lessons i learnt from travelling with a 63-year old

Let’s begin with a quick context. You might know that I am doing a mini “workcation” in Australia at the moment, in a tiny town of 3,000 people called Bellingen, which I can bet you have never heard of before. (FYI, River Valley has 3 times the population.) I am working at a guesthouse for 2 to 3 hours a day, in exchange for accommodation at night. It’s a pretty good deal actually, compared to many other physically taxing labour that is required of other agricultural-based jobs out there.

Bellingen is a quaint bohemian town that if you Google, returns an article that says that it is “heaven on earth”. I’m not too sure about that, but gorgeous creeks, rainforests and beaches are only a quick drive away, and it’s definitely a paradise in summer for nature lovers.

To get to these spots, though, I need a car, which I don’t have. The last I drove was 6 years ago anyway, so even with a car, I would probably be too paralysed at the wheel to do anything. I have to rely on the local friends I make in town or the guests at the guesthouse to bring me along on their escapades. One of these lovely people happen to be a 63-year old lady from Canada that I somehow managed to strike an unlikely friendship with when I checked her in during my first night reception duty. She has seen about 4 more decades of life than I have, and get it guys, she is a decade older than Singapore.

Margaret is absolutely charming and a great conversationalist. There were hardly any other moments, besides those when we let our minds be still to immerse in the beauty of the surrounding nature, when silence fell between us. Between our trips – trekking at Dorrigo National Park, swimming in the creeks in Promised Land and walking the entire beach-side broadwalk in Urunga – we shared thoughts on many topics, from frivolous boy talk and common cynicism toward self-declared yogis and healers, to more serious conversations on religion, feminism and climate change.

I said goodbye to Margaret this morning, and right now as I am enjoying my break for the day, I think back about the lessons she has taught me, through the few and far between blatant advice she gave me (she did not try to be naggy and give me grandmotherly advice simply by the virtue of her age), through her life stories and through observing her on the road for 2 afternoons.

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It’s not luck. It’s privilege and self determination

I have lived in many countries despite my age. I’m 25, but I can confidently say that I have lived in Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and England. China and Korea too, if 1.5 months (in each place) can be considered significant enough.

Of course, there are people who have moved and lived their lived in plenty more countries than I have. Whenever people marvel at this plain fact of my life, I tend to brush it off and say, “I’m just lucky.” I really am. I can’t count my blessings enough for how lucky I am to be born into a family that isn’t just super supportive about what I do, but with parents who are financially well-off enough to make these overseas living and travelling happen for me.

Margaret, however, was to have none of those “I’m just lucky” bullshit. It was the first time in our conversations that I actually heard frustration in her voice. She insisted, that it really isn’t just luck. It is definitely a privilege, that we have to admit. I am privileged.

But it is also self-determination. Margaret has filled her life with lots and lots of wonderful travels. She was born in Australia but moved to Canada and married the man she met for visa (with whom she just separated from 6 years ago), and across the next decades, spent time all over the world, including 1.5 years in India, to travel and volunteer. Age isn’t stopping her. This trip to Australia is her homecoming trip. She’s planning to uproot herself from Canada and move back to Australia – yes, at age 63 – to explore this part of the world and at the same time, rediscover herself and her heritage.

She isn’t the richest among her friends. Moving back to Australia, with its high cost of living, also means that she is poorer than she is in Canada. Her friends are always telling her how jealous they are of her globe-trotting life. They could afford it well enough, she says, but they aren’t. They chose to stay and work on weekends for more riches that they spend on expensive watches instead of on a flight and some time abroad.

We’re lucky to have some monies, we’re privileged to be able to afford our travels, but ultimately it’s about the choices we make. We made the decision to see the world, and that autonomy, that choice, should not be undermined.

This really shifted my perspective.

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Own your age

Yes, Margaret is old, and this is what the piece of writing is based on. The fact that Margaret is an aged, old lady.

But Margaret owns it. She owns her age like no one else I know of. She joked about how her wrinkled neck and saggy arms will no longer incite the lust of men like those of a young woman would (she even made a pun once about how physicality is the lubricant to a young relationship, though I wasn’t sure if it was intentional because she did not acknowledge my laughter…) She laughed at the old band we came across in Dorrigo, about how old, bald, tummy bulging men always pretend that they are still their cool, handsome, sexy, guitar-cladding young self and they flirt, not with the women, but with themselves.

Margaret was never apologetic about her age. She rocked a bikini at our swim. She is still looking for romance (though not one based on lust, she commented, because while physical lust is what starts the fire of a young romance, one at her generation has largely got to be based on personality). She takes her age in her stride and takes advantage of it by pretending to be disturbed by noises (she isn’t) in party hostels on her travels so they’d upgrade her for free from dorm rooms to private rooms. That’s pretty badass.

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Don’t volunteer for the sake of volunteering 

I think many of us agree that overseas volunteering can be utter bullshit. You see self righteous people travelling to remote places in Cambodia or Laos or Bolivia to teach the little kids English, and then leave a few days after forming some sort of familiarity and bond with these kids, perpetuating abandonment issues in these communities. The volunteers leave with beautiful selfies with the kids and return home feeling good about themselves but completely unaware of the negative repercussions of these acts of “community service”. It’s a kind of exploitation, really.

The effects of these volunteering programmes aren’t that simple. You can’t teach the kids English and then expect them to be pulled out of poverty just by speaking the language of the colonisers. The kids might use their acquired language to sell their souvenirs to earn some keep for their family, but this also encourages their parents to keep them out of school to peddle goods instead. Not a great long term solution.

Also, girls might use English to sell souvenirs when they’re young, but when they grow older, they’d be using English to sell sex instead.

So Margaret suggests that when we volunteer, we should volunteer in the kitchen or to do laundry instead. Do something that frees up the local, permanent volunteers’ time for them to bond with the kids. Let them be the presence that can be of value to the kids’ lives. English is completely unnecessary for them to learn.

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