- the mountain, the temple, the ancestral home -
that will stir our heart and restore our sense of wonder.
- Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage
On the last afternoon of my thirties, I sat across from my friend Maria at an outdoor cafe. I took a sip of chai and fretted: “I think I’m out-aging my lifestyle.” We were in Pokhara, Nepal, one of the world’s well-known backpacker ghettos. Chinese, Europeans, and Americans wandered by, most in their early twenties and on a gap year. They shouldered oversized bags and pared their hiking boots with loose pants procured probably from the beaches of Koh Phangan.
Maria refilled my chai while I reminisced like a pre-mature grandma. “I used to be one of them— before the phrase ‘gap year’ even existed.” 16 years before I’d wandered down this same Pokhara street, gorging on winter sunshine, banana lassis and fleeting friendships. Time was cheap and I shelled through days like peanuts—just because there seemed to be so many of them.
Now here I was again on the brink of 40 with a travel resumé that rivaled Marco Polo’s. I’d piloted junky vehicles through Malaysia, searched for sea turtles in Koh Tao, dog-sat in Amsterdam, cat-sat in Fez, braced against the winds of Tarifa, and climbed the Rock of Gibraltar. Never mind the gap year, I’d had a gap decade.
I was suddenly haunted. Would this life-long rambling lead to ruin and rootlessness? Would I die in a bed in Tangier? Lose my mind in the Sahara? End up Queen of Cannibals? Or worse, would my adventure ambitions sag into somnolent cruises and stale bus tours?
“Just think of Dot,” Maria consoled. We’d just finished up a trek with the 86-year old Dot Fischer-Smith. Dot is known around southern Oregon as an activist and is a life-long traveler. She is tough and carefree, huffing her bike up the long grade of Oak Street in Ashland in the August heat, dancing front row in loose dresses at summer concerts. Being abroad seemed only to enhance Dot’s spark, and she inadvertently dazzled us several times: when she origami-ed her limbs into tortoise pose in front of Annapurna South, when she bent to pick up a fifty pound basket of rocks, and when she took off for a solo jaunt up Pokhara’s Sarangkot Mountain.
But for all her insistence that she is “ordinary,” Dot felt like an exception—not an entirely accessible role model for the average traveler. But what does adventure look like for the average elder?
I scanned the streets of Pokhara. Its rough and dusty ambiance didn’t offer the most random sampling. The elders there were all rather Dot-like: trekking, cycling, meditating, rafting and volunteering. But with a bit of research, I found that the overall trend was there. With longer lives and better health, older travelers are one of the largest growing sectors of the adventure tourism industry. Travel companies are now catering to specifically to their needs and wants—which is to forgo sedate tours and take on more active and experiential itineraries.
“Comfort travel doesn’t much interest me,” Christine Jinga, 66, explained. “Certainly cruising with couples ticking off the sites feels a little abhorrent. Taking a public bus, meeting a young Nepali woman, later her boyfriend, then dinner with his family that night … those accidents of trust and chance are what appeal in travel.”
“Adventure before dementia!” exclaimed 73-year old Barrie Peters, quoting a bumper sticker in Australia. He and his wife, Marleen have travelled to India, Yemen, Ethiopia, Oman and many other countries. “We travel at every opportunity,” he said.
I continued to research and chatted with as many of these adventure-elders as I could. Here is what they had in common:
A DEMAND FOR MEANING
Perhaps when you are young, just taking in the wonder of being somewhere new and foreign is its own purpose: the people, the architecture, the colors, the food, the release from the sometimes oppressive cliques and concerns of high school, university, and life in general. But older travelers seem to seek even more.
Phil Cousineau, travel guru and author of the book The Art of Pilgrimage takes note of his evolution over a lifetime of travel: “When I was young I traveled for exhilaration and strange encounters…As time goes by I am far more concerned with finding what the ancients called ‘the soul of the world,’ the essence of the culture I’m visiting, and my soulful response to it.”
“I have that impulse to travel, but I need a reason. I need a purpose,” explained Fisher-Smith. She’d spend five summers in Ladakh, India, protesting globalization and had come to Nepal to assist with our writing workshop.
The other older travelers echoed this. “I can’t just sit around,” said Peter Lane. I met him wheeling a mountain bike down the street. He seemed particularly aware of the inner journey, conceiving his travels as more of a pilgrimage, rather than a mere trip. In that vein, he’d just finished up a month long Buddhist retreat at the Kopan Monestary in Kathmandu. He was content to spend a bit of time in Pokhara, but not too long. He looked around at the bakeries and pubs—a stark contrast from the monastic setting he’d just been immersed in. “I can’t waste time,” he said.
Woody Allen said that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. By the time you are beyond 50, you have an experiential understanding of this concept. If upturned plans are almost a law of physics, it is somehow magnified in travel where there are so many more variables for the deities to tinker with. For that reason, almost all the older travelers I met had honed the art of going-with-the-flow.
“I have no itinerary, and I only book one way tickets,” Peter continued. “Day by day I make a choice about what I’m doing next.” In Asian countries, this spontaneous approach seems to work the best for him. “You have to follow intuition because strict plans don’t work in these areas.”
Dany Blue, 69, has traveled all of her life—toting her kids along on overland journeys through Tunisia, Morocco, Yugoslavia and Greece. She used to adhere to strict plans, for the sake of her kids and family. But since that time, divorces and employment upheavals have loosened her grip on life’s wheel—in a wonderful way. With boxes in India and France and no sense of a permanent home, she has embraced the unknown. “Before I wanted things; now I trust life. I have no idea what the future will bring …” She looked off down the dusty road, “but it will be great.”
