And so the Golden Oldie gap Year Begins

Why am I writing this Blog?

Good question! When I decided to go on my ‘Senior Gap Year’ I had many creative thoughts of how to catalogue it. One was to write a book on my experience of travelling on my own and getting beyond the results of some major stresses in recent years – then I discovered Eat  Pray Love! First thought was ‘Darn! it’s been done’ but then I thought there are other things I can do and the idea for a blog was born. Yes I know there are millions of them, but if this blog helps even one person get out there and change their lives I’ll be happy.

Why bother with a blog when there is Facebook and Email to stay in touch with friends and family?

Weeeellll, Partly it’s to have a place where I can put more detail and description of places visited and the experiences I had, mainly it is with a hope that as a solo older female traveller I may be able to motivate others who would like to travel but perhaps do not feel secure enough to do it on their own and partly it’s because there isn’t much information out there for the solo older traveller, that I could find, other than cruises and tours.

Now, cruises and tours are fine if that is your thing, in the main it’s not mine, and I know that there are many out there who also don’t want to be told when, how, what and for how long they can do anything and be charged mega bucks for it. Those who like cruises and tours, please don’t be offended, it’s just not my thing unless I am going to a place where it is not advisable to be on your own no matter what age you are or it’s a place that is difficult to reach by public transport or it’s a very special cruise or tour that captures my attention. There has only been one of those and even so I have decided not to do it at this point because of the massive expense and the difficulty of getting to the island where it starts and finishes.

And so let’s get started……………….

First piece of advice to anyone travelling is, as always, planning. Lists are really important. We all have great ideas and dreams in our heads but until we put those ideas on paper it doesn’t become real.

I know that many a young person has dropped everything and just gone off travelling with minimal (or no planning). In the main they seem to get through OK (one of my sons is testimony to that). But as a female in my 60’s I wouldn’t recommend it for my age group.

What to list

Get yourself a great big piece of paper, butchers paper or newsprint – whatever it is called these days and write down every single place you have ever wanted to visit. I mean, EVERY place and don’t bother with putting them in any sort of order, just keep writing until you come to a stop and you can’t think of any more. That includes places in your own country as well as abroad.

Now, that done, you need to write down how much you want to spend, how long your holiday will be and what sort of accommodation you want. The length of your trip may be governed by your finances or how much you spend may be governed by the length of your trip.

For me personally, I prefer to spend money on seeing and doing more than on fancy accommodation. So I am prepared to use hostels and dormitories for most of the trip and use hotels sparingly. Mind you, I am on a gap year and there is no way I could do a trip for so long if I were to stay in hotels all the time. Also. remember that hostels these days can be quite up-market and you can even get private rooms in many of them. Hostels are a great way to meet other travellers of all ages and in the main you will find people are happy to share their experiences. On this trip, so far, I have stayed in both hotels and hostels and in the main I have enjoyed the hostels much more.

There are also home stays but we’ll get to those in a minute.

Next thing to decide is the purpose for your trip or the type of trip you want to do, you know, things like adventure, nature, beach, archeology, history, music, art, volunteering etc etc etc. Or maybe you just want to find one place that feels nice and stay there relaxing for a couple of weeks. Whatever you want to do, write it down, without that information you could be floundering.

My year long trip has several purposes but I’ll go into that bit later.

Back to those home stays for a minute, there are opportunities to do one or both of 2 things and that is get a TESOL certificate and teach English. There are many places around the world where that learning is needed and in some of those places you can live with a family and teach them English while they provide you with a room and board and you can pick up on their language (one such opportunity is in the South of France in Montpellier), or alternatively you can go and learn their language and stay with a family, this is pretty popular in Central America. Most of the information on this can be found through STA or Student Flights and sounds like it’s only for the young, but it’s not, feel free to consider that as an option.

Then of course there is the house swap thing, there are web sites where people join up and you swap houses for holidays. I haven’t gone down that path either, but it’s a viable method, just make sure you research it well.

Prioritise

Now that you have your overall information you need to prioritise and bring the whole thing down to a manageable list. So here starts your research on destinations, finance and accommodation. Be prepared to spend quite a bit of time on this. By the time you finish your research you will probably be feeling ready and raring to go on this trip. In general for both destinations and accommodation a combination of Wikipedia, Wikitravel and a few sites like Trip Advisor or Expedia should give you a good idea of the quality and conditions. With accommodation always read the reviews especially the longer ones. I tend to mistrust the short ones that give 100% for everything, it has been know for accommodation places to sneak in their own reviews to bring the rating up. The longer reviews will tend to be more real and will give you the negatives and the positives. After a while you get to learn to recognise the good places more quickly, it’s a bit like reading dating sites, you have to learn the language to sort out the real from the cheats. It’s fun though, I like the planning process almost as much as the travel itself.

Organise your home:

The final thing you MUST organise, especially if you will be away for a length of time is to have a trusted friend take care of your mail, your house and your rubbish bins. Always leave contact details with that person, be in touch with them by email or skype phone or Facebook, don’t just vanish with people not knowing how to get hold of you.

