Nearly half my life ago I had my first experience of travelling. As a starry-eyed 18-year-old boy, my band was planning a tour of the USA; at that age, having played a few live gigs and tasted just a little of the euphoria brought by performing to crowds, nothing had ever excited me more.
When the tour fell through, I was gutted. But it left me in an enviable situation, with a long pre-university summer ahead and a pocketful of saved pennies. My best mate and I decided to go backpacking in Europe.
In one month we travelled through Belgium, France, Switzerland, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Germany and the Netherlands. This was my first serious time away from home, and I loved it. I could go where I liked and stay out late drinking without fear of parental reproach. I met people whose boldness and free-living nature filled me with awe. I saw places that had previously only existed to me on TV screens and the pages of books. Whatever the ‘travelling bug’ was that people talked about, I had caught it – but I didn’t think it would take another 16 years for me to go on another big adventure.
I concocted many travel plans through these years, but life always found a way to obstruct them. Lost jobs, financial difficulties, broken relationships, competing ambitions. Once Lisa and I set our sights on this trip, it still took five years of saving and planning. I am now forever grateful that it’s taken this long.
First and foremost, after the years of failed plans and unrealised dreams, I know just how lucky I am to be here. At 18 I flew through each day as though there were a million tomorrows. Now, I am acutely aware of how quickly life can take over, and I know this could well be the last chance I ever have to do something like this. Consequently, I am savouring the experience more than I would have at any earlier stage of my life.
Moreover, having been in full-time employment for over a decade, I can now completely appreciate what a luxury it is to have extended time off work. My first travel came before I had done so much as a hard day’s toil, other than a few bitty part-time jobs.
While I did put some of my own savings into travelling Europe, I also relied a lot on help from my family, and a cash gift that my grandfather had put in a bank when I was born. Conversely, almost our entire current world travel has been funded by money Lisa and I have saved over the last few years, making many sacrifices along the way. There is something much more satisfying about spending money you have earned through years of hard work.
I have also found that a greater wealth of life experience enables you to get a lot more out of travelling. The teenage me was on a voyage of self-discovery. But as a fully-fledged adult, you know much more about the kind of person you are, and the kind of people you like. That means you can focus on enjoying the things you know you enjoy, as well as trying new experiences.
The social side of travelling is perhaps where it gets more difficult. While we’ve had our fair share of alcoholic shenanigans on the road, no longer is every day a party. Inevitably there are nights spent in hostels when you feel like the only people who don’t want to go out, and your emotions get stuck somewhere between fatigue and FOMO. And being a bit older, people make assumptions about you – particularly when you’re travelling in a couple – and are less likely to approach you (overheard on a ferry – “I don’t usually speak to couples because they don’t like to socialise”. Not true!). It can be hard work to make friends.
However, the demographics of the travelling community have changed incredibly over these 16 years. Back then, many hostels were still called ‘youth hostels’, and almost every backpacker we encountered was on the fresh-faced side of 25. Now, travelling has become a sport for all ages. For every gap-year or post-degree backpacker, we’ve met someone in their late 20s, 30s, 40s or older, usually like-minded types who we can connect with easily. And the travelling industry is catering for this shifting landscape more and more. (If we ever open that hostel we keep fantasising about, it will be focused on the older traveller.)
In Fiji, we stayed for two nights at Beachcomber Island – dubbed as the country’s main party resort. It’s basically a hostel with a dining area and a huge bar/club on a tiny island that you can walk around in ten minutes. I heard stories from friends who had been there years ago about how it made Magaluf look like a children’s birthday party.
We came to Beachcomber at what must have been a quiet time, with perhaps 20 people on the island. On our full day there, we went snorkelling in the morning and rocked up in the bar before the bell rang for the lunchtime happy hour. We soon got chatting with a couple from Derby in their 50s who were taking a three-month retirement holiday, an Essex girl in her early 30s, a 33-year-old New York firefighter who we had already met on another island, and a Swedish girl in her early 20s. We stayed in the bar all day. That evening the bar held a beer drinking race (known as a ‘boat race’ back home) – we rolled back the years and beat all the young whipper-snappers, winning a couple of free jugs to keep the night rolling.
So while the social aspect of travelling may not be as non-stop as days gone by, we’ve still had a total blast and met people from all walks of life, many of whom will be friends for a lifetime.
Maybe in ten years’ time I will be writing here about how great it is to travel in your 40s. Or maybe I’ll be taking my kids abroad and telling them stories about our days on the road. Who knows? What I do know is that travelling isn’t a kids’ game anymore, and I will be enjoying it one way or another for a long time to come.