“Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost”*
by Cynthia Robinson Photography (top) by Mike Force Photography
Retired college professor Dr. Rebecca Yeomans’ home-base may now be a tidy coastal cottage near historic Fort King George in Darien, but from the kayaks outside, to the artifacts, photos and collection of well-worn passports inside, it’s apparent she is a citizen of the world. Her global travels began shortly after she graduated from college.
“I was inspired by President Kennedy to join the Peace Corps,” said Rebecca, who developed her love for animals and nature growing up on a farm outside of Jesup, GA. “I graduated from college in June, and in July, I was on a plane for my Peace Corps training in Hawaii.”
From Hawaii, Rebecca traveled to the Philippines, where she served for two years teaching science. “We had to write our own projects. Since I’m also interested in anthropology, that first summer I found a hunter/gatherer group, the Agta, the original people of Polillo Island, and I surveyed them.” Her second summer there, she helped establish a Head Start program in a very remote area.
Once a Peace Corps volunteer’s time of service is up, he or she is given a plane ticket home. But Rebecca wasn’t ready to return. Instead, she went to a travel agency and traded her ticket for one that would take her through Asia. She traveled to Japan, Singapore, Hong King, Thailand and Malaysia before ending up in India.
“I went trekking in Nepal.” While there, she met a New Zealander who drove a bus from New Delhi to London. “We went overland on roads without pavement and rivers without bridges. We had to push that bus more than once,” she said, laughing. “When I got back to the states, I had reverse culture shock.” Her first travels solidified her life-long love of learning and exploring other cultures and lands; she knew she wanted more. She applied to teach English in Japan, which she did for a year. “It was a great experience.” After Japan, she visited the family she lived with in the Philippines before returning to the states.
“I worked several odd jobs, then around 1972, a friend from Savannah wanted to drive across the country. We converted a VW van into somewhat of a camper,” she said, laughing. “It was a really hippie thing to do.” The two enjoyed their free-spirited adventure until the VW died. “The engine blew just outside of Seattle, so both of us had to find work.” While her friend had computer experience and snagged a lucrative position, Rebecca could only find a temp job. That’s when her father intervened.
“My dad called and said he needed help with mom because of her health problems.” He also said her old high school in Jesup needed someone to teach science. “I flew back and taught for half a year. They were really good and fun students.”
While there, she heard Oatland Island Wildlife Education Center in Savannah was seeking an educator. “I tricked them into hiring me,” she said, grinning. Rebecca taught about 10 years at the Center, where she became the assistant director. As the 10-year mark approached, “I got the traveling bug and gave myself an unpaid sabbatical.”
During her year-long sojourn, she traveled to New Zealand before spending six months volunteering at a sea turtle center in Australia. “We worked with flat back sea turtles, a species we don’t have here.” She’s worked with sea turtles on Wassaw Island and later volunteered for a sea turtle program on Little St. Simons Island. She spent time backpacking in the remote areas of New Guinea. “Papua, New Guinea is one of my favorite places in the world. It is so beautiful, so wild.” While there, she sketched pen and ink drawings of exotic artifacts and shells found on Peak Island, where she stayed in a lodge with a native tribe.
Once she returned to Oatland, she applied for graduate school to study animal behavior. After earning her advanced degrees, Rebecca taught three years at the College of Charleston before accepting a faculty position at South Georgia College in Douglas, so she could be closer to her mother.
“My dad died while I was in graduate school.” After three years at South Georgia, a faculty position at the College of Coastal Georgia opened and she taught there four years before retiring as an associate professor of biology in 2012. During that time, Rebecca cared for her mother through her final years. “I commuted to school from Jesup,” she said. “My dad and I were two peas in a pod. He taught me all about boating and navigation. I didn’t really know mom until those years and we became very close. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.”
Retiring hasn’t slowed Rebecca down. The certified kayaker and trained sailor loves navigating the whitewater rapids of north Georgia, as well as coastal Georgia waterways and locales she visits around the world. While most of her travels have been solo adventures where she grabs her backpack before heading out, she has recently taken a couple of organized tours. “Kim Powell (friend and former co-worker) has a tour company out of Santa Cruz called Blue Water Ventures. I finally went with her group to Cuba and swam with manatees, and I just got back from Baja (Mexico) with them, where I swam with whale sharks, the biggest fish in the world. I loved it!”
To travel abroad and gain more than the typical tourist experience, Rebecca recommends either volunteering for an international organization or finding a position working in another country. Both offer excellent opportunities to not only see the world, but really learn about other cultures and get to know people one-on-one. “I’ve always tried to get my students to volunteer for programs like the Peace Corps. It’s also great for retired people who have much experience to share. You get to really know a country and the people instead of just traveling through. We all have so much to learn from each other.”
Although Rebecca loves her home and can be found riding her bike with binoculars in-hand for birding or paddling her kayak on a local waterway with friend Rita Barrow, she has no plans to put away her passport. She and fellow adventurer friend Mary “Cri” Gray are planning a trip later this year. “I am lucky to have friends who like sailing and kayaking as much as I do. Since Cri and I, two 70-plus-year-old women, went to the Bahamas by ourselves on a 30-foot boat, we are hoping to sail to Panama in November with stops along the way, of course.”
Despite her years of globetrotting, she still has more places to visit. “I haven’t seen the western part of Australia, and I’ve only traveled through Europe coming and going to Asia,” she said with a big smile. “There are tons of places still on the map.”
Education: B.A. from Emory University; B.S. and M.S. in zoology and Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Georgia.
Companions: Rescue dogs Hannah, a brown lab, and Marley, a small mixed breed.
In Tune: Plays the banjo ukulele (think mini banjo) with the Golden Isles Strummers, with leadership from Cathy Simprini.
Danger on the High Seas: In 2005, she taught at semester at sea through the University of Pittsburgh. “We were on a modified cruise ship set to visit ten countries with over 700 students on board.” However, their trip took an unexpected turn when they almost lost the ship in a horrendous storm. “It was on CNN, and Weather Channel’s Storm Stories did an episode about it. The electronics were fried, and they used a hand-held compass to get to Hawaii.” See the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DBGhXI586k.
Rebecca’s Travel Gear: Underwater point and shoot camera, Field guides for each country, Binoculars, Snorkeling gear, and “Gifts for people you meet along your journey!”
Studying Spanish: “I’m determined to speak better than Spanglish when Cri and I sail to Panama.”
* J. R. R. Tolkien