Dreams Fulfilled

By SHERRY LUCAS,

Snapping goats in trees in Morocco. Petting llamas on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Resting on a cliff above ancient Petra’s famous Treasury — the perfect perch to marvel at the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Jordan, and also imagine horsemen racing through the gorge like they did at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

Actually, “racing” probably isn’t part of Oliver and Jennifer Diaz’s trip-around-the-world vocabulary. They are taking it slow, at a pace that lingers, meanders and delves deep into local cultures the way a packaged tour never would or could.

The former Mississippi Supreme Court justice and his wife took advantage of a “perfect window of opportunity,” Jennifer says, with kids in college and their health intact, to fulfill a long-time, mutual dream to see the world.

“We know ‘life’ often gets in the way of people’s dreams, so we decided, ‘Why not now?’” Jennifer says. Their adventure travel love and destination aims required a certain fitness level, too, for hiking the Inca Trail or an upcoming climb to Mt. Kilimanjaro. Last fall, they walked a 1,000-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, from Le Puy en Velay, France, to Santiago, Spain.

Armchair travelers who go along with the pair — via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and their blog on olaroundtheworld.com — enjoy stunning photos and engaging posts on highlights of people and places. Hiccups, too, such as a cold night stranded at the Bolivian border, language charades and snafus, and a stress injury that put Oliver on crutches on the Camino de Santiago. A sanguine spirit ultimately prevails.

Their trip started in Colombia September 2017 and traveled South America for seven and a half months before flying home from Buenos Aires. Last fall, they started in Paris and made it as far south as Morocco and as far west as Portugal before flying back from London.

In February, they were off again, picking back up in London, then Cyprus, Jordan, Israel and Palestine. Emailing from the Sahara Desert in Egypt, they looked forward to sailing the Nile to Luxor aboard a Felucca. Next stop was Cape Town, South Africa. “We will visit around 10 countries before heading back home this fall, but we still don’t know our end point,” Jennifer says.

A safari dangled just up ahead — No. 1 on both their bucket lists. “To have the opportunity to see all of the large animals in their natural environment and to experience the culture and beautiful landscapes of southern and eastern Africa is truly a blessing,” Jennifer says, with plans for Kruger National Park, Botswana, and joining their daughter in the Serengeti in Kenya.

“For both of us, this really is the trip of a lifetime,” she says in a blog post early this year. It’s part of one long, epic journey expected to take several years to complete, with occasional jaunts back home to visit family and friends.

“Oliver promised me a ‘trip’ around the world. Fortunately, he didn’t put a time on it,” she says, “so we are traveling very slowly, trying to spend several weeks in each country we visit,” with each of their children joining them for a few weeks on this leg.

In divvying up duties, she’s the writer and destination mapper. He’s the photographer, now using his iPhone to capture the exotic locales, cultures and people. After photographing humpback whales breaching off the coast of Colombia, they shipped his heavy digital camera and lenses back home. He’s also in charge of electronics, is great at packing up “and makes sure we always have an emergency stash of Snickers,” Jennifer says. Light travel and thoughtful packing are crucial. Everything serves a purpose, with one carry-on backpack apiece and no checked luggage. As they learned hiking the John Muir Trail in California’s Sierra Nevadas, “You really don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy,” she says.

There are destinations in mind, and discoveries along the way. For Oliver, Uruguay was an unexpected delight, with its modern capital city, wonderful restaurants and friendly, well-educated and civic-minded residents. “We expected to just quickly pass through the country, visit the capital and take in a few sights. I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable we felt there. The natural beauty of the long Atlantic coastline and the quaint towns along the coast reminded us of home.” He could see going back and staying a while.

Jennifer is struck by the fact that they can travel for less than they’d spend at home, and that they meet very few Americans along the way. “I am also shocked at how many young people are traveling around the world like we are, while working.” They’ve yet to get sick on any food, with the exception of coming home to highly processed American food. She’s felt safer traveling everywhere in the world than she does in many places in America, she says. “People generally do not have guns.”

On their miss list, “Of course we miss our children like crazy and I don’t know if we would travel as long as we do without FaceTime,” Jennifer says. For Oliver, “In addition to friends and family, I miss Reese’s candy and football season.” Hospitality on their travels reminds them of home, and Jennifer looks forward to reciprocating, “when we show them Mississippi on their travels.”

Key takeaways on this global trek include the pervasive concern about and impact of climate change, from Andean mountain villages to farms in France, and the threads that unite people around the planet.

“If everyone traveled the world, I think that we truly would have world peace,” Jennifer says. “You quickly realize that everyone is the same. We all have the same wants and dreams. We care about our families, our communities, our health and our faith... We may eat different food, dress and speak differently, but we all want our children to be safe and happy.”

“Truly immersing yourself in a new culture and empathizing with others is what changes us,” Oliver says.

His advice to anyone considering traveling: Just go and do it. Don’t overanalyze or over plan. Don’t go to an all-inclusive resort and don’t get on a cruise ship, and think that you have traveled.

“Get out of your comfort zone. Go somewhere that you don’t speak the language and make your own way. Get away from the crowds and Americanized experiences. Stay in hostels, eat in local restaurants and meet local people. You will get a feeling of adventure and accomplishment, and you will be changed for the better.”

When not traveling, they make their home in Jackson and Oxford.

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Cathy Haynie, head of school at Christ Covenant School, is serving JAAIS (Jackson Area Association of Independent Schools) as president this year.