A romantic-sounding existence of freedom reflects a lifelong restlessness for one traveller, finds THEO PANAYIDES
Flush-faced, snowy-bearded, Dean Psaras sits in a friend’s apartment in Nicosia, sipping beer and looking back over his life. He’s in Cyprus for a short while – here to attend a wedding, sell his late mother’s house and give away his massive collection of books – then the plan is to move to Cambodia where he hopes to open a hostel. He’s been spending quite a bit of time in Cambodia recently – not to see Angkor Wat or visit an ashram, but because it’s a country where the tourist visa is easily renewable. A traveller has to think about such things.
He’s been travelling literally all his life: conceived in Kyrenia, still-foetal Dean travelled in his mother’s womb to New York City, where he was born 68 years ago. Then came a couple of back-and-forth moves between the US and Cyprus, a desultory degree at Long Island University then a lifetime of moving around, biking or hitch-hiking or otherwise travelling, staying in one place “as long as I can, as long as I’m making a living somehow”.
He shrugs expansively: “You work, make money, then bum around until your money runs out, then you work again!”.
It’s not quite that simple, of course. He’s half-settled down a few times, like the five years he spent running the Luxor guesthouse in Limassol from 2007 to 2012. He worked as a bartender in Nicosia in the late 1970s, at Mythos and Anemos pubs. He was also in Australia for six years during his 30s – though that doesn’t really count, since he only stayed because his visa had expired and he couldn’t leave without being caught. The rest is more fragmentary. A year and a half in Saudi Arabia. Three years in Korea, teaching English. A two-year course in south Texas, near the Mexican border, getting the MA that allows him to work as a teacher. A stint in the Central African Republic with the US Peace Corps (this was back in the 70s, the time of the fearsome Bokassa), where he caught a mild case of malaria and “hung out with the Pygmies in their forest”. Teaching for a while in northern Cyprus, at Eastern Mediterranean University. Lingering briefly – or not so briefly – in Mexico, Greece, Morocco, Alaska, Indonesia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Palestine, Colombia, Thailand, Belgium, Cambodia.
What does he do? How – asks my not-so-inner bourgeois – does he make money? But it turns out that making money isn’t so hard, if you don’t need very much and are willing to do almost anything. Nowadays it’s teaching, including online teaching, a booming profession as Asians set out to learn English; in the past it was odd jobs – driving taxis, tending bar, doing construction work, handing out pamphlets. “I’ve even done cleaning jobs. Yuck!”. A friend in Antwerp named Bear got him a job cleaning up after patrons in a local bar – which I only mention because Dean looks exactly like a man who’d have a friend in Antwerp named Bear. He’s never starved, but he’s not rich either: he’ll buy one block of cheese every week, he explains, a second block being an unaffordable luxury.
Some will call it a romantic life, a life of freedom and glorious independence. His passions are simple enough: he loves motorbikes, drinking and reading – though the books were mostly there to stave off boredom (he doesn’t have a book that changed his life, though he singles out the author Tom Robbins) and have largely been replaced by “watching crap on a computer all day” nowadays. Others may call it a wasted life – because he doesn’t travel with a purpose, he just travels. He doesn’t see the sights, or do charity work, or paint, or write about his experience. “I do nothing,” he admits wryly. “I’m boring. I just sit around all day watching – you know, Star Trek and stuff”. Dean has no illusions about his place in the world. ‘67-year-old drifter looking for travel companion(s)’ was how he headlined a post on the Lonely Planet forum last year. ‘Occupation: Bum’ he writes in his profile on a site called Travellers Point.
There’s a sadness there too, as so often in people with rootless, unsettled lifestyles – or perhaps not quite sadness (he’s no sadder than the average drone in a nine-to-five job) but a half-buried bitterness beneath the swashbuckling surface, a lifelong sense of not belonging which presumably influenced his lifelong restlessness. Is he escaping from something? “I’m escaping from the world,” he replies with a growly laugh. “I don’t like the world. The world sucks!”
The sense of being a misfit goes way back – and in fact it’s not quite accurate to say that Dean travelled in his mother’s womb from Kyrenia to New York: their first stop was actually England, “where they tried to abort me and couldn’t,” he reports grimly (his cousin told him about it years later). His parents’ marriage was discordant, frustrated. His dad, a restaurateur who’d made money abroad, was 17 years older than his mum; he came back to Cyprus “to show off,” says Dean acerbically, and duly married “the youngest, prettiest girl he could find… Unfortunately, pre-marital sex didn’t happen in those days,” he goes on in his rumbly American drawl, “so horny old man marries a walking refrigerator”. Neither parent got what they wanted from the union – and Dean, as the only child of an unhappy marriage, suffered too, not from abuse (though the rod wasn’t spared) but a disconnection and estrangement that only grew with the years.
Was there some big blow-up with the parents, or did they just drift apart?
“No, I just never got along with them,” he replies, shaking his head. “At all. Ever. Ever.”
To be fair, it sounds like the boy was a bit of a handful too. The family came back to Cyprus in the late 50s – but soon decided to return to New York, fearing that eight-year-old Dean would come to a bad end if they stayed. This was the time of Eoka, and “I was a bit of an asshole child,” as he puts it, “cursing out the British soldiers and telling them that the Cypriots are gonna kick their ass just like we [Americans] kicked their ass. I was breaking curfew, and just sneaking out of the house… I’m sure I would’ve gotten shot sooner or later – I mean, all you need is one Brit whose good friend has just gotten shot by Eoka or something, to take out his anger on a stupid eight-year-old with an American accent and a big mouth”.
So maybe his parents had a point? Maybe he’s also quite hard to get along with?
“My friends don’t think so,” he replies with a shrug. “They just think I’m weird!”
