I am shocked by the extent to which I’ve rationalised what lockdown has made of me.
I’m going, “hmm, I used to think I was an extrovert but do you know, I really think I am more naturally introverted…I’m not sure that I even LIKE my friends…”
Oh yes. And I’ve been joking with those friends for weeks about how I could “quite happily do nothing but sit on my sofa with my iPad for the rest of my life, la di da…”
But it’s a pernicious form of lying to myself, even if it did grow out of an attempt to be courageous. And enough is enough. Never has the phrase ‘Use it or Lose it’ seemed more pertinent.
So, I have, impulsively, bought a very large Ford Transit campervan conversion called Kingsley. And he’s a bit camp! Part of the trend for what is being called “The Gentrification of VanLife” apparently. He’s got a white ceramic countertop sink with curved tap, matching rectangular Subway tiles behind the hob, a mirror with a seagrass fringe that looks like a parasol on a tropical beach, and two sets of dinky little spice jar shelves which have been a joy to fill. (Cumin, coriander, chilli flakes and salt? Or plasters, rubber bands and marijuana?)
I had a glorious few days online shopping for everything else a VanGran like myself might need. I bought a beanie hat with an integral head torch (yay!); a fifteen-metre food-grade hose pipe for the water tank; a lidded salad bowl; a Bivvy Loo (don’t ask) and much, much more.
But here’s the thing: one month on and I’ve only dared to take the van out once. I drove it nervously to a garage where I practised filling up, repeating “diesel, diesel, diesel” under my breath like a madwoman so I didn’t use unleaded by mistake. And now I feel the need for a long and uninterrupted rest. Indoors. What’s happening to me?
It’s not as if I’m new to VanStuff. Once, when I was 21, I drove a ten-ton Ryder rental truck from the East coast of the U.S.A to California. For two years in the seventies, I double d-clutched an old hippy-painted ambulance full of inflatables around London and Europe for the community theatre Action Space. I fell in lust with a very hairy Australian Clown who lived in his Mercedes Fuck Truck in the car park of the Oval House Theatre Club. Oh, that van!
And in 2014, aged 62, I finally got a Vroom Of My Own, an ancient RomaHome called Marjorie. She looked like a biscuit tin on wheels. With old-fashioned-flesh-toned-underwear coloured paintwork and upholstery. No power steering or other modern gizmos. Every time I climbed aboard I felt an ecstatic thrill of freedom, hope, and the promise of adventure.
Not this time. I feel as if I’ve been muffled by a blanket of trepidation. I fret about every detail and threat to equilibrium. I’ve even caught myself wondering how quickly I can sell it on without losing face. I’m feeling OLD – in a trembly, wavery, weedy way that I cannot stand.
I’ve never been scared of getting old. When I was young I knew instinctively I would improve with age and I have. Yes, I am labouring under the delusion that I’m still ‘going from strength to strength’. But if logic decrees this cannot be possible, then I still aspire to be the kind of old woman who retains the fuck-off fearlessness and ‘one of the boys’ machismo of my younger self.
Well, it’s a fact that I can no longer turn the knob of a gas bottle with my arthritic fingers. But I am still capable of squatting in the grass to take a pee and getting up again (I am pathetically proud of this). And I chose to buy the van, too; it wasn’t forced upon me by the government. So maybe it is just a question of busting out of the lockdown mindset.
I’ve also realised that in all my fantasies about VanLife, I’m not exploring picturesque villages and churches or walking miles along the coastal path. I see myself all cosied up under the duvet of my van bed, with a good book, back doors open to the sunshine dappling through the branches of a wildwood, kettle whistling on the hob. I’m really after a form of Outdoor Hygge, in a ‘second childhood’ Wendy House. It’s comfort-nesting for the empty-nester.
But it’s also a bijou rehab Halfway House; locked safely in a tiny cladded cell, parked parallel but yards apart from other human beings, breathing in your own bubble of fresh air, yet only inches away from the hoots and scrabblings of Nature – simultaneously comforting and threatening, like Real Life. Just what the doctor ordered in fact: the perfect substitute drug for weaning off the opiate of lockdown.
Now it’s over (fingers crossed) I can see there’s one good thing to be said for lockdown: it was very good practice for being house or bedbound in the future. I feel comforted by the prospect of guilt-free days of the internet, and all the films and podcasts that await me in my dotage. But that is definitely for the future.
Now it’s The Now and I’m beginning to feel its power again. I’ve stopped doing Research (or Armchair Campervanning as my best friend calls it). I’ve Snoozed the addictive Women With Campervans group I joined on Facebook. I’ve booked two nights at a campsite on the edge of Exmoor.
No, I haven’t slept in Kingsley yet. But I’m well on the way to refining my ideal Spotify playlist: Baby Driver; Hit the Road, Jack; Baby, you Can Drive My Car; the entire re-mastered soundtrack of Easy Rider… I’m as ready as I’ll ever be for The Summer of VanLove. And quite excited.
May we all feel a sense of hope and freedom and the promise of adventure, now that we are ‘on the road’ again.
‘Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.’ Andre Gide
Did we lose sight of the shore? Not quite but we closed our eyes for a few minutes along the way.
Recently, my son Marlon and I went travelling together in Senegal. We were, it turns out, a bewildering combo. One rarely witnessed, if the reactions were anything to go by.
‘Are you his grandmother?’ asked Monique, a flamboyantly dressed stallholder who managed to verbally capture us on the ferry going over to Goree island near Dakar. She was, of course, more interested in our visit to see her wares – wooden masks, omnipresent bracelets and more. We didn’t go. Not because of the question, but because we weren’t interested in this particular strand of touristville.
