Interview with Angela Ballard

INTERVIEW WITH TWO NOMADS

Michael & Angela Ballard

A travel couple currently on a year-long trip around the world, and the faces behind We Married Adventure, Angela and Michael talk to us today about their global endeavours.

On a driving loop around the United Kingdom, we stopped at the Durdle Door in Dorset, England, and spent an afternoon enjoying the Jurassic Coast.

Tell us something about yourselves before you met, and before you became travellers.

Mike: Travel was there from the beginning of our relationship. Angela is a list maker. On one of our early dates, she asked where I would most like to travel in the world. “Give me your top ten,” she said. Then, to my surprise, she started writing them down on a bar napkin. She reciprocated by giving me her own top ten, and I think I fell in love right there.

When I asked her to marry me, she responded, “Yes! But only if you promise to take me to Morocco for our fifth anniversary.” Done, and done.
 
And she still has the original napkin! It was our NomadMania before there was a NomadMania.
Mike, Zack, and Ben in the hills of Lonavala, India, with Suriya, our driver for the week we spent in Mumbai.
You are from Tennessee. How has that shaped your characters and how do you believe you became addicted to travel?

Angela: I grew up in Tennessee, but I was born in California. My father was in the Navy, which he was enticed to join as a high schooler after seeing the “Join the Navy, See the World” campaign  Our family traveled every summer for his active duty training, and we looked forward to it each year. My parents still travel with us occasionally, most recently on a tour of eastern Australia where we visited Sydney, Brisbane, Cairns, Melbourne, and the Mornington Peninsula. 
 
Mike: Although I was born in Tennessee and my childhood travels ranged only as far as the gulf coast of Florida, that all changed when my dad started working in Saudi Arabia during my adolescent years. Overnight, I found myself visiting places like Amsterdam, Kenya, and Hong Kong during trips to and from Saudi.

My worldview multiplied a hundredfold and, along with it, my self-confidence. Formerly shy, I parlayed travel into high-school popularity, then collegiate achievement, turning my love for the geography, history, and culture of the world into my career as a teacher of those very things that I loved so much.

And, now that I’m approaching retirement, I find that my early love of travel hasn’t diminished one bit. If anything, the thirst for travel has grown into something I hope to do fulltime.
 

 While in Tunisia, Mike surprised Angela with a visit to Ras Angela, the northernmost point on the African continent.
And tells us of some unknown gems of your part of the world which you feel people should know about.
Angela: We live in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is in the southeastern United States about two hours from Atlanta and two hours from Nashville. When we’re traveling, we find that lots of people around the world know the song “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” and even more people know Jack Daniel’s whiskey, which is made in Tennessee not too far from where Mike grew up. 
 
Chattanooga is the only city to ever win Outside magazine’s “Best Town Ever” contest twice, and the New York Times named it one of their 52 places to visit around the world in 2018. There are lots of things to do in the Scenic City — we wrote an article on our website with some of our favorite suggestions — including world-class whitewater rafting, hang gliding, kayaking, and hiking, as well as a great live music scene. There’s also the Tennessee Aquarium, where we volunteer as scuba divers when we’re in town. 
 
We’re also just down the road from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Congaree National Park, Hot Springs National Park, and Mammoth Cave National Park, four of America’s 58 national parks. From Chattanooga, you can reach the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean in a 6.5-hour drive, and you can be in Washington, D.C. or Canada in 9.5 hours. In America, we drive everywhere, and it’s nothing for us to do that in a day.
Mike and Zack on a guys’ trip to the Outer Banks, a group of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, USA.

Now, turning to travel - you two always go it together. What are the good and bad points of this according to you?

Angela: Actually, we don’t always travel together. Mike went to the Bahamas this year with our youngest son for a guys’ dive trip, which he takes every year, and I have been to China, France, Thailand, and Morocco on my own. However, we love traveling together, and that’s our favorite way to do it. 
 
We’re planning to move outside the United States in the next couple of years, so it was important for us to take this around-the-world trip together so we can find our next home. Being together 24 hours a day, seven days a week for one year straight is wonderful and a lot of fun, but it’s important for us to each have some alone time occasionally to process everything we’re experiencing. It can be a bit overwhelming sometimes!

Do you feel that travelling has changed you? What experiences have (re)shaped your view of the world? 

Mike: When we embarked on this trip around the world, I kept telling Angela that there are two unequivocal truths.
 
First of all, control is an illusion. Even with the most meticulous plans, travel on this scale will often throw you a curveball. Flights will be missed. Communications will fail. Accommodations will be unbearable. Reality will often fall short of expectations, because expectations are almost always built on fantasy. To relinquish control. To greet each new location, challenge, or setback with fresh, almost naïve, positivity. To welcome what comes, no matter what that may be. That is both the goal of travel and the life force on which travelers thrive.
 