That’s a joke, of course. Dean Psaras comes off as a lot of things – maybe stubborn, maybe prickly and outspoken, and yes, maybe hard to get along with if he doesn’t like what you’re offering – but not weird. He might be unusual (like all lifelong travellers) but he makes his own kind of sense, and he’s all of a piece: he exudes a deliberate quality, a rugged assurance. One can imagine him telling stories in a bar and getting a bit long-winded – but not flying off the handle, and indeed he’s never started a fight in his life (“not my style”). There’s a monolithic aspect, emphasised by his fleshy nose and impressive white beard, and an iron-man quality; back in Africa, “I used to drink water that we were told not to even walk in – and I’m still here”. He must have a strong constitution, I marvel. “The alcohol helps,” he chuckles. “It kills stuff.”
He likes his booze: beer and Anglias when in Cyprus, cheap Jim Beam in Cambodia. “I look like I do lots of drugs,” he admits (it’s true, he does), “but I don’t smoke that much.” Life on the road works by different rules – though Dean, after so many years, isn’t as adventurous as he once was. He used to just put on his backpack and go, now he’ll always book a hostel in advance; then again, the whole scene has changed. “There is no adventure anymore. Nobody goes anywhere that millions haven’t gone before.”
What about the younger travellers he sees nowadays?
“Stupid children,” he replies with another deep laugh. It’s not just the selfies and Facebook posts, it’s the whole mentality. “I mean, when I had my hostel in Limassol I was shocked by how many people would come and the first thing they would do was email home, or Skype home. I mean, I don’t even have a home, and I haven’t really had a home for years. These were still children – they’re calling their mother, telling her ‘I got here safely’. And I’m sorry, even when I was 18 I wouldn’t do that.”
In a way, Dean is a dinosaur – an old hippy from the counter-cultural 60s, inspired by the calls to joyful anarchy of Bob Dylan and John Lennon (“They created left-wing people out of ordinary American brainwashed kids”). Things have changed since he first started wandering; the world has become more uptight, often in ways he can’t predict. His aforementioned Lonely Planet post, asking quite guilelessly for ‘female travel companions’ for a trip to South America, got a snippy response from a woman who all but accused him of being a predator. “Humans have turned into assholes more than they were before. Simple as that,” he concludes grumpily.
How do relationships work on the road, anyway? “Usually the sex is short-term,” he shrugs. “I’ve never been into one-on-one relationships that are exclusive, it’s always been ‘We’re together but you’re allowed to do what you wanna do, I’m allowed to do what I wanna do’.” The trouble, he admits, is that “even women who accept that don’t really want it that way. That eventually kills the relationship.”
Has he ever been in love? Really in love?
“I did really fall for one woman once, in Mexico, who was 20 years younger than me and an absolute goddess. [But] I was totally aware of the fact that ‘You’re being silly, you f**kin’ 40-year-old piece of shit!’.” Did anything ever come of it? “I did spend one night holding hands with her – and she apologised the next day for leading me on. ’Cause she knew how I felt”. Dean sighs wistfully: “At the age of 55, I told myself, I’m willing to settle down with one woman. And I was arrogant enough, considering how many women wanted to marry me through the years, I was arrogant enough to believe it was gonna be easy”. He gives a little shrug. “13 years later, it has not proved easy.”
There’s an unspoken something tugging at that admission, an acknowledgment of life going by and old age approaching. Life on the road is so simple: you pack your backpack – a knife, fork and spoon, rain gear for tropical climes, a Scrabble set, sarongs, bandannas, soap and shampoo – then that bag is your home, and the world is your oyster. Can it really be a permanent lifestyle, though? Bodies age, health fails, needs grow more urgent. Even with the help of other travellers, don’t the rigours of the unencumbered life get too much eventually?
Maybe they do; and it also should be mentioned that Dean Psaras is still very Cypriot. He speaks the language fluently (defiantly insisting that the language is Cypriot, not Greek) and has strong views on nationalism and the culpability of Eoka B during the invasion. He could plausibly settle down here, at 68, even if he claims he can’t afford to – yet here he is, selling off his mother’s house to head off, once again, into the sunset. “I just like moving from one place to another,” he explains. “Now I’m going to Cambodia and I’m happy to stay there, kind of till I die – but I am also planning a motorcycle trip: Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and back! The travel urge doesn’t really go away with age”. Even when he dies and goes to Heaven, he adds in a well-practised quip, “after a year or so I’ll probably go to that God person and ask: ‘Hey man, can I visit downstairs for a while?…’”.
All in all, it’s worked out quite well for him. His childhood sounds awful, and old age now looms rather dauntingly – but the bits in between were so honest, so free, so rich, so eventful. Maybe he’ll write a book someday, says Dean, a memoir of a lifetime of drifting, though he warns that much of it is “not publishable in newspapers”. (He illustrates this with a story involving two guys, a girl and a broomstick, but I’ll spare you the details; don’t worry, it was all consensual.) It’ll all be in there – the cheap bars and “shitty jobs”, the stories told and listened to, the fellow strays and misfits criss-crossing the world, taking life as it comes.
And the future? “I’m in the process of writing a justification for suicide,” says Dean near the end of our interview – not exactly joking, not exactly sombre or unhappy either. “I’m not afraid of dying,” he tells me simply, “I’m afraid of living a miserable life. I mean, most people’s lives I do not envy – and I wouldn’t want to live like that. But I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I killed myself out of depression or anything like that. No, I just got bored. It’s like buying a ticket to another country, except that it’s another plane of existence.” He takes a sip of beer, happy with the thought (just a thought, of course!) of what would, after all, be a fitting conclusion. One last move for a man who’s lived life on his own terms.