Want to travel? Wait until you are old

As I was sitting in Patan’s Durbar Square a few weeks ago, I noticed a couple elder tourists escorted by a guide: they were taking pictures, bending into unnatural shapes. The DSLR cameras they were shooting with looked like some sort of futuristic gear they could barely handle. They seemed quite clumsy and out of place, as they had been cut out from a lifestyle magazine and pasted into another wrong centerfold.

Instantly, I was reminded of the persistent, conservative way of thinking I was pushed to accept back home: before you may travel and enjoy your life, you will have to work a day job and bend your spine behind a desk for 30 years. Kow-tow to the Gods of corporate business. Enjoy the rat race. Then, maybe, you will be able to travel and see the world on a pension.

With a smack of teenage angst, I would promptly reply: “Cool. See the world, on a wheelchair?”

Seeing those tourists made me think that the way I travel in Asia now may not be replicable in about 30 years. Who would be able to take that umpteenth bone melting night bus ride after hitting the 50 years old line? Who would be able to enjoy the tastes and smells of an Indian public bus crammed to the roof with humans and sometimes cattle? And ultimately, who would have the strength to travel slow, soak into a culture or trying to fit into the holes left by mass tourism?

Certainly, not the average Old Joe.  Let’s face it: the older you get, the lesser you would be likely to travel hard, especially when you have not been used to it as a young man. And furthermore, when the kind of world we live in constantly conceives travelling as a recreational activity that cannot be taken as a lifestyle, or not even as a part-time occupation.

Me with two "Incredible Old Joes": Ibrahim and Saida from Spain. (Picture by Kit Yeng Chan 2012)

Nevertheless, it is quite a contrast – and a funny one – to observe the travelling habits of many older people, some at their very first foray oversea. It appears that so many years spent leading organized, normal lives have not been able to gift these people with a natural inclination to feel relaxed in foreign places. It seems like their movements are harder, slower, filled with the atavist fear of the unknown. They attempt to do what they may have dreamed for many years, but they are doing it with a total regret of having left their comfort zones.

But let me say that I have also met some “Incredible Old Joes”: some were biking from Europe to South East Asia, or doing the same route by walking. Some decided to avoid taking any bus ride longer than 2 hours, to stress less, and see more of the countries they visited.  All of them, however, had a common feature: they had been travelling a lot in their younger days. You could clearly see how travelling had enriched their souls… these people may have also been grinding at the office, but oh boy, how freer they were than any of my friends’ –and my own – parents!! I could sit in awe for hours just listening to their life stories.

As much as the mode of travel we use will most likely change or evolve overtime, it appears that to do it with ease we better start young. It surely does not matter how young; but that attitude needs to be embraced early in life, in order not to appear lost in a foreign square taking a bunch of pictures later. In order to actually fit in the broader World, and not be forced to end up lonely on a couch, hypno-entertained by a flat Tv screen.

Have you ever met some experienced older travellers, and do you agree with me? How do they compare to your own older folks at home?  I would like to hear some stories.

10 Responses to “Want to travel? Wait until you are old”

  1. DEK Says:

    Most young travelers I have noticed were not open and exploring, but traveled in a cocoon of their peers, went where their peers went (even more so now with Facebook and Twitter, I would suppose) and came back with pretty much the same experiences that the rest of their cohort had. Getting drunk on foreign hooch and hooking up with someone you met at a Münich hostel, fun as it may be, is not travel. And young people carry as much baggage — political, cultural, emotional — as any elder strawman from Iowa.

    Children can be good travelers, learning and adapting to the world around them, as can a person after sometime in their thirties. It is much harder for teens and twenty-somethings to make optimal travelers as they have so many of their own issues to work out.

    As Chris suggests, 30-50 is a good age, as you may have some money and possibly some knowledge of people (and better yet, you may have acquired a few contacts) and still have your physical health, and you have gotten through that nonsense that comes with being young.

    Were I forced to choose between traveling with a group of twenty-somethings or a twelve-year-old or an elderly couple who had never been outside their county except for that one time to the State Fair, I would unhesitatingly choose one of the latter, certain that my experience would be the richer for it.

