Meet the new Wheel advisor, part II

On top of all the writing, Jill Jepson is also a world traveler. In her 20s, she backpacked around the world for four years through Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan. She has lived in Japan, China and India, and has been all over Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Central America. Read on to find out about her adventures in detail!

Libbie Mitchell: “What drew you to traveling? What inspired you to travel?”

Jill Jepson: “I longed to travel even when I was a little kid. I think a lot of it came from a place of feeling sort of out of place in my community. Feeling like I sort of didn’t belong. There was a kind of dullness to life. I grew up in a small town, in the 50s, which was the most boring decade in history. Conformity was the rule of the day and I didn’t feel like I fit in, even though I didn’t have any extreme reason not to. I mean for a kid who was gay or transgender in those days, it would have been impossible. For a kid who was in a different minority or group, it was difficult too. I wasn’t, but I still felt out of place. I was very creative and creativity was not valued; conformity was. I just wanted to break-out. Even when I was just four years old, I would write stories about going on trips. So as soon as I was old enough to travel, I just took off. And I wanted to see as many places in the world as I could.”

LM: “What made you decide to go to Japan right after college?”

JJ: “I had an interest in Asian culture and I wanted to learn an Asian language, like Chinese or Japanese. You couldn’t go to China at that time at all, so I chose Japan. Honestly, I could have just picked a place out of the hat because I wanted to go everywhere! My school had an excellent study abroad program and I went over initially as a first-year grad student in a study abroad program. Then I stayed a year beyond that and worked.”

LM: “Where did you work?”

JJ: *Awkward laugh* “I worked as a model.”

LM: “Really?!”

JJ: “Yeah! I was very young. I’m not very tall but in Japan I was, and they didn’t care! I don’t know how it is in Japan now, but in those days they had a real fascinating with Caucasian looks; it was quite overvalued. You know, the blonde, blue-eyed look- there weren’t many people with that coloring around, so I got by on that. I did for about a year- an unpleasant year.”

LM: “Unpleasant?”

JJ: “Well, you know, it’s not a very fulfilling thing to do. It’s really sexist, and I interacted with a lot of sleazy people. It was just not something I would have wanted to continue doing. It was an interesting experience, though.”

LM: “What did you enjoy about living in India and Japan?”

JJ: “I would say of the two I enjoyed India a lot more. When I went to China, it was in 1983. At that time China was just beginning to open up, but they were very cautious about foreigners. So foreigners were all housed in one area in a place called ‘The Friendship Hotel.’ You couldn’t live anywhere else as a foreigner, which made it hard even to interact with Chinese people. I never really felt like I was a part of the culture.

“In India, on the other hand, I went to India by just walking across the border, legally, and took a rickety old bus to a city. In India, there are no restrictions. Everyone you interact with is Indian; they are all very friendly and want to communicate with you. And so you can be in the culture. China in those days was just this sea of Mao jackets that everyone wore. But India…has to be the strangest place I’ve ever been, as well as the most chaotic place. It also had the most variety I had ever seen. You see things there on a daily basis that you don’t see anywhere else. It’s an exhausting place to be; It’s so noisy, crowded and full of sensory stimuli. It can also be an awful place; you confront a lot of poverty and a lot of horrible things you don’t want to see,especially then. But it was never dull. Not even for one second. In fact, by the time I left, I was like, ‘Get me out of here.’ I was so emotionally exhausted, but you felt like you were just changed forever.”

LM: “Tell me about your experience when backpacking. What did you enjoy and not enjoy?”

