Mel Gibbens: Traveling Shoes

People Profiles

Mel GibbensMel Gibbens is a bartender who isn’t rooted behind the taps and coolers.

The Oxford, England, native assisted Thomas Viljac in the building of the Old Town Dispensary in downtown Bluffton last year — you can see his work in the carpentry, plumbing and painting — before morphing into the manager of the pub. “This is the fifth bar I’ve built. I’m quite handy with my hands,” he says.

But if he’s not manning the taps, there’s a good reason: He’s probably wandering the globe on the cheap.

Gibbens, 61, has traveled far and wide: the Great Wall of China (“It was on my list of things to do before I die”), Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, South America, Europe and his all-time favorite destination of Jerusalem. And his dance card is already filling up for 2011: He’s planning to bebop for six months through Central America with the goal of settling down in Nicaragua. “I’ve a mate there, and I plan (on) living there,” Gibbens says.

But Gibbens doesn’t travel via agent, reservations, guides or itineraries. He’ll tour Central America, for instance, by foot, public bus, small boat and/or cheap cab. At night he’ll lay his head in a tent, hostel or boarding house. “I’m not one of those people that goes on the computer looking for deals,” he says. “I just find them. Everyone travels nowadays. I’m not unique.”

What is unique are his standards for a successful trip. For Gibbens, a $12-a-night room can be the height of extravagance. On a recent jaunt through Southeast Asia, he found himself perfectly at home in a 75-cent-a-night bamboo bed. Of course, the best places are the free ones: camping in woods or on beaches. “I’m quite happy on my own,” he says. “When I’m at the bar, I’m a people person. When I go away, I want to be gone.”