“It’s Never Too Late” is a series that tells the stories of people who decide to pursue their dreams on their own terms.
When Eleanor Hamby and Dr. Sandra Hazelip met more than two decades ago, it was best friends at first sight. They never imagined that, one day, their friendship would be featured on news shows, get joked about on “Saturday Night Live” and stop people in their tracks in a Tokyo train station to exclaim, “Oh my God, you’re the TikTok traveling grannies!”
Ms. Hamby, 81, and Dr. Hazelip, 82, have inspired people all over the globe with their project “Around the World in 80 Days: At 81 and Still on the Run,” named in homage to Jules Verne’s 19th-century adventure novel. Their travels earlier this year took them from the icy shores of Antarctica to the rocky majesty of the Grand Canyon, and racked up more than a million likes from thousands of followers along the way. “We totally, totally were not expecting this,” Ms. Hamby said.
The women first crossed paths in their late 50s at a Christian medical mission in Zambia where Ms. Hamby, a documentary photographer, was the director and Dr. Hazelip, a recent widow, had come as a visiting physician. Five years later, Ms. Hamby’s husband also died, unexpectedly. Dr. Hazelip was looking to move her medical practice to Abilene, Texas, where Ms. Hamby lived, but didn’t want to fully relocate. So, Dr. Hazelip made her friend an offer. “She said, ‘If you’ll give me a bed two nights a week, I’ll take you out to eat,’” Ms. Hamby recalled.
It was during those weekly visits that they discovered a shared love of travel. “One day, I said: Ellie, I’ve always wanted to ride the trans-Siberian train. Do you think that’s something we could go on as a trip together?” Dr. Hazelip recalled. That was their first big adventure, in 2008, and trips to Southeast Asia and the Middle East followed in 2010 and 2011.
On their first few trips, the pair used a blog to keep their friends and family updated. For the 80-day tour, a friend helped them set up accounts on Instagram and TikTok, and soon thousands of followers around the world were along for the ride.
“People kept saying how much we were an inspiration — an inspiration for a good friendship, an inspiration to get out and do things,” Ms. Hamby said. The whole experience “has definitely been a life changer.” And they’re not stopping.
The friends can’t travel all the time — they both still work, Dr. Hazelip at a hospice center and Ms. Hamby for the medical mission — but their next trip, around South America, is already in the works for 2024, Dr. Hazelip said. “And our theme will be: ‘We Are 82, and Travel We Can Do.’” (The following interview has been edited and condensed.)
How did you plan your 80-day trip around the world?
ELEANOR HAMBY: Well, we started with the book: “Around the World in 80 Days,” by Jules Verne.
DR. SANDRA HAZELIP: We wanted to go to as many cities as the protagonist, Phileas Fogg, supposedly went to on his trip. We also knew that we definitely wanted to go to all seven continents; he didn’t do that. And then we wanted to see as many wonders or natural wonders of the world as we could.
HAMBY: In the end, we wound up going to 18 countries, and eight wonders. Sandy made a Word document for every single day of the trip. We always start with accommodations, figuring out where in a city we want to stay, because location is No. 1. We really just need a place that’s clean, because we don’t spend a whole lot of time in the hotel. And then we look for the best price. We love to find these gem little hotels, like where we stayed in Cairo: $13.50 a person a night. It wasn’t a typical place most tourists would stay — we had to get to it in the alley — but we had a million-dollar view on the rooftop. We take pride in the budget.
HAZELIP: People will say, “I wish I could afford a trip.” I say, “Well, you bought a new car last year. I went around the world in 80 days.”
HAMBY: If there’s a big, exciting thing we know we want to do, like snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, we’ll ask the hotel to recommend a company and book that in advance, too. The rest, we leave it up to the locals to tell us.
How do you adapt when a wrench is thrown into your plans at the last minute?
HAMBY: Sandy and I basically have a positive outlook on a problem. It’s not like, “Oh woe is me, what are we going to do,” crying. No, we see the problem, and we know there’s a solution out there. We’ve just got to keep a clear mind and a smile on our face, and the solution will come.
Was travel always a big part of your lives?
HAMBY: I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, in a very rural area, and I really did not travel at all. But I was constantly reading about people like Amelia Earhart or books by authors like Pearl S. Buck. I just had a real interest in any woman who was exploring. My husband and I married when I was 18, and after we finished college we made a real budget trip to Mexico City. That was the beginning, because we figured out we didn’t have to be wealthy to travel, and we could enjoy it.
HAZELIP: My husband and I, our travels were basically to family reunions in Kentucky or to visit grandparents. Our first real trip, after our children were grown, was a Caribbean cruise. That was so much fun, but it was also much more my husband’s form of vacation.
HAMBY: Sandy and I are not cruise people. We like to travel to meet the locals, not other tourists.
HAZELIP: Shortly before my husband got sick, he planted a seed in my heart to start taking our grandsons on mission trips in the summertime. And so, after he died, when I learned about Zambia Medical Mission, I decided to go on that trip and take a grandson. That’s how Ellie and I became acquainted. And the travel has just exploded since.
What is your favorite thing about traveling together?
HAMBY: Sandy hugs everyone — not just a little casual hug, a good hug — and she’s always smiling. I really like that about her. I’ve never been a hugger; my family can tell you that. It’s not my psyche. But Sandy has taught me to be more open with people. It’s been really beautiful to see how people all over the world needed Sandy’s hug.
HAZELIP: Ellie has taught me that it’s very important to be at the right place at sunup and sundown so you can get the right light for that good picture. And she’s just so fun.
HAMBY: We were just fortunate that we crossed paths and came into each other’s lives when we did. When you lose a spouse, it’s very difficult, and it’s wonderful to have a friend that has had the same experience and understands how to be a friend to someone when that happens. A strong friendship is really crucial to the grieving process.
How do you respond to your families when they worry about your embarking on these big trips or say, ‘Grandma, are you sure you want to be traipsing around Lapland or Bali on your own?’
HAZELIP: I can run circles around you, kid. On artificial knees.
HAMBY: We tell everyone: “We did not go on a vacation. We went on an adventure.” And we never missed a day; we were either on an adventure, or we were flying. That’s why not too many people will travel with us. My kids like to relax at the beach. They want to stay at more expensive hotels.
HAZELIP: That’s not an adventure for us.
What advice would you give to people who have been dreaming of an adventure like yours?
HAZELIP: Get up out of your easy chair. Step out of your comfort zone. Make some plans and live.
HAMBY: Age is only a number. If you think you want to try something, don’t be afraid to step out. Do it. Because you’re going to regret if you don’t, and you will never regret if you do.
What have your travels taught you?
HAMBY: Trust in people, because they’re basically good. Just reach out and smile. Seriously, a smile will bring friendship. It will open doors. It will knock down that barrier or make that person more likely to help when you have a problem. I guarantee you’re going to have a much happier trip and you’re going to meet a whole lot more people if you’re smiling.