‘Are you his wife?’ asked an array of male hustlers. The latter was in pursuit of a sugar mummy. Particularly at the beach village of Toubab Dialaw, which hovers between a tourist trap, a hubbub of djembe workshops and a relaxed environment for mixed race couples. We were entranced by it, by the way.
‘Are you his mother?’ More often and gratefully received in all sorts of different places from the taxi to the beach.
When I got home, I googled Travelling With Your Adult Children and discovered that it is a burgeoning holiday sub-section especially amongst Baby Boomers. There have been articles in the New York Times on this very subject. However, it’s usually families going on holiday together. Not a mother and grown-up son.
How did it happen? This mother and son adventure. Well, my mother died in summer after six years of Alzheimer’s. She was almost 92 and it felt as though it was her time to go. I felt blessed that she was able to let go then before she didn’t recognize us anymore. And, of course, it was distressing. Three weeks before, that, one of my closest friends, Jayne, chose to end her life at 48 because she couldn’t stand living with the torment – it had been 10 months – of suicidal clinical depression anymore.
It was a shocking, tearful time. And as death does, it prodded me into focusing on being fulsome in the present. Marlon and I had been talking about going away on our own. Having a little voyage without our partners. It’s allowed! A new propulsion arrived. Okay, let’s go to Senegal – somewhere I’ve wanted to go since having a ‘flingette’ with a gentleman from this West African country during my year out in Paris during 1973.
Senegal was a new place for me. And Marlon. It is also safe and relatively politically stable. I knew I’d get to speak lots of French. These were influences. I booked the flights to Dakar in September.
In December, I realized I hadn’t done anything other than that. I researched hotels – eventually found one recommended by the Guardian that seemed to be near to the beach. Hotel du Phare. It looked funky, maybe other travellers would be there with precious information. I booked it for four nights and a taxi from the airport to make our arrival as easy as possible. I’m an oldster traveller!!
On the plane in early January, I still hadn’t read the guidebook. My travelling modus operandi – previously in Cuba, Bali, Rajasthan etc – is to book a few first nights and then travel on the hoof with my book in hand and ears open. It does require an intense reading of the guidebook – and over the years I have honed the knack of hotel-hunting by getting to the know the subtexts of what I want and what is there, sometimes I’ll prioritise the location and others the hotel – to get what you want.
Seriously, I read the Brandt guidebook (which I recommend in this case) and one other book – a Senegalese classic So Long A Letter by Mariama Ba – when we were away and Marlon read five!
But I enjoy it. The ad-hoc planning, that is. Be warned. It isn’t for those who desire complete relaxation and comfort. There are errors and not so much insulation from the rough and tumble. When I was in Cuba with my friend Amanda in 2017, there were so many more tourists than I had imagined – a new diplomatic détente with the US had happened – and finding places to stay was tough. I had to try very hard, with friends of friends of our various hosts and speak Spanish as best I could. It was the sort of challenge I like.
Funnily enough. when we arrived at the aforesaid Lighthouse Hotel in Dakar, we were both ill with British colds and coughs, and there was a disco for 18-20 year olds going on!! Not the ideal. And the hotel had style but not much organization. Towels were difficult to obtain. We were paying £60 a night so I wasn’t impressed.
But the location in Mamelles – which is dusty but leafy too – near the sea was perfect. Yes, mamelles does mean breasts, it refers to the two hills in the area. One of which has the 19th-century French lighthouse – it is still used – on it.
Immediately, we discovered just how French Senegal still is. Baguettes and croissants for breakfast, the currency is tied to the Euro, everyone speaks French as well as their local tribal language and there are gendarmes everywhere too. It became independent in 1960 and the first president, Leopold Senghor, the poet-president as he was called, was all for Negritude – promotion of black arts and culture which still affects Senegal positively today – but also into keeping close links with the colonial power, France. Not everyone agreed with him in the latter respect believing it would hold back its evolution as an independent African country.
But it’s sandy. It is the Sub-Sahara. And Dakarois take the biscuit when it comes to knowing how to sport their often jaunty boubous and hats. With so much grace and attitude. It’s not a strut, just relaxed pride. Even at the bus stop. There would be those attractively clashing stripes for the men plus maybe a trilby, and the architectural headscarves for the women in yellows and oranges. No pastels here.
Big news. We made it to see Yousn’dour. He is the superstar Senegalese singer and musician who did that amazing duet Seven Seconds with Neneh Cherry in the early 80s. It sold millions. Marlon noticed he was playing locally with his band Super Etoile. So we made our way over there, through traffic jams and desert dust and managed to buy tickets.
We thought we were arriving reasonably late at 9pm, in other words, he might come on soon. Four hours later, a whole host of Senegalese pop stars had appeared but not the man himself. And we were standing! This was a mistake. As we bought the tickets, it wasn’t obvious that there was a choice. We wondered why the seats were all empty – perhaps he’s not as popular as he used to be, haha – and then three hours later, they began to fill up. Some people knew something. There was a dazzling array of sparkle on display, ‘selfies’ were de rigeur and Nicky Minaj seemed to be the main inspiration for the women.
However at 1am, this outdoor venue, which was now packed – erupted. The atmosphere was one of deep personal love. Everyone knew all the lyrics and sang along. There was much swaying and boogying. Yousn’dour’s voice is plaintiff, electric, devotional. I couldn’t help falling in love myself.
By 2 pm – after five hours of standing, we were both tired out –and decided to wiggle our way out, the band was still playing and Yousn’dour’s incredible voice unified the crowd. In fact, as we departed, groups of young people invited us to dance in their circles. Of course, you know which one of us took up the offer!
