They say everything is bigger in Texas, so dreams of Sandra Hazelip and Eleanor Hamby couldn’t have settled for less. These two spirited 81-year-olds, Sandy and Ellie to friends, and TikTok Traveling Grannies to followers, have accomplished a feat that many younger adventurers can dream of. They crowned their eighth decade on this planet by circumnavigating it in 80 days.
A video on their TikTok account exploded with more than 5 million views, propelling traveling grannies to viral sensations
Sandy and Ellie’s trip around the world started in Argentina where they battled rough waters on a two-day journey to Antarctica. The two best friends then continued to Chile and Easter Island, went hunting for Aurora Borealis in Finland, and explored world wonders, from Colosseum in Rome via the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt to the Taj Mahal in India. In the Asian part of the journey they stopped in Nepal, Bali, and Japan, and even hopped over to Australia before returning home.
People don’t just wake up in their ninth decade of life, and decide to relive Jules Verne’s famous novel. Surely you wonder, who are these Texas ladies traveling around the world in 80 days?
Sandy works as a doctor of medicine, and Ellie is a documentary photographer. They met 23 years ago, on the Zambia Medical Mission that Ellie directed. After both of their husbands passed away, the bond between the two girlfriends grew even stronger.
While executing the grand adventure of their golden years, which included a stopover in the country that connected them (and seeing Zambia’s mighty Victoria Falls), these brave smiling women achieved something they were not initially planning for – social media fame.
A video on their TikTok account exploded with more than 5 million views, propelling them to viral sensations that now have to not only handle social media presence but also schedule their mainstream public spotlight.
Wednesday is a dedicated media day, and they managed to squeeze me into their tight schedule, between an interview for a TV program in Japan, and another media appearance in the USA. Sporting matching T-shirts promoting their octogenarian project, Sandy Hazelip and Ellie Hamby were finishing each other’s sentences like some deeply connected twins.
In Pipeaway’s interview, they revealed how traveling helped them deal with loss, shared the most heart-stopping moments of their journey, and offered sage advice for the younger generation. Meet the TikTok Traveling Grannies!
@aroundtheworldat80 Sandy & Ellie 81 and Still On The Run! #bffgoals #bucketlist2023 #sandyandellie #grandmasoftiktok #aroundtheworldat80 ♬ Live Like You Were Dying – Tim McGraw
Second-class adventures with criminals and chickens
Your around-the-world trip was not a one-time adventure. You’ve been avid travelers even before you became TikTok stars. Tell me a bit about your earlier trips together!
Sandy: Our first travel was on a Trans-Siberian train, after both of our husbands had died. Ellie and her husband had traveled a lot. So I just mentioned one day: “Ellie, I’ve always wanted to take a trip on the Trans-Siberian.” We started making our plans, and…
Ellie: … We did it. And we travel second-class! We are true budget travelers. We do not go on tours, we plan everything ourselves, and we always book everything by ourselves. Trans-Siberian was a second class, it was great.
We had a wild experience when we were in Mongolia, at Ulaanbaatar, and like in that book “Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express”, there was a crime that happened in our car. We were apparently the only witnesses, and we don’t know what we witnessed. But the KGB came on and searched our compartment.
S: They searched our luggage. We said: “What’s wrong?”. “Well, you are the witnesses to the crime!” “What crime?” “We found something, I don’t know the English word, but we found something that goes inside the gun.” I said: “A bullet?” “Daa, a big one!”
E: But there was more crime to that. They arrested the guy. As we were the only witnesses, they took all of our information, to call us back to testify. But they haven’t done that yet.
Our next trip was to Southeast Asia. And we took second-class trains from Singapore, Malaysia, to Thailand, and then we flew down to Cambodia.
S: And then we took a public bus from Cambodia to Vietnam, with several chickens on board with us. (laughter)
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A close call in Syria
E: The third trip we took was to the Middle East. We were actually based mostly in Syria. That was in March 2011, and we left Damascus on Friday morning, at about 10 am, and unbeknownst to us, two hours later the actual war started there. We were heading to Palmyra in the Syrian desert, where we were going to stay for a few days.
S: We rode camels out, to get there. (laughter) Three hours in the Syrian desert!
