As I begin to describe my encounters with others whilst travelling, it occurs to me that to many this may sound like just an expected and natural part of travelling alone. But I am an introvert, not always able to converse with others in a comfortable and confident fashion. I only wish that were so. These are not straightforward interactions for me. I sometimes find it hard to talk to my closest family and friends in the most familiar of surroundings, so talking to strangers in foreign lands can take a lot of effort on my part. I have to build up to it. I sometimes have to force myself. This is compounded by the fact that the overwhelming majority of strangers I have ended up travelling with (on a budget, on overnight buses, residing in hostels) are about half my age. There are a few slightly older people on the backpacker trail, but never many, and never, it would seem, as old as me.
I plan to discuss the pleasures and challenges of life as an introvert in some future posts, but for now what I will say is this: forcing myself to talk to strangers; to engage with them; ask them questions; share experiences, is one if the richest gifts of my travels to date. When I first started to travel on my own, a short few years ago now, it quickly became apparent that I could, if I chose (oh see easily in fact), not say boo to a goose. On some days this was exactly what I did. On some days that was exactly what I wanted. To be alone. To observe, but not get involved. But there were other days when this isolation from the rest of humanity felt very lonely. It was in these moments I realised that, this stuff wasn’t going to come to me. I would have to actually make some effort, stop giving off ‘Don’t talk to me’ vibes. Nobody owed me a conversation. And, given that I was often older than those I found myself surrounded by, I accepted that this fact might be off-putting to the younger souls, unsure of what to say to me, or not wishing to disturb. I totally get that. So it was up to me. And so, little by little, I started to test the water, drop in a little bit of myself here and there when the opportunity arose. Ask a question. Share a recommendation for somewhere I had just been, or ask for one for somewhere I was headed to next. Guess what? Being a human to another human really works! A revelation.
I have met a couple (and I literally mean two) people who had a real issue with my age. One girl who, whilst playing cards and drinking whisky with a gorgeous bunch in the breath-taking heights of Bolivia, made a snidey comment about the audacity of someone my age travelling amongst her and her peers. The rest of the table were not particularly impressed by her attitude and, given that everyone else was completely lovely, and I was getting along with them just fine, I wasn’t overly perturbed by her opinion.* The second occasion was very recently, in a hostel in Sydney when, on my arrival, some young guy made a comment to his friend about somebody needing to tell me the hostel was meant for backpackers. As I stood there with my (Ahem!) backpack, I was just rather impressed with myself for having understood what he had said, given it was in Spanish (I don’t speak Spanish, but have failed to learn it in two classes I took). Yey me!
*I came across this girl once more on my travels when I got to Machu Picchu. She was now travelling on her own and bounded up to me, looking delighted to see a familiar face. I said a friendly hello to her, and then turned on my heels and left her to her own devices. (One of the joys of getting older – you suddenly realise you don’t have to stand for anyone else’s bullshit).
This is what I know. People’s response to your age appears to be largely related to:
a) your own attitude and how positively you engage with the world, and
b) whether they are a dick or not.
When I am travelling, I am up for anything, every adventure, every activity, every experience, all the fun. I am happy to party with the best of them, happy to jump off a mountain attached to a handkerchief. White-water rafting? Count me in. Scuba Diving? Well, I’ll certainly give it a go. Music festival? I’m there. Three days of hiking? No problem, Staying up till ridiculous o’clock talking and drinking? Try and stop me! (No, literally, please do try and stop me, sometimes my off-switch is faulty).
What we need to remember is, regardless of what age you are, people are people are people. Some people you meet will be super cool. Some people you meet will be uptight, judgmental and rude. This applies whether you are 18, 40 or any age in between or beyond. People who are meant to spend time together will gravitate toward one another. Some people you will be repelled by, or you will in turn find repellent. Some lucky people, from an early age, have the self-confidence not to give a damn about the people they ‘Don’t get’ or who don’t get them. I was never one of those people, always wracked by insecurities and a desperate need to be liked, to fit in, to be accepted. It has taken me a long, long time to not care so much, and even now some days I fail. Nevertheless, with age and experience I has come to matter less. This is a gift. I have finally learned I do not need everyone to like me. No, really I don’t. I just need to trust in myself, and do the best job I can at being me. Let everybody else worry about how successful they are at being them.
So, despite these two dissenters, I have received many really beautiful and touching comments from the people I have ended up travelling with, or partying with, or participating in some madcap adventure with. Meeting these people and taking the time to get to know them and sharing something of myself has really helped me to grow into a more fully functioning person. I now carry this new found skill around with me into every facet of my life. And I have met some truly wonderful people. Some real treasures. Some very beautiful souls, some of whom I still keep in touch with and who continue to enjoy my onward journeys, as I do theirs.
On a beautiful sunny Sunday of music and wine in Rio one girl told me I was an inspiration to her. She was overjoyed to learn that when she got to be my age she didn’t necessarily have to give up her travelling dreams, or become some other person than she felt in her heart she was. On my most recent trip, whilst spending a few days exploring Australia’s Red Centre, my young companion (who I met on the bus and was an absolute hoot) told me that, though I was only a few years younger than her own mother, I was like a different species. I was “fun and adventurous, not like a proper grown up at all”. To be fair, I don’t feel like a proper grown up most days. Who the hell does? And, are you sure you want to? Hard life stuff can suddenly make you realise how blinking tough adulting can be. Having spent our younger years believing we totally have it in hand, we may suddenly realise we don’t have a clue, and neither does anyone else, so we might as well club together.
Some of the people I have met on my travels have been a little surprised at what I am doing, but mostly they are just heartened to learn that life does not have to end when you marry, when you pass the milestone of 30 (never mind 40), and even people with children can and do travel the world. I’m not done yet, not by a long shot. The world is a big place, and seeing it is my inspiration and passion. I don’t plan on ever getting too old for anything, I don’t believe in it. I reject the notion. I will be done when I’m dead (as Elizabeth Gilbert and her mother state so well in the little piece below). And, it doesn’t have to be travel, (that’s just my thing). Whatever inspires a person should be given room to fire them up and get them on the road to action. Life’s too short as it is.
Copyright © 2016 · Images and Text · Forty and Everything After