‘Well done, mum,’ pronounced Marlon, too grown up to be embarrassed. We finally got to bed at 3pm. Earlier, it has to be said, than the rest of the crowd.
There was also the trip to Goree island – the notable encounter with Monique – which has the UNESCO heritage site, La Maison des Esclaves, visited by world leaders from Obama to Mandala. This is one of the places where thousands of Senegalese people who had been captured as part of the Atlantic slave trade – were deported to the Americas. There were dungeons, places of torture for the recalcitrant, and the final doors where they stepped out to either death at sea or servitude. 33,000 people and children were trafficked from Goree over a 300 year period from the 15th century. This was just from this one port in Senegal. There were at least four more.
The information is mostly in French, and I did my best to translate. One of the shocking bits was that a woman ran the place for a long time from 1776. Anne Pepin was a signare and a metis – she was the child of a Senegalese mother and French man, and she herself was in a relationship with a French aristo – and in Senegal it was common for the signares to be the interface between the slaves, the traders and the colonial power. This was a clever move, in their terms.
We learned how Africa was weakened by this trade, how their cultivation was severely affected by all these tribal growers being captured and trafficked. Whole families were taken. It is dark reading matter but essential for understanding the bigger colonial picture and the shame of it. We were moved and reflective afterwards.
Toubab Dialaw – about an hour and a half by taxi south – is by the sea and our next destination. I confess that an important part of my travel vocabulary these days – is hire a taxi to get to the next place. In the 80s and 90s, and even ten years ago, I was still getting local transport. I have passed through that stage! The roads are crazy in Senegal, the driving is ‘organic’, and there are a lot of accidents. I have to say my 30something companion didn’t seem to mind this choice either.
The guidebook describes TB as bohemian and teaming with artists!! I booked into Sobo Bade, which was designed by Haitian artist and architect, Gerard Chenet. It has turrets and towers, – Gaudi and Dali were on his mind – there are mosaic crescendos. It is a marvel. Turns out that Mons Chenet is 87 and still lives in one of the rooms. I tried to meet him. Unfortunately, he was sleeping every time I enquired. But we did get to stay in a thatched turret overlooking the sea.
The first artist we met, was Picasso. Naturally. On the beach with his paintings. Turned out he was the younger brother of Picasso after all. We were assailed every time we hit the beach – with the Senegalese terranga. In other words, welcome. Which often translates as ‘Come and see my paintings’.
Toubab Dialaw was fascinating. Crafts salesmen but an empty beach, French tourists, super duper contemporary homes, and shacks beside the sea selling Yassa Chicken, one of the most popular local dishes with onion gravy. It is a winsome mishmash.
It is a mixed race couple hot spot. There are the couples that I assume have met, for instance, in France. A Senegalese man with a French woman. And then there is the pervasive boyfriend trade – which comes in different forms. The offer to be a boyfriend for the day with sexual services thrown in. I happened to be reading in one of the hotel’s hammocks when the-younger-than-my-son security guard showed himself eager to visit the Sine-Saloum Delta with me. Expenses paid of course. I didn’t take up the offer.
Later that day – we went off for an afternoon visit the amazing Theatre d’Engouement, a magical location, theatre plus rooms, swimming pool and off the wall sculptures also created by Mons Chenet, for performances and festivals – we found ourselves being consciously lured into a crafty shop. It had some Malian wall hangings that I liked the look off!
Well, Bad Boy was eye-catching at first. With his haphazard, stylish dreadlocked side ponytail. The father of all Sufi neck pieces – we are about to learn that he’s a Baye Fall which means he belongs to the Mouride Sufi Muslim brotherhood that is known for their mostly liberal ways – which features a photo of his spiritual guru on a very thick leather cord. It is a fuck off spiritual accessory, to say the least.
We’re offered mint tea and we accept. There is much pouring. To create a decent head of foam. A young Danish woman comes in and is obviously partnering up with one of the Baye Fall brethren because she’s just been to Touba, their holy city and is full of it.
Before I can mention Mali and fabric, Bad Boy has gone all spiritually soppy on me. He gazes into my eyes as though he is seeing a woman for the first time. I have to say they are rivered with red. ‘You must come with me to Touba,’ he announces as though I have no say in the matter. ‘You’re my Yaye Fall.’ There is an absolute nature to his tone. I give Marlon a nudge and we beat a gentle retreat while waving at Tiffany in New Orleans on one of the other guys’ phones. Oh the joy of craft shops.
I must say I hadn’t been expecting this kind of attention. We’re both bemused.
Although less so when a very drunk dreadlocked gentleman leers and lurches up to me in the pitch black later that evening. For a moment, – and it’s the only moment on our entire trip – I’m frightened. We walk rapidly in the other direction.
Our next stop is Joal-Fadiouth, which is at the beginning of a new greener landscape around the Sine-Saloum Delta. And so many spiky, remarkably shaped bulbous baobab trees. Regarded as sacred in Senegal, they have many healing properties as well as fruit for juice and oils. They are wonderful as they mark this desert so undeniably.
Hmmm, our auberge is in a great location in that it looks out onto the water and the mangroves. In the morning, we spot several pied kingfishers in black and white, bloody great pelicans, sandpipers, cormorants, elegant herons and whiter than white great egrets. As Marlon remarks. ‘ They all have their different methods for killing, some stay still, others dive, the sandpiper gets hold of a crab and knocks it about until it dies.’ It’s quite a massacre at 7am the next morning.
We loved the location. The room and services less so. The room had strip lighting and basically no running water. We were supposed to tell them when we wanted water and they would turn on the pump. However we had one whole day without any water. Let’s not talk about flushing the toilet. Why didn’t we leave? Because we really liked the river and the staff, and this is an adventure after all.
