I wanted this trip to be something completely different. To break away from normal routines. As such no planning, no goals, no deadlines, just take each day of the next twelve months as it came. And that’s what I did. Nothing more planned or booked than one around the world ticket, with three main stop overs, three to four months apart.
And I wanted to step outside the comfort zone. If it felt uncomfortable, I wanted to push myself to do it. It was the first time travelling solo and first time backpacking, certainly for any length of time. First time surfing, white water rafting, spear fishing, swimming in the middle of the ocean at night being lit up with glowing plankton.
It may be the norm for young backpackers, but crawling up into the top bunk in a hostel mixed dormitory full of backpackers younger than my kids, was for me one of those stretching the comfort zone times. As with sleeping overnight stretched out on an airport lounge (thank you Zurich Airport). A new experience sleeping in a hammock, learning a new language (at least to an advanced kindergarten diploma level).
Homestays in non-English speaking homes, salsa classes while being coached by a sympathetic teacher and an interpreter, gate crashing a huge wedding like family function…loved their whiskey, climbed up volcanoes, trekked up to five thousand metres and experienced the effects of high altitude, had my longest bike ride of over two hundred kilometres, swam with giant turtles, shared a park bench with a huge sea lion…I actually saw the seat first. Stranded on an island in the middle of the Pacific with not enough money to get off. And on another occasion discovered I was literally penniless in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country, no wallet, no money, no credit cards.
Slept in every conceivable form of bed from hostels, guest houses, dormitories, hotels, bamboo huts, homestays, slept on the floor, in a tent in the middle of a jungle, a hammock, a Buddhist monastery, in a swag, overnighted on buses. Stayed anywhere from one night to a couple weeks. If I didn’t like a place I moved on. If I liked it, I stayed.
Travelled by just about every form of transport imaginable. From plush buses, buses with a full length bed, to buses with as good as no doors, crammed into chicken buses along with bums and armpits jammed in your face, squeezed into mini buses going from one side of a country to another, hung on for dear life on the back of a pickup taxi truck while peering down the edge of a mountain road.
Rode in a bone shaking horse and cart, rode a camel, two days riding the rapids in the middle of a jungle, fishing by helicopter, zipped around a countryside of ancient temples on an ebike…oh and then had to push the thing home in the middle of the night because the battery went flat, sped along the highway on the back of a motor bike that looked like it was still being repaired, meanwhile fretting if my travel insurance was up to date, rode a push bike barefoot around city streets at night, no lights (well, everyone else was doing it).
Taken train trips that roll from side to side, you’d swear you’re on an amusement park ride, and in trains where you are constantly being flicked in the face by trees and sticks as the train carves its way through the jungle forest, taken a boat through the Amazon jungle (and survived swimming in the middle of the Amazon without being taken out by piranhas or anacondas).
So let’s go. I look forward to sharing this story with you. We got places to see, stories to tell.
But firstly why? What’s with this senior gap year?
CHAPTER 1 – LIFE IS A JOURNEY NOT A DESTINATION
Ok. So, I was wrong. Those young people. Always taking off on a gap year. Why, they should be more responsible and go get a job like the rest of us. Turns out they are right. It’s the rest of us who are missing out.
Sure, there are cruises. Floating luxury resorts catering to our every whim. Five star hotels for that well earnt getaway from the hectic pace of life. But nothing beats rolling up your trousers, so to speak and going feet first into a different culture. Experiencing at street level, the smells, the sites, the people, the food. Where your senses are stretched. Your normal standards of living and familiar surroundings that once offered familiar comfort, are stripped away. Being suddenly challenged with a new environment. And that’s exactly what our younger generation are embracing. Typically, well educated, or on the way. Hordes of them. In their thousands. Traversing the globe from one end to the other. And doing it with confidence, learning as they go. Engaging with local cultures. Exploring and experiencing different people and places from one country to another.
But I don’t get it. Sure, us Boomers never had the opportunity to freely travel the globe like this generation. It seems as we grey up top, our ability to step outside our comfortable and familiar lifestyle becomes a barrier. I know. I was challenged by the same resistance.
I must have dreamed up a hundred reasons why not to take this gap year. The Mr Logic I’m here to protect you and keep you safe voice inside the head was working overtime. It was flat out feeding the head with sensible reasons not to do something that was outside the normal comfort zone. What? For twelve months? Travelling solo. Nah, you’re too old. What if you got ill? Had a heart attack? No one would have a clue where you were. But why? You’ve got a comfortable life here in Australia. And then those middle of the night ones when Mr Logic I’m here to protect you wakes you up. “What if someone kidnaps you? It happens you know”.
But something was different this time. For the first time in my life, the gut feeling kept coming through loud and clear. Whenever Mr Logic I need to protect you came up with yet another don’t be so stupid reason, Gut feeling would say, just shut up. Get over it. You’re going. And that’s what I did.
The intent of this gap year was not a tick off sheet as to how many countries could be squeezed into a year. Rather, to establish a base in each of three continents. To be immersed in the local culture. To really experience it.
There was one another good reason for taking a senior gap year. The Government said so. The then Federal Assistant Health Minister, Ken Wyatt, had the same idea. He made an announcement saying when close to retirement, we can all get burnt out in our jobs or business. Take a gap year he said and then contribute back to the workforce. If the government says it’s a good idea, well it must be…right?
