Kristen Ankeny hung out at rodeos and took tractor driving classes in the rural community where she grew up in Oregon. As a teenager, she lived on a large ranch with her brother and her parents. In their farming world, taking a trip to another country was not on the radar screen.
“Traveling was not something that was even fathomable. You didn’t leave the ranch since you had cows and sheep to feed,” Kristen said.
That changed for Kristen in 2006. That year she stumbled upon the Rustic Pathways website. Kristen decided she wanted to go to Thailand and just had to convince her parents.
She doesn’t know what their thought process may have been, but her parents undoubtedly were somewhat skeptical. Kristen says back then it wasn’t common for high schoolers to head to other countries for summer programs.
“I think you had to be a little bit off your rocker to go and do something like that at that age,” Kristen said.
Still her parents rolled with the punches and went to the Los Angeles airport for departure to make sure the program seemed safe. They were reassured by what they saw, so Kristen headed out across the world to a place very different than anything she’d ever seen in her rural community.
“To see places like Bangkok and Chiang Mai was just mind blowing – to see how fast these cities are and to see that many people in one spot,” Kristen said. “But then we’d go out to a floating village, and you’d see families in a 10-by-10 hut with four kids on the front porch, and they’re getting in their canoe to go to town. It was just so different.”
Kristen embraced the opportunity to explore the culture and way of life as the students traveled throughout Thailand. In certain ways, that Rustic journey varied from it’s like now, but in other ways it was remarkably similar.
Comparing Then and Now – How Programs Have Changed
Kristen says there didn’t seem to be much of a planned itinerary once she got to Thailand. It was much more freewheeling than today.
“We had our guide and a van, and he just took us everywhere. Where we stopped seemed like it was definitely up to him,” Kristen said. “At one point we were driving, and he said there’s a really cool waterfall here. So we’re all just in regular clothes, and we hiked up, jumped in and had an absolute blast. When you’re 16 you don’t care if you’re wet and sweaty getting back into the car. We just got in the car and kept driving.”
The students also had to be pretty flexible in terms of where they stayed, what hours they kept and how long they were on the road. In 2006 they drove everywhere, being in the bus for as long as 20 hours. Today the students fly more within the country to avoid long drives.
The accommodations today also are geared for the students in each session. In 2006, at one point Kristen’s group stayed in an open air loft with about 40 students from other programs.
“We all met up there, and we played games, and it was in a rice field, so we learned how the rice has grown and cultivated. We stayed in that place for a night or two with all of those kids. That was really cool,” Kristen said.
While there the students also played a trivia game where if you got a question wrong you had to eat a fried cricket. Some students today still get this opportunity to try eating insects. But the itinerary and menu are more carefully planned.
One similarity though are homestays. In 2006, the students did a number of homestays similar to what our Come with Nothing students experience now. Both in the past and the present, the hospitality of the local residents in Thailand during these stays always stands out.
“They were just so generous and wanted us to be there. It felt like they were offering us anything and everything,” Kristen said.
While in these villages, another similarity is the service provided. Kristen said they did volunteer work throughout the program, including language exchanges with the kids and infrastructure projects like re-thatching roofs. Like today, the projects depended on local requests.
“It was based on whatever each little village needed. The local guide would take us to these spots and tell us what they needed, and that’s what we did,” Kristen said. “We were very busy the whole time.”
While they were on this journey one major difference from today is that the students weren’t in contact with home since they didn’t have working cell phones. Because of that, Kristen says her parents really did not know what she was doing.
“I didn’t talk to them. I think I called them from one of the airports when we were traveling at some point and checked in with them. But when I got back they were at a dinner party with some of our neighbors and my mom says, ‘This is Kristen, and she was just in Taiwan.’ And I laughed and responded, ‘No, I was not!’”
Still her parents could definitely appreciate how Kristen came home with a newfound perspective on the wider world.
Lessons That Last a Lifetime
Kristen returned home with a desire to travel and a new appreciation for all the benefits she had in her life. Living on a ranch, she was accustomed to outdoor living, but life in Thailand was very different from home.
“You’d be in a house with no doors and dirt floors, and you come to realize how adaptable people are. That’s their life, and you see you can absolutely thrive in that environment. And there’s no complaining,” Kristen said.
After her Rustic trip Kristen had a strong desire to keep traveling. So she set her sights on future journeys.
“It was just such a positive, cool trip that I wanted to do that again. I’d like to do that again 10 times over again,” Kristen said.
When she completed high school, she did just that. After saving money by working, she headed south traveling through Mexico and Central America for two years. She stayed and worked at hostels, allowing her explorations to continue for months on end.
Some time after returning to the states, Kristen opened a day spa called Glo-Spa that she still runs today in rural Oregon. Being a business owner gives her some flexibility to make her own schedule and continue to travel. She regularly visits countries in the Americas, most recently traveling to Mexico and Peru.
Wherever she goes, Kristen says she continues to travel Rustic-style, avoiding resorts and taking the time to see how people really live. To this day, this type of travel has helped her keep a healthy perspective. And it has continually reminded her of all the gifts she has in her life.
“I’m just so appreciative every single day that I have a flushing toilet, and I have lights to turn on. I get to go to a job and freely make money. I go to a house that doesn’t have a hole in the roof and travel on vacation and do what I want to do. Those are all privileges that we absolutely lose sight of… Unless you go see that for yourself. You have no idea how privileged we are.”