How strange it is to be back. I’m going to need a bit of time to go through the photos of our trip to Kenya but I’m hoping to talk about the safari element next week. In the meantime, I mentioned on Instagram that it had changed me and quite a few of you asked how – so before the cloak of habit envelops me again, I’m going to try to pin it down with travel and what it’s taught me about ageing well. (And if you come here for the clothes this post will probably bore the pants off you but I will move on to new season in March).
Travel and what it’s taught me about ageing well
You see it’s been years since I’ve travelled rather than holidayed. The last time was in the March of 1996 when I took a month’s sabbatical from Selfridges to go to India with my then husband so that we could spend time with his family and have our Indian wedding. They lived in a tiny village a couple of hours inland from Calcutta with no running water and no electricity. It was the experience of a lifetime and I left with an unexpected but very special souvenir. A lingering malaise augured not malaria as the doctors first thought but the December promise of my very first son.
So that put an end to travelling for the next 26 years. Since then, holidays as a family have had two purposes for us – a rest from everyday life burnished with straightforward hedonism. As we empty nested we had lots of plans to travel but Covid and lockdown pulled the plug on the trips we’d booked. And then at the end of last year came an opportunity we would never have considered, one that would take us out of our comfort zone and that was this trip to Kenya.
Why was it out of our comfort zone? Firstly because we’d be travelling in a small group which is something we’d always said we’d avoid. Secondly because it was a safari rather than our usual magnet of art, history and culture. Lastly, Africa just wasn’t on our travel list. You may remember that we whittled it down over lockdown because there are so many places we want to see with limited time and resources to do it in. However the fact that it was so far from anything we’d plan for ourselves made it feel like a true adventure and we seized the moment.
So what has it shown me?
Well first of all, our whole African experience was so fantastic that it’s shown me that sometimes you need to plough a new furrow. The thing is that by midlife, the person we turn out to be has largely been shaped by the experiences we’ve had. Life starts out as an open map with lots of roads we can follow and we narrow them down by the choices we make as we go along. For lots of us, circumstances in the trough of our 20s, 30s and 40s mean that we have to shape our choices around external factors: children/school holidays/annual leave allowance/work/ stretched finances… And by the time we come to the end of that period, doors in our mind have started to close. There’s also the fact that as we crest into midlife, gasping for air, we realise there are fewer years left to play with and so we often make safe choices that are informed by the things we already know we enjoy.
I think that’s why going to a country that I hadn’t previously considered has fired my imagination to such a new extreme. And pursuing an activity that I initially felt quite lukewarm about has been like a charge of gunpowder to all of those closed doors in my mind. I feel utterly reinvigorated.
I was chatting about it to my brother-in-law (a safari veteran) on Christmas Day. When I told him that even though we were over the moon about being invited on a press trip, a safari wouldn’t have been our first choice, he nearly choked on his fizz. He was right. The thing is that most of us have seen elephants, lions and hippos in zoos and safari parks so it can seem like a big effort to fly and drive for hours to see them again. But watching them unfettered in their own world brings a whole new and very powerful meaning to ‘born free.’ I’m going to talk about the safari itself next week so I don’t want to go into any more detail about that now but there was another outcome that I hadn’t anticipated – and that was the untrammelled time.
Travel and what it’s taught me – thoughts from the jeep
You see you spend hours in the jeep tracking animals with your guide and of course there’s no mobile signal for miles and miles. At first I still found myself pointlessly refreshing my emails but after a while, instead of turning to my phone for distraction, my thoughts started to freewheel. Because we were witnessing nature at its most raw, I found my mind drifting to what it means to be an animal, as we all are. And I was hit by what a wrong turn we, as humans, have taken with our evolution.
1. As humans we’re making ourselves unhappy
Of course my marketing brain looked for a model to make sense of it and drilled down to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I’m sure you’ll know it but if you haven’t thought about it for a while, here’s a reminder. It’s usually displayed as a graphic pyramid but I prefer this one.
So as you know, the hierarchy of needs starts with the instinctive fundamentals of the bottom layer and gradually works its way up as we evolve. Of course we’re living in economically challenging times so whereas in marketing we usually say that our society is largely plateauing at the Esteem level, sadly it isn’t the case for everyone at the moment. However I’m working on the likelihood that most people reading this blog are less vulnerable to the cost of living crisis.
A basic tenet of a consumerist society is to get people to level four (Esteem) and keep them there. So the messages that bombard us every day suggest that in order to maintain esteem, we need ‘more.’ This keeps us in a cycle of working and spending – a retail model that has certainly compounded over the last few decades. As a result, we very rarely have time or energy to draw breath and think about self-actualisation. And yet that is where true happiness and fulfilment kicks in, especially when it comes to ageing well and happily.
