At some point while I was just traipsing around Morocco alone, I thought, “Man, I am so glad I’m as old as I am.”
This was not something I expected to be thinking the year I turned 40.
I know, that’s not particularly old–but I have been traveling since I was 20, and the experience has changed radically–and almost entirely for the better.
1. More money.
You were thinking I was going to say something about inner peace and wisdom, right? I’ll get to that. But first: being even the tiniest bit less broke than I was just ten years ago has really taken the edge off.
I’m not saying I’m swaddling myself in luxury–I can’t afford that, and besides, it’s boring.
The little extra travel money I have really just makes me a nicer person. I don’t have to resent the occasional scam artist so much, and I can let the cabbie win the argument over 50 cents.
Also, a tiny bit of extra money means I can take more weird risks on destinations, because spending one night in an overpriced hotel in a crummy town doesn’t seem like a crushing waste anymore. And these towns often aren’t too crummy after all.
2. More confidence…
…nd its corollary, less self-consciousness.
This is especially true for solo travel. I used to feel like everyone was staring at me when I ate at a restaurant alone. Now I know they are, but I just don’t care.
Also, when you travel alone, you’re more apt to meet locals–you look more approachable (and perhaps a little pitiful–but that’s OK, I’ll take it). Now I have the self-confidence to roll with this, and accept people’s invitations.
This is what brought me to my epiphany in Morocco–I was just saying “Sure, yes, take me there!” left and right. I had the confidence that I could extricate myself if anything went weird–but my experience has taught me that, actually, things seldom go too weird. Most people mean well, and the world is not dangerous after all.
And being less self-conscious means that I can say stupid stuff to strangers as a way to entertain us both. My language skills may still suck, but I can forge ahead better than I used to, just to get my point across.
3. Deeper self-knowledge.
I used to envy those insta-charmer travelers, the ones who read ridiculous things from the phrasebook and are the life the party.
But I am not one of them. I know this about myself now, and I’m fine with it, because I now have had a lot of good travel experiences that came from being more reserved. The people who do approach me are often more my kind of people. And I must look like someone who keeps secrets, because people tell me personal details I don’t think they’d tell a louder person.
I also know that with this introversion comes a good attention to detail–this is my strong suit, and even if I go for a couple of days without really talking to anyone, I’ve been entertained by all kinds of odd things I’ve noticed.
4. Less hotness.
Ladies especially, don’t bemoan “losing your looks.” What you’ve really lost is a flock of grabby 25-year-olds. Hitting 40 may not guarantee sleaze-free traveling, but it does weed out the cheesiest people who might strike up conversations with you.
I realized this in Egypt in 2007. Street harassment is as bad there as it’s ever been–but I’d aged out of the worst of it. That was a huge relief, and made it much easier to enjoy the 99.9% of Egyptians who are nice. Or the 99.9% of everyone, everywhere.
5. Fewer parties.
Part of me of course wishes I’d done a few more drugs on a few more beaches back in the day. I met a lot of interesting people boozing it up in various places around the globe–but most of them were not people from the place I was in.
The problem is that the people who party till dawn are the people most like you–people who don’t have to go to work in the morning (except if you’re in Spain).
But the value of travel is meeting people not like you, whether that’s due to class or lifestyle or tradition or religion or whatever. Waking up a little earlier than usual gives me a better chance of meeting them.
All of these things really are evidence of the same thing: After traveling for 20 years, I have a much better grasp of the big picture. I know that 50 cents to the cabbie means a lot more to him than to me. I don’t feel so personally victimized if someone scams me or tries to grab my ass. I’ve learned that I have a little responsibility to entertain people when I go to their country–and playing “the bumbling foreigner” is OK, even if it’s not cool.
Most important, I know that if I just relax and be myself, something interesting will happen… I’m typing that here to remind myself–as it’s usually the piece of wisdom I have to relearn every time.