Leopold Senghor, the first president grew up so we went along to his old house. Lots of fading photos and dense French text on the walls. However, the only employee who was called Stephane – Senegal is 92 % Muslim but those French missionaries did their job well down here and there are Catholics including Stephen and the Senghor family. Now Stephane was a hoot, which is just what was needed.
‘Don’t go in that room,’ he warned, ignoring my post-menopausal status. ‘It is dangerous. It’s a baby factory. Senghor’s father had 43 children with five different wives.’
It turns out that Leopold was child number 21 by the third wife. So often we laughed out loud in our Senegalese encounters. Stephen did a brilliant comedic turn.
Fadiouth is the famous shell island – over hundreds of years, cockle shells were discarded here– and is connected to Joal by a footbridge. You have to take a guide to go over there. We did but in comparison with Stephane, he was so on script we were quickly bored and doing our own thing.
Mostly goats are the ubiquitous animals in Senegal but here it’s pigs and piglets. Catholic, you see. There is also conch meat and stingrays out drying, not to mention a woman chopping the hammer off a hammer head shark and then doing a little dance to show how it moves in the water. More masks and bracelets to be avoided. Marlon did however buy a bag of dried cockle meat for his dad – we’re not together but we’re friends – to cook up one of his spicy stews on our return.
The star visit is to the graveyard. Surreal with shell hills, crosses lie on one side and moons on the other. Muslims and Catholics lie here together. There are even the ashes of a Black-American who discovered her ancestors came from here and wanted to be flown back.
Joal is poor. It’s a fishing village with dozens of brightly painted pirogues on the beach amongst the mountains of detritus. It’s a challenge and also needs to be seen. There’s the smell of sewage and the water problem. But there’s also the spirit of community, people sit outside their family compounds cooking fish, drinking mint tea and chatting.
One of the hotels – Hotel de la Plage – is mentioned in my book but looks closed. We wander in.
Giles, the eloquent caretaker, tells us what happened. Climate change is raising the water levels, the sea is coming much further in, it has broken up all the front of the building and the swimming pool looks as though it’s been hit by a tsunami. It’s for sale but no-one is going to buy it. This really is the world changing right in front of us.
There’s also a tourist crisis. We really don’t see many tourists in Senegal and certainly not one British one. Giles explains that the Ebola, increased prices and the financial crisis have deeply affected tourist numbers.
After a big heartfelt send-off – they were really sweet people – from the auberge without water, we are on our way further into the delta.
Faoye is a rural community on the north of the Sine-Saloum Delta. When we arrive, we can’t believe our luck.
Oh Lordy, this is an idyllic spot. After the chaos and dirt of Joal, this is a row of thatched cottages on stilts, which looks onto a vast expanse of water with salt plains at the side. It is simply magnificent. We exclaim a lot in disbelief. As usual, we are the only visitors.
And there is running water. No electricity but that is part of the treat. Early to bed and early to rise. Keeping to those rhythms of nature. Now we are in dream holiday land. It isn’t an expensive luxury eco-lodge but rather an encampment created by a Spanish NGO, which is run by members of village and the profits go to the community too.
The food is cooked by Khady who often has her third child, eight-month-old Mohammed, strapped to her back. Fish, chicken, beef. Simple tasty fare but it would be tough for a vegetarian, as would most places in Senegal. As the sun goes down, villagers arrive with their goats and horses to wash in the delta. Horses are very much part of the transport system in these parts.
We could easily have stayed a week but we just had two days. The next morning we go out with a local fisherman in his leaky boat. There were some initial difficulties. The engine kept stopping as we ‘phutted’ across this vast delta arm, he also decided to pull alongside his mate’s boat, a fisherman with no engine. And I have to add – we were paying quite a lot of money for this trip. £40.
Aminata had also come along, a young woman who was working at the encampment – to help translate. He spoke Serer (the ethnic group here is Serer) not French. So she speaks French to me. She is wearing a dazzling white dress. I am a little frustrated when she points out the ‘cows’ on the banks. It turns out she’s actually a business student in Dakar but the President, Macky Sall, has cut all funding for the moment – in other words because there is an election which needs funding – and the students have all gone home.
Finally, after an hour, everything improves. The fisherman sets free his friend’s boat, we find some mini mangroves and pelicans. And there are the inimitable salt-covered flat islands. These strange landscapes. Marlon jumps into the water, the fisherman buys some fish from friends in another boat. We end up on an island, it could be Treasure Island, we could have been stranded there for days. There is nothing but shrubs, fish and driftwood. No shade either. We crouch under a distinctly unleafy shrub while our ‘man’ makes a fire and grills the fish. They are delicious.
In the end, we are out for about six hours without shade, we got back delirious but happy. I even paid him extra.
Our final resting place is another city – this is four hours away from the delta by car and north of Dakar – but this time the old capital Saint Louis, which is squeezed onto a thin island. Pinks and yellows, crumbling 18th-century buildings with iron balconies – it reminds us of New Orleans, of Havana. There is an ambling, laidback quality to it. The perfect city to stroll in.
I am delighted because we find a big old room with a balcony that looks over the River Senegal, which has great white cotton sheets and fluffy towels, hot water and a flushing toilet. Plus electricity. I appreciate the rough and tumble of cheap hotels but then I relish the opposite. Totally. This is a room we can luxuriate in.
The wondrous encounters continue. We see what we think is a bicycle shop, we go in and it is a bike jungle instead. There are bits of bicycle hanging plentifully from the walls like a host of strange fruit. Ah ha, there is an artist in the other room. Of course.