E: We then spent the night in a Bedouin tent, with a family that didn’t speak English. But the next morning, in the old city of Palmyra, we got an internet connection, and then we realized, in New York Times, that all of this happened in Damascus.
We stayed a couple of days, as nothing was happening where we were. We thought this was going to blow over. But it didn’t blow over.
Because this was very remote, we had a little problem: we were out of cash. We wanted to use an ATM, but they said there’s none in Palmyra and no credit cards… We’re all winging cash for our bill, as we needed to get out of Syria.
Mohammed, with whom we were staying out of town, said: “I’ve got a plan. I’m gonna get up at about 4 am. We’re gonna drive to Damascus. And there is an ATM in the Old City, at the square. You can get your money, pay me, and then there’s gonna be a white, unmarked car on the side of the road, and he’ll take you out of Syria, to Jordan.” And we did it.
When we arrived, soldiers were guarding the square with AK-47s. Our driver went there and talked to them. They put their guns down, let us go through to get money, and we jumped in that white unmarked car… We were actually going past Daraa as it was burning to the ground, as one of the first cities that were blown up badly.
Jailed in Russia
E: So we had quite some experiences traveling, but the trip around the world in 80 days was wonderful.
S: Everything worked just like it was supposed to. No missed flights, no lost luggage.
E: No police encounters.
Speaking of police encounters, Sandy, you ended up in a Russian jail once, right?
S: Oh, we don’t tell that story too often. Well, at that time, every time you change from one city to the next in Russia, you were supposed to register in that city. I’ve flown into Moscow, and I registered. Then I took a train to Saint Petersburg, and I tried to register. The landlord of the apartment complex where I stayed was out of the country. All of my missionary contacts said: “Don’t worry about it, you are going back to Moscow. You are already registered!”
So I was in St. Petersburg for almost a month, then went back to Moscow, and was just gonna spend one night in a hotel and fly out. On check-in, the lady was looking through my paperwork: “Where have you been for the last month? You registered in Moscow a month ago!” “Well, I’ve been to St. Petersburg!” “Where is your registration?” “I didn’t get to register in St. Petersburg.” “You can’t check in the hotel until you have St. Petersburg registration!” “How do I do that?” “You have to go to jail!”
They escorted me to a little local jail by the hotel. I left my 15-year-old grandson in the hotel lobby, with the luggage. And I went to jail. The Russian jailer looked like he is playing a role in the movie, a big guy. “You broke our law!” (mimics a deep voice) “I didn’t mean to! That’s why I’m here, to correct.” So he writes out a confession, in Russian. He translates it to me in English and says: “Sign here! Do you understand what you are signing?” “I understand what you’re telling me I’m signing.” “Do you understand what you’re signing?” “Yes, sir.” “Sign here.” So I signed it, paid my fine, and got out of jail. (laughter)
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Two widows on a journey – healing through travel
You mentioned your travels together started after the experience of loss. Many widows handle the grieving process differently as if they feel they are not allowed to continue “normal life”. Can you tell me a bit more about your experiences in handling the loss of your partners? I know there is this concept of griefcations, but does traveling help?
S: My husband Don had actually suggested before he got sick, that we start taking our grandchildren on mission trips in the summer. I’m a busy doctor, but he planted that seed. And shortly after he died, I went to a medical mission workshop, learned about the Zambian Medical Mission, and started to take a grandchild every summer on a mission trip. It was a great healing process for me, to do something to get farther on my path.
Losing a spouse as your best friend is very hard. Friendship with Sandy helped me carry on with my lifeEllie Hamby
E: My husband Kelly had a tennis accident, a hemorrhage. And within 24 hours of the accident, he passed away. It was all of a sudden. And it was very difficult because I was not prepared at all for that.
At first, I was really feeling sorry for myself. For about the first six weeks, I kind of stayed in bed and thought “Why me?”, and then I had a phone call from someone who was coming to see me. They left a voice message that I wouldn’t answer the phone.
And I said to myself: “If you don’t answer that phone, your life is gonna be like this for the rest of your life, and Kelly would not have wanted that. Get out of the bed, and answer the phone!”
At that time, Sandy had moved her practice to Abilene, but she still lived sixty miles away. And she wanted to stay in Abilene a couple of nights a week.
