A traveler comes home

Alex Ben David is back on the Vineyard, for now.

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Surfing in Western Australia. — Photo courtesy of Rene Ben David

“I chose not to go to college,” said Alex Ben David recently while seated at the counter in his family’s comfortable Oak Bluffs kitchen. The 22-year-old graduate (2011) of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School recounted adventures from a couple of years of traveling. “This was just as good as college for me. It was easier for me to go out and see things and do things hands-on than to sit in a classroom.”

Sounds like it. In the past few years, Alex has dived with sharks, jumped from the world’s highest bungee jump, walked cheetahs, and surfed at spots around the globe.

“Now,” he said, “I feel like I can conquer anything. It gave me much more confidence in myself as a person, and in life in general.”

Alex grew up in Oak Bluffs with his parents and older sister Krista, who is in graduate school in Maine to become a physician’s assistant.
Like most Vineyard youngsters, he grew up outdoors, enjoying beaches, surfing, hiking, and fishing — especially the Derby. He played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse.

From the time he was 8 through his teens, Alex traveled around the region racing on the New England Motocross Association (NEMA) circuit. If asked, he’ll say that he can trace his daredevil tendencies back to the many motocross races he attended with his dad when he was very young.

After he graduated in 2011, Alex went to work for Vineyard Power Washing. His boss, the business owner Randy Walpole, became a mentor. He said feels lucky to have a friendship with Mr. Walpole, who inspired him to travel, and supported him the whole way. Because the power washing business slows in cold weather, he could work steadily in warmer months, save up, and travel in the off-season. For Alex, as for many young people here, the hard summer work would buy winter freedom and adventure.

With guidance from a close family friend living in Johannesburg, he planned a winter journey through South Africa, the first of two extensive, eye-opening trips. At night, to earn extra cash, Alex shucked oysters at the Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Co., and in January 2014, Alex, then 20, flew to Johannesburg.

His parents, Rene and Mary (Mel) Ben David, both admitted that although they trusted their son’s ability to travel safely and handle new situations, they were uneasy during his stay in Johannesburg, an extremely dangerous city.

Both parents are supportive of the way Alex found to explore the world. Both admit they would find it daunting to travel like he has and do what he has done.

“That boy has no fear,” said Mr. Ben David admiringly.

Alex traveled to Cape Town on the BAZ bus, a boon to backpackers, featuring affordable fares and “hop-on, hop-off” flexibility for spontaneous stops.

He stopped at Jay Bay for the renowned surfing, and leaped into thin air and fell 216 meters at the world’s highest bungee jump. He dove, in 40° water, in a shark cage; and fed and walked cheetahs at the Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre near Plettenberg Bay.

Alex arrived at Cape Town after some 20 stops, and settled into the city’s largest hostel, luxuriously appointed though modestly priced.

He met people, went skydiving from 9,000 feet in the air, and on safari, saw jungle animals in the wild. Then it was back to Johannesburg, and a camping trip with his friend before heading home.

Spring was coming. Alex returned to work with Vineyard Power Washing and immediately began planning his next trip.

“It slowly got bigger and bigger as I thought about it,” Alex laughed. “I wanted to do Southeast Asia, see some amazing beaches, do some crazy activities. Pretty much top my other trip.”

After another season of working hard, putting money away, and planning, the young traveler was on his way again.

On Dec. 27, Alex flex to Bangkok, where he watched the fireworks as 2015 dawned. During part of the Thailand trip he traveled with Johnny Nichols, whom he’d met on the Vineyard, but mostly was on his own.

After a few days exploring small islands on the coast, where he learned to dive, he flew to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

He saw the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, learned about the country by talking with locals, visited Angkor Wat, the world’s largest temple, and toured many other temples.

There was culture shock when he realized how inexpensive living was, that the average Cambodian earns $3 per day. Hostels were $4 or $5 a night. And there was camaraderie when he joined with a band of local youths on a soccer team, playing together under the lights every night: “I became part of them, they were my friends.”

A moving high point was visiting the Vineyard School in Siem Reap, Cambodia, established by Oak Bluffs Harbormaster Todd Alexander in 2008. [For more on Mr. Alexander’s project, read the story here. Alex was thrilled to meet the students.

“They were so proud, and some of the happiest kids I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “They are blessed to actually participate in school, seeing how many kids there are on the street. They treated me like royalty because of how good Todd was,” Alex added with a chuckle.

