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An Asmat tribe member beats a drum.

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Rita Golden Gelman is the author of Tales of a Female Nomad, Living at Large in the World, and more than 70 children’s books. She has not had a permanent address since 1986.

When I was 48, I took off to discover the world. That was 31 years ago. I still have no home and no possessions. It’s been an amazing life, filled with both gentle and ecstatic moments. And lots of singing.

I discovered the magic of group singing when I was a kid growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. World War II was still happening when my mother decided I had better know what it meant to be Jewish, because “It could happen here.” She sent me to Hebrew school. It was in Hebrew school where I discovered the pulsing joy of group singing. I went on to sing in summer camps, in my high school choir, in folk-singing sessions in college at Brandeis, and during protest marches in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Always in groups, and always in joy.

I had been living in Bali for a number of years when I decided that I had to visit tribal Irian Jaya. Irian Jaya is the western half of New Guinea, part of Indonesia. There are tribes in Irian Jaya that still hunt with bows and arrows. I wanted to meet them.

My trekking adventure began when I met three women, two from Austria and one from Namibia. They, too, wanted to meet the tribes, so we hired a guide, who hired a cook and five porters — one for each of us and one for the cook. Together we climbed up and down the mountains all day long, until we were deep into the forest. In the late afternoon, we finally arrived at a small village of indigenous people: kids, women, and men living in simple huts made from branches and reeds and grasses.

The women were mostly topless, and many of the men were naked except for horim, footlong hollow gourds that slip over the penis and tie around the waist and testicles.

Our guide took us into a wood house that had been built for missionaries. Our cook fixed us dinner. When we finished eating, a group of 10 men were waiting outside our door. We were told to follow them. We had no idea what to expect, but we followed. The men led us into a small hut and gestured for us to sit across from them. We stared at each other, saying nothing.

I sat for a while, but I found the silence uncomfortable. The locals had no idea that I spoke Indonesian, so I spoke first. The head of the village understood and translated into the tribal language. I thanked them for letting us stay in their village. I thanked them for the beautiful forest we had hiked through all day. And for the house where we were staying. And for the incredible animals we had met, like emus and other amazing birds and lizards. Then I paused and said, “Now we would like to sing to you.”

My companions and I burst into song. We sang, “You Are My Sunshine,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and “Home, Home on the Range.”

Then we stopped. “Now,” I said, “it is your turn.” I didn’t even know if they would understand the concept of “turn.” They huddled for a bit, and then spread out and began to sing. The first two songs they sang had a missionary sound, like church hymns. But the third was clearly tribal. They hissed and hicked and honked and made sounds I had never heard before. It was beautiful.

After their third song, they stopped and indicated that it was our turn. We huddled and came up with “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” We oinked and mooed and quacked. We laughed, and they laughed with us. And when we finished, we taught each other our songs, mooing and quacking and hissing and hicking and honking. Together. Everyone laughed and sang until we all had tears in our eyes.

We were connecting — through song. We were strangers from opposite ends of the spectrum of life on Earth, and we were one.

Have Life Experience, Will Travel

Solo travel isn’t just for twenty-somethings. With the kids out of the house and the career wrapped up, Boomers are hitting the trails — oftentimes on their own. Intrigued? Start with these pro tips.

Do your research: Know the culture, the dress code, the risks, and the health factors.

Pack light, but double up on necessities like identification, medications, and glasses.

Safety applies to everyone: Blend in, walk with a purpose, trust your gut, and be aware of scam artists. Take out traveler’s insurance.

Don’t be afraid of that “table for one.” Dining alone can be enjoyable.

Need some structure? Try “voluntourism” or teaching English. Check out Transitions Abroad or Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) for starters.

How to Go It Alone

Rita’s advice for being a nomad without going mad.

  • Smile a lot.
  • Talk to strangers.
  • Accept invitations.
  • Eat everything you’re offered.
  • Laugh, dance, sing.
  • Connect with the kids. If the kids like you, so will their parents. I carry bubbles and make balloon animals. And I get the kids to help me with the language.
  • Say “hi” — a greeting and a smile are always winners.
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