Suzanne Harrington on the differences between backpacking in your twenties and backpacking in your fifties
The main difference between backpacking in your twenties and backpacking in your fifties is the drugs. In your fifties, they take up half your rucksack, unlike in your twenties, when you could shove them down your bra. The likelihood of your bra even partially accommodating everything you have brought to keep yourself alive while travelling in middle age is slim, not because of any actual ill health, but because in middle age you are now very much on speaking terms with your own mortality. You have made its acquaintance. You may have even stared it in the eye.
Hence the cornucopia of wellbeing items that you are lugging around, competing for precious space in your pack. So many vitamins. Jars and jars of them, not the supermarket blister packs, but the ones from the wholefood shop that cost more than actual drugs. Omegas. Probiotics. Calcium, iron, magnesium. Vitamin D to make the calcium work. Multivitamins. Echinacea tincture. Something ayurvedic and unpronounceable, a bitter black liquid in an unmarked jar that promises eternal life. Oestrogen patches so that you don’t kill anyone or grow a beard.
And then all the packets of what-if. Rehydration salts, headache pills, tootheache pills, pills that make your intestine speed up, pills that make your intestine slow down. Three different kinds of prescription glasses so that you can see what you’re doing, and don’t accidentally get the Immodium mixed up with the heart burn pills, or smear yourself in insect repellent instead of Factor 50. What is going on?
I should point out that I am a seasoned traveller. And a formerly chaotic one, arriving at festivals with beer but no tent, arriving in India with optimism but no money, travelling overland in places that were still landmined because this meant they were still cheap.
Not anymore. And yet here are my breakfast companions, two well-to-do ladies from the counter culture of long ago, old friends of John and Yoko, of Lucien Freud and Allen Ginsberg. Now they are 79 and 81, and one of them can’t walk anymore, but hobbles about on sticks. They are both deaf, have a smorgasbord of chronic age related conditions, and the local doctors on speed dial. They can’t swim in the sea because the waves would finish them off, and their dietary restrictions involve everything from gluten to mango.
But here they are, in India, regaling me with beatnik and hippie stories that really should be in a book. Both have been in recovery from everything forever, so their tales are unvarnished, eye-widening.
These two little old ladies, with their stories of Morocco in the Fifties, London in the Sixties, New York in the Seventies. Hobbling about, staring death unblinkingly in the face.
And I’m worried about my vitamin absorption.