Second, a trip such as this changes you, whether you want it to or not. Travel and change are inseparable. They are, in fact, synonymous. And that change, in and of itself, doesn’t carry with it a positive or a negative connotation. It simply is. And all that is required of us is to accept that change and to somehow fit it into the workaday lives that we lead in the real world.
 
With travel and change comes an inevitable reshaping of one’s world view. It’s cliché to say that the world is a lot smaller than we realized, but that’s the truth. The more we travel, the more connected the world feels. Universal similarities tend to reveal themselves, and differences become diminished. Life and death, love for family and community, a need for safety and comfort, hope for a future. It’s all a shared dream, and I am fundamentally no different than any stranger I may meet anywhere in the world.
 
And, speaking of death, we’ve witnessed a few grim surprises that have served to shape our perspective. In Saudi Arabia, I attended a public beheading in the 1980s. In Cordoba, Spain, the man in the deli line in front of us dropped dead from a heart attack. In Beirut, Lebanon, we saw a drowned girl dragged out of the sea. We were in Ataturk airport two weeks before the bombing in 2016, and we were in Petra, Jordan, just a few days before the flash floods that killed 11 people this November.
 
But there has also been reaffirming life, greeting us with surprises around the world. We walked out of a café in rural France just as the Tour de France unexpectedly streamed by. In Brussels, we stumbled into the homecoming celebration for the Belgium world cup team and danced in the streets like we were locals. We have dived with dolphins in Belize and with whales in the Persian Gulf. We have witnessed the unexpected kindness of strangers. And we have found friends that we could not now do without.
 
Good or bad, the unexpected adventures of travel are what make for the best stories. And isn’t that really what we’re all looking for – an engaging story to share with others?

Mike aboard the tender headed to a dive site on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. We made some terrific friends on this trip who live all over the world and who we meet up with whenever we can.
Of the places you have been to, which ones have been a positive and/or a negative surprise?

Angela: I like to call Mike the Chief Adventure Planner, which means I seldom know where we are going next. So everything is a surprise to me. All the time!
 
Mike: Full disclosure, I’m still desperately trying to fall in love with Italy. It seems like every traveler I know counts Italy among his or her top places in the world, and I just don’t get the appeal. Even as a history guy who loves all things Roman, the country itself has always been a letdown. And it’s not for lack of trying. I’ve now visited Italy five times and seen over half of the regions, but I’m still waiting for lightning to strike. I’m already planning a future month-long driving loop of the country. If that doesn’t do it, I may have to resign myself to non-Italophile status.
 
Grindelwald, Switzerland, has held a special place in my heart since I first visited in the winter of 1983. But it’s devolved into an overpriced tourist trap now. I took Angela and our younger son, Ben, to Grindelwald during this trip around the world and found myself apologizing for selling it so hard to them. Unfortunately, it was a disappointment of epic proportions this time around.
 
As far as being positively surprised by a place, how much time do you have?
 
I absolutely loved everything about Slovakia and the Czech Republic, especially the sleepy little villages no one ever visits. The whole town gathers in the evenings at the central square to drink and laugh at sidewalk cafés. Like British pubs but, somehow, even more inviting.
 
Madeira and the Azores are tied for awesomeness in my book. I could easily spend my golden years hopping back and forth between those two gorgeous Portuguese territories, diving, hiking, and watching the bees pollinate the flowers.
 
I didn’t think any place could be more beautiful than Malindi, Kenya, but the eastern coast of Zanzibar set a new standard for me. Wonderful people, great diving, and dramatic tides make this my new favorite beach destination.
 
Honorable mentions would have to include the Musandam peninsula of Oman, Faroe Islands, and the Chobe/Zambezi River areas of Botswana and Zambia. Stunning landscapes, welcoming people, and the ease with which one can simply escape from everything and enjoy a night full of stars.
 
And Bonaire. We both still dream about returning to Bonaire.

The diving in Bonaire is some of the best in the world, and it’s at the top of our list for a return trip.

You are active online and have a super website too. What are the challenges and rewards of maintaining this, and what are your aims with this project?

Angela: We originally began We Married Adventure as a way to share our travels with friends, who often asked us for recommendations on what to see and do on their own travels to places we’d already visited. As we grew the site, our audience grew, too; we've now had tens of thousands of visitors from 137 different countries.
 
Personally, the site serves as a marvelous journal of all the places we’ve been, the things we’ve experienced, and the wonderful people we’ve met. Professionally, we’ve had the opportunity to share our writing and photography through several magazines and websites, and we’d love to be able to turn travel into our full-time business. We’re working to make that happen. 
What do your family and friends think of all your roaming?

