I used to be fearless. Once upon a time I was ready to go out and explore and conquer the world. At 21 I was jaunting around Europe on my own with a Eurail pass. I stayed in the hostals, met other young people, would hook up for a few days and travel with them; then we'd go our separate ways, depending on where we were heading. When you are young and traveling on your own, you are not on your own for long. I don't think this applies to the mid-life traveler. Many hostals don't even accept people over 30 and, let's face it, neither the 20-somethings want to hang out with you, and nor do you want to hang out with them. After going on a student exchange to Calgary in the 1980's, four of us decided to hang out and hitchhike around, camping, hiking, and climbing. It was one of the best times of my life.
One of the things that impressed me about Eat, Pray, Love was the fact that Elizabeth Gilbert was able to take off and do what she wanted for an indefinite period of time. This requires a certain amount of disposable cash, and no dependent children. In my case, I have a deficit of the former and a surfeit of the latter.
The window of opportunity to travel on my own is limited: basically I can travel in July while my boys are on vacation with their father. During the year they live with me fulltime and see him every other weekend; an arrangement that is not exactly conducive to a jet setting lifestyle.
So where and how does a person of a certain age (too old for the youth hostals, too young for Elder Hostal) travel?
Most of my recent travels have been with my children: Paris, New York, Quebec City, Ottawa, Toronto, and last year London (oh yeah, Disney World too). The boys are excellent cultural and historical travelers. I'd like to do more camping-style traveling but only one of the two is really inclined, and I can't stand the thought of traveling with a whiny adolescent who really doesn't want to be there.
The other obvious travel option is the friend and family network. In the late 1990's Colombia was in the throes of an economic crisis, and a number of friends up and left. Cathy went to France; Gaby and Frank went to Mexico; Doris and Mauricio went to Spain. Invitations to visit all of them are pending. And there are others: Liz and Paul are in Houston; Lori in Toronto; and Jenny and Marshall in London (Ont.) have also extended invitations recently.
My friend Robert has travelled with CouchSurfing.org. I love this idea. People voluntarily open their homes and welcome travelers for a few nights at a time. This strikes me as an amazing way to meet people as you travel. Some places take children too, but I don't know that my kids would be inclined. I wouldn't mind receiving guests either. Having lived here for years, I've become a bit of an expert at dispensing Bogota travel, tourism and survival info. Mind you, there is no where to put miscellaneous travelers in this apartment. This is a backburner plan.
There is another reason that keeps me from packing my bags and heading for the airport. A friend loaned me a guide to Portugal. As I was leafing through it and picturing myself enjoying a drink at a charming, quiet out-of-the-way café, watching the sun set over an azure ocean, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the thought that I don't want to do this on my own; I'd rather have someone to share it. This realization stopped me in my process of vacation planning. It suddenly felt like too much effort. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I had lost that fearless edge. I don't know that I necessarily want to go back to my footloose hostal days, but I do want to reclaim that ability to go out and explore the world.
This doesn't mean that I don't travel at all. This week I am off to the Hay Festival in Cartagena with my friend Sally. Sally is my top all-purpose (todo terreno) friend; game for theatre festivals, literary festivals, and demanding hikes. We are staying at a house owned by a friend of hers in the old city. The location could not be more perfect. We went to the festival last year and had a fantastic time.
So I'll be away for the next while, enjoying the Hay Festival. Be on the lookout next week for the reviews! The world awaits, but I haven't decided how I am going to deal with it.