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3-Year Odyssey to Australia, Asia and Europe Started Out as a Lark

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three years ago, Kristen Mitchell was $12,000 in debt, had less than $600 to her name and had just started a job as a financial planner.

Not exactly an ideal time to plan an expedition to Arizona, much less to Australia. But then a bargain airline ticket changed her life.

Opportunities knocking unexpectedly as they do, that is precisely what the then 26-year-old Encinitas resident did. She purchased an inexpensive, “once in a lifetime” airplane ticket to Australia, quit her job, packed a bag, and said “G’day” to her family and friends.

What Mitchell hadn’t anticipated was a three-year solo Odyssey that stretched like an accordion into Japan and then throughout Asia, the Soviet Union and several Eastern Bloc countries. Along the way, she mined opals, modeled in Japan, crossed a river in a wooden bucket and found love behind a picture in a Nepalese cafe.

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“I really don’t know what my driving force was behind this,” Mitchell said. “I did have this thought, ‘You know, I really would like to go to Australia.’ But it just came from nowhere.”

Mitchell planned her trip very carefully. Relieving several travel agencies of all their brochures on Australia, she outlined an elaborate itinerary and set her departure date for a year in advance.

Not long afterward, however, Mitchell had the opportunity to buy an inexpensive airplane ticket to the land Down Under. The only catch was that she had to leave right away, months earlier than she had planned.

“I panicked immediately,” recalled Mitchell. “I said, ‘No, no! I can’t do this! I’ve got this plan.’ ”

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Mitchell said it was then that she learned to grab opportunity’s hand before it moves on to someone else. Even so, she was half-terrified the night before her departure, trying to cram her belongings into a duffel bag two sizes too small.

“I’m basically a weenie,” Mitchell confessed. “I’ve literally been afraid of everything I’ve ever done.”

“But fortunately, I’m more determined than I am afraid, so, as long as I can keep the ratio 51% determined to 49% scared, I’ll always be able to do what I want to do.”

Besides being a “weenie,” Mitchell said, she was handicapped by her inability to find her own bathroom at night (forget trying to navigate in a strange land) and an utter hopelessness at speaking any foreign language other than the international tongue of “point and grunt.”

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But Mitchell took to travel like lint to blue serge, and could have easily created a travel brochure of her own. In her 10-month stay in Australia, when she wasn’t working as a waitress, she went horseback riding in the tropical rain forests, diving on the Great Barrier Reef and, in central Australia, mining for opals.

“I went to Cobber Pedy, which is this great opal-mining area,” Mitchell said. “Everybody lives underground because the climate aboveground is so extreme, so hot and dry. It was fascinating to stay in an underground youth hostel, see an underground church, and just go opal mining.”

From Australia, Mitchell extended her trip to Singapore and through Malaysia, traveling up the coast of Indonesia and into Thailand. With funds running low, Mitchell decided to head for Japan or Hong Kong, where, she had heard, there were jobs available teaching English.

“I didn’t know which one to go to, so I flipped a coin, and it came up Japan,” she said. “By the time I got there, I think I only had 3 cents left.”

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As luck would have it--and Mitchell did seem to have it throughout her entire three-year adventure--Mitchell landed in Japan during the peak hiring season for English teachers. A qualified teacher, she taught for a while, in the end at ECC, the largest language institute in Japan.

It was at ECC that Mitchell gained celebrity status. Her blond, Princess Di looks appealed to the Japanese, who used her as a model in their television commercials and in their poster ads on trains and subways.

Not just on a pleasure trip, Mitchell said she was committed to earning as much money as she could to help defray the $12,000 debt she had left back home. She worked in countries with the strongest currency, which would translate best into American dollars, she said.

When she reached a new destination, Mitchell would try to quickly learn the value of money there, and the different ways people tended to get robbed or swindled. After mastering that knowledge, she said, she could manage quite easily.

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“I also traveled and lived very cheaply--I basically slummed it,” Mitchell said, recounting the times she slept on the luggage racks of trains in India to save on hotel expenses, or the number of waiting rooms and banana-leaf huts she nodded off in.

“I ate what they ate and lived the way they lived,” she said. “I lived in very slum-like conditions, but it was no worse than how the local people were living.”

