A ROAD FEARLESSLY TRAVELED by Ellen Donker
Maplewood resident recalls his hitchhiking adventures
Travel may have come to a standstill during the past year, but you can still experience it through a new book by Maplewood resident William A. Stoever. Chances are you wouldn’t travel the way he did as detailed in Africa, Japan and Everywhere in Between. He calls it low-end travel when he happily subsisted on three dollars a day, equally divided between lodging, lunch and dinner. For transportation, his goal was to get to the next destination for free, and it usually worked.
That was 55-plus years ago. Stoever had just completed a two-year stint with Teachers for East Africa, teaching physics at a school in Tanzania, East Africa, for the United States Agency for International Development (US-AID).
Instead of returning home, he decided to continue his adventure and see more of the world. It was with trepidation that he wrote to his parents, telling them that he would be deferring his enrollment in law school for at least 18 months.
As avid travelers, they probably understood better than most parents. International travel was not commonplace in 1965, but they were accustomed to taking their family on trips during summers off from their teaching positions to explore the world. In fact, they lived in Istanbul, Turkey the year after Stoever finished high school, a probable spur to his love of adventure.
A lot of time has passed since Stoever set out on his travels, but writing his memoirs has kept him busy since retiring 10 years ago from teaching in the field of international business at Seton Hall University. His stories capture memories that are fascinating and daring, insightful and lonely, with a good measure of history and humor.
Stoever says he was able to recall his treks in detail, thanks to the letters he wrote his parents. “When they saved them,” he says, “I got a stack of aerograms that high from my four years of travel,” indicating a three-inch span with his fingers. At 81 years old, he says, “If you ask me what happened yesterday, I probably couldn’t tell you. But if you asked me what happened 50 years ago, the interesting parts of that are still the most burned into my brain.”
Starting in Tanzania at the conclusion of his teaching contract, Stoever flew to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and wound his way through the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and Vietnam – during the war, mind you. He continued on to the Philippines, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Japan, and Russia, finally ending in Germany, and reluctantly flying home from Luxembourg. He had no guidebooks, just maps and the advice of other “world travelers” as they called themselves. This included hippies and a collection of social “drop-outs,” as well as a burgeoning population of volunteers in the Peace Corps, a program established by President Kennedy in 1961.
Stoever’s preferred mode of travel was hitchhiking. How else to keep to his daily budget? Although it wasn’t considered as risky as it is today, one still had to be careful. In his first book, Hitchhike the World, Stoever recounts how at age 12 he hitched his first ride on a tractor pulling a wagonload of watermelons in his childhood home of Ames, Iowa. During a time when most families owned just one car, hitchhiking became his chosen mode of transportation, representing travel and all its thrills.
Stoever admits that the negative aspect to hitchhiking is wasted time. On many occasions, he found himself on the side of the road in desolate locations, tired and hungry, waiting hours for a ride. Other times, hitchhiking could be quite competitive with travelers lining the road. By writing “American Student” in chalk on the side of his suitcase, he was sometimes able to win an advantage in the eyes of a driver.
When Stoever had a lot of ground to cover and knew it was impractical or overly risky to hitchhike, he turned to boats, buses, motorcycles, trains (he rode the Trans-Siberian Railroad), even planes and helicoptors, often without buying a ticket. Some of the more interesting modes that he experienced include the storied Darjeeling-Himalaya Railway; an elephant; an oxcart in Nepal with a stop in the river Koshi so the driver could wash his ox; and a Philippine freighter.
Most surprising, Stoever figured out how to fly for free through much of the Far East, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. One of his hitchhiked rides came from an Air Force officer who dropped him off within the Ubon Air Force base in Thailand. Stoever told a dispatcher there that he worked for the International Voluntary Service as a freelance war correspondent and convinced him to write orders to fly him to Tan Son Nhut, the capital of South Vietnam now renamed Ho Chi Minh Airport. At the time, the Vietnam war was raging and though Stoever knew that traveling through a war zone was unsafe, he figured this might be the only time to see firsthand what one looked like.
Touring the sights of Saigon, he then flew to An Khe, Vietnam. When a lieutenant colonel doubted his story, Stoever was thrown off the base for entering it under false pretenses. He says, “I was terrified… What am I going to do? I can’t sneak back onto the base. And I’m thinking, 300 yards away, there could be some Vietcong sniper.” As luck would have it, an army truck stopped and ferried Stoever for the five-hour trip to Saigon.
Writing to his parents about this particular adventure, his father sent him a tersely-worded missive saying, “We thought you had more sense than that.”
Not one to be deterred, Stoever succeeded in getting more flight orders written and hopped planes from one air force base to the next. This allowed him to travel extensively throughout the Far East.
Whenever Stoever found himself in a new city he had to rely on word of mouth to find cheap and safe lodging as well as food. Switching countries meant changing money into the local currency and he became a pro at understanding how the black market operated in order to save money and adhere to his strict budget. Finding banks that would cash his traveler’s checks could be difficult and sometimes required days for the checks to clear, but he always managed to squeeze by.
Although Stoever connected with many people during his treks, he mostly traveled solo. He admits to being lonely, saying, “There were times when I didn’t talk to another person for like three days.” But the educational aspects and the thrill of new experiences outweighed the loneliness. He loved seeing the temples and mosques, ancient tombs, historical sites, and cultural institutions, but even for a dedicated traveler it could be overwhelming. Remember: he had no guidebooks, he often faced language barriers, and there was no internet to consult.
Still, when his 18 months were up, he says, “Given the choice, I would’ve rather spent another year traveling around the world, rather than going to law school. But I think you’ve got to grow up at some point. And here I am 27 years old. And it’s time that I settled down to a profession.”
Stoever flew home and spent a few weeks with his parents before setting off to Harvard Law School. He practiced for a year, but it turned out that a career in law didn’t suit him, so he went on to earn his M.B.A. and his Ph.D. in international business and enjoyed a satisfying career teaching at the college level. He also continued to travel around the world, sharing his love of adventure with his first wife (she has since passed away) and two daughters. He counts the number of countries he’s visited at 108.
Stoever is not done chronicling his travel or other aspects of his life. He says he has five books in the works, all at different stages, and looks forward to sharing them with readers. His books can be found at amazon.com.
Ellen Donker admits to cabin fever and although she is not interested in low-end traveling at this point in her life, she can’t wait to schedule her next adventure fully vaccinated.