Also (for Aussies) fill in the Smart Traveller forms with Foreign Affairs and get travel insurance, you’ll need to shop around for that on your own, I can’t recommend anyone it will all depend on your own needs.

If you really want to go abroad but are concerned about how you will cope and how to get around on your own and you haven’t travelled in a long time, then I suggest a couple of short trips in your own country either with one friend or go somewhere to meet up with a friend. I’m quite used to travelling especially for work but had only been overseas twice and both times I was with a friend. So off I went on my own by train to the Australian Outback for a week to catch up with my dear friend Shirlee (you can read about that in a previous story), then I went to Thailand to finish the dental work that was started the previous year when I travelled there with a girlfriend (this time going on my own), and then another girlfriend and I went to Tasmania for a week, that was followed by a week in Queensland where I mainly stayed with friends and family but travelled on my own. Now I was really primed for the big trip.

Packing

Once you have decided on where, when, why and for how long you are travelling the next list  you need to make is your packing. I’ve read that the golden rule of packing is to pack then pull it all out of your bag and halve it. Yes that’s fine, but still keep in mind the essentials. Be aware of the weather conditions you are going to, be aware of weight restrictions on flights (don’t be fooled by the 23kgs + that sometimes you are given on overseas flights, because your next flight might have a 20 kg restriction and you’ll be 3kgs over). Seriously only take essentials, do you really need a hair dryer, a curling wand (or a straightener) AND hot rollers? probably not, unless you are planning to be going to a lot of black tie balls. And hey, most countries have hairdressers for that. Shoes take up a lot of space so be frugal, unless you are going to dressy events just take a couple of pairs of good walking shoes, you’ll be pleased you did.

So here is what I did to prepare for my trip (which includes a little self disclosure otherwise this whole trip won’t make sense):

Purpose – 1) for my sons and me to take my mum’s ashes back to her birthplace,

2) to get away from the daily rut of retired life when you are not only left an orphan but your whole family of origin has passed away, there is no partner and your children have their own lives,

3) to get away from reminders of the stresses and the losses of recent years. I knew that if I were to stay at home I would never come to terms with myself and the rest of life would be just a dreadful waiting room for the next life. Not only that but I’d be of no use to anyone.

4) to realign my body – mind – and  spirit so I could come back in 12 months a happier, more productive person and actually be able to make a difference in the world again and

5) to have some fun, life hadn’t been a lot of fun in ages.

The budget and the packing were a real challenge and I have to admit that a real budget with finite numbers never eventuated because the decision was to spend 12 months away and spend as little as possible. It’s a little hard to put down a firm budget when so much is open to on the spot decisions.

Packing! Oh my! What to pack when you are going for 12 months to 3 continents and you know that a lot of the time you have to drag your luggage around by yourself? Clothes I opted for mainly summer clothes (t-shirts, leggings, light jeans and 3 long sleeved tops). The only warm thing was a cape that I could use as a blanket on planes, trains and buses. In hind sight I should have brought a warm jacket. I also took my technology with me – for me that means a laptop, my ipod and 2 cameras. Most people would be happy with an iphone and possibly an ipad but not me! I knew I’d need the strength of the laptop for photo manipulation and just a small camera was’t going to be good enough for the types of shots I wanted to get. So although heavy I’m dealing with it.

So off I went…..

First leg of journey:

The whole first 2 week was always going to be easy because my kids were going to be with me ( as it turned out I had one son for a whole month)

Tuesday 30 April 2013 Canberra to London.

Nick, Kirra and I were flying Virgin Atlantic to London. I had booked the flights months ahead tobe sure that we’d be together on this first leg as our return journeys  were quite different and of course as usual in the last week glitches appeared. It took me 3 days to finally get hold of Virgin atlantic Sydney to sort the itineraries out and get new ones emailed to me.

Lesson #1: when booking flights through an Australian office of an overseas airline and the website says open 24/7 – NO THEY ARE NOT! What is open is the phone line, so when the Sydney office closes at cob, the phone goes through to Britain (Wales to be specific for Virgin Atlantic) and they can’t do anything about an itinerary set up by Sydney, it took me 3 days to figure that out.

Flight out of Canberra was a little delayed, was supposed to leave at 9:00 am but left at 9:30 (originally we were booked on the 9:35 but they moved that flight to 9:00 however we left at 9:30 – weird). Made it to Sydney in 25 minutes – I don’t think I’ve ever had a 25 min flight to Sydney!

Left Sydney at 2.30 and on the way to Hong Kong managed to catch up on quite a few movies I had missed at home. Long flights are great for catching up on movies, especially as I don’t get to the cinema very often so got to see Anna Karenina (very good) Hitchcock (very good) Hyde Park on Hudson (so-so, they missed a great opportunity to make an excellent movie, just didn’t quite make it).

