The Secret Life of Teachers: Philip Bennie

mrbbbStudied: Geography at the University of Wales and then a teaching course at the University of Wales. Later on, he got a Master’s Degree, in educational leadership, at a university in the US.

Came to SSS: In 2009 or 2010, for 6 months, and then  went away, to come back a year and a half later

Favourite movie: The Princess Bride

Favourite book: Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Favourite musician: Ralph McTell

Which time period would you like to live in?: In the 1700s, I’d like to be a pirate on a ship in the Caribbean.
If not geography, what would you have studied?: I think architecture would be a good thing to study, that’d be something I would be interested in

Take the opportunity to do it if you get a chance.

Tell us how you decided to travel the world.

When I first started I taught for 5 years in England, and as a geography teacher, I used to have on the back of my classroom wall, lots of pictures from the National Geographic of all the places I’d love to visit. I had pictures of the Grand Canyon, of Yellowstone National Park, I had the glaciers in NZ, and I thought I really should go and visit these places, so I decided that I would get on my bike, cycle around the world and visit as many of these as I could. It was obviously the right thing to do because when it was time to leave my form made me a cake and it was written on the top of the cake “Mr. Bennie there’s more to life than this school”, so I realized that I had made the right decision to leave and go on a world trip around the world on my bike.

What year was that?

That must have been in about 1984, so that was probably before most of your parents were even born. We didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have any mobile phones to be able to keep in contact with each other. I was away,  from my home and my family, for over a year, and hardly had any contact with them at all.

The one thing I found on my trip, was people are incredibly nice, people are incredibly kind and almost everybody you meet is helpful and good.

Where did you live?

At the time I was living in York in the north of England, so I started off from London and I flew to NY, and from NY I started off cycling across the United States. It was before the time where you could look up things on the internet and know where to go, so all I had to help me leave NY was a compass, I knew that as long as I went West, and I kept going, at some stage I would hit the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken into account that to get out of NY you have to go across various bridges, as it is surrounded by water, and on one of these bridges I had a rather nasty crash and put myself in hospital on the absolute first day. In fact, it was such a bad crash that all my clothes were torn, and there was blood coming out of my shoulder and my legs. I couldn’t ride my bike anymore so I was walking, trying to find a hospital, and people pointed me where a hospital was but they said that is a really dangerous area, you shouldn’t really go into that area. I must have looked worse than the other people in there because nobody bothered me. So I managed to get to the hospital and they sorted me out, I had to stay in NY for a few days to recover but then I carried on with my trip around the world.

In Malaysia

Where did you stop when you went to the US?

I wanted to see the Niagara Falls, I thought it would be a good place to start, so I cycled up there to see that, that was kind of impressive. And then I went across, heading West, across Michigan and Dakota, to get to Yellowstone National Park because that was the place where I wanted to go, because “I’m smarter than the average bear Boo Boo!” [reference to Yogi bear]. So Yellowstone National Park was good, but when I got there the winter started coming so it started getting cold, so at that stage, I had to turn South, geography you see. I knew that if I went South it was going to be warm so I would go South, all the way down to the Grand Canyon. When I got to the Grand Canyon, my plan was I wanted to take my bicycle down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and up the other side, but they wouldn’t let, they said no bicycles are allowed in the Grand Canyon. So I found some people who were staying at the same campsite as me, and they agreed to take my bicycle round to the other side while I walked across down to the bottom. I was very trusting and when I got to the other side, there was my bicycle waiting for me. The one thing I found on my trip, was people are incredibly nice, people are incredibly kind and almost everybody you meet is helpful and good. After the United States, I flew to, Tahiti.

Why did you fly to Tahiti?

At the time, when I planned my whole trip, you could buy what was called a round the world ticket, so I bought, London to NY, LA to Tahiti, Tahiti to NZ. So I had my ticket already, and they were all valid for a year, you could use them anytime you wanted within that year, you can still get them. They’re not particularly expensive, depending which countries you go to, you can get it for like $800, going from London, so it would stop you in NY, in Sydney Australia, Hong Kong and then somewhere else, and you can go to those places, travel around and fly on to the next one. So I already had my flights.

It [traveling] will change your whole life, and you will never be able to go back to being the same.

When did you fly from the US to Tahiti?

