Can a seasoned traveler be over the hill at 30?
I'm beginning to wonder. I'm a veteran country-hopper of more than 40 nations, but as I approach my 30th birthday, I find that while my enthusiasm for travel hasn't waned, I can't -- or won't -- do the things I used to anymore. I find I can't sleep at Gatwick Airport when I'm down to my last British pound. No longer do I spend less money in a European city than Arthur Frommer. In the past, I thought nothing of cooking a hamburger over an open fire on my journeys out West. Now, when I travel to New Zealand, I spend $10 to watch a Maori cook a side of beef in a pit.
I haven't switched from student ID card to credit card, but it may not be long. Recently, this overseas traveler with the iron stomach who could eat anything (and did) has begun sneaking off at odd hours in search of the elusive western restaurant. Even in the People's Republic of China, I found myself stuffing granola bars into a valise.
I just can't understand what's happening to me.
On my first trip to Africa 10 years ago, I covered eight countries in 22 days (mostly by bus over unpaved roads in exhausting heat), went on safari and lost 20 pounds. One night our group was driving on a deserted road somewhere in Kenya when we were surprised by rifle-toting men who ordered us out of the bus while they rummaged through our belongings. Despite being held at gunpoint, my only reaction was: This was not in the tour brochure. It turned out the men were looking for ivory smugglers; fortunately, they found none.
Another time I arrived in Bangkok late one night, alone, hot and tired. A friend's friend was supposed to put me up; when I called her she said she'd like to help, but she lived 400 miles from the airport, it was late and . . . click.
These incidents didn't dampen my enthusiasm. If anything, they rekindled my desire to travel.
When I backpacked around Europe, I slept on a dozen trains with other young vagabonds, ate picnic lunches under the Eiffel Tower, jogged around the Roman Colosseum and took in the theater in London. I didn't know where I was sleeping from one country to the next, but I didn't mind. When there was a train strike in Italy, I switched over to buses. When the banks went on strike in Greece, I ate less. When I arrived with a group in Egypt and was told that we had no hotel rooms and that it would be another two or three hours before we would be able to find one, I checked my bags into a locker and set out for a do-it-yourself tour of the countryside.
In all my years of traveling, I've never called home, I've never sent telegrams, and I've never worried. If my train somehow had gotten sidetracked to Iran, I'd probably have taken a walk around the place, bought a few post cards, snapped a few photographs. I wouldn't have minded.
But then a funny thing happened. I realized on my jaunts alone that I was getting lonesome. My clean, spartan dormitory rooms now looked unappealing and, by the way, who were those six shady-looking characters I was sharing a room with? Why was it that when I was sleeping on those cold airport benches, my feet would fall asleep before the rest of me did? Hey, what do you mean that my room in Senegal doesn't have a color television? And eight weeks is an awfully long time to be away from home. I have a new house to take care of, bills to pay, and who's going to cut the lawn? Wasn't I a bit old to be playing hockey with the boys in Moscow and roller-skating along the Great Wall? Shouldn't I have found a wife by now (preferably one who spoke English as a first language) and started to settle down?
I sat back one evening and contemplated those questions. It's difficult to admit that you're getting old. And, chronologically speaking, I am. (My generation is at the awkward age. We don't have a label. If we were in our forties we'd be considered "middle-aged." If we were 15 we'd be "teen-agers." But for those of us who remember the senior prom as if it were last weekend, 30 is nearing the crisis stage.)
But does my desire for more comfortable accommodations constitute a capitulation to my new status? I think not. In retrospect, sleeping on a train and in an airport weren't wonderful experiences. Nor was washing clothes frequently in a hostel basin. They were experiences I had to endure -- usually owing to a lack of money, or to my desire for adventure.
But all of that is in the past. I have changed some of my traveling habits. I don't go to Luxor, Egypt when it's 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Conversely, the next time I climb Mount Fuji in the summertime I will bring a jacket (how was I to know that the temperature dips down to the 30s at night?). When I travel abroad, I now make sure a hotel room or comfortable accommodation is awaiting me. I avoid the traditional tours, but travel with groups of people who will be nearby, even if only at dinner. If I have the opportunity to fly (as opposed to taking a 24-hour train ride), I shell out the extra money and go with the airplane. I openly applaud western toilets when I see them and I've developed a strong affinity for air-conditioning when I stay in tropical countries.
But, besides that, I haven't changed much as I approach the big 3-0. I still want to see the world. Despite the protests from my family and friends, I have been checking out trips to the North Pole. I want to see South America. I would love to return to Moscow and have a hockey rematch with those Russian boys. I want to catch up with friends in Copenhagen, New Delhi, Sydney, Auckland and Shanghai.
And I want to explore the Moon. I know there's already a long waiting list for the inaugural flight, but I don't care. I want to be on the first flight and I'll train to be a flight attendant, and maybe, just maybe, I'll set up my sleeping bag on the launching pad the night before.
I hope my feet don't fall asleep before I do.