Mitchell also found in her travels that there were advantages to being a woman. She was not a threatening presence and most people were more curious about her than intimidated, she said.

“I was able to go places that men were not able to go,” she said. “In Vietnam, I went into someone’s house--they really wanted me to come in and show me around--but then another foreigner, a man, came in and they immediately put everything away. They weren’t sure what to think of him.”

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In Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia and Indochina, Mitchell said, she did encounter some problems between the sexes. Men in Pakistan were mind-boggled by Mitchell when she attempted to speak to them or hold direct eye contact, yet they thought nothing of grabbing her bottom as she walked down the street.

“I learned to always walk facing oncoming traffic because, if you walk with traffic, you are virtually molested on the street by passing traffic,” Mitchell said. “I also learned to just slug people if they got too close.”

The only time Mitchell feared for her safety was in the northern Pakistan city of Hunza, high in the mountains. Populated by several rival Muslim sects living on opposite sides of a river, Hunza was beautiful, but violent, she said.

Ignoring local warning, Mitchell one day crossed the river in a wooden bucket that operated on a precarious pulley system. She had barely stuck a toe on the opposing river bank when several men with guns slung over their shoulders came out of the mountains and aimed at her.

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“Some other men started throwing rocks at me,” Mitchell said. “I thought, ‘This, maybe, is the end of my trip.’ ”

Again, being a woman saved her, Mitchell believes. “I think they knew I was no threat to them, and they let me go back across the river in the bucket.”

Although a self-professed “weenie,” Mitchell claims she never got homesick and remembers crying only one time--when she left her guest house in New Delhi to make a phone call and couldn’t find her way back. After wandering a maze of narrow streets and alleys for six hours, Mitchell plunked down and bawled.

“It was 10 o’clock at night, and I was so tired, and I thought I would never get home again,” Mitchell said. “This big fat Indian woman saw me crying and she held me to her breast and she said, ‘Why are you crying madame? You should not be crying, American madame. You a very strong American woman.’ She wiped my tears and patted my head and she sent her son with me to find my guest house.”

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Mitchell does recall one night alone in Katmandu when she was prompted to write a long letter to a friend she had left back home in Encinitas. Writing what she called her “credo of life,” or her thoughts on what she wanted out of life, Mitchell put the letter inside a Japanese puzzle box and mailed it to Malcolm Mitchell.

It was the first move in what turned out to be a transcontinental marriage proposal.

“It was a little wooden box that required 17 moves to open it,” Mitchell said. “Malcolm had such a hard time opening that box, he nearly took a hammer to it,” she laughed.

Not to be outdone, Malcolm wrote back, instructing Mitchell to go look for a letter behind a picture in a cafe in Nepal. He had been there 11 months earlier and knew she would be on his trail at some point.

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“I managed to find the cafe, and I managed to find the picture, and, when I wedged the picture away from the wall and found the letter, I opened it up and it was a proposal of marriage,” she said.

Having lost his phone number in the meantime, Mitchell immediately sent a telegram simply stating, “Yes.” “Then I went off trekking for two weeks,” she said.

In her travels, Mitchell said, she really learned the concept of adventure. “It’s not something you find on a mountaintop or in a foreign country or that you can sign up for.”

“Adventure is something that’s within you. It’s a decision to make something extraordinary out of the ordinary,” she said.

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Perhaps most importantly, however, besides developing a sense of humor and learning to rely heavily on strangers, is learning how to live life rather than get through it, Mitchell said.

“Anyone can do what I did,” she said. “There are no commitments you can’t somehow bend to your will or your dreams.

“It will never ever be exactly the right time to do the things you want to do,” she added. “For me, it was probably the most unperfect time to go, but the opportunity was there, and the opportunity was perfect.”

Mitchell returned to the United States last November with her debts paid off, $600 in her pocket and $5,000 in the bank. She now is living back in Encinitas with her new husband, Malcolm, and works as an office manager for Silicon Graphics in La Jolla.

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She is considering writing a book about her adventures, and she has already given lectures to packed audiences at Adventure 16 outdoor clothing stores and for the San Diego Audubon Society.


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