JJ: “When I saw backpacking, I don’t mean hiking in the mountains. I loved the kind of freeness of it. When I went to Istanbul, I had no idea how I was going to get to India. No idea. Now when I go on a trip, I know what I’m going to do, where my reservations are, etc. But when I was backpacking, I would just get off the train, and say, ‘Well, where can I find a cheap hotel.’ And there was always a way I could find places. I always met other young travelers to connect with. I liked living on the edge- riding to a place, not knowing where I was going to stay or how I was going to get from point A to point B. It was exciting! It forced me to talk to people, get to know people and to get in touch with the place I was at. When I got to Afghanistan, for example, I was on a bus and we arrived in Kabul, and I hooked up with a woman and a guy that were on the bus, and we were hanging out together. We couldn’t find a place in Kabul- everywhere was full- so we were just planning on putting out sleeping bags on the pavement. The police came by and said “You can’t sleep here, it’s dangerous. We won’t let you. ‘ And we said, ‘Well, we can’t find a place to stay.’ And so they said, ‘Come with us, you can sleep in the jail.’ So we spent the night in an Afghanistan jail in Kabul. And I’m telling you, a jail in Afghanistan is like a dungeon. And as we throw our sleeping bags in this earthen cell with a tiny little window at the top [and] I think, ‘I hope my parents hear about this someday.’ Because those policemen could have just kept us there, you know. But they didn’t, they just offered us tea the next morning and said goodbye with a ‘Don’t stay on the street!’ So just having to find a way to things that was exciting. I wouldn’t want to do it now, but it was exciting.”

Jill in Dubrovnik, taken by her husband, John Beyer.

Jill in Dubrovnik, taken by her husband, John Beyer.

LM: “How did your love of languages influence your travels?”

JJ: “Well, I believe language is fluid and spontaneous, and not this rigid, set in stone thing that people think. I think that’s one of the things I discovered. With a mixture of English, French, Turkish, and a lot of other languages, you can communicate almost anything. I remember, for example, when I was in Turkey camping. We were camping by the sea and these Turkish soldiers came over, just sitting by the fire. They didn’t speak any English, but they said a word that sounded like the word for ‘map’ in Hindi. And my knowledge of language is that all these languages in the Middle East from Turkey through India through Iran and so on are all vastly influenced by Arabic. And so the Hindi word for ‘map’ is from Arabic. I thought, ‘They’re saying map in Turkish. They want to see where we are on this map.’ I told that to my friends, and they just said, ‘Nah, that’s not what they’re saying.’ I said, ‘Ah, yes it is!’ So I went and got a map and when I brought it back, the soldiers went, ‘Yes, yes!’ It turned out they had wanted to see where we had come from. A lot of those types of situations happened; there is a word here or there that I happen to know in another language. That for me influenced how I thought about language.”

Jill in front of the Plitvice lakes, also taken by her husband, John Beyer.

Jill in front of the Plitvice lakes, also taken by her husband, John Beyer.

LM:“How did traveling change your life?”

JJ: “Traveling has infused everything in my life. I think it has changed everything. It’s changed the way I relate to people. It’s changed the way I think about political issues. It’s changed the way I think about spirituality. It’s changed the way I think about my living space. For example, I’m perpetually aware of the fact that in the United States, I’m maybe slightly upper middle-class. In the world as a whole, I’m super rich. When you live in India, you see million and millions of people living in conditions that are so far below what I live in as a middle-class American. I know that most Americans have their nice house, two cars, and their nice luxuries. They probably think, ‘Oh, I’m doing pretty well.’ They don’t realize they aren’t just doing well, they are incredibly rich. They are billionaires compared to the way most people live. I always have that awareness. I’m always thinking about that if those women in India saw how I lived, they would be amazed. And these are people who consider themselves as doing okay. I knew this older couple who had two sons in college, and all four of them lived in a room a little bit bigger than my office. They all slept in the same bed, and she had a two burner stove that she cooked meals on in the same room. And they felt like they were doing okay. So if they saw my big house…that’s one ways it’s affected me. I also think that it’s given me the perspective of viewing myself as a citizen of the world. Of course, I see myself as an American. But in some ways what I am is a citizen of the world. We’re all citizens of the world; we are one giant community, whether we like it or not.”

One thought on “Meet the new Wheel advisor, part II

  1. Hey Libbie.I really liked your interview on Jill.She is amazing that is really showed on his answers.I am also a traveler,as a traveler she didn’t put any bad things on other countries.I am so much inspired after read this interview.Thanks for sharing this with us.