So many people view a gap year as a once in a lifetime thing, a one shot deal. One year out when you are young to have the adventure of a lifetime before you have to grow up, settle down and be assimilated into societal norms. They are wrong. The grown up gap year or being a nomad without an end in sight have become increasingly popular identities in recent years, and many people are discovering that continuing to travel in your 30s is even more awesome than it was in your 20s!
I have been travelling the world now on continuous gap years or snap years for the past fifteen years. That is a hell of a long time. I have definitely changed in that time, an inevitable part of growing up I suppose, but also because of the profound effect travel has had on me too. Because of that change my experience of travel is different. But is it just me?
A different world.
When I first started backpacking it was a different world in many respects. Taking a gap year was not as widespread or as widely accepted. Mobile phones were only just starting to become popular and certainly were not the norm, the internet was still in its relative infancy (and if you wanted to use it you had to search out an ubiquitous internet cafe). Lonely Planet were still considered the ‘bible’, the Beach wasn’t nostalgic and everyone certainly didn’t have one of those damn selfie sticks! A lot has changed.
Technology has changed so much in the last decade alone that it has invariably changed how people travel. Maps, instant booking sites and even language apps are all available at a touch on smartphones. Guide books like Lonely Planet are now pretty much remnants of the past, the shells of what they used to be and now only used as mass tourism booking sites for tours and package ‘experiences’. Independent travel sold off to the highest bidder. The backpackers that used to follow them religiously now give me a good career by following independent travel websites and blogs instead.
A sense of real travel.
I am genuinely glad that I got to experience world travel in my twenties, before the age of smartphones and the gap year industry.
Back in my early twenties, there was no multitude of travel blogs to research the destination beforehand. Arriving somewhere new had a genuine sense of adventure as you stepped off the plane armed only with a well thumbed copy of Lonely Planet and whatever information you had managed to glean from other travellers along the way. It was big, it was scary, I made a ton of mistakes, hell I even very nearly met my maker once or twice! But I had a hell of a time doing it!
Backpacking around the world is now easier than it ever has been, and I think in a lot of ways that sense of independent adventure has been lost.
Don’t get me wrong, travelling throughout my twenties was awesome and I wouldn’t change it for the world. All the benefits of travel that are so rightly lauded by travel writers were mine for the taking, and I grabbed them wholeheartedly.
World travel in my twenties helped show me who I am, it helped form my social and academic paradigms, it helped form an intrinsic part of my identity that I still carry to this day. It made me a stronger, more open minded and worldly person. It didn’t do much for my humility it seems but it is certainly true that I can look back on my twenties with no regrets, because for all the profound effects travel had on me it was a hell of a lot of fun too. The island hopping, the lounging in hammocks, the hostel parties, the adventures and once in a lifetime experiences. I had a blast.
The thing is, now I am in my thirties, travel is still just as much of a blast.
When I hit my thirties, my desire, my need for travel didn’t change, but I inexorably did, and the way I experienced travel changed with me.
For the better.
I’m not talking about the fact that I am getting older now and like my creature comforts more, although that is certainly a definite change.
I am much more likely now to avoid the all night beach parties in favour of a good book, and although I still stay in my fair share of budget accommodation and dorms (because unfortunately that lottery win never did happen), I am completely comfortable switching between backpacking and flashpacking as needed so I can – far more often than I used to – get a cushy private room with a hot power shower and a lot more comfort.
Hell, I have a career too now, I can afford to splash out a bit. That wasn’t an option when I was 20 and skint!
I travel much more slowly now too, but this has been a constantly evolving way of travel throughout my twenties. Back on my first gap year I made the same mistake every other first time backpacker does and tried to see everything in one short trip. It was of course impossible. Now I don’t rush things, I stay still a lot more and spend longer in each place. It may mean I don’t see as many places on any given trip, but I see so much more of the places I do see.
When I was in my twenties, like any long term traveller, I occassionally arrived home to the inevitable societal judgement that came with not conforming to what everyone else was doing, not least of which from my friends and family. ‘When are you going to settle down’ and ‘when will I be a grandmother’ seemed to become the shrill battlecries of my mother whenever I saw her.
In effect I had become a social outcast in many ways. Many of my friends had settled down, bought the house, had the kids and begun the inevitable slow suicide of paying bills until you die.
I hadn’t. I had bucked the trend. I refused to settle down, get married, have babies and get crushed under the weight of mortgage I couldn’t afford and didn’t want! And I felt a little bit ostracised from society because of it.
I was the strange one. The outcast. The one to be pitied at the rare family weddings and funerals.
