Philly's 'Uncle Rocky' backpacking SE Asia at 87

Robert Mellin, known as "Uncle Rocky" to friends and family, shows the view from his apartment at 13th and Lombard streets, June 5th, 2017. Mellin has a reputation of being an intrepid traveller, and is about to embark on a three month journey to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. CAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer

When Robert “Rocky” Mellin was 40 and feeling restless, he met an Australian woman with a big backpack. Her tales of adventure became a siren song he still can’t shake nearly a half-century later.

Mellin, 87, estimates he’s spent 10 years traveling outside of the United States since then. He’s been to more than 60 countries, traveling cheap, with a backpack no bigger than a schoolboy’s, usually for months at a time. Sometimes those trips stretched on for years.

On Wednesday, Mellin is embarking on his next — and potentially last — trek, a three-month adventure in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, again with his burnt-orange backpack. He doesn’t care if anyone thinks he’s too old.

“This is what I do,” he said Wednesday afternoon in his apartment at 13th and Lombard Streets. “What the hell can I say? It’s all cliches.”

Robert Mellin, known as “Uncle Rocky” to friends and family, plays a flute acquired on one of his voyages in his apartment at 13th and Lombard Streets.  CAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer

Earlier that day, Mellin saw his doctor to get a checkup before the trip. Usually, he said, the visits usually go like this:

“I tell him I feel good and he says, ‘If you feel good, then you’re good.’”

On this visit, though, he said, the doctor wrote a prescription for malaria pills — that Mellin probably won’t take. He got a tetanus shot, too.

“I had some other shot, too, that I can’t remember,” he said, rubbing the other arm.

That made his grandnephew Tyler Melnicove laugh out loud. Melnicove, 23, was there to help his Uncle Rocky get acquainted with WiFi, his iPad, and his iPhone, so he can chronicle his latest adventure and send updates back to friends, family, and, for the first time, benefactors.

Melnicove helped Mellin create a GoFundMe page for his latest journey, “Rocky’s SE Asia Backpacking Trip.” Though Frommer’s Europe on Five Dollars a Day was a bible to Mellin for decades, times and prices have changed.

“Today, that $5 might buy a cup of coffee,” Mellin wrote recently in his bio.

Robert Mellin with his grandnephew Tyler Melnicove. Mellin, an intrepid traveler, is about to embark on a three-month journey to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. CAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer

 

Mellin was born in Atlantic City and moved to Philadelphia as a teen, graduating from Bartram High School. He moved to Miami at 27 and fixed furniture for moving companies.  He has long since forgotten the name of his Australian muse, but shortly after they met, he bought a Europass train ticket and boarded a German freighter in Tampa Bay, bound for Rotterdam.

There’s a family-friendly version of Mellin’s travels abroad, the usual mix of meeting new people, marveling at majestic sights, and taking in new cultures.

Then there’s the “good stuff,” as Melnicove calls it. “Oh, he’s got great mugging stories,” Melnicove said.

In Afghanistan, Mellin smoked a chillum on the head of an ancient Buddha that’s since been destroyed by the Taliban. There were a few bouts of hepatitis, but only one that turned him yellow. In Brazil, he followed a woman to a “little island” and wound up with a worm wriggling around inside his foot.

“I think it must have died,” Mellin said. “At least I hope it did.”

Once, caught in the proverbial “wrong place, wrong time,” Mellin was busted by Bolivian narcos and the U.S. consulate had to get him out of jail.

Mellin in Bolivia in 1977, paying homage to the goddess Pachamama.

Mellin has punched plenty of men abroad who have tried to pick his pockets, even dragging one of them to a police station, where an officer took his photo. The worst incident, he said, was the night he left a bar in Cusco, Peru, and a stranger approached asking for the time.

“I knew that was bad,” he said.

The mugger, Mellin said, put him in a chokehold, and he blacked out. That’s how he got a raspy voice.
Mellin looks back on it all with laughs, those moments as memorable as the vibes he felt at Stonehenge during sunset, or on his journey deep into the Indian state of Sikkim, where he lived at the Rumtek Monastery.

Mellin about to jump off a cliff in Venezuela in 2007.

Mellin won’t say traveling has made him wiser, or unlocked any great secrets, but he does feel connected to a greater global community. Traveling has made him appreciate freedoms in America, too, but he still tries to leave the country as much as he can.

The GoFundMe page claims Mellin’s Southeast Asia journey could be his last, but that’s both a nudge-and-wink and a respectful nod to all the time he’s been granted good health. He’s still got wanderlust and may even drift into Myanmar or Malaysia, and he knows if and when he gets back to Philly, he’ll just want to leave again.

“A lot of people probably think I shouldn’t be doing this stuff at my age,” he said. “It could be my last trip, maybe, but I don’t think so.”