Christine went through a similar expectation-shedding after a divorce. “I threw the tent in my car and headed out into western NSW Australia to sleep on the earth and live with just the bare essentials. Those four or five days were probably the essence of travel for me now - not too much planning, being open to the random.”
Barrie reflected back on his early travels: “I used to be quite impatient…but at the end of the day you’ll get the best out of a culture by being pleasant and smiling. There is no point in complaining. It isn’t going to do anything anyway.”
THE DESIRE TO CONTRIBUTE
The elders I met expressed a strong desire for a reciprocal relationship with a place, although not always through a formalized programs. Dany was helping her trekking guide rent a house for his family and remains committed to supporting them until they have achieved autonomy.
I met France-native Lily Lefond on a sunny Christmas Day. She missed her grandson but had plans to spend the holiday with a Nepali family. The retired teacher began her relationship with Nepal long ago, spending most of her time engaged in school projects. “The first time I came to Nepal I was just helping on my own,” she explained. “All of the children need help. “ She has since been able to magnify her efforts through an organization called Association Babu Nepal. She enjoys lazy-time in places like Pokhara, but enjoys witnessing children’s gratitude even more. “I can’t come without presents or money,” she said, glancing at her ring, made from an old copper coin she purchased from a homeless street vendor alongside the road.
Marleen and Barrie were in Pokhara to volunteer at Three Sister Trekking—an agency they were referred to seven years before when they came to Nepal to walk the Annapurna Circuit. The agency trains and employs female porters and guides, an option appreciated by many solo women travelers. Through volunteering, Barrie and Marleen have become deeply connected with the girls and now return every winter to help with marketing, English-speaking skills, and training.
When they weren’t volunteering, Barrie and his wife were regular trekkers, as were a lot of the older people I chatted with. He admitted things are changing since they trekked here 30 years ago. “It’s more uncomfortable. It’s getting harder to sleep on solid beds and solid pillows. Every time we come back from a trek, I ask: Is this going to be our last trek? Then I brush off my boots and go again.”
Dot derives a certain vitality from the discomfort. “I’m a primitive at heart. If I believed in past lives, I’d say that I have had many peasant lives. There is something about being in little bamboo hut on a little board bed …I don’t know how to explain it. I feel more connected to myself.”
Christine surprised herself by signing up for parahawking flight—a combination of paragliding and falconry. “I really never planned to paraglide - but I felt utterly confident in the skills of the team, knowing that the car and bicycle I use in the city present much greater risks. Flying with vultures, watching the dawn on Annapurna One—all offer a moment in the divine.”
If there is a down side to traveling into elder-hood, it’s the pain of seeing the world change—often for the worse. Most missed the way that travelers used to interact with each other pre-Internet, trading tips on the obstacles and delights ahead.
Development and modernization also proves a bit traumatic. Marleen looked across the street to a high-rise hotel and mused, “This whole lakeside used to be grass. The trekking routes are more crowded now, too. Thirty-years ago this was a new frontier.”
Dot also remembers Pokhara from a visit thirty years before. “There is memory, there are contrasts, things that come up about the past, things you wish were different.” She looked out at the hotels. Horns honked below us, dust swirled up from the street in the wake of traffic, and a line of tall shops now blocked the lake view. “This was just a little town …dirt roads. It’s just tragic to me.”
“I try not to keep dwelling on what was,” she continued. “It’s a task. But it’s always a task to be in the present. That’s my thread that I follow …just to be present with what is. I certainly don’t always succeed at it.”
Despite all these drawbacks, all felt that traveling into old age helps keep a person young and sharp. Dany was struck by how her older self contrasted with her younger self—the one who struggled with divorce, the expectations of others, and jobs she didn’t want.
“I’ve never felt as young as I do now. At twenty, I was an old woman inside. Now I’ve regained my sense of curiosity.”
On the morning I turned 40, I strolled Pokhara’s lakefront. Raft-laden Jeeps idled in the road and paragliding wings colored the sky. I spied mountain bikes and drift boats, and trails heading off in every direction. I stopped at a café, ordered a coffee, and contemplated the birthday message a friend posted on my Facebook wall: “The view is different on this side,” he messaged, “but I think you’ll like it.” It felt true. The adventure was just beginning. My vagabond future looked bright.
Only take short tours to get started.
Seek local places to eat and sleep,
you’ll see more of the culture.
— Peter Lane —
Don’t be scared, but be cautious.
Don’t be over confident, but dare.
— Dany Blue —
I think you need to be healthy,
or have a very strong younger companion
who is willing to hold your hand to
‘jump across the river’.
— Dot Fisher-Smith —
Don’t just read about a place.
You can’t imagine it.
— Lily LaFond —
If you have issues with patience,
go to India.
— Barrie Peters —
On April 25th, several months after this story was written, Nepal was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Tandem paragliding pilots and other adventure professionals from Pokhara quickly mobilized to deliver medical care and supplies to many of the hard-to-reach villages that were devastated by the quake. Although relief operations are underway, rebuilding is a long term process and so Nepal could use your ongoing donations. Consider sending your contribution to support the grassroots efforts of the KarmaFlights organization. Go to: www.karmaflights.org