultures before going to college by doing a "gap year" in international-exchange programs. It's the ideal way to prepare young people for the global economy.