I’d bought into some aspects of it of course, I went to university twice and achieved two degrees and after a stint in the military I changed careers and have – what is now – a relatively high ranking nursing career. But I still didn’t follow the same path my peers did. My path was broken, undulating and halting. I travelled for long periods whenever the hell I wanted to. I broke through the norm, and whilst that made me strange to many of my peers, it also gave me a profound sense of freedom from the rat race and helped shape who I am now.
And that is truly one of the biggest differences of travelling in my thirties as opposed to my twenties.
In my twenties travel gave me so many profound life epiphanies because I was still searching for who I was, who I wanted to become. Two degrees and two careers later I have that now. I know who I am. I am comfortable in who I am and I am happy with it.
I don’t need travel to shape me anymore, I can just travel for the sheer enjoyment of new experiences. I am not seeking a direction in my life anymore, I have it. I am completely comfortable in my own skin and that has allowed me to simply observe the countries and cultures I am visiting a lot more than I used to. I am my own man. I don’t travel to ‘find myself’ like I did in my early twenties, now I am in my thirties I travel to enjoy travel.
I achieved the career that I wanted as I reached my late twenties, I am fulfilled in that aspect of my life, but I also have travel too. I have found a way to have it all, and that is truly fulfilling.
Having it all really is a dual benefit in many ways. I don’t travel for nearly as long as I used to of course, in my twenties I could take a year, two, even longer out if I wanted. In fact I did. The cost of having a career and a few responsibilities in my thirties means I can’t do that all of the time (a full gap year is still an option if I want it to be), but it also means that by adapting my travel style, by travelling for six or 7 months every year then working the rest, I can use my life experiences of travel and adventures such as volunteering as an expedition medic in different countries to boost my career, and I can use the rest and relaxation travel gives me to stop the inevitable stress and burnout that happens to most nurses or anyone in long term, stressful careers.
My travel has helped my career, and my career has helped me to travel.
Work burnout and stress for many of my colleagues who don’t have what I have is a very real thing. I see it all the time. That is why I cannot ever imagine living that way, why I don’t allow my career to be so much a part of me that I get to that point. I don’t need to seek a way to get balance between my work and my life like so many of my professional peers do. I already have it. And that is because I continued to travel into my thirties. Yes I have many more responsibilities now than I did when I was twenty, hell even when I was twenty five, but travel has helped me deal with that.
It may have taken some sacrifice at the time, when all my friends had the nice homes and the settled lives, but now I am in a position where I can get those exact same things if I want to, with the added bonus of having done things they never will. I can have the home life and I can have travel.
A big part of this is knowing that I am my own man. There is a danger here of course of that slow, inevitable decline into the grumpy old man persona, but for now I am immensely comfortable in my own company and have the self confidence and self esteem to know that I do not need anyone else for company or identity, so solo travel for me is a far more rewarding experience now than it ever was. Far from looking for company or other backpackers to have awesome adventures with in my early twenties, I’m just as happy spending time on my own exploring a city or a country on my own terms.
But there is a much more profound aspect to travel in my thirties too. When I was younger I was still forming a lot of my opinions, asking questions and bouncing around the world in a sense of bemused wonderment.
I’m not saying I know everything now, that would be immensely untrue and stupid beyond belief, of course I still ask questions and keep my mind open to change, but a lot of the opinions I hold now have now largely been formed from my travel experiences, my academic learning and my exposure to the world around me. The dazed wanderlust and culture shock doesn’t affect me now as much as it used to, and I have formed opinions based on past experiences that allow me to see the world in a whole different light. Travel has helped shaped my thoughts, my opinions and my paradigms of the world around me.
Now that I am older and (hopefully) just a little wiser than I was in my twenties, I can understand the world around me on a much deeper level, and that informs my decisions on a daily basis.
A prime example is how an elephant trek during my very first visit to Thailand – and the literal blood on my hands as I reached down to pet the elephants ear after seeing a mahout hit him with a spiked stick – helped me look deeper into the issues surrounding elephant tourism and has given me no real ethical choice but to become a vociferous advocate for animal rights and responsible wildlife tourism.
I realise the effect I have as a traveller, and the potentially positive effect I can have on responsible tourism. I make far more conscious decisions toward having a positive impact now in my thirties than I ever did in my twenties.
Yes I am a different man in my thirties than I was in my twenties, and the experiences and the way I see travel is different now. But one thing that has never changed is my absolute love for travel.
Despite getting older I still love the feel of pulling my aging, worn backpack onto my probably even more aging and worn back, and arriving at the airport ready and willing for a brand new adventure.
Who says a gap year is only a one time thing? Who says you can only backpack when you are young? Hell, backpacking has only gotten more awesome with time and I say bring on backpacking in my forties, fifties and even beyond that!
Backpacking is the experience of a lifetime, and it should be for a lifetime too!
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