It was a chance headline in The Guardian, one wet August morning, that got me thinking. Yes, I decided, gap years are wasted on the young. At the time the leap from that to doing it myself, on my own, in my mid-50s, seemed logical. What was to stop me? My daughters had flown; my husband and parents had died; work – well, thirty years in Child Protection is long enough for anyone.
Organising my gap year
It took two years to organise. I use the term lightly – the leaving was organised. I had contracts to complete; I packed up my house and let it out; I sold my car. If my daughters (I have four) were worried they were generous enough to keep that to themselves. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t have fantasies of spending the year in a hotel at Heathrow and blogging my trip using Lonely Planets and the internet – yes, there were some serious second thoughts after that initial decision. It wasn’t the being alone that worried me (I’m used to that); rather the thought of finding my way around alone, on the other side of the world, in countries where, maybe, older single white women are rarely seen.
Booking accommodation in advance
And so, while I organised the leaving down to the last toothbrush, my journey was far more haphazard. I had a rough idea where I might go, but was quite happy to change plans, explore unexpected places. Though I learned, very early, that I cannot – as the young do – arrive in a new town at five in the afternoon and look for somewhere to stay. I’d spend all day imagining myself spending the night curled round my rucksack in a doorway, with only feral dogs for company. All hotels and hostels were booked, online, at least a day in advance.
My trip took me first to Australia and New Zealand, then to Nepal, India and into South-east Asia. Of course there were down days – days when I woke and scribbled miserably in my diary, and imagined the lambs and daffodils of Wiltshire. But then I strolled out into the streets and knew there was nowhere else I needed to be.
Highlights of my gap year
Who could resist the opportunity to join a dance class of little girls in a small village in India? Somehow I ended up on the stage, the teacher’s disappointment at my inability to manage the intricate finger-dancing drowned in girls’ giggling. Then there was the day with a family in Chennai, the father so proud of having rewritten Indian legends in iambic pentameter, and his daughter drawing me a tiny picture of Hanuman (the monkey god) to keep me safe. I’ll never forget the week in a hut on an island off the west coast of Malaysia, with only a few people and the monkeys and iguana for company. I was even sanguine about snakes and leeches by then.
(Okay, so it wasn’t all highlights. Let’s not think about the man with the gun in Lucknow …)
Driving down west coast of America
No, I haven’t stopped. I’ve been back – the Cambodia and Vietnam. Early in 2011 I drove down the west coast of America – I didn’t realist that’s something even few American woman do on their own. Next March I go back to Nepal, to stay with my guide and his wonderful wife, who cooked my supper every evening on a little fire on her roof.
So – are you tempted? Do it. Yes, there are moments when you’ll wonder why you ever thought you could do this. But imagine yourself at eighty, wishing you’d travelled. That’s far worse than that moment of stepping on the plane, knowing there’s no going back.
JO CARROLL gave up her work as a play therapist with traumatised children in her mid-50s to trek round the world on her own. Now safely home, she has time to write, walk the Wiltshire downs, treasure her daughters and grandson, and tell anyone who will listen about her travels.
Her book OVER THE HILL AND FAR AWAY is currently available on Kindle here for those in the UK, and here if you are playing in US dollars.