David Beck is not your typical tourist.
Over several months each year, the 68-year-old Montara resident travels the world to see it through not his eyes but the eyes of those who live there.
He’s coined his own name — “roving anthropologist” — for his evolving process. Typically starting from Frankfurt, Germany, where he once lived, he skips through continents, countries and cultures with no fixed plan beyond spontaneity, a Buddhist-like focus on the present and connecting with the people.
Casual conversation isn’t enough for Beck. Each encounter is a process of unearthing how the people see themselves, their place in their community and their society, their relationships with family to government, and their God.
“It’s become more of an effort to peel away to what they actually experience,” Beck said. “I find I’m becoming more of a student.”
It’s something he prefers to do alone, though he meets up with his wife along the way.
One-on-one, he says, makes it more possible to take people “out of their script,” and “understand what it is to be them, living there,” he said.
Travels and encounters come naturally to Beck. He served in the military during the Vietnam War, living for a while in Germany. He earned a college degree in philosophy which he says didn’t prepare him for a job, so he decided to see the world and returned to Germany to teach.
Later, back in the States, he launched a career in human resources and compensation consulting. In the early 1990s he started compensate.com, focusing on wage and salary administration programs.
He, his wife and their son and daughter had taken family vacations in Europe, Russia and Turkey. After retirement in 2000, he became involved with the Half Moon Bay Bucketeers, a local youth basketball program. But when the kids were grown and gone, and his wife was involved in her work as an events producer, Beck found he needed something to do.
That something became a challenging three-month excursion in 2010 from Estonia to Bulgaria through the Eastern European countries. He started a blog, not to report but say what he saw and felt.
He had “zero logistics” — no detailed itinerary, no formal guides — but “that was my preference.” He did have challenges: “Can I travel on my own? How will it work with my wife? Can I do it?”
By the time he rendezvoused with wife Debra Robins in the Greek Islands, he’d found the answer was yes.
His second trip, last year, took him from Morocco to Japan by way of Europe, Russia, Mongolia, China and the Trans-Siberian Rail. It was more structured because he needed visas and flight plans, but it still enabled his preference for spontaneity.
This year’s trip — his third — started in Romania and took him through Bucharest, Moldavia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, India, Nepal, China, Myanmar, Singapore and more, places he had not visited before.
“He takes a lot of risks,” said Coastside friend Jim Holley. “He sticks his nose into things a wiser tourist wouldn’t.
“He’s not afraid to turn over a rock,” Holley continued. “He doesn’t enter into a situation with predefined feelings. He’s an inquirer.”
When Beck inquired, it was to people he’d met. Clear English wasn’t always a factor in those encounters.
“You’re always unfamiliar with the situation. Do you trust the person or not?” said Beck. “It’s always a gut call.”
There was the taxi driver in Uzbekistan who, when Beck asked to go to a bank to change money, told Beck that he’d be better off to deal with the driver himself. Beck was instantly on alert — until the driver pulled a cash-stuffed shoe box from under his car seat. “It turns out he was absolutely right, and gave me a good deal,” said Beck.
Sometimes what locals had to say was not for public ears. One day in China, Beck spoke with a man who told him he’d been a university student in Beijing until he was caught criticizing the government in an online chat room.
He was arrested, compelled to sign an affidavit swearing he would not criticize the government again and forbidden to travel. He eventually escaped and made his way hundreds of miles by bicycle to another city, where he lived in hiding. When Beck tried to add that story to his own blog, he found it blocked.
His 10 days in Uzbekistan, he said, were “downright spooky.” In reply to probes on how locals felt about their country, “all I got was how wonderful the country is and how great the president is.”
What was Beck’s scariest moment? Being chased by an elephant in a reserve in China. His most profound? Discussing philosophies of life, wisdom and method with a Tibetan Buddhist.
It all has to do with what Beck calls the “narrative” — how a people define themselves and fit in with their environment, and what binds them as a people. Those he talked to sought to impart their own narrative, he said.
Happiness is what Beck finds in his solo travels. “We can’t help learning about our own country by visiting other countries,” he said. “You have to face the ordeal of every day on your own.”
His recommendation? China. “They have modernity equal to our own but different.”
And for himself? “It was a feeling of being suspended in space and time. I didn’t feel 68, I felt 28, full of energy and enthusiasm, like I can’t wait for the next encounter, for the next person I can gain some insight into.”
His travels can be found on bucharesttoyangon.blogspot.com.