About three months after I arrived in NY, it took me around 3 months to get across the United States, and then I flew to Tahiti, had a bit of a rest in Tahiti because I thought I deserved it. I then flew on to New Zealand, and spent about another 3 months in New Zealand, traveling around the North from the South Island. Then from there, I went to Australia, and when I got to Australia I needed to earn some money, so I spent 6 months working. I did various jobs, I worked as a chef, a barbecue chef in the Sydney Fair Ground, cooking steaks for people. I worked in a food factory, putting spice into jars and selling that. And the worst one was when I worked in a place where they were making paté, and when they used to make the paté, these boxes used to come in, boxes of hearts, of livers and of, what else, chicken livers. We had to put them all in the mixers, and mix them all around to make the paté. The people I was working with were kind of not very hygienic, and sometimes rather than taking the hearts and livers out of the box, they’d just throw the whole box in, so it would all get mixed up with cardboard and the plastic. By the time it was mixed up in the paté, no one would know, so I would never eat paté made in a factory in Australia. So I did that for 3 months to earn enough money to carry on with my trip, and then from there I cycled all the way up through Australia, up to the North of Australia, to a place called Cairns, where I learned to dive. I did a scuba diving course so I could dive on the Great Barrier Reef because that was a thing geographers need to do. So then I went across the desert, I was cycling across the Great Australian Desert to get to Darwin. I had heard of people whose bikes had broken because they were carrying too much water, so I thought what I’m going to do, I’m not going to carry a lot of water, I’m just going to travel really fast so I’ll just take a small amount  of water, and instead of doing it in 4 days, as people normally did, I’ll do it in 1 day and I won’t need much water. It was a good plan, so I would leave very early in the morning, like 4 o’clock in the morning and cycle all day and all night. Some days I would do 400 km in one day to get to the next place where there was water, so I didn’t carry much water. It worked. Remember that by that time I’d been cycling for over half a year, so I was kind of pretty fit, I could do that.

In Australia

Was it the same bike?

It was the same bike, and in fact, it is the same bike I have now, not the bike I have at school today, but I do have the bike at home. It has been repainted and it will be riding to Cañete in January, there are hundreds of people riding to Cañete, I think it is the 8th of January. Still works. So after Australia, I then went through South East Asia, so I went through Indonesia and Malaysia. I flew from Australia to Bali, and then from Bali, I cycled through the islands and I’ve been to Malaysia, Singapore up to Bangkok. That was like another couple of months. Then when I got to Bangkok, I decided to fly from there all the way back to Europe, all the way to Istanbul, in Turkey. Afterwards, I  just cycled back from Turkey to my house in York. By that time, I had been away from home for a year, and I was kind of a bit ready to go back. I arrived back to England, the place where I started, and when I went back to visit my old school, the school I’d left, I saw that they had put a big map on the wall with “Mr. Bennie’s Adventures” , and they’d been sticking little flags where I was because I was sending them postcards from each place I got to. So they had stuck all my postcards around in this huge map of the world up in the geography department showing where I’ve been.

It [traveling] reinforced my idea that good things come to good people

How many countries did you have to pass to get from Turkey to England?

I think it was probably like, well at the time it wasn’t so many because there was just Yugoslavia, where now there would be Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and all of those. So I went through Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany, Belgium and France. In Bulgaria, it was interesting, because in Bulgaria I only had a visa for 24 hours, as it was still a communist country, so I just had to get in the country and out again. I had exchanged my money on the black market, and I didn’t have a receipt for it so they wouldn’t let me stay in a hotel in Sofia the capital of Bulgaria. I ended having to sleep under a bush in the middle of the park. And the next day just get out of Bulgaria as quickly as possible, before my visa ran out. So that was my little adventure when I was younger.  

How old were you?

I was about 29 because I think I had my 29th birthday when I was on the trip. I was actually really pleased because I thought it was going to be my 30th birthday, but then when I worked it out, I found out I was only 29. After I finished that trip, it kind of made me realize that I didn’t want to stay in England. So, since then, I have worked and traveled to other places in the world.

Where have you been?