  2. AMJ Says:

    I’m stuck by the arrogance of assuming that those of us who have “hit the 50 years old line” are necessarily physically diminished and unable to “travel hard.”

    Do I want to take the “umpteenth bone melting night bus ride?” Nope, I’m smarter than that, and I have nothing to prove. I travel frugally, and prudently, but I see no virtue in being miserable: that diminishes the travel experience.

  3. Rolf Potts Says:

    I like hanging out with older travelers. They might not have the same endurance for “hard travel” as younger backpackers (though some older travelers do), but I love their enthusiasm. They can cultivate a sense of excitement at the “obvious” tourist sites that younger travelers are (ironically) too jaded to really enjoy. I just went to Washington DC with my 70-ish parents, and — having been to that city about 6 times since I was a teenager — it was probably the most fun I’d ever had there. They were so intrigued by everything they saw, so grateful just to be there. So I think that even the old folks with expensive cameras you see in tourist buses could very well be having the time of their lives (even if they wouldn’t be considered very fashionable or adventurous in backpacker circles).

    The key issue here, I think, is not to postpone travel to a seemingly more “appropriate” time of life. Long-term travel is sometime you can access throughout your life, and there’s no need to put it off until retirement. That said, I’ve met people who’ve put off vagabonding until their 50s or 60s or 70s, and — if they invest enough time in the endeavor — they can do just as well as younger travelers. Just as the young traveler might spend the first month of his journey partying in backpacker-ghetto bars six days a week, an older traveler might need a few weeks to get past the clichés and easy habits (obvious sights, sterilized restaurants, etc) of her own journey. Young or old, you become a more skilled and thoughtful traveler the more you do it.

  4. Sage Says:

    “Who would be able to take that umpteenth bone melting night bus ride after hitting the 50 years old line?” Let’s see, last summer at 54 I went overland from Singapore to Europe and although I mostly stuck to trains, there were some buses.

  5. cloudio Says:

    As in everything, the earlier the better.
    It is true that probably when you are young you are not mature enough to enjoy it in a propter way, but nevertheless travelling, even if you stuck in backpackers ghetto bars, give you a possibility to grow up quickly.

    It is also true that with age come physical limitations and bus rides or simple walks around a place takes a bigger toll. Another important factor that come with age is that is more difficult find company on the road.

  6. Roger Says:

    @Rolf. I’m glad you mentioned having a good time in DC recently. I’m going to DC in June with our daughter’s girl scout troop and I’ve been feeling a little apprehensive, considering the current state of politics, but I sincerely want it to be a good trip for these young ones. There is much to see there, after all.

  7. Kyle Murphy | yscn.org Says:

    Marco, wonderfully written. I definitely share your thoughts and ideas about traveling as a senior. With an 11-month old and only a few US states under my belt, the urge to travel and EXPERIENCE foreign cultures has never been stronger. Notice I say culture, not country, because I refuse to simply tour a country. If I am going to travel that far, I want to experience how others live there, not stumble behind a lens, stressing about the amount of hot spots to hit before taking the plane back home. What you said should hit home for a lot of seniors since paying attention to physical health AND mental health is fundamental to an enjoyable retirement.

  8. Velia Pola Says:

    I learned the joys of travel from my own parents who continued their world wanderings until both were into their 90s. Yes, experience does help–but it’s never too late to start exploring! Check out A BRIDGE BETWEEN ~ Northern Italy Come Hell or High Water for a wonderful inter-generational travel experience.

  9. Riflessioni sui viaggiatori anziani | Monkeyrockworld Says:

    […] le dita frementi attorno alle maniglie di plastica dei propri bagagli a mano. Ne avevo parlato un pó di tempo fa su Vagabonding, di come a volte i viaggiatori si scoprono tali piú avanti con l’etá , in “mezzo al cammin […]

  10. Mike Knoll Says:

    Travel at any age is wonderful. Although age imposes limitations, maturity opens a lot of doors that are not open to many younger people. Nothing is more exhilarating or satisfying than meeting and getting to know a brother or sister from a different part of the world. We have been so fortunate to have traveled to many places in Europe, Central and South Americas. We are now in our 70’s and still going strong.

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