So she called me about the same time that I have finally gotten out of bed and was maybe going to get back to normal. And she said: “I got a deal for you. You give me a bed two nights a week, I’ll take you out to eat.”
That was 18 years ago, okay? She was here last night! So, we are still doing that. And on those two nights a week, which we’ve been doing for 18 years, we planned all these trips and realized how we like to travel together, and the friendship.
It’s very hard when you lose a spouse as your best friend. And we are blessed that we found each other as best friends after we lost our husbands. That has really helped us in just carrying on, going on about life. Of course, everything we do, we dedicate to the memory of Kelly and Don.
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No retirement from adventure
The other interesting perception you are challenging is by going on these long-term travels. Usually, it’s youngsters who take on sabbaticals, but you didn’t let the perception of age stop you from becoming known as TikTok Traveling Grannies. What are some of the tips or advice you would give to other senior travelers who want to follow in your footsteps, but might be hesitant?
S: My advice is: “Get up out of your easy chair! Step out of your comfort zone! Make some plans, and live!” Because…
E: … Age is just a number!
In Jules Verne’s novel, the eccentric Phileas Fogg and his valet Jean Passepartout took on a challenge to prove that a trip around the world can indeed be done in 80 days. What inspired your duo to embark on the same adventure at the age of 81?
S: Years ago, we’ve seen the movie “Around the World in Eighty Days”. So in anticipation of turning 80, I mentioned to Ellie one day: “Wouldn’t it be fun to go around the world in 80 days at age 80?”
Ellie said: “Oh my goodness, yes!”
We made all those plans, had all those tickets bought, and Covid shut it down when we were 80. But Covid didn’t shut us down. And our theme was – around the world in 80 days…
Together: … At 81, and still on the run.
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Budget choices, priceless experiences
How much does it cost to travel around the world in 80 days?
E: We are really budget travelers. Most people don’t travel this way. But it cost us less than it would cost to buy a new economy car in the United States. That gives you kind of a clue. We say it’s not a game-changer if you’re willing to go budget. Otherwise, it’s very expensive.
How does it work on the road? Do you split the bills? Is each paying for her expenses or how?
E: We just split halfway, everything.
For adventures like yours, we can all prepare only to an extent. Did you buy your flight tickets, arranged visas, and everything beforehand, or were you swinging it on the go?
S: Oh, we planned everything to the nth degree.
E: We did all of our flights with One World Alliance which offers around-the-world trip tickets, with airlines such as British Airways, American Airlines, Qatar Airways… It’s one set price, you can take 16 flight segments, you can go to six continents, and you have to circumnavigate the world in one direction. So that was the basic thing that we did first.
S: Then, knowing what our basic itinerary was, when we knew we would land in a country or a continent that we wanted to see more things there, then we used our airline miles to get tickets to go to other places. Or sometimes, occasionally, we had to purchase a ticket to fly to other places.
E: Of course, we used trains.
S: Oh, trains, buses! (laughter)
E: We did a second-class train in India, where curtains make a compartment. There was no door. We were on the bottom bunks in two sets of bunks in a compartment. And of course, we had two Indian guys sleeping above us. They were kind of shocked when they came in and saw these two old women. It was quite an experience, but no problem.
TikTok Traveling Grannies conquering the order and the chaos
You seem to take everything lightly, but what was the most challenging part of the trip for you? What were some of the difficulties you faced along the way?
E: Japanese trains! Because they are the most efficient in the world! Everything runs like clockwork. We’re not used to that in West Texas, okay?
We walk in there, the second-largest train station in the world, and everybody is moving like they exactly know where they’re going. Trains are zipping by every two seconds, every which way. And we are out there, trying to buy a ticket to Mount Fuji. We had no clue!
We are standing there, with our shirts on, and this young man walks up to us and says: “I know you! I’m from Slovenia, and I’ve just read in the London Daily Mail an article about you and your travels. Here we are, together in Japan, and it looks like you are having a little problem.”
S: We told him we are trying to find out how to get to Mount Fuji. He said: “Well, I know how to do that. I’ll just forget what I’m doing right now, and help you two ladies.”
