Stories from John
The world’s oldest backpacker
In the previous post we met John Waite – a man who has been dubbed ‘The World’s Oldest Backpacker’. After his wife passed away in 1982 he retired from his job in Melbourne and set off to travel the world. Almost 30 years later, at the age of 89, John is still staying in youth hostels while he explores the mysteries of our race. Throughout his journey he’s inspired many a young backpacker. These are some of his stories…
John Waite is sitting at a table in the kitchen of our hostel, rifling through some papers and books he carries with him around the world. He travels light and only has two changes of clothes in his backpack, but he sacrifices a bit of extra weight for these mementos of his journey. They are his version of a diary – a collection of photos, signatures and messages from people he has met over the past 30 years on the road.
John shows me a signed photo in the front of his latest notebook and tells me it’s the President of Iceland. He’s not bragging or trying to impress. Over the years he’s realised that other travellers enjoy hearing his tales as much as he likes to share them. John tends to tell stories in the same way he travels – slowly and with no fixed direction. But also with a sense of humour that mixes the dry wit of his English motherland with the sarcasm of his adopted Australia.
In one of his older books, which he’s left at home in Melbourne, is a message from Mother Teresa. He met her while he was working in a hospital in India just a few days before she died.
“I didn’t know she was sick,” John says, not trying to be humourous.
The message is one of his most cherished souvenirs, along with a similar note from the Dalai Lama.
“Everyone thought I wouldn’t go up to him but I did,” he says.
“I just told him I was backpacking around the world and we had a bit of a talk about that.”
John worked with the United Nations in Sudan in the early 1990s. He didn’t intend to get involved but he met a friend in Namibia who was a doctor and he invited John to join the aid effort. John didn’t realise until the end of his contract that he was actually getting paid for all the months he had helped. He would happily have done it for free but he accepted the money because it helped prolong his travels.
His brushes with charity have also taught him an important lesson about humanity.
“I tend now to look at people and judge them as I find them and as they treat me,” he says.
“With anything that goes wrong I look at myself first and think about what I have done and if I’ve done something wrong.”
That way of thinking is still something he associates with an incident in Islamabad when he was attacked by a group of boys.
“I was stoned in Islamabad but it was because I was wearing shorts,” he remembers.
“But, then again, it was partly my fault because you’re supposed to cover up. It was about six youth but I walked up to them and they ran away.”
There was a much more serious attack in Mexico City that almost cost John his life. The way he puts it, he was left for dead. Intrigued when he mentions this, I ask him for more, hanging on every word as I have been for the whole time we’ve been talking.
“I had a bad feeling walking down this street and then suddenly there was this guy with a short length of pipe,” he says.
“He made a rush for me and I lashed out and caught him in the balls and he yelled and screamed and dropped the pipe.”
That wasn’t the end of the story, though, because there was another man who came at him. John hit out at him as well and once again protected himself.
“I could see another one but he wasn’t close enough to be a threat,” he continues.
“But that was the last I knew, because there was another one behind me obviously. He hit me across the head and knocked me out. I woke up about 4 in the morning in the gutter soaked in blood with my clothes ripped down the side to get at my money belt.”
John made it back to his hostel, avoiding another robbery attempt along the way, and eventually got medical and consular help to get his journey back on track.
For some people, an assault on their body and their sense of security would be enough to make them rethink their path in life. Not for John. He knows what he’s doing and he knows the risks. He sees the world as inherently good and the people in it as the richest source of pleasure. He’s got no intention of slowing down.
“I’ve planned the next 50 years and then I’ll think about the next 50 after that,” he jokes.
“So if you want to dance on my grave I’ve got news for you. If I have to slow down I’ll buy a pair of rollerskates and keep going.”
He laughs softly and smiles. But he also looks me in the eyes with a gaze that shows how serious he is. Then John Waite turns the page of his book to find another story.
** For more about John Waite, you can check out - Part 1: The World’s Oldest Backpacker