Recently I’ve stumbled upon loads of articles about solo female travelers who are over 50. This seems odd to me. Maybe not to those who’ve not traveled much, and now find themselves taking the leap at 50. I can’t help but feel this is describing an affliction of some sort, like you’re old and have now attained superhero status because you’ve started to travel alone at age 50. It made me wonder, is being a solo female traveler over 50, all that unique?
I am not defined by my age. Maybe I should be, because it’s clear that being over 50 gets you covered in the Huffington Post. I could even be part of a list of Over 50 solo travel bloggers to follow. Who knew? Yes, I’m over 50. In fact I’m 642 months. Go ahead and calculate. I’ll wait… I think we should go back to how we described children before 24 months. Oh, she’s 20 months. It’s more fun and ambiguous. But I don’t remember a time when I was afraid to travel alone.
Frankly, I forget how old I am. I have no children with milestones of graduation, marriage or children of their own to remind me of my age. As one of my friends said after a music festival I attended, ‘Can someone please take the batteries out of Maureen?” I feel like I’m 25 and mentally I’m still there. And maybe that’s a big part of it for women – feeling their age? Always having a family around? A partner or husband?
I’ve had a very independent side since I was 9, when my sister died of cancer. A few months later, my 17-year old brother headed off to college. I went from a complete family of five to a very disjointed family of three. My parents were wrapped up in their own emotions, and I knew what feeling alone felt like.
I learned how to do for myself because I couldn’t really rely on anyone. Our house wasn’t the same ‘fun’ any more. I kept my grades up, didn’t rock the boat and tried to smooth the way, because at times our house was tense. Through all this, I learned how to appreciate my own company. Which brings me to today, and why I wonder if being a solo female traveler over 50 is all that unique. Maybe so, but my story explains a lot about me.
My first substantial semi-solo travel experience was when I was 20 in 1985. I moved to Italy for a year to study abroad. I don’t know if you remember a series in the late 60’s called, To Rome With Love? But seeing the opening credits every week showing the magnificent Colosseum stuck with me. At 5 years old I wanted to see it!
Yes, there would be other students on my program, but I didn’t know them beforehand, so it was still a semi-solo experience. You meet people along the way, as you do when you are young. And I did. Lots. Many of whom I’m still friends with today. All I knew is that there was a big world out there and I needed to leave my hometown of New Lisbon, Wisconsin, pop. 1261 to see it.
Then I toured the Greek Islands at 21, completely alone, just before returning to the US. All I had was an itinerary my Greek friend, Frangoulis, scratched onto a piece of paper of where to go and what to see. I took a boat from Ancona, Italy, and off I sailed to Greece. I wanted to see it and was running out of time. If there’s one thing my history taught me, time is not a given. Carpe Diem is still my favourite phrase today.
The thing I loathed about group travel is when someone says, “Hey, you wanna go see that contemporary art exhibit featuring elephant dung?,” Yeah, me neither. As a solo traveler, I do what I want, when I want and with whom… or not. And I have seen the elephant dung exhibit. I don’t need or want to see it again. Maybe it’s being selfish. Maybe it’s knowing myself and what I’m willing to put up with.
When I got to the port in Patras, Greece, I had to take a bus to Athens. I still remember sitting next to a girl my age who spoke some English. She assumed I was English and went on to say she doesn’t like Americans. I learned very quickly to shut my mouth, and to be from anywhere else. You learn that, and it’s still helpful today. I’ve been Canadian more times than I can count.
Once in Athens, I made my way to the tourism bureau to find cheap accommodation. With a few options in hand, I stepped outside and ran into a guy ironically from Chicago, 3 hours from home. He knew the places the bureau mentioned and offered to go with me to translate at the reception. His parents live there and spend lots of time in Athens. He just happened to be getting maps at the bureau for some friends. Random. I found a place to stay, he gave me a quick tour of the Acropolis and kindly treated me to dinner. I also admit I was/am quite sociable. Not overly so, but I can start and keep a conversation going if and when I want. So, I usually have no trouble meeting people on the road.
The next day I made it to the port, figured out how to buy a ticket, and was sailing via ferry to the island of Paros; the next place on Frangoulis’ itinerary. Not having any money in those days, I paid for a place on the ferry deck and not a seat. What a great way to see the Greek Islands on the front of a ferry. It was there I randomly met two girls my age; Elizabeth from San Fran and Victoria from Australia. We just started chatting and discovered we had no set itinerary, but were looking to spend 3 nights on Paros. Once we arrived in Paros port, an older woman was standing there asking if we needed a room. They did that in those days. She had a room with 3 beds and a bathroom for the equivalent of $10 a night. We said, “Perfect.” I spent 3 fun-filled days riding donkeys, swimming and exploring with 2 new friends for $3.37 a night!