Meisse Fall – we find his sculptures everywhere later – is the sort of gentle artist that I long to come across. His words have a lyricism that carries them along. Like a hymn to life. And ordinariness. ‘I was repairing bikes, my family always did that but I did so well that people weren’t coming back. I had nothing to do. I became an artist.’
He talks about everyone having a memory from their childhoods about bicycles and how his sculptures evoke that special time. He’s actually wearing a lyric cycling top – he cycles everywhere. There are masks from the saddles and metal animals from spokes. ‘We always say that looks are deceptive but with bikes you get what you see. They are naked. When you see a part in the road, you know it’s from a bike.’
There are contemporary galleries – one near our hotel is opened up by the owner himself, businessman Amadou Diaw who proceeds to show us around his modern creation – local restaurants, old colonial hotels, caleches, and the young fisherman who goes home and records a whole brilliant USB stick of great Senegalese music for us, the PE teacher Joel who we end up going out with. It really goes on just like that…
Senegal – you were extraordinary and have ignited my travelling spirit all over again, – that openness, that trust, that flow to whatever comes along. There’s nothing else like it. The shore is disappearing.
TIPS FOR OLDER TRAVELLERS
Buy a great guidebook and learn to deep-read it. This takes a little time but reaps enormous benefits as you start to realize what it all means.
Allow yourselves spontaneity. If you book everything up, you’ll miss the thrill of the new adventure. This means making a few mistakes and relishing the glory of the exquisite choices.
Don’t bother with local transport. Let yourselves book a taxi and driver. It can all be arranged when you get there. We often did ours on the hoof.
Pack lightly so you don’t have heavy bags to drag around. Not a backpack necessarily. I just took a small wheelie this time.
Buy a post-bite stick. They are brilliant at de-itching mosquito bites.
Hone up on the language beforehand. Gosh, it makes all the difference.
During my teenage years, growing up Melbourne, Australia during the 1970s, travel was never far from my mind.
With a father who had experienced the romance of ship travel in the Orient and my mother who was immigrant from a Second World War London, wanderlust was in my heart just waiting to blossom.
It was to come many years later – following a fulfilling motherhood to two beautiful daughters and working out of necessity.
With my passion for tarot having its roots in medieval Europe, I had always thought that would draw me first.But strangely enough, it was Asia, short holidays in Vietnam and India that ignited my yearning for more adventure. To do things differently in the footsteps of many of the ancient wise ones.
A chance meeting with a young Scottish couple travelling in Vietnam planted the seed of change in my heart. They were travelling for a year! So many questions flooded my mind on meeting them. How can you afford that? Where did you start? What a great idea! Imagine that, stepping onto a plane or ship or train and knowing you are not coming back for a whole year! A vision of Paddington Bear with only a tiny suitcase sprang to mind and I knew their dream had to be mine.
So at age 52,after much shedding – cars, furniture, full-time jobs; my partner and I handed the keys of our tiny apartment to his son. We decided it was cheaper to travel for a year staying in hostels and homestays than to live in Melbourne.
Following the sun was the trick to only needing carry-on luggage. Starting in a Melbourne autumn, we set off for spring in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We were also determined to live like locals.
We adhered to only three rules; number one was to stay at least a month in each country to allow the culture to truly seep in. Rule number two was no purchasing of clothes unless one garment was given away to a recipient who needed it. If we bought a coat, we would then leave it for somebody who could use it.Number three was we would only travel with what we could carry. In 2011, it was just 7kg of luggage.
That year saw us tango dancing in Argentina, climbing the Andes in Peru, discovering caves in Turkey and sailing the waters of Ulysiss. After a month overlooking the fiords of the tiny village Perast in Montenegro, we set off for our final six months. We travelled to the village of Rajbag in Southern India, where I studied reiki and reflexology.
Then, the universe brought us an amazing opportunity and without much hesitation, we accepted an offer to set up and run a small guest house in Vietnam. The connection from years earlier came via email.Were we still interested in managing a guest house?Yes yes yes!Was the resounding reply.
Southern India turned into our planning time for our new venture. Each day as the sun rose, we walked the two kilometres to the beach, past bird wetlands and sari-clad beautiful women on their way to work. With our toes planted in the sand, our days were spent putting our dream onto paper. Drawing plans, writing menus, our vision included becoming a part of a fishing village where we could give back to their community.Offering homely comfy accommodation with the opportunity for guests to be a part of a real village. Our Vietnamese vision sprang to life as we filled our tummies with curry and mango from the local Rajbag beach vendors.
We had never seen Bai Xep, Quy Nhon, the location for our new home. That first day, we wandered through the tiny village, little smiling faces peeped out around doorways, dogs barking, women mending fishing nets looked up at us shyly. My heart skipped beats and I knew this was going to be an amazing place to be!For the next three years, our new home became the home-away-from-home for many weary travellers.
Tears, laughter, frustration, lack of language, determination, and much love came together to realise our guesthouse Haven. From our initial kernel, came the passions of many others who made us their family for a short time. Some of them have in turn gone on to run their own guest houses which employ local people and give back to their communities.
Our life in Bai Xep was not without its hardships. Most days presented unforeseen problems. The electricity was constantly being cut. We would wake to no power, which would sometimes take days to return. We cooked with gas or on small charcoal BBQs, but as the sun rises early and sets at 6pm we were often without lighting to cook by! We managed this by wearing miners’ torches strapped to our foreheads and having candlelit dinners. With twelve hungry guests, every night – not cooking was not an option!