I have been in the Bahamas, I worked there for three years, and I’ve worked in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and I worked 16 years in Costa Rica before I came here, I spent a long time in Costa Rica. So I don’t think I could ever go back to England, which is dreary, gray and the sun doesn’t shine. Well, in fact, it is a bit like Lima because Lima can be very dreary and gray, and the sun doesn’t always shine, but at least it is getting a bit better now. So yes, that gave me the idea of just going to different parts of the world and seeing different parts. So I don’t advise you ever to do anything like that because if you go on a lonely journey like that, it will change your whole life, and you will never be able to go back to being the same, to being the same person. I never really planned to do it, personal things made me think right now would be a good time to get away and do something else. It was also helped by when I went to see the headmaster to tell him I was going to be leaving the school, he said “Yes, it’s about time you leave”. So I wasn’t encouraged to stay very much.

You know you’re just going to do what you want that day and you’ve got everything you need…life becomes very simple.

How do you think your trip changed you?¨

Yes, it definitely changed me. It made me a more confident person, to be able to go out and do things. It made me a more, I guess, self-assured person, certain I could do things myself. It reinforced my idea that good things come to good people. I had a lot of good fortune on my trip, it was very rare that bad things happened to me, like things getting stolen or having an accident on the first day. I would come across other people traveling, who always seemed to have bad things happening to them, and when I talked them a bit more, I found that they were the type of people that were quite happy to do bad things to other people, like lie to them, or steal from them, or not treat them very well. So I kind of got an idea that, usually I mean it doesn’t always work, but usually, people who are good and kind and nice to people, good and nice things happen to them, so that was something I learned on the trip.

What was the hardest part of being away from home?

The difficult thing was to leave things behind, because once you start traveling, it’s easy, because you’ve got everything with you, everything is in your bag, and that’s it, that’s your whole life. And if you haven’t got it with you, well you’ve just got to make-do with what you’ve got. You can’t go and look for it in another room in your house, or something like that, so life is very simple, and that’s quite nice. You know you’re just going to do what you want that day and you’ve got everything you need. You don’t have to worry about paying bills, or going to work, or doing all of those things, life becomes very simple. I suppose it is quite selfish and self-indulgent really, and you obviously got to have the money to be able to do it.

In Indonesia

Apart from the money exchange problem in Bulgaria did you face other difficulties?

Well, when I arrived in Thailand, there was actually a military coup taking place, and I didn’t actually realize it. I thought that the tanks on either side of the street and the soldiers were the normal way of doing things, I guess I should have gathered something when I realized there was no one else driving along the road, just me cycling down the middle, and soldiers on either side. It wasn’t until I got into the hostel in the night, and turned on my radio because I carried a little radio with me so that I could listen to the world news,  that I learned about what was going on. [*impersonating the BBC*] This is the BBC in London, today there was a coup in Thailand, 1 Australian tourist was shot dead. And that was why there were tanks and troops on the street, I hadn’t realized that.

What thing did you realize you needed the most?

Food, all the time, because I was cycling hundreds, I was cycling at least 100 km every day, or more, sometimes 200 km. So cyclists could always eat lots and lots, so we always looked. In the US it was really good, because they had all you can eat places, so there was all you can eat pancakes for 99 cents. You met other cyclists and they’d say, “Have you heard? There’s a place two hundred miles away, where they’ve got all you can eat pancakes or all you can eat pizza”, so food became quite an important thing for me.

What place was your favourite?

I guess my favourite place was New Zealand because in New Zealand everything is very safe, there are no dangerous animals that are going to hurt you and you can drink the water of all the rivers. The people were really nice and friendly, everywhere you go people would say “Have a cup of tea” or they’d make some food for you. And in every little town, they would have a little campsite, and in each campsite, they’d have a little kitchen, where you could cook and it was all open, nothing was locked up. You could just go in, use it, and it was all honesty. There was a box you could put some money if you wanted to, it was a long time ago, perhaps it’s not like that now, but it was very peaceful and that was a very nice place to be.

How long was the whole trip?

The whole trip was about 14 months, 3 months of that was working in Australia.

If you could give one piece of advice to anyone that wants to travel the world, what would it be?

Do it while you can, because once you get a job and you get responsibilities and you get a family, it’s much more difficult to do it. Some people do, you meet whole families traveling, but it’s a lot easier to do when you’re younger, so take the opportunity to do it if you get a chance.

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