There was just one unresolved issue. Going for this length of time, I felt there needed to be a purpose. Rather than just travelling for the sake of it. Looking into a number of overseas volunteer organisations, I found it intriguing to find most of them charge several thousand dollars. What the? For what? Apparently for administration and marketing costs their web sites quietly justify. Really? It wasn’t for me. I couldn’t come up with a purpose, but I was going anyway. One significant purpose would however soon reveal itself.
This trip was about doing something completely different. Breaking away from normal daily routines. As such no planning. No goals, no deadlines. Just work out each day of the next twelve months as it came. All that was booked was one around the world ticket…which cost only five hundred dollars. But that’s another story. One stop in Spain. One in Central America. And one in South East Asia. That was the total extent of planning. Three stop offs about four months apart. There were a couple of short side trips. First two weeks with family visiting in Austria. And a couple of weeks with friends over Christmas, New Year in New York and Canada. But the rest was take it as it came.
By now the furniture had been sold. The rest in storage. I was about to shut the door for the last time. This had been our home here in Perth, Western Australia for the last five years. Perth is one of the most remote cities in the world. My wife and I had moved from Adelaide, the nearest city, just under three thousand kilometres away. As empty nesters, we felt like a sea change. We dreamt up this idea of a Caravan Alternative. Most grey nomads invest in the big mobile rig – a four-wheel drive vehicle and large caravan. The typical route covers huge distances. Head north up through the centre of Australia, then south down the east coast to complete one half of the big loop. Then complete the other half of the country a couple of years later. This time, return via the west coast.
The first stage of our Caravan Alternative plan was underway. The family home was packed up, except for a dozen boxes of personal household items. The boxes were trucked to Perth on the other side of the country. A tenant was ready to move in. A short term rental in Perth would be our home for the next several months. Spend some time with family. Get involved in local activities, sports, etc, and use that as a base for exploring the local highlights. A low burnout form of travel while experiencing a new environment. Then repeat the same for the next three or so month stint at another destination.
It’s not something you do overnight. There's a lot of disruption. Packing up the house, sorting what to take, where to go, organising a tenant. A lot of work. But, also very exciting. As a couple, we enjoyed working together on our new exciting adventure. One of the traps in life I believe, is the rut trap. Getting stuck in the same routine of life. Where the biggest excitement of the week is who's going to be eliminated on the latest reality TV show. It’s curious how we get totally absorbed in other people's challenges and drama and while we ourselves fall deeper into our own rut.
Some say, many people die at twenty five. They just have to wait another sixty years for their bodies to join them. Relationships lose their spark. In some cases, you can see it inevitably destroys it, often resulting in a huge life upheaval drama. So, my theory was, why not design your own drama on your own terms? That’s what we did.
However, like all well intended plans, they often change. A few months in Perth, turned into five years. We were living the family dream. Our kids were now establishing their own families. Grandkids were coming on thick and fast. Our children had been spread around the world and the country. Now by a set of coincidences, we were all living within a short drive of each other. In the same city. We’d regularly catch up. We could celebrate birthdays together. Babysit the grandkids as the family nest grew.
We had come from a large family home in Adelaide. By contrast, our home in Perth was an apartment. The views overlooking the Swan River towards the city centre were captivating. The breeze from across the river invigorating as it filled the home each day with a feeling of freshness. Perth would rightly rank as one of the most beautiful cities of the world. The view across the river to the city is exceptional. We took every advantage of our balcony’s prime position. Many a balmy summer night would be enjoyed with a drink and meal on the balcony. Often shared with family or friends. Working from home, a morning and afternoon tea on the balcony became a ritual. We used to joke with each other how we’d imagine people walking past would say to themselves, “Oh there’s those two ol’ farts on the balcony again.”
Perth is also known as the city of lights. For good reason. A still night would turn the river into a huge canvas where the city lights would magically paint a spectacular reflection of brilliant vibrant colours deep across the river. This canvas landscape was forever changing. A gentle breeze shimmering across the river would add a subtle dappled glaze over the near perfect reflection. If nature was an artist, it was here at its best. The beauty was magical. We loved this home. The joy of sharing it with friends and family. Grandchildren running up to the door to be greeted with a special welcoming Nanna and Poppa hug.
But we weren’t expecting what was about to happen.
Life was about to bring this special family chapter to an abrupt end. Many people had no idea my wife had lived with cancer for the last twelve years. Her focus was on living life to its fullness, not dwelling on it. She was always full of energy. We shared a common outlook of looking to the future. Not what if. But life now had other plans. As abruptly as within less than a week, after forty years of the best part of our lives we’d shared together, it suddenly came to an end. We were still young. Just over sixty years.
Losing a life partner, a soul mate, had a huge impact. For one, it sharpens the awareness that you never know what card life will deal you.
It was now just over twelve months later. I wasn’t hanging around waiting for my card. The rest of life could go on hold. At least for a gap year.
I looked across the now empty room. The walls bare of the family photos that once warmed our home with their smiles. The paintings that each told a story, now gone. The pre-dawn light was just starting to make its way across the river. A silhouette of the city spread across the balcony windows. I reflected on the many memorable times shared together, with family and with friends. The sadness. The tears. But as much, the many times of joy and laughter we shared together. The songs we sang, the stories and all the many good times that so generously filled those walls.
If we knew what life was going to serve us, we couldn’t have planned this final chapter any better. These last five years of special family times will remain as one of our most treasured chapters.
I closed the door. Life is a journey, I reflected. Not a destination.
I pointed the car north and drove off.
Copyright 2018 My Senior Gap Year