Language was our biggest hurdle. Not only was there no English spoken in the village but many people could not read or write. Education that we take for granted is precious to these small villages.We had two large tanks for the water, which was piped from the mountain. The tanks regularly ran dry so we would take bike trips up to the water source. Usually to find our supply had been cut and taken to another business! We put the pipe in – which brought running water to our village; before that, they only had the well. Water was pumped and carried to their humble houses.
I had thought I would get around my lack of Vietnamese by writing in Vietnamese from translator apps. To get around this problem, we bought fruit and vegetable posters and had them up on our kitchen walls. Our kitchen looked like a kindergarten, but we got the job done. I could point at what we needed and slowly my Vietnamese vocabulary increased.
As the universe does, it brought us an unexpected twist. We learned sadly that the land we leased was to be sold. We could take the risk that the new owners would lease to us, or try to sell our business. We chose to put the business up for sale. Feeling strongly that if it was meant to be – another opportunity would arise.
Chance played her part again. An English guest told us the story of her parents who lived in rural France. Something just clicked for us and we started to think about the possibility of a different life in a rural Europe.
Just two months later – after a flying visit to family in the UK, we were sitting sipping wine in Montmorillon France.We had been brought here for lunch having never heard of it. Dining on delicious crepes beside the river, we both felt the magic and knew this would be our next home.
So the wheel turned again, finally, in medieval Europe my passion for the tarot and history could bloom again.
Montmorillon, Cite De L’Ecrit, a town of books is our home now. Our rambling old 17th-century house on the river Gartempe will never be perfect. Its joy comes from living at one with the birds and the river. Our gites providing a comfy immersion in rural France, the world now comes to us!
Moving to France has created another first for me. The publishing of my first novel, Bonne Chance and Butterflies. A novel – it tells the story of woman’s courage as she makes a profound change in her life. Her incredible journey of self-discovery emerges in my magical town Montmorillon.
So, take a chance, move into the unknown, experience other cultures, listen to your heart.
When you open your heart to chance and change – the universe answers.
If you’re a pensioner who regrets not taking time out to see the world when you were younger, we have the perfect job opportunity for you. UK-based price comparison site, Compare the Market, has just launched a quest to find a lucky retired person to go off on what it is calling a ‘senior gap year’.
Email this pageAfter taking early retirement in their fifties, Faith and her husband, Alan, decided to retire to Mexico, but soon got restless. They now housesit professionally, moving from country to country for gigs—enjoying exploring the world and living a pared-down lifestyle out of one suitcase. Tell us a little about your background… I was…
How do you go from fantasizing about travelling to actually boarding a plane and letting your dreams take flight? You’ve been imagining travelling to a dream destination for years, but how do you make that leap from reverie to reality? Thoughtful planning and preparation are the keys to unlocking your fantasy vacation!
My husband Reggie, 76, and I, then 69, took that leap in April 2017. We’d been talking and dreaming about a trip to Hawaii for many years, but it always seemed to be one of those unattainable goals. Finances played a big part in our indecision. The priorities of helping our three kids pay for college, a mortgage, and just living expenses took centre stage. As the self-proclaimed family CFO of big financial decisions, I was the dream gatekeeper. But one day about a year and a half ago, feeling that we finally had some financial space, I turned to Reg and said, “It’s time to stop dreaming–let’s plan our Hawaiian trip!” And plan we did.
Where to Go?
So many places to go, so little time! Once you’ve made the decision to put travel on the front burner of your life, how do you decide the perfect place for your maiden voyage? Europe and Great Britain were at the top of our travel destinations, as well as the Azores, the birthplace of my paternal grandparents. One thing stood in the way: I hadn’t ever gotten around to getting a passport! We’ve been to Canada a few times, and Mexico, but that was many years before a passport was necessary. (I am happy to say that on my 70th birthday this past year, I finally got my passport!). Reggie, on the other hand, has been a passport holder since he was 23, when he went on a European tour as a percussionist with the Pittsburgh Symphony.
If you’re traveling alone, then it’s up to you to decide where you want to go, but if you are a couple, or travelling with friends, then sitting down and discussing several possible dream places is a good starting point. Once you’ve picked a few options that you agree on, and you know a preferred time frame, consider the weather conditions for each location. Next, research prices for flights, accommodations, activities, and highlights of each place–that will help narrow to down your choice. Since we’ve always wanted to travel to Hawaii, we only had to decide which islands to visit.
If you are fortunate and don’t have any need to be frugal, then you might be able to skip our first planning step: shopping around for the best miles card on the market. (And for UK readers, here’s a link to advice about the best air miles credit cards.)
Several years ago, as a gift from our children, we traveled to California. After our trip, we applied for and got Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards cards. We had heard good reviews about the airline and knew that plans were in the works to start flying out from the Portland Jetport, so we decided to plan ahead to be ready for our dream trip. There is a yearly fee, but we got bonus miles to get us started, and we made it a point to use our cards for everyday expenses. We used our miles to book our round-trip Southwest flights from Maine to California… for free! Even better? Reggie kept checking for the best possible prices and pounced when a flash sale popped up, so we were able to make our miles go even further.
Once our L.A. flights were booked, Reggie went online to find the best price for our flights to Hawaii via Hawaiian Airlines. He got a great price–$563 each–from California to the islands of Maui and Oahu and back. Those cards have served us well, and we’ll continue to use them when flying on Southwest Airlines. We’ve done a little more research since then, looking for a more versatile card, and got approved for a Capital One Venture Card. We can accumulate miles pretty quickly by using the cards for everyday expenses–even monthly bills–and as long as the balance is paid each month, there are no interest charges.
