“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
― Augustine of Hippo
I love travelling. I have scores of travel books on my bookshelves, some describing places I am never likely to visit and others high on my list of ‘must do’s’ (and the list keeps changing!). Even as a child, other countries held a fascination. Back then, it was with Russia and China when they were still behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains. (I have yet to visit either.) Now, it is almost any place with a different culture. Was this born in me or bred? My mother sailed to South Africa to visit her family when she was expecting me. Was prenatal influence a factor or did she transfer her constant yearning to escape to me? (It might account for my incompatibility with the sea as she was seasick for much of it!) Maybe it is just part of my genes? Who knows?
I travelled a little in my twenties but regretted not being more adventurous. At that age, I was too cautious. An au pair job in Austria and waitressing in Paris was as far as I went. Gap years or Overseas Experiences were not the norm in those days, at least not in England.
My husband and I emigrated to New Zealand in our early thirties. Over the years, we made several trips back to the ‘home country’ with the children to visit family and friends. We had holidays in the Pacific and Australia. We lived in a campervan for 6 months, when our boys were pre-school, and travelled around the South Island (in winter!). Otherwise, travel was curtailed whilst the children were growing up. Later, I joined tour groups to India, Myanmar and Bhutan. This re-awakened my dormant desire!
When a massage healer in Rarotonga, whom I had consulted for my aches and pains, asked me what had I most wanted to do as a child, my obvious answer was “to travel”. Her reply? “Why don’t you then?”. Why not, indeed? And so a new life was born.
I embarked on what I expected to be a one year adventure. It extended to three. When I set off, I had never travelled on my own. I proposed starting in Mexico because my eldest son was living there. I would continue through Central America and maybe South America. As there were (and still are) one or two dangerous countries in that region. I joined a tour group in Mexico City and travelled with it to San Jose in Costa Rica. After that I was on my own.
At first, I found the transition difficult. I went from being part of a group of similar aged people to being alone. I eased into it by continuing on the same route and meeting up with them, on occasions, during the first week. Whilst crossing the border into Panama, I met another ‘not so young’ female solo traveller. She had sold her house in London and was permanently on the move. She gave me encouragement. With hindsight, it was a fortuitous way to start.
Whilst not young, I was naïve about travelling in poorer countries. From the tour leader, I learned to keep cash in my bra and not to store my bag under the seat of the bus. I became more aware of the hazards whilst still in the relatively safe environment of the group. (It didn’t stop me being robbed on two occasions, later, but it helped!) Carolyn, the solo traveller, gave me tips and a little more confidence. I still felt trepidation and nervousness each time I moved on but if she could do it, so could I.
Travelling on your own, I discovered, is liberating. You can do as you please and go where you choose when you choose. You don’t have to adhere to a schedule. I am comfortable in my own company. However, when I wanted to have people around me, I stayed in hostels (albeit in my own room). If I wanted to meet local people, I booked an Airbnb. If I wanted to be alone, I stayed in a hotel. If I wanted to stay in one place, I found a housesit. I also went on walking tours of cities and not only met the people in the tour group but also learned more about the history and local customs of the place.
Speaking the local language helps. I couldn’t, but still conversed a little (and, if all else failed, used Google Translate). Taking local buses, such as the ‘collectivos’ in Peru, provided an insight into the way of life. ( I never did understand why one ‘collectivo’ would stop for you and others wouldn’t.) By staying in people’s homes and chatting to them, I learned about the bigger issues facing a country. Sitting on a park bench on a Sunday afternoon and just observing was entertaining and rewarding (although, as I discovered, I might end up purchasing something I didn’t want or need!).
I encountered few other ‘mature’ backpackers (men or women) so my companions were younger people. More than one of them said they admired me and wished their mothers would do something similar. Those words gave a boost to the self confidence! At home, female friends commented how brave I had been and they could not have done it. I do not consider myself brave. Naivety played a part and, with hindsight, I realise I took one or two risks that could have ended badly (and very nearly did). Moving to a new place was nerve wracking. Getting from the bus stop to the accommodation carrying all my belongings and relying on taxi drivers whom I regarded with suspicion was anxiety ridden. However I survived and believe I am much stronger and more confident for it.
I am home now but my love is unrequited. My itchy feet are ready to go and I’m planning my next trips. Are you an armchair traveller or do you also need to explore for yourself?