Mary Kenny: Globetrotter to globesquatter
Does the allure of foreign travel pale with age?
Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30
Everyone seems to have a "bucket list" of goals they want to achieve and places they want to see before they die (or "kick the bucket", in the vernacular) but, necessarily, it grows narrower with age. "I don't want to travel just for the sake of going places," said the old chap next to me at a lunch. "I only want to go where there are people I know. Or that I have some connection with."
Maybe women, in the senior years, are more adventurous than men: there is an honourable tradition of women travellers who sallied forth to explore the world in their mature decades. The most distinguished Irishwoman in this genre, Dervla Murphy, started her great cycling treks in her 40s and has continued her intrepid travels into her 80s. The woman who put Albania on the map, Edith Durham - camping out in its rugged mountains amongst fiercely warring clans with only a mule and a native guide - was also pretty mature when she got going.
Freya Stark, another formidable female traveller, started her pioneering forays into Arabia in her 40s, and continued her travelling career into dangerous and exotic places until well into old age, dying at the age of 100.
The reason why some women start travelling later is life can be personal - Dervla Murphy had been looking after her parents, as had Edith Durham. But there's another aspect, too: young girls were regarded as vulnerable. Being nubile and sexually attractive (according to traditional lore), they could be pounced on, raped, recruited to what was called "the white slave traffic" or even killed.
Older women were not considered nubile, seldom sexually tempting, and, in Oriental cultures would be accorded a certain level of respect. So it might be safer for older women travellers, even those going solo.
Circumstances - and travel - have changed in our times, and anyone is free, in principle, to go anywhere. But that's part of the problem. Everywhere seems to be heaving with travellers: Mount Everest, once the very metaphor of the most inaccessible place on earth, is now crowded with climbers and awash with their litter. What was once remote and adventurous is now served by a handy app. I bet the airport at Kathmandu is just like every other ghastly airport purgatory (except, being up against a mountain, slightly more dangerous).
Travel will always be enticing for the natural nomad and the constitutionally intrepid; but with age, I think the appetite for travel narrows somewhat, and home comforts become more appealing. Why would I want to travel to India when I can see it all in glorious colour in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? And never before have we had so much vicarious access to fabulous places via movies and travel documentaries - on British TV, Michael Portillo's explorations by train (including an enchanting episode of Irish rail journeys) and Tim and Prunella West's canal journeys have been as pleasurable to watch as going on any travel adventure. And all without the personal hassle!
We also live in an age of great travel literature. Visit the travel section of books in the basement at Dublin's Hodges Figgis to savour a wonder-world of books about faraway places with strange-sounding names. For all the travelling I will never now do, I still have the hilarious Bill Bryson on Europe, America, Africa and Australia, the enduring texts of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the travel memoirs of Martha Gellhorn, and so many more glittering travel authors.
I am more likely, now, to list the places I will never visit, or re-visit, than compose a bucket list of aspirational destinations. No desire to return to China, or Latin America, or Russia, or Africa. Been there and done that. I once thought of taking a railroad journey across the United States, but you know what: it sounds like too much stress, and I'd only do it if it was all arranged for me - by some Jeeves-like character with the soothing assurance: "Don't worry, I'll take care of everything."
And then there's the concern over health insurance: if you have more than four minor, and quite manageable, health problems, you may get turned down for health cover, even by some insurance companies which claim they cater for oldies.
You can see why cruises are so attractive for the senior market. They take care of everything. Cruises can be enjoyable, but I'd still say, pick your cruise. You can be walled up all over the Baltic sea with a bunch of prize bores whose only conversation is house prices - and their last, and next, cruise.
Yet we mustn't give up on curiosity or on challenges. The temptation with age is to draw ever closer into the comfort zone, and one must struggle against that. But, like the old chap who only wanted to go to places where he'd meet friends, elderly travel is often more purposeful. I'd like to see Stockholm for its beauty and Vienna for its art collections. The history of Sicily makes it seem very alluring. The Bible lands must be riveting, but only with that Biblical Jeeves in charge. And, honestly, I don't want to go anywhere too upsetting any more. Many tourists love Turkey, but I can't bear to see child refugees, alone and looking abandoned, as I did in Istanbul.
The French, predictably, have a saying for the travel experience: "Better to travel than to arrive." Hope and expectation accompany the voyage out, but how often does disappointment await at the destination?