Your friends will think you're dotty. Your bank manager will raise his eyebrows. Your doctor will roll his eyes and your family will burst out laughing when you announce that you are celebrating your 81st birthday by flying around the world "visiting old friends."
But don't be put off. I have just done it and enjoyed every minute of the Great Adventure.
In the 10 1/2 weeks I was away I visited five countries, traveled on six airlines and stayed with 14 different relatives and friends. Though I've traveled extensively as a journalist, this trip had a special spiritual quality all its own. It was civilized, inspiring and endlessly filled with love and laughter.
When I was younger I enjoyed the anonymity of hotels and the luxury of ordering a steak sandwich at midnight through room service. Now I prefer the coziness of friends' homes, sharing reminiscences around the fire or pool and even looking at old photograph albums.
Whether you begin in Washington, London or Timbuktu, basic rules can ease your way.
First step: Stay calm. People want to help you, but don't want the complications of a tiresome old woman panicking when things go wrong. And they do. Planes are late, gates change, luggage goes astray. So pretend you are a brown paper parcel and let the airlines take over. Sit back, relax and have them worry about ferrying you from place to place.
This service is called "passenger assistance," and it operates in most countries. You merely request it when you buy your ticket. You get a wheelchair if you want it with your own attendant; if not, someone to walk you through the formalities. It's invaluable through customs and especially at the carousel; when your heavy luggage whizzes by, the attendant does the grabbing. They deliver you from the plane to your host's hands. Of course, in large cities with difficult pickups and parking like New York, it is the considerate guest who takes a taxi from the airport.
I started my trip at London's Heathrow airport, where the British Airways hostess in a prim navy suit and Mary Poppins boater reminded me of an old-fashioned nanny.
"Now, Luv, you have nothing to worry about, we'll look after you."
There were three other gray-haired dowagers nervously clutching bundles and bags.
"And which of those ladies would you like to sit with?" she whispered. (I was once trapped from Phoenix to London with a dear little old lady who insisted on telling me about her health, from the trouble she had with her new dentures to the problems of flying with a colostomy.)
"None of them," I answered firmly. "Put me next to a young man." She laughed, but she did.
This time my minder placed me next to Philippe, a charming young French pastry chef who was returning to Australia after visiting his parents in Paris. During the hours we flew together over deserts and oceans en route to Singapore, he taught me the secrets of making foolproof choux pastry and apple crepes with Calvados, besides many more tricks of his trade.
From Auckland to Los Angeles, my seatmate was a young man from Dallas. With his jeans and sneakers he looked like a salesman on vacation, but he turned out to be a financial adviser. In a few hours, I learned more about the failing economy of Indonesia than from hours of reading the Wall Street Journal. When Howard learned that I had to change planes in Los Angeles for Phoenix he said, "Don't worry, ma'am, about a wheelchair, I will take care of you." And he did. When I changed planes he walked me right up to the gate, enveloping me in his arms as we parted. It was a bear of a hug, which we both enjoyed.
You will also find that flaunting your old-fashioned good manners also works wonders with flight attendants. You may be upgraded to business class or invited into the captain's cabin, as I was on a recent flight to Copenhagen. When I landed at Melbourne on this trip, I found that the hostess, unbeknown to me, had tucked four miniature bottles of brandy into my luggage, and I was never short of champagne all the way across the Pacific. So it is manners, not money, that will help you to make friends and give you hours of laughter.
Don't hesitate to ask for your seat to be changed if you can't see the movie, and really want to. And don't be embarrassed to ask for a seat near the bathroom. On a long flight, and at nighttime, you'll be grateful you don't have to careen through the plane.
Here are some more rules worth remembering to make your adventure magical and memorable:
* When packing, lay out all the clothes you will think you will need and then halve it mercilessly. And remember to leave room for the extra things you are going to buy. I squeezed too much into my luggage. In the Los Angeles airport, at the baggage claim, I was mortified to see the zipper on my bag had burst and that my nightgown was oozing out onto the conveyor belt like primordial pink mud. What a humiliating blow to my self-confidence!
I used three colors in my wardrobe, and it worked out well: white (tropics), cream (temperate climate and socializing), black (everywhere). Also, I found trousers and tops more useful and interchangeable than skirts.
* Be hardhearted about carrying gifts to friends. Scarves are fine, but not books, china or anything heavy or breakable. Let's hope that the fun you bring with you is a gift in itself.