An essential financial pre-planning step is to get all your monthly bills paid or scheduled, so you don’t wake up in the middle of the night in your hotel room, or tent in the middle of a jungle, and realize you’ve forgotten to pay a bill. We didn’t need to stop our mail because we had a dog sitter staying while we were gone, but all of those details need to be considered as well. I think of pre-trip organization, including detailed to-do lists, as a “trip atlas”; it gives you the peace of mind to really relax and enjoy every minute of your vacation.
We booked our car rentals in a similar way to our flights. We weren’t existing Costco members, but they seemed to have the best rental car prices and didn’t charge cancellation fees, so Reg decided it was worth buying a membership to get the best deals. When he found a better price, he simply canceled and rebooked. Since he is retired, and I am still teaching voice lessons five days a week in my studio, I gladly left all that fun stuff up to him!
Choosing Your Accommodation
I was more involved in choosing accommodations because I had very specific must-haves After checking different sites, we found that Home Away VRBO had the best, most beautiful and affordable listings.. We decided on Kihei, Maui for our first location. Next, we decided to fly to the airport in Honolulu on Oahu (where we would be met by our friends, who, in true Hawaiian style, presented us with leis). Two nights were spent at their condo, before we headed off to our accommodations in Laie. Both places exceeded our expectations, one with the peaceful Zen setting and majestic gardens, and the other a beautiful place above the pounding waves of the Pacific Ocean.
On Maui, we found a ground floor condo for $109 a night with a stunning, peaceful Zen garden bordering our lanai (porch or veranda)–a perfect match to the online pictures and description. We enjoyed our morning coffee and meditation while sitting there, reminding ourselves that we weren’t dreaming; we were living the dream.
In Oahu, for $120 a night, we stayed in a second-floor, one-bedroom apartment with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean with its pounding waves crashing just below our balcony.
Prepare yourself for travel
This might not be something you would necessarily think about before traveling, but especially for advanced-age travelers, I think it’s very important to prepare physically and mentally for your trip. If you’re going on a very laid-back journey or a retreat, then this is less important. But if you plan on doing adventurous activities that you haven’t done in the past, then it’s a good idea to get a physical, make sure all medications are up to date, and that you have enough medications for the duration of your trip. If working out is part of your normal routine, and you plan on hiking, zip lining, rock climbing etc., then you should be fine, but if you’ve been pretty sedentary, then head to the gym or start an exercise regimen at home to build strength and stamina. The last things you want while traveling are an aching back, your legs giving out, or an injury!
Being emotionally ready for travel is also essential. Know your own threshold for when you need downtime, rest, or food to keep you from crashing. Travelling is fun and exhilarating, but it is tiring as well. Spending ten minutes to a half hour practising meditation daily, before and during our trip, helped us find the balance we needed to enjoy every minute, without needing a vacation from our vacation!
Plan some activities
Even if you are free spirits and enjoy being totally spontaneous, I suggest you put some time and research into at least planning some anchor activities and highlights. First, make a list of your interests, food preferences, special events, etc. Then, go to an online site like TripAdvisor, Trivago, Kayak, similar sites, or tourist bureaus to research them. Our anchor activity in Maui was a luau that we booked in advance. The Feast at Lele, in Lahaina was our choice because the pictures of the beach at sunset, the description of the Polynesian cuisine, the fully staged show, and the private tables set right on the sand made it irresistible. We wanted to go to ‘Mama’s Fish House’, but when I looked at the entrée prices online, I nixed it. Yet, as our days in Maui were waning, I felt an uncontrollable urge to go, and once again, I gave the go-ahead, feeling that we deserved this once-in-a-lifetime extravagance. Since our anniversary was in two months, I also figured it would be our 47th-anniversary gift to each other. The setting, ambiance, drinks, appetizers, desserts, and entrees were worth the nearly $300 tab. We were not disappointed!
Zip lining anyone? Hell, why not! You only live once! To ensure that we wouldn’t chicken out, we booked it ahead, at Climb Works, for our anchor adventure on Oahu
Some travel precautions
If you travel to Hawaii and plan to hit the beaches, only swim at beaches where there is a lifeguard and other swimmers. Don’t exceed your ability if you haven’t swum in years. Don’t turn your back to the ocean. Don’t stand on wet rocks. Learn about riptides—where they are and what to do. The ocean is much stronger than you, and it will always win! I can attest to this firsthand when a wave caught me by surprise and gave me quite a tumble. Fortunately, the worst that happened was that I mooned a few people behind me. Whoops. From then on, I was more respectful of the ocean.
If you decide to head for the hills and plan to drive on mountain roads, always check weather alerts for flash flood warnings. Oh and be sure not to leave any items visible in your vehicle – put everything into the trunk to reduce the risk of theft or break-ins.
‘Do you really need that?’
Reggie asks me this question whenever we travel–even if it’s a two-day trip. It’s just so hard to decide what you will to want to wear on any given day, so I usually over pack. It doesn’t make much difference for a road trip, but flying is a different story. We wanted to keep it to one checked bag between us, and a carry-on each. For our Hawaiian trip, I made a list and started practice packing a month before. Packing for a warmer climate made it easier to squeeze in more “necessities.” I would put items in, think about whether I could manage without them, and was able to eliminate a few unnecessary things. I also reminded myself that if I was lacking anything, it could be purchased there. I actually did end up buying a pair of very stylish but comfortable Croc sandals on Maui because the bottoms of my feet were burning. My feet were in heaven for the rest of the trip!
What are you waiting for?
So if you’ve been dreaming about a trip, and for whatever reason haven’t taken that leap to bring your dream to fruition, now is the time for action. Dreaming is the first step. Unless you open that dream jar, act on your fantasy, and make it a priority, it will stay a dream and fade away. Once we decided to make travel a part of our lives, I thought it would be nice to document our travels in a blog with prose and pictures. Did I have any idea how to write a blog, or if I could even put words on paper? Hell no! But I came up with a great name, “VagaBonnins,” opened a WordPress account, and just did it!