You can see that animals follow Maslow’s model too in their way but apart from the odd bird that overstuffs its nest, you very rarely see them on the level of over-acquisition which is why it struck me that most humans have lost their way. There’s no denying that as you watch them stalk their prey you witness a battle for survival in Darwinian form but I think they have a freedom that we don’t. As we observed them for hours it was clear that they work hard to reach level four but they don’t get trapped there like we do – unless they’re caught and put in a zoo… which led me to wonder whether as humans we’ve trapped ourselves in a zoo of our own making…
2. If you take the time to listen, people will tell you what you need to hear about ageing well
The people we were travelling with were mostly older than us in years but I soon noticed that some of them were much younger at heart than a lot of the friends I usually spend my time with. The striking thing was their mindset. It surprised me that the usual intro question of ‘what job do/did you do?’ which is so often used to instantly classify somebody just didn’t come up. Instead, as we spent eight days and evenings alongside each other, the conversations quickly became profound. We shared life stories and it was thought-provoking to hear how much people endure in the course of an ordinary life.
In our jeep of six (which was quickly labelled the ‘happy bus’ by the rest of the group), we had two widows who were restarting their lives after the loss of their much loved husbands. They were each travelling independently, moving on from deep grief and embracing new opportunities. The others were a midlife couple who had recently met and were starting life again together. Then there was us, finding our feet in our newly empty nest and floundering a bit as we work out what’s next.
As I listened, it struck me that when you hit your 60s/70s/80s as many of our fellow travellers had, you can either be bitter and beaten by life’s blows or you can transcend them. They had chosen to be ageless and their outlook had nothing to do with status or possessions. Instead their objective was to pack as much experience, education, fun and adventure into the second half of their lives as they possibly could. Their perspective and the conversations that came from it were refreshing and illuminating.
In another jeep was a retired school teacher, born in Nairobi, who had returned to see the escarpment of the Rift Valley one more time. I was talking to her one evening and she said, “you’re just staring out on the best part of your life my dear whereas I am accepting that I’m reaching the end. You’ll find you need three practicalities: time, money and health. If you set these alongside an open spirit, then you’ll have the most wonderful years ahead.” As the Masai Mara night sounds pulsed around me, I realised it could be one of the most propitious moments of my midlife.
I know I have changed as a result of this trip. Quite how those changes will manifest I still don’t know but with my strategic head on, I know that I want to step on from the Esteem part of Maslow and focus on Self-Actualisation. Hopefully that will include more travel like this because I learned so much over the course of the trip – about animals of course but also geography, history, the colonial land grab, anthropology, religion, racism and I even came back with a decent bit of Swahili which delighted my linguist’s brain. That is, in itself, rejuvenating. I feel as though I have a head full of bees and the last time I experienced that was when I had a really good teacher at primary school who used to fill every day with exciting new things to learn.
So, travel and what it’s taught me – I’m going to recap, particularly for my own benefit before I lose myself in the swamp of retail strategy that’s facing me (and I realise there’s a certain irony in that in the context of this post):
Midlife travel takeouts (notes to self)
- Try out new paths – even if they don’t initially interest you. A head full of locked doors will only give you a life of repetition.
- Start thinking now about ageing well and how you want to spend your 60s/70s/80s. If they work best with time, health and money, now’s the time to be focusing on that.
- Stop spending so much time at your desk and on screens. Talk to more people and a wider variety of them. Observe more. Let your mind drift more.
- It’s time to move on from the acquisition of more stuff. As the baby boomers have realised and the millennials keep telling us, stuff counts for nothing in the end. Once you have enough, the important thing is making the most of your time and spending it with interesting people.
- Ageing well – you don’t have to be old in later life, that’s simply a mindset choice. If you keep talking, learning, listening, laughing and adventuring you’ll achieve agelessness by default.
- Start a new map – there’s a big wide world out there and for now, the fun lies in deciding how you might explore it!
So there we go, travel and what it’s taught me about ageing well – I think the biggest revelation for me has been something about the need to start looking ahead. I don’t know when we’ll be able to retire yet, to be honest, it’s always felt a bit like menopause did in my 40s – something that would happen one day. And yet like everything it perhaps needs some preparation. I’ve always thought it sounded a bit boring and that I’d work forever but meeting the people on the trip has changed all that. I can see they’re having the time of their lives and I want to do that too while I’m young enough and fit enough. It will be a while for us yet but even so, I feel excited by the hope of there being a lot of fun ahead. More than I’d ever thought there would be. Getting older keeps on turning out to be so much better than we’re led to believe.
Disclosure: ‘Travel and what it’s taught me about ageing well’ is not a sponsored post however the safari element of our trip which I’ll talk about next week was provided for review
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