* Tuck into your luggage two or three personal photographs that you place beside your bed every night. They'll help to keep you on an even emotional keel and, in my case, everyone wanted to know more about my bulldog when they saw Beatty's handsome face.
* During those happy hours I spent with my friends, only one encouraged smoking. Many elderly people have respiratory problems, or, like me, simply hate the smell of smoke. If you must light up, it is tactful to go outside into the garden. Why risk upsetting a lifetime friendship for such an insignificant sacrifice?
* Two musts for your luggage: a tiny flashlight for finding your way to the bathroom at night, should your host forget to leave a light in the hallway; and a magnifying glass for reading train timetables and other small print.
* Plan your itinerary so that you don't move about too often. In New Zealand, I slept in six beds in nine days, and was exhausted despite the fact that I loved every minute. Remember that you are a senior and life has taken its toll.
* At an advanced age, you need time for yourself--for reading, sleeping or simply reflecting. Though I basically planned my tour to see friends, I also found I needed my own space. So arrange some down time every so often, so that wherever you are, you can stay in bed late or steal away by yourself. You have to recharge your batteries when you are on display all the time. Your host will appreciate this, too--having guests can be tiring.
* Don't scorn the local bus tour if you are staying in a fascinating place. It's often the most relaxing and inexpensive way of getting a feel for the country. You're well taken care of, and if you tire, you can always retreat to the bus.
One of my most enjoyable memories of Bali was the tour I took to spend a day with a Balinese family. I had a cooking lesson, and saw how they replenished their gardens by recycling the tops of the pineapples. I spent some time sitting on the open veranda next to "Grandma," an elegant and distinguished lady who was making small baskets in which to cook the food. There was only the sound of children's laughter, chickens squawking and exotic birds. Though we couldn't speak a word together, there was an empathy between us as we smiled and occasionally held hands. When I said goodbye to her we embraced. It was our way of conveying to each other that we understood what life was about.
* When checking in with your friends or into a hotel, ask to have a lesson in shower technology. Showers are fiends with minds of their own. New York showers, especially, have a demonic behavior--they delight in spouting scalding water. Also, beware of climbing down the steps into swimming pools, and watch out for slippery tiled surfaces. More vacations have been ruined by a broken hip than with a hotel break-in. So be warned and be careful.
* Because of your venerable age, you don't have to rush around doing all the conventional galleries and museums. I have a passion for markets, and whether it is Baghdad or Jamaica, I always try to visit them. I have decided that the best fruit in the world is to be found in the Adelaide, South Australia, market, where the peaches and nectarines drip with honey. In a super-store in New York's Harlem, I discovered baby fronds, which are delicious when fried in butter. In New Zealand, the white bait made into fritters was sensational.
* Don't be shy about resurrecting old acquaintances. At first I demurred looking up my beaux from 60 years ago in New Zealand, but when friends dared me, I took up the challenge. At the Auckland airport, where I stopped over for 90 minutes, Jim and Warwick came to meet me. I sat between them as each, unbeknown to the other, whispered endearments into my ears while their wives stood tactfully aside. At 81 years of age, alas, you are no longer a threat to any marriage.
* Obviously you need to check with your doctor before setting out on such a journey. In my own case, it meant getting the "all clear" from the cancer and heart consultants who successfully steered me through these tiresome illnesses. "Go and enjoy yourself and come and see us if damage lies done when you get back" is the message I got.
Make sure that you have sufficient medicine and prescriptions for the entire trip and divide them, packing them into separate parts of your luggage in case one is lost. It can be expensive and troublesome for your hosts if you run out. And this includes laxatives, simply because time and climate changes play havoc with your personal plumbing.
From Indonesia to Melbourne, I spent an uncomfortable night on the plane with a typical case of "Bali belly." It was my own fault for eating a delicious scallop soup in a beachside restaurant when the temperature was soaring around the 90s. A day on hot water only cured this up quickly. So be careful what you eat in the tropics.
In fact, all through your journey, you have to take care of your health and your energy. No one wants an old lady who feels "poorly." You really do have to take precautions if the trip is to be a success. So ration yourself to one social event a day--lunch or dinner. Eat and drink too much and you'll feel terrible. Besides, your clothes won't fit by the end of the trip.
Finally, remember life is for living. With the right attitude, you will enjoy every minute of your adventure and come back refreshed--and ready for another trip.
Gwen Robyns, a former Fleet Street journalist, lives outside Oxford, England.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
Back to the top