E: So Ziga from Slovenia was our hero. Such a nice young man, with great English, and we just really loved it. We were able to finally figure out the trains in Japan.
The only other problem that we really had that was kind of scary was when we went to Abu Simbel in Egypt, close to Sudan. But we did not know that the day we picked to go there was the one day of the year when they make the Sun Festival pilgrimage there because the dawn sunlight is coming up to the holiest room.
There were 6.000 people trying to go through a little two-meter gate to get in to see it at one time. It just looked like people were gonna get trampled any minute. So getting in a mass crowd with all that hysteria was really scary because you see those photos all the time. Everyone trying to get to one place at the same time, and you are caught up in the crowd, you can’t go anywhere, you’re just stuck in the middle of it. But we were okay and made it through.
Discovering the true wonders of the world
Did you ever end up in a travel crisis? I would imagine that turbulent passing through the Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica would be a wake-up moment for many. Did you ever come to think: “Oh, what did we get ourselves into? Let’s go back!”?
S: Oh, no! We’ve got to keep going!
E: We never had any major issues, except for our Peru flight that we had to cancel last minute because we couldn’t go to Machu Picchu due to political unrest.
But we actually did not have real rough flights, it was just amazing! No lost luggage. Only three delays in flights, and they were not delayed enough to cause any problems. Most travelers are not that fortunate. I don’t know, gods were watching down on us, or whatever it was. But we were just very, very fortunate that we did have those good experiences.
You might have not managed to reach Machu Picchu, but you’ve discovered some other of the Seven Wonders of the World, such as the Great Pyramids, Taj Mahal, and Colosseum. After seeing so much of the world, has your definition of what a wonder is – changed?
S: Well, the real wonder of the world is the people of the world!
E: The goodness of people – that really quite impressed us, more than anything else. When you travel, and you just open your heart to people, there is goodness all over this world.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what country you are from, or what political belief you have, people are basically good. And want to be good.
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The active life of TikTok Traveling Grannies – adventure over bingo
You left for your trip around the world in January 2023, postponing it because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Traveling definitely changed in the past years, making people of your age especially vulnerable. How did you cope with all of that on a physically demanding journey, balancing your travel needs with staying healthy?
S: When Ellie is at home in West Texas, almost every day she walks four miles a day. So, she stays in pretty good shape, okay? And I occasionally work out on a treadmill.
E: More than occasionally. She does! We are both trying to be very active. We both still work full-time.
Yes, that’s not typical for a retiree age, let’s say. It seems you are persons who could never settle down in a retirement home, playing bingo or watching TV.
E: Oh, no! We don’t have time for that! There’s too much adventure out there. We love what we are doing, we both love our jobs, and we hit every day ready to go.
Becoming TikTok Traveling Grannies must have strengthened your friendship. But it also meant being away from other people you care about. Did you experience homesickness or loneliness while traveling? How did you deal with it?
S: No. Truthfully, because of modern technology, I was in touch with my children several times a day, sending them text messages, and pictures, showing them where we were, and keeping them involved in the travel. And we were not on vacation. We were on an adventure! And the adventure just keeps revving you up to have another adventure.
The art of packing light
Still, traveling through so many time zones and climates must’ve been stressful. Jet lag is a challenge in itself, but how does one pack for a trip that includes both the coldest Antarctica and tropical Bali?
E: One packs as light as one can! And we did. We had to pack for very cold weather, and we layered. Layers are essential. In the end, we didn’t quite pack enough cool things, so we maybe bought a shirt here or there for the really hot climates. But no, we were able to keep that one suitcase and it was never even close to the limit that the airline lets you check-in. We just had a good warm jacket and wore lots of layers when it was very cold.
Even when packing minimal, the definition of the essential belongings is quite different for everybody. What are some of the items or gadgets that you can’t travel without?
E: I can’t travel without my battery pack for my phone. (laughter) Because, you know, we were always taking so many photos. But you have to remember never to put the battery pack in your checked luggage because they will remove it and take it. It’s illegal to put those in checked luggage. But keeping a good phone in charge was vital to travel.
S: And my necessary thing to travel internationally is: you take two tablespoons of Pepto-Bismol every morning on an empty stomach, to prevent getting that traveler stomach problem. That takes up some space in the suitcase, but we did it.
