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I Took A Gap Year At 56 & I Haven't Stopped Travelling Since

Refinery29 logoRefinery29 5 days ago Jess Commons
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This week on Refinery29, we’re filling your screens and consciousness with inspiring women over 50. Why? Because living in a culture obsessed with youth is exhausting for everyone. Ageing is a privilege, not something to dread. Welcome to Life Begins At...

For many of us, travelling the world is something we think we need to do before we "settle down", before we have kids and get "serious" about our careers.

             

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Which is why, at the ripe old age of 30, I thought I’d missed my chance to explore far-flung countries in any manner that didn't involve sterilised resort hotels and peering at notable landmarks through the tinted windows of an air-conditioned coach.

Of course, this is a ridiculous notion. Travelling, nomadic working, and career breaks have never been easier. Hostel guests range in age from teenagers to baby boomers and beyond. And with the ease of homestays, improving transport links within emerging countries and crowdsourcing travel tips via the internet, there is absolutely no need to spend your travels listening to a man talk dully over a bus microphone, experiencing nothing in the way of local culture but rest-stop toilets.

One person who embraced travelling later on is Jo Carroll, a 65-year-old from Wiltshire who, nine years ago, set off on the adventure of a lifetime around the world and back again – and she hasn’t stopped since. She's even written nine books (seven about her travels), including Over The Hill and Far Away: One Grown-Up Gap Year. We spoke to Jo about her adventures...

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I hadn’t travelled a lot before my big adventure. I married at 24, and got caught up with work and children and then widowhood. The main priority was just keeping the show on the road. But the seed was always there; I always used all my leave, and always knew where and when I would go next. I would often travel with groups, as I found it the easiest way to travel when I had limited time.

My brother went overland to Australia in the late 1960s and I'd always wanted to do the same. My Big Trip was inspired by an article in The Guardian called "Gap Years Are Wasted On The Young". My children were grown and I could see nothing to stop me. So I gave up work and went!

I was 56 when I left home. I began in Australia and New Zealand, to get used to travelling, and then to Nepal (where I knew a guide from a previous group trip) and into India for three months. Then I went across to southeast Asia. The original plan was to go for a year, but it was cut short at nine months when I was taken ill in Cambodia and had to come home.

Since then, I’ve been to so many different places. I went back to Cambodia and found one of the men who helped me when I was ill, and on to Vietnam. I've been back to Nepal and Malaysia, and to Cuba, Ecuador, Thailand and Laos, and Malawi.

Setting off on my own for the very first time at the beginning, I was terrified – but I'd have felt even worse if I'd changed my mind and not gone, then sat around at age 90 wishing that I had.

a group of people on Boudhanath: Refinery29 © Photo by Pakin Songmor/Getty Images. Refinery29

When it comes to preparation, I had an agent who sorted my big flights and was available by email if I wanted to change anything. I had a hostel booked in Sydney and a campervan booked in New Zealand. My guide booked me a hotel in Kathmandu. But most of the time I booked hotels and hostels a week or so ahead, when I knew where I wanted to go. I did my homework on the packing front – and did really well. My first trip was before Kindles, so I had to carry books and top up with what I could buy or borrow from hostels along the way.

My daughters have (to my face!) always been hugely supportive. I've no idea what they say behind my back, but they have been brilliant. Most friends have been encouraging now they've realised I'm not going to stop. A few have become more adventurous themselves now they've seen me go and come home in one piece.

On the Big Trip, I did mostly stay in hostels but these days I like to have my own bathroom. There were quite a few young people in the hostels – some just out of school, but more in their 20s. Some flopped about all day and then drank all night; we were polite to each other but I didn't join them. But from time to time I met some fascinating young people who were as curious as I am.

I have friends all over the world now – what a privilege. I think, when you’re travelling, it's easier to get talking to people on your own than it is in a couple. Did I get lonely? Very first thing in the day was the toughest – I'd wake up and wonder what I thought I was doing, travelling all over the place. But as soon as I was up and in the streets, I was fine.

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In terms of my favourite places, I was bowled over by the Galápagos – I was in a small boat (much better than the bigger cruise boats), so we got into nooks and crannies, and it was just magic! In Ecuador, I loved the tropical rainforest and upper Amazon, where I saw endangered river otters. In Malawi I saw hippos and fish eagles. In Nepal the highlight was trekking into the mountains and seeing the sun rise over Annapurna, and New Zealand is just stunningly beautiful.

Other highlights? Swimming on the Barrier Reef, Angkor Wat – especially the more remote temples that haven't been fully excavated. There are boards to tell you where the landmines haven't been cleared, but you can climb all over the rest of it. A chance to play at Indiana Jones!

In India, the Taj Mahal – the pictures don't tell you how wonderful it is. India is a complicated country; dawn in Varanasi is very special.

There have been a few sticky situations, like when a guide left me in a massage parlour in Kerala. He hoped I'd have a massage so he could get a 'tip' – I refused, so was left standing around with no clear idea where I was. Then there was the man with the gun in Lucknow who wanted me to sit next to him. I invented a husband who needed me urgently.

The most dangerous was perhaps driving down the Siddhartha Highway in Nepal, after a cyclone, in the dark. We never knew what we would meet around every corner – if the road would be washed away, buried under a landslip or with bits of roof, lorries and frightened goats wandering all over the place

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For any other women my age heading out on their own, my advice would be to use your common sense; you don't walk down dark alleys at night at home, so don't do it when you're away. Do your homework – use the Foreign Office website to check on safety, and check forums on sites such as Lonely Planet.

But you can do it – the only thing really stopping you is you (some people have dependents – parents, children – but that's different). Travelling has allowed me to do so much; I raised money to rebuild two homes after a huge earthquake. Most of my charitable contributions are as I go along, and generally to small, local projects rather than the big charities. In my experience, the big charities are needed for the big crises but local projects change lives.

Next, I'm off to Sri Lanka with my brother to watch the test cricket matches. This is a totally different trip for me; for a start, I'm not going alone, and he's not one to wing it so everything is planned. But this trip is about me and him and cricket, so it will be fine.

Gallery: 9 destinations everyone will be visiting in 2019 [Harper's Bazaar UK]



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