From there we went our separate ways and I continued on the boat, for what seemed like an eternity, to the far island of Rhodes, near Turkey. My itinerary said I should go to Lindos. Ok. So I find the bus, and again meet 2 random guys onboard from Australia who were on vacation. They were looking for an apartment in Lindos and said they’d be happy to split a 2-bedroom with me. We found a cool 2-bed place in an old cloister and I paid $10 a night for my own room for 3 nights. Those guys were even kind enough to splurge on a few meals and drinks for this broke college student. We had a brilliant three days. I get it that times in the 80’s were different. It seemed safer or I had less worries as a single, young female.
I bid my adieus to the guys and took a boat once again up the coast north to the Island of Kalymnos. Frangoulis’ family live there and that’s where he grew up. While not the most attractive, he really wanted me to see his island.
All I knew is that his family own a Pharmacy on the port. So I arrive at the port and go to the first pharmacy. And sure enough, it was theirs. I introduce myself to Georgio, Frangoulis’ brother-in-law in Italian, as both he and Maria, Frangoulis’ sister, studied in Bologna. I said Frangoulis said I should stop by and say hello. So that’s what I was doing. I chatted for a bit, told him where I’d been, where I was going and said my goodbyes. And off I went in search of a place to stay for a few nights.
I found a cheap place in town and settled in for the night. When I go to sleep, I leave the blinds up on the window a bit. I’m afraid of the dark so I need some light coming into the room.
About an hour later, I am freaked out by a knock on the door. It was Georgio. He said, “Maureen, come on. You are coming with me. I spoke to Frangoulis and you are coming to stay at our house.” So I quickly got dressed and squished everything into my pack. Georgio tucked it between his legs and I hopped on the back of his old, rickety scooter. Off we went to their home up the hill.
I asked Georgio how he knew where I was. He said he drove to every guesthouse on that part of the island and asked if there was an American staying there. Then, with my window blind up, he recognized my SHOES! All very random.
When I got there, they had a lovely large, comfy room for me to stay in. The next morning when I woke, I opened the French doors onto an amazing terrace overlooking the island and the sea. It was the most breathtaking view I’d ever seen.
The hospitality of this family was beyond generous. They even took me over to neighboring Telendos Island for dinner one night. All six of us packed into a small motor boat and sailed less than a mile to this beautiful island. We ate and drank alfresco, listening to local Greek musicians for the equivalent of $25! I know all these details because I wrote them on the back of the these old photos.
I told them I only planned to stay for a couple of nights because I needed to get back to Bologna to pack to return to the US. They said, “Please stay here the week and we will pay for your flight back to Athens so you can catch your boat back.” So I stayed… Surreal.
The point is, none of this would have happened if I hadn’t traveled alone. I would have stayed with the group and never let chance take its course. Random encounters would not have happened. That taught me a lot about myself. Trusting my instincts, trusting others. Going with the flow. Being okay being alone. The same goes for anyone over 50 traveling today. You just get out there and let chance come your way.
One film you should watch if you haven’t, is Shirley Valentine. She a extraordinary woman stuck in an ordinary life. All she wanted to do was travel. It’s a fun movie.
Fast forward to now, and I had that same 20-month old niece stay with me last summer in France for 6 weeks. I’m thinking, Great. We’ll visit some places and she’ll then travel on her own.
She had a friend join her for a couple weeks and they did travel a bit, but when I asked if she was going to do some travel on her own, she said, “No. Why would I do that? That would be boring.” I was shocked.
It all made me question what is it we are putting in the minds of people today that they think that way? Is there no longer that sense of adventure? Are people so conditioned that the world is a dangerous place that it’s taken away any desire to explore alone? What is it?
Or how is it that they find their own company boring? I believe today as it was then, you will find people on the road you resonate with, regardless of whether you are 25 or 55. If nothing else, I think it would be easier once you are older, wiser and hopefully, more street smart. And with a bit of extra cash as an older traveler, you wouldn’t have to bunk up with random strangers to save a few bucks.
I’d be keen to get your input whether you are a seasoned traveler or just starting out. What gives? What is so terrifying about being a solo female traveler over 50?
Maybe it IS unique and I should just celebrate the circumstances, good and bad, that have led me to where I am today.
Ohhh. I just found a 1-way ticket to Ibiza for $10! Gotta go!
Keep traveling ladies! See you on the road. And let me know if you need any inspiration.