Angela: When our boys were younger, we didn’t give them gifts for birthdays or holidays. Instead, we gave them experiences. As a family, we’ve traveled all over North America and to India, Turkey, Greece, Iceland, and Egypt. Our younger son, Ben (who has his own Nomad Mania profile), traveled with us for the first two months of our around-the-world adventure, and he’s currently studying in South Korea. Our older son, Zack, is in the U.S. Army and stationed in Hawaii, so he’s having his own adventures as well.
 
My mother and I are both Master Gardeners, and we take an annual girls’ trip to visit botanical gardens in different locales; this year, it was the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival at Disney World. And I added a father-daughter trip to Phoenix, Arizona, this year as well.
 
We also have a group of friends who we meet for a dive trip in a different country every year. And as we’ve traveled, we’ve made some very good friends who we meet up with around the world, like our friend Edgar, who we met diving in Australia and who plans to join us in Antarctica in March. 

Mike sharing a pint with our new friends George and Morris in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland. We had some of the best laughs we’ve ever had at some of the worst jokes we’ve ever heard.
So what are your travel plans for early 2019?

Mike: Well, we are now seven months into this year-long adventure to circumnavigate the globe. So the start of 2019 will have us wrapping up the last five months of this current trip.
 
You may notice a glaring lack of Asia, Oceania, and South America in our previous answers. That’s because, as of this writing, we still haven’t seen much of those regions. Although on previous trips we have traveled to Thailand, India, and Australia, much of the eastern hemisphere is still unexplored for us. And we have yet to step foot on the continent of South America. But that’s about to change.
 
We are currently in China, with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Philippines in our immediate future. Then we will spend a month exploring Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, with a focus on Borneo. After quick stops in Timor-Leste, Tasmania, and New Zealand, we will linger a while in Hawaii to visit our older son, Zack.
 
Then it’s on to South America where we will spend a week driving in Uruguay before flying to Ushuaia, Argentina, to begin our cruise to Antarctica. After that, the future is unplanned. We will assess our energy levels and bank accounts to determine where we will venture and how long we will take to meander our way back to Chattanooga, Tennessee. We’re already planning to meet up with our regular dive buddies somewhere in Central America or the Caribbean, but haven’t picked a time or place yet.
 
After that, we estimate that we will still have time for one more big trip during 2019. Perhaps a road trip to the northwest of the United States and Canada. Maybe a coastal trip to west Africa, or a long train ride on the Trans-Siberian railway. Those are currently the top three contenders, at any rate.

Mike and Ben with our friends Manwar and Moutasm, two Syrian brothers who welcomed us into their home in Turkey in 2015. They’re now living in Marseilles, France, where we met them for dinner this summer.
Finally, our signature question - and you get to answer it twice, once for each one of you. If you could invite four people to dinner from any period in history, who would you invite and why?
Angela: I would love to dine with Agatha Christie, Anthony Bourdain, Michelle Obama, and Michael Palin. While I adore Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, I’d love to hear more of her travel tales like she shared in Come, Tell Me How You Live about her time spent on an archaeological dig in Syria with her husband. As an avid home chef and food lover, I’d be delighted for Anthony Bourdain to choose the restaurant and order the meal while he shared stories of his favorite foods from around the world. Michelle Obama has traveled to some wonderful places with her daughters, including Morocco, Spain, and Liberia, and I’d love to hear her thoughts about travel for women and families. And combining Michael Palin’s Monty Python humor with his experience as one of the world’s best-traveled people would certainly keep the conversation entertaining!
 
Mike: I’m assuming that Angela is cooking, because that’s what she does any time we host a dinner party! I would invite Herodotus, Julius Caesar, Douglas Adams, and Mahatma Gandhi.
 
Herodotus is the original, consummate storyteller and an early world traveler. He paints a picture with words, and I think he could regale the group with descriptions of civilization at its dawning. Caesar was also a world traveler, although he was mostly traveling to conquer and subjugate it. Still, he’s one of my favorite historical figures, and I love a good war story. Plus, it would be interesting to watch those two spar over the merits of Greek versus Roman civilization.
 
Douglas Adams has long been my favorite author, and not just for the iconic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One of my favorite books is Last Chance to See, where Adams travels the world to find critically endangered animals and tell their stories before they are gone. His ability to combine poignant sadness with a call to action and still make the whole thing funny is, in my opinion, a very rare gift. I wish I could write like him.
 
Plus, Adams would probably make fun of Hero and JC (we’re on nickname-terms now) the entire time. Every party needs a bit of levity.
 
Gandhi would be there to keep things from getting out of hand. Every party also needs a bouncer. Someone to keep the peace. And he wouldn’t really have to do or say anything. Just sit there all peaceful and patient. Because arguing in front of Gandhi would be…uncomfortable.
In Barcelona, Spain, we took a cooking class to learn to make paella and shopped for fresh ingredients at La Boqueria, the famous La Rambla food market.
The photos in this interview are from Angela and Mike's personal collection and we thank them for sharing their images with us here at NomadMania!