So there was no Bali Belly…
E: No, we were okay. And we ate local!
S: Everything was good. We ate at local places, and local foods, and stayed in tiny local hotels. (laughter)
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The rise of the TikTok Traveling Grannies
There are a few famous grandma characters on social media. On TikTok, we’ve seen dancing grannies, Eurovision grannies, fashion grannies, flower grannies, and even a gangster granny. But you managed to steal the title of TikTok Traveling Grannies. How did you come up with the idea of documenting your trip on TikTok?
E: Actually, we first started a travel blog, years ago. The first thing to have was a blog and a Facebook. And then, when we started the trip, we extended to Instagram. But we realized that we would not have enough time to do all these social media on the trip.
So we asked a friend Brandi Sue, if we sent her all the photos, and wrote things, could she do it for us. And it was actually her idea, about halfway through the trip, to do TikTok. I had a TikTok account. I never used it, but I always try to keep up with what’s the latest thing. So she started putting those short videos on TikTok. She did a really good job, it was her first venture into that. We had one that had more than 5 million views! It’s been quite interesting to be so famous on TikTok.
When we arrived in Los Angeles at the airport, at the end of our trip, we got off the plane, walked out with our shirts on, and the lady came running up to us, and she said: “You are the TikTok Traveling Grannies!”. Five minutes later, another person came saying the same. That was a shock to us. We had no idea that was going to be happening. We didn’t even realize how far our TikTok was reaching.
From inspiration to influence
Sometimes I feel too old for TikTok, so congratulations on embracing new media formats! Now, with the experience of going viral, can you give some advice? How do you grow your TikTok account? It must take a lot of work!
E: She spends quite a bit of time, doing the videos. She can only do the information we give her. So as long as I’m sending her… We send lots of videos and stories that haven’t even been told. But she’s dealing with it.
When he went traveling around the world in 80 days, Phileas Fogg was motivated by a bet that would bring him 20 thousand pounds. You didn’t have such a financial incentive, but did you consider monetizing your TikTok presence? Are you being approached by brands that want to include TikTok Traveling Grannies in their influencer campaigns?
E: We consider ourselves influencers, but nobody has offered us any money yet. (laughter)
S: If you have any ideas, feel free to let us know! (laughter)
E: There is no question about it… The comments we get on Instagram and Facebook say “You are an inspiration to us, you’ve influenced us, you’ve encouraged us, you’ve given us the courage to try to step out, and do something”. We never thought this would happen, but we are making a difference in some people’s lives. And that makes us feel that maybe we are contributing to people having a happier, healthier, and more meaningful life.
BFF’s lesson: Don’t make social media your best friend!
Since becoming famous as TikTok Traveling Grannies, did you ever face any criticism or negativity on the network or any unusual requests from fans?
E: Of course, we haven’t looked at all the requests. For the most part, on TikTok, there is almost no negativity in any comment.
At least 95% of all comments are on friendship. Every single person says: “This can be us. I want a friend like that.” On the other social media, friendship is not as important. But on TikTok, what we have brought to the younger generation that does TikTok is the need to have a good friend. And they see that that’s actually what they are wanting. Even though we are 81 years old, they say “This can be us, I want this kind of friend”. It’s all about friendship.
It’s just amazing that our friendship through the TikTok Traveling Grannies is what encouraged so many young people to want to have a friend.
Social media cannot replace human relationships. Get out and make a real friend!Sandy Hazelip
Young people are concerned with the fear that TikTok is gonna get banned. What is your opinion on social media in general, and do you have a message for them?
S: My message is, while all of those social media things have benefits, nothing takes the place of a real, human…
S: Get out, and make a real friend.
E: Don’t make social media your best friend. Make a real friend your best friend.
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The TikTok Traveling Grannies’ next adventure
What’s next for TikTok Traveling Grannies? What are some of the places or activities that are still on your bucket list? A trip to space maybe?
S: Next year, in 2024, we’re going to be 82. Our new theme will be…
Together: … We are 82, and travel we can do.
S: So we are going to South America, see the world wonders it has to offer us, and whatever else we can see in South America.
E: We’re gonna do now one continent at a time. Just look forward to it, we’ll keep you posted.
And I’ll follow.
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