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Shelburne man shares three decades of traveling the world

  • Robert 'Bo' Warren with Momo, Burmese fan-selling girl. —Submitted photo

  • Robert 'Bo' Warren with two children he met in  China. —Submitted photo

  • Robert 'Bo' Warren with a Nepalese child he met near the base camp at Mount Everest. —Submitted photo

  • Robert ‘Bo’ Warren has a world map in his Shelburne home with pushpins marking each of the 187 countries he’s visited. —Richie Davis photo

  • Robert 'Bo' Warren has a world map in his Shelburne home with pushpins marking each of the 187 countries he's visited. —Richie Davis photo



Recorder Staff
Thursday, October 19, 2017

SHELBURNE — Robert “Bo” Warren recalls the power his second-grade teacher, Mrs. Guilmette, held over his imagination as a 7-year-old, as day after day she read to her class about Robinson Crusoe, with “surf crashing on the reef.”

Those images conjured at Athol’s Silver Lake Elementary School each day helped fill his sails years later, setting him off on journeys that would bring him, as a 71-year-old Shelburne resident, to 187 of the world’s 193 countries with dozens of leather-bound journals, thousands of memories and more than 10,000 photos.

For the first time, after 31 years of traveling, Warren was willing to share a sampling — maybe 150 — with an audience at Shelburne-Buckland Community Center on Thursday evening. The event was sponsored by Franklin Land Trust.

The program’s two hours, he acknowledged, provided “so little time, and there’s so much to say. I could talk for eight hours about the smallest country.”

Yet many of the photos, taken with Warren’s 35-millimeter Nikon, spoke volumes about his years of travels, usually three or four months at a time, but in the case of one Asian journey, 15 months.

There’s the photo of Momo, for instance, the 14-year-old girl in northern Burma, her face painted white with mud and wearing a long white dress, holding a blue plastic basket filled with paper fans she was selling.

“At 14 years old, she looked like she was 5, in this little dress running after my oxcart while I was going off to see the largest bell in the world. She could speak seven languages and she wanted to sell me these fans so she could raise money for her teacher. Why? Because her teacher teaches her the languages she needs to talk to people who come to this remote part of Burma, to make money for her family,” explains Warren, whose words pour out of him like a man who’s held onto these compelling stories too long.

He wound up buying all 30 of her fans, and giving them to friends, telling her story to each, as he promised her. She’s now 21, and he keeps in touch with her by email.

“It’s such a personal thing,” says Warren, who’s intent on not coming across as bragging that he’s had the means, time, determination and good health to do so much traveling, but hopes instead for his photos and stories to be uplifting. And yet, “This is not something I ever wanted to share with the world,” he concedes.

The travel began slowly, first as a boy with his family, as two-week vacations around the Northeast and to other Eastern states around the country.

By the time he was in junior high, where he displayed brochures from a Southern trip as part of a school project, Warren had decided he wanted to do a lot of traveling. But it took a guidance counselor just before his high school graduation to convince him, as a senior with poor grades and a love for playing his guitar, that he should go to college and study engineering. It was after nine years at the University of Massachusetts, earning graduate degrees in civil engineering and environmental science, that he set up five firms based on Cape Cod. He learned to sail and took advantage of a business that gave him time to set off and see the world.

Warren paid his way through college playing in rock bands. He began sailing in his 30s, first on his own Beetle Cat, then joining blue-water sailing adventures crossing the ocean, “traveling all over the world on yachts,” given the task of running around the port to pick up provisions to carry back. After crossing the Atlantic a couple of times to the Canary Islands, sailing through the Panama Canal to the Pacific and on to New Zealand on 45-foot boats, he became more interested in going ashore and journaling around the time he turned 40.

“I wanted to go out there, like Darwin,” he says. “I didn’t go out there to change anything or do anything. Just to go to observe, and that’s what I’ve done.”

One of Warren’s objectives was to get to Robinson Crusoe island in the South Pacific, where he could take a photo of his footprint in the sand to enter it in his journal and write a fond remembrance to Mrs. Guilmette, thanking her.

“I tear up when I tell that story,” he says. “Educators have that power. Yes, something touched me.”

Logging his travels

Each of his journals — one for each trip — starts off with a hand-drawn “trip map,” a flow chart. For example, Chicago — London — Crete — Santorini — Cyprus — Lebanon — Tunisia — Libya — Algeria.

The details — how he’ll get from one place to another, where he’ll stay — he leaves to fill in on the road.

“I hit the ground and I walk. I take a bus, I get on a donkey, I get on an ox-cart. Whatever is going that way, I get in it and go. I know the direction I want to go in. I check the places off if I’ve made it.”

The only promise he makes is to write each evening, while the day’s adventures and thoughts are still fresh.

“Of the 32 countries I’m going to, 30 are among the poorest, most dangerous countries in the world,” reads a January 2013 journal entry at the start of an African trip. “I’m so excited that you would think this is the first time I’d ever left home.”

Warren, who was joined by his wife, Cheryl, for the first 10 to 15 years, traveling to roughly 90 countries, decided later that he wanted to travel at a “macro-level” speed that’s difficult enough for one person to maintain, let alone two.

“I travel, literally, with a backpack I bought in Istanbul, a front pack I bought on Everest and a side pack I bought at EMS. ... After three or four months, it gets heavy,” up to 90 pounds, with clothing because he’s moving from one climate to another.

“It was getting much more dicey and dangerous and much harder,” he says, adding that he gets ill on every trip. I’m moving fast. It wears me down. I travel by myself, because what I see is what I want to see.”

Warren describes as unimaginable the experience of traveling in a hot-air balloon over Africa’s Serengeti, as he did with his wife, “while 1 million wildebeests are running below you. And then you land in a field with elephants.”

Although he’s seen all the world’s wonders, manmade and natural, he says, and has been “templed and tombed out for 20 years,” Warren stresses he probably knows less about any particular place than most travelers.

And he adds, “I’ve seen every ruin on Earth, but I don’t find them as exhilarating as the people. It’s the children of the world that I love to see the most. They’re the most unadulterated, purest people, and they all speak English.”

Warren says he cloisters himself for a month after his travels, “because it is quite a shocking change. You’re on the road, traveling through Rwanda and Burundi, Swaziland and Lesotho, seeing people living with squalor and disease, pestilence and famine. I’ve never taken a picture that in the least bit conveyed what I saw. It’s staggering and daunting.”

Especially daunting, for Warren, has been Africa, which despite incredible natural riches, has been exploited by many countries, including the United States, yet, “I’ve never met people that are poorer, that are more giving, more kind, more generous. One man gave me his boots to climb in the national forest. He gave me his boots and he walked in his (bare) feet. … It absolutely humbles you.”

Warren plans to travel this winter to Surinam and French Guyana as part of a trip that will also take him to Colombia, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and to revisit parts of the Caribbean.

“It’s just so where I belong, on the road,” Warren says.

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 269