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Make retirement the best chapter of your life

They sit in lawn chairs facing the Gulf of Mexico. The water looks like a sea of diamonds the way it does at that certain time in the afternoon when the sun is at just the right angle to bounce little flickers of light off the waves and ripples. She is knitting. He is reading. They take turns reaching into a bowl of trail mix on a makeshift table between them. To all the world, they look like a happily retired couple with not a care in the world and not a place they have to be. Until you realize what's providing the shade in which they sit. It's their RV, a 34-foot beast that is to them what a shell is to a tortoise. It's the home they take with them everywhere they go. This day, they've taken it to the base of the Sunshine Skyway bridge, to the road leading to the fishing pier.

This is just a short stop for Robert and Jo Mellis as they move from Wekiwa Springs State Park, north of Orlando, to Lake Manatee State Park in Bradenton.

They are spending the year exploring Florida's state parks. They stay as long as they want at one park — usually as long as it takes to fulfill the volunteer commitment they've made to the park — and then pack up and move on down the road.

That would be quite an accomplishment for most 71-year-olds. But not for this husband and wife.

A mere five years ago, they were making their third trip to Namibia, an impoverished nation on the southwest coast of Africa.

They had been there two years before, when they were 64. It was the same year they went to Laos, Vietnam, Germany, Spain, Gibraltar and England.

Their first visit to Namibia was three years before that, when they were 61.

To these post-retirement globetrotters, cruising Florida in a vehicle equipped with all the comforts of home is a breeze.

Robert Mellis went to Africa and Asia to teach and mentor working journalists in developing countries. Two of his trips were funded by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C. Funding for the other trips came from many sources, including the Independent Journalism Foundation in New York, the U.S. government through its Aid to International Development program, several corporations — and even the newspaper in Namibia.

Jo Mellis, who has been at his side since they met in Boston in 1962, continued as his constant companion. She always went along and always found her own projects to work on — not the least of which was her opposition to the schools being built in Cambodia.

"I got really annoyed," she said. "The Chinese were there building schools with no bathrooms.

"Schools. With. No. Bathrooms," she repeated incredulously. "What are the girls supposed to do?"

• • •

Mellis started his lifelong career in journalism at age 15 in Scotland after he dropped out of school.

"I was the youngest editor in Scotland," he said. He came to the United States and worked at several newspapers, including a stint at the St. Petersburg Times, before settling into a job as publisher of a group of weekly papers in Connecticut and New York. It was there that he learned to make the most of what he had — which wasn't much.

That's the nugget he wanted to share with reporters and editors in poor countries: You can do great journalism even without a lot of resources.

And so began his travels that took him to 19 countries in 20 years. Mellis details all of this in his book, Now We Begin: How to Add Fun and Enjoyment to Your Retirement Years and Make a Difference in Our World.

Were they ever scared?

Not really, they said, but there were some scary times.

"We were in Namibia right after 9/11 . . . all the talk shows in the country were saying America got what it deserved. They called us the bullies of the world," Mellis said.

"Sometimes you have to just let things roll off you. Not everybody loves America," he said.

What was their favorite place?

There's no hesitation. "Bhutan." It's a small country the size of Switzerland in the eastern Himalayas that measures Gross National Happiness and strictly limits the number of tourists it allows in, Mellis said.

The idyllic Buddhist nation nestled high in the mountains between Tibet and India makes its money selling hydro power to India, he said. The editor of Kuensel, a newspaper subsidized by the Bhutanese government, asked Mellis to help it become self-sufficient. Mellis obliged, teaching its business staff — of one — how to prepare and sell display advertising to local merchants. The paper, and the merchants, were pleased with the results, he said.

• • •

Robert and Jo Mellis believe their life has been richer and fuller after retirement than most people's are during an entire lifetime. And it makes them feel like shouting from a mountaintop to other retirees: Just do it.

They are done with international traveling, but they plan to keep preaching the gospel of "Your Life Has Just Begun When You Retire" to everyone they meet.

In the epilogue of his book, Mellis said, "It has become our mantra that our retirement became the starting point for our new life, the beginning of what has become the most interesting phase of our journey.

"And I constantly remind myself of the Monty Python skit in which a cart is pushed through the streets of some woebegone city in England with a man calling out, 'Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead.' The men with the cart haul a puny-looking guy out of a hovel and throw him on the cart while he whispers, 'I'm not dead yet.'

"We are not dead yet. Lots more living will be done."

LifeTimes editor Patti Ewald can be reached at pewald@tampabay.com.

Be brave,

stay engaged

Tips from Robert and Jo Mellis on how to make your retirement years the best of your life.

• Just do it. Be brave.

Be fearless.

• Stay involved with people.

• Stay interested in life.

• Always challenge yourself.

• Try to do something different.

• Chase the thrill — get on that Harry Potter ride at Universal Orlando.

• Volunteer. Do your fair share of giving and everybody benefits.

And remember, you don't have to be rich to have a great retirement. Be frugal. Live on your Social Security — but just live.

The globetrotters

Robert and Jo Mellis have been all over the world in retirement. Here are the places they've been and the age they were at the time:

By plane

Age 57: Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo, Sri Lanka, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan

Age 61: Namibia

Age 63: Cambodia

Age 64: Laos and Vietnam, Germany, Spain, Gibraltar, Namibia, England

Age 66: Namibia

By boat

Age 60: Maine to Florida

Age 63: Canada

Age 62: The Bahamas

Age 65: Down the east coast of the United States

By RV

Age 67: Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia

Age 68: Maine to Florida via Cape Hatteras, N.C.

Age 69: Along the Mississippi River to Ontario

Age 70: British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska

Age 71: Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and back to Maine

Source: Robert Mellis

Make retirement the best chapter of your life 03/27/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 5:30am]

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