I’m getting old.
I mean, it’s not just me. Everyone in the world is aging. My nieces and nephews are growing at an alarming rate in my absence, my cat is sprouting more and more white hairs on his mostly-black body, and a 27 year old Aussie at my last hostel told me he was “pretty old”.
Most days I don’t feel terribly old, unless I’m hanging out with dorm mates who talk about how hard it is to get up for class (me in my head: oh they’re teachers, just like my sis, that’s so cool! wait, they’re… talking about 8:30 am Intro to Lit uni class). Also when I have to climb my awkward and sometimes creaking body into the top bed of a hostel bunk.
How to practice staying flexible and open by traveling
But the other day I pulled my hair back and caught a glimpse of my new grey streak. Yes, I have so many grey hairs now they have joined together on my left temple and formed a little band. It’s kind of cool (cooler than the four grey eyebrow hairs, anyways). Adds a little gravitas to my baby face.
What I fear most about aging though isn’t those physical imperfections that Olay commercials teach us to fear. It’s the aging of my mind. The kind of process that makes people say things like “I’m too old for this”, meaning anything outside their very narrow comfort zone. The kind that makes people buy Sketchers and think they’re cute, or use one of those phone cases that have a flip cover. The kind where people get stuck in a routine life, addicted to comforts and full of habits that are designed to ignore the slow tick of days passing by.
I want to keep the fresh eyes and optimism of youth. I want to remain incredibly curious and open to the world, and to people.
Aging can bring rigidity or wisdom. Which will you choose?
I have great role models in this. My 84 year old grandmother flew to Paris to cafe-hop and shop with me for a week, and cheerfully requested we take the Metro instead of Uber to dinner. She wants me to move to Singapore so she can come visit. My grandfather on the other side never stopped reading to us grandkids, opening the world to us through the thousands of books in the house. My former boss in her seventies popped into the office one day in the coolest leather leggings I’ve ever seen, and she never lost her insatiable curiosity about people that made her such an interesting and charming person.
There are many ways of keeping this kind of open heart and mind. My travel has been a good route to this. I’m growing steadily less attached to my old ideas of comfort – I sleep soundly in a room full of tall sprawling Dutch guys, I happily ride in buses with no AC but lots of chickens, I haven’t taken a luxurious soak in a bath since Christmas (whew I miss baths!). I’m growing my comfort zone by entire continents instead of shrinking it to the size of a small suburban neighborhood.
There are things I’m definitely too old for, of course: Franzia Sunset Blush, all nighters, dating anyone under 25. But I still shop at Forever 21 because I have a shameful addiction to it. And no one is ever too old for a slightly uncomfortable adventure.
Inspiration from fellow women traveling alone
I meet so many inspiring fellow travelers along the way. A cheery British woman in her fifties taking an adult gap year, inspired by her daughter doing the same after uni. An older Swedish man on my Siem Reap-Bangkok bus who was unperturbed by the heat of our three-hour border check or the chaos of Khao San Road. And a slew of much younger travelers who I’ve had such a connection with that age wasn’t even a factor.
This willingness to keep exploring takes different forms for everyone. My mom’s good friend who just hiked over 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail? Amazing! Not something I’ll ever do (I do not hike, don’t @ me, I’m a grown ass woman who knows what I like) but as she and the rest of the hikers say, everyone has their own trail.
The choice to curl inward or blossom open
So this is my trail. Letting my anxiety unfurl and sail away as I cross new borders into places where I don’t know the language, can’t drink the water, don’t know a soul, have to use a bucket-flush squat toilet. Instead of letting my world narrow as I get older, folding into my anxiety and seeking out the ever-smaller pool of familiar and unthreatening things, I’m out here letting it wash over me.
When it get difficult, as it often does in a shaky bunk bed on a floor full of teenage British lasses clutching bottles of cheap rum in their fake tan-streaked fingers and shrieking, I remind myself of all I would have missed if I hid behind that false wall. Driving myself around the golden hills and thick fog of Burgundy. An unglamorous hostel in a little beach town in Crete where I started the long process of opening my heart. A stay in an open-air hut in Thailand for a life-changing yoga retreat.
And every time I catch myself saying “I’m too old for this shit”, I take a deep breath and feel how much life and love is left in my body if only I’m open to it.