Tip #1: I used to like the window seats but as an older person I’ve decided that when travelling on my own I’d rather have an aisle seat, that way you don’t have to climb over people to go for a walk.

Tip #2: I’m OK with long flights but remember if you are at all concerned about Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) then wear your stockings and go for regular walks up and down the plane.

It was a  smooth transfer at Hong Kong.  On the London leg started watching Lincoln but sleep unfortunately took over. That was inevitable as we were up until 3am putting finishing touches on my house, so only 3 hours sleep before going to the airport. There was another movie I started watching  but slept through that too! Got to see Ice Age 4 (Continental Drift) always good for a giggle.

Gave up on movies and started on music. Unfortunately Virgin Atlantic has a reasonably limited choice of movies and music but I did find the Mavericks to listen to. An awful lot of it is geared to the young – as usual. That’s about the only negative other than I don’t know how anyone larger than me  can fit into their seats. Yes I have added more weight than is healthy  but I don’t have the same seat width problem with many other carriers, ended up with a bruised and painful thigh from the seat arm.

We arrived in London on time (5.25 am) the 3 of us had massive coffees at the airport then bought tickets for the National Express coach to Gatwick (25 pounds one way, this city isn’t cheap, but then it’s pretty expensive on the Sydney airport train too) the only way to get directly from Heathrow to Gatwick. Kirra suggested hiring a car (which we did, it appeared cheaper than catching trains and cabs, didn’t quite work out that way apparently). The car idea started off well, we drove to the Gatwick Belmont Hotel in Horley (about 5 mins from the airport) . Too early to check in so left the car and wandered into Horley village for breakfast. Charming little place. As it was 11.30am the pub wasn’t open yet so there went the idea for pub food (apparently pubs open at 12 midday and not a minute earlier). Ended up in a little bakery eating homemade soup, bread roll and a turnover type thing housing tomato, bacon and a sausage, nice homey type food.

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We wandered across the road to have a look at a musical instrument shop and found a left-handed guitar that Nick liked, a little later they went back to the shop and bought that guitar while I stayed in the Hotel dining room sending emails, Facebooking and waiting for our room to be ready as well as for Grisha to arrive from Miami.

After the guitar purchase Nick and Kirra drove into London for a meeting (there started  their problems, driving around for an hour looking for parking and a parking fine because they parked opposite Buckingham Palace!).

Lesson #2: for the rookie driver in London – don’t park in front of the palace, no matter how appealing it may seem!.

Meanwhile, finally, our rooms were ready and I took our luggage up (in hindsight not a clever idea). The 2 rooms that we had were separate to the rest of the hotel, up a very steep flight of steps which almost pulled you backwards as Grisha found out (esp with a back pack on).

The Gatwick Belmont is a quaint old English building in a street of similar aged buildings. The inside is in tones of red and brown (as you would expect). The staff are friendly and helpful, there is a free airport shuttle, although we didn’t need it thanks to the car. Our rooms were comfortable, Grisha and I shared one and Kirra and Nick had the other one. So I woud happily stay there again if it were necessary.

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Once Grisha was in (arrived around 2.30 after his flight from Miami) and organized we walked to the train station to catch a train to London to meet Nick and Kirra we had agreed to meet at Big Ben at 6pm.

The train trip was a little interesting as part way to London we discovered that it was going to London Bridge not Victoria St so we hopped off and  searched around for a while and ended up on the same train  and got off at Liverpool St to catch the underground to Victoria St. Quite an adventure and I never did get a handle on which train, where and when – a total mystery to this day, I just followed Grisha.

Finally we got to Victoria St and walked up to Big Ben taking lots of photos of Parliament, Big Ben, the Eye and Boadicea. I put Grisha in charge of my big camera, he is, after all a professional.

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Met Nick and Kirra and after a few more photos we walked to Leicester Square, what a walk that was, past Trafalgar Square and lots of familiar street names, I felt like I was walking on a life sized Monopoly board!

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The pint of Peroni (and a chair to sit on) at O’Nealls in Leicester Square was a much needed relief after that walk, my back was killing me. We then had to walk all the way back again to the Eye because that was where the car was parked! Groan! My idea of factoring in stops along the way of any walk wasn’t working very well at that point.

Lesson #2: when travelling with young people, be sure they really understand the need for at least little sit down breaks if you have the sort of body that needs them.

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Getting out of there and back onto the right road was a bit hairy even with the GPS. Poor Nick wasn’t doing well being so tired, but a bottle of red bull seemed to help him focus a little more. So, even though they drive on the correct side of the road in England I don’t think I’ll ever bother, it seemed all too difficult even for the young ones, but to his credit Nick got us back safe and sound.

We settled in back at the hotel and had a good night’s sleep. Up early to get to the airport, return the car and get to our flight on Easy Jet to Split Dalmatia.

That folks is the first brief leg of an epic adventure so hold on – the rest will be flying in on a date in the very near future, till happy travels to one and all.

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