I haven’t been very prolific yet—I’ve written only two blog posts—but it’s a start. So what’s next? I’m happy to say that we are in the very early planning stages of a trip to England, Paris, and Amsterdam for this coming August. Once again, Reggie is searching for the best deals for flights and accommodations. Another dream has left the jar and taken flight, so I’d better start practice packing now!
You can read more about Gloria & Reggie’s adventures at http://vagabonnins.com/
I met my man when he was 50 and we married three years later when I reached my own half-century. Between us we have five amazing children – he has two boys and I have three girls, all now in their 20s. We had a great life in the UK. We both had good jobs, the kids all did well at school and college and were on a trajectory to fly into their own lives after University and professional training. So, you might think, what on earth did we want to change things for?
The sunshine. Pure and simple. I’m a proud Englishwoman, but boy does it rain. And somewhere in my DNA was a little voice calling me southwards, where the skies are blue and I don’t have to hibernate from November to March. Luckily for me Julian felt the same – in his case the call of the mountains for skiing in winter. The kids no longer needed us to be there in the same way so why not see what we could find while we were still young enough to really enjoy it?
We started exploring in 2011 when we took my little red sports car for a holiday in the Pyrenees, starting in San Sebastian, crisscrossing the peaks as far as Foix to the East then returning to Bilbao. I speak Spanish so the logical place to settle was on the Spanish side, but who’s following logic when you are looking for a home?
The rolling countryside around Carcassonne and Mirepoix in French Cathar Country captured our hearts. Panoramic views of the high mountains, medieval cities, vineyards soaking up the sun. We were entranced. We carried on researching, but nothing was quite the same – the high Pyrenees were just too high; the Black Mountains were too wet; the rest of the Languedoc down to the coast was too dry and windy. Starting to feel a bit like Goldilocks, we came back to the low Ariege and realised that for us, it was just right.
And so began a fact-finding mission to see if we could afford the kind of house we wanted. My dream for many years had been to set up a Wellness Centre in the UK, offering a range of complementary therapies, but importantly just a place for people to stop. To rest. To be. For one reason or another, it was never the right time, but this now was my opportunity. We wanted a small house for us, with gites for our guests and workspace for the therapists.
Julian is an ace organiser, and he had set up for us to meet an estate agent in Mirepoix. She threw herself into the task of finding us a place and spent all of Saturday showing us fantastic properties from mountainside chalets to fourteen-bedroom estates. But nothing was saying yes. As we looked at these remote houses we saw why. We wanted to be part of a French community, not in glorious isolation in the countryside. She had one property left for us to see. Not at all where we wanted to be, not at all the kind of property we asked for. But she persuaded us it was worth it.
Have you ever experienced walking into a house and knowing it was going to be yours? Well, that’s exactly what happened. Within five minutes, our fact-finding mission had turned into a ‘lets make an offer’ conversation. A year early. Not at all what we had in mind. More than we wanted to spend. Oops. But we made the offer anyway and after the usual to-and-fro we had an agreement.
The Gods of French Planning Permission intervened, and it took that whole year to get the sale finalised. I learned more about French law in that time than I ever expected to need to know. My rudimentary language skills got stretched to the limit and I now have septic tank vocabulary to match the best French builder. Until finally, in April 2016 we came over to get the keys.
One of the joys of those early months was what we came to call ‘indoor camping’. We brought over only the bare essentials of clothes and home comforts, and most of the car was packed with tools for the renovation. I made supper the first night using a Stanley knife as I didn’t have proper utensils and we opened the wine with an actual screw and pliers. It was idyllic. For two people meeting later-in-life, it was just like starting out as newly-weds with nothing. Making do and having fun.
The house was in great condition generally but to transform it into my Wellness Centre, it was going to need a bit of paint. Ten huge tubs of white emulsion to be precise. And interior scaffolding (the roof is 6m high in the main living area). And rolls and rolls of wallpaper. We added a wall or two and made some tweaks in the kitchen, but the main work was outside, creating a little paradise on the side of our mountain. And a vegetable garden that now grows monster pumpkins.
We’re at 600m and the view from our bedroom is of Mt Fourcat at 2000m. The little hill that is our regular walk goes to the height of Snowdon. Its big stuff here! There was an old tennis court in the garden that is the flattest areas for miles around, and we’ve transformed it into a three-roomed space with a gypsy caravan as my office, a tipi for group work and a fabulous day bed for relaxing and enjoying the views. The pool has had a makeover so we can use it year round and the pool house now has a yoga terrace.
To say we have landed on our feet in this community is the understatement of a lifetime. We have been welcomed by the village and feel so at home. We sing in the choir. We run a weekly ‘Franglais’ group where we teach each other our native languages. We take part in the village Cabaret in June (last year with our new Dutch friends we were Abba – white lycra and all). Our lovely octogenarian neighbour organises village group walks and picnics. If we had designed a life, we could have not done better than what we have found here.
And our children, I hear you ask, do they really not mind? We were advised by friends that we would actually develop a better relationship with our family than we had before, as when they come it is for a few days and not just the odd hour or two. They’re often here individually so we can devote more time to them than when we are a crowd. We still pop back reasonably regularly to visit, so no, they don’t mind. Free summer holidays. Free skiing. Great food and wine. They love it here too. And they love seeing us happy.
Our advice to anyone with a dream? Follow it as soon as you can. There is much to be recommended in living life to the full.