Next stop was Vietnam. He talked with local people, toured Ho Chi Minh City, and visited sites including the Cu Chi Tunnels, where Vietnamese went to escape Americans in wartime. He flew to Hanoi. Although he had learned about Vietnam and the war in the past at home, this was different.

“But you don’t know until you go. You have no understanding until you see it face to face,” Alex said. “I learned it from our side, and their side. Their side made it sound a lot worse. It’s a lot different hearing it from the Vietnamese perspective.”

From sobering history to lighthearted adventure, Alex visited a private island in Halong Bay, spent his days kayaking, and even learned to cook Vietnamese dishes, then took off for the Indonesian islands of Bali, Lombok, and Gili Trawangan for “the have-fun part of the trip.”

In Bali he bought a surfboard, aiming to improve his skill. Young locals showed him beautiful surf spots. He traveled with new friends to Lombok, where they rented mopeds, fished, and surfed every day.

On idyllic Gili Trawangan Alex took a course to advance his diving skills, executed many dives, and “lived like a local.”

Meanwhile, a woman he’d met on the Vineyard suggested he meet her in Australia. Not one to turn down a new opportunity, Alex quickly bought his plane ticket.

He traveled with her and some friends through Western Australia, along the scenic Coral Coast from Perth to Exmouth. He saw natural wonders from national parks to lovely beaches, dolphins swimming, and the rarely encountered sawshark. They snorkeled, surfed, toured vineyards, and he completed a dive at the famous Navy Pier, considered the eighth top dive site in the world.

Alex said that by journey’s end he knew he had met a lifelong friend in his Australian traveling companion, and he is looking forward to her visiting him here.

Alex was back on the job within days of returning to the Vineyard, busy with the demand for power washing that springtime brings.

“I’m just living in the present right now, day to day, and working,” he said.

Alex reflected on challenges he’d encountered, lessons learned, and confidence gained. He had to accustom himself to exchange rates and currency in each country, eat exotic and unfamiliar foods, figure out where to find transportation, how to get around.

“I really had to fend for myself,” he said.

Although he planned his travel at home, he did not book much of his transportation, lodging, and side trips ahead.

“I did it on the go; that’s the way to do it,” Alex said. “People will give you insight on what’s best, then you go from there.”

“Traveling gives you such a new light on life,” he said. “You become more open to the people at home. You learn so many life lessons and meet so many people. It’s literally college on the road.”

Tips from a savvy traveler

Alex Ben David’s Southeast Asia trip cost about $13,000, which, although not cheap, included everything he wanted.

“I did a lot more than the budget traveler would do,” he said. “I worked and I saved so I could go all-out.”

Much of his costs were for airfare, to and from Thailand and some 20 shorter flights within the areas he visited. His spending for accommodations, food, and incidentals was very modest, $30 to $65 a day. Hostels ranged from $4 to $20 at most. He spent up to $30 on meals, explaining that he chooses to eat well while traveling.

“If you budget you can still make it work. You can travel and see things, but you have to pick and choose wisely.”

Economy-minded travelers can find good deals on accommodations like Alex did by visiting hostelworld.com, listing a range of hostels and modestly priced hotels.

Good, inexpensive food is available from prevalent street vendors, Alex said. But don’t pay the asking price.

“You really have to haggle! Stay firm on what you want to pay.”

When hiring a taxi, be sure to ask the rate and agree on a price before climbing in, or you may be shocked at the high bill when reaching your destination.

When a taxi driver grabbed Alex’s bags, then demanded a big tip, he learned to never let someone take his belongings or perform a service without knowing the cost.

“There are a lot of free things too,” Alex said. Exploring, hiking, and many attractions have no price tag. “Locals will take you in,” he added, and may invite travelers to a meal or activity.

Alex stressed the importance of relying on the experiences of fellow travelers one meets in hostels and on the road, for guidelines about fair prices, safe travel tips, good places to visit, and those to avoid. He said the solo traveler need not fear isolation.

“When you go there you’re never alone,” he said. “You always have people to meet who point you in the right direction and give you good advice.”

He quickly learned the wisdom of carrying his money and passport with him in a fanny pack under his clothing after a youngster in South Africa reached in his pocket and grabbed his cash. Carry your passport at all times rather than leaving it locked at the hostel, he advised.

And finally, carry a pen.

“You’re always filling out forms,” Alex said. “A pen is one of the most handy things.”