My wife, Debbie, and I decided to leave the UK. Debbie had had enough and wanted to settle somewhere else. We both have a love of travelling but hadn’t done much since we were students other than the normal holiday break and yearned to have another go before we became too decrepit. We had both lost our fathers but our mums were still upright and the youngest of our five children was about to leave school and go on his own gap year travels.
“I hope I die before I get old” sang Roger Daltry. This was all very well when you are a 20-something but Debbie and I straddled 50 years of age. That means nothing nowadays. I keep reading how 50 is the new 30 and, on that basis, we were ideally aged for a spot of irresponsible travel. In any case, we prefer to sing, “I hope I die before I stop having fun.”
Of course, we could think of a hundred reasons not to do it and only one in favour. But we pressed on, rented-out our house, found friends willing to look after the dogs, parked the cars and bought a couple of backpacks.
The biggest issue was how and what to tell the kids. We spent hours whilst walking the dogs rehearsing a little speech and trying to anticipate all their questions. We thought we would do it over a Sunday lunch. This is a time when we all gather together with boyfriends/ girlfriends, catch up on what we are all up to, throw around gratuitous advice and have a vigorous debate on some random topic that comes up in early discussion.
“We have an announcement to make.” I said, tinkling my glass with a knife.
“Debbie’s pregnant!?!?” Suggested Harriet, helpfully.
“No, we are going off to tour the world for a few years,” I continued and told them all about it.
There was a stunned silence until Andrew asked, “Can I have the car?”
“You’re mad! You’re too old!” Said Lauren.
And that was about it! On the whole, judging by their faces and body language, it wasn’t well received. We were going to do something from which parents are banned like dancing to ABBA or having sex. We were officially an embarrassment.
Interestingly, the children’s friends thought we were really cool but, I suspect, that was because we weren’t actually their own parents. Our friends thought we were being incredibly brave but could think of most of the hundred reasons why they couldn’t possibly do it themselves.
We then discussed where we would go and decided that we would try to avoid places and countries that one or both of us had been before. South America would be a major destination for the simple reason that it sounded remote and exciting and not part of the major tourist routes.
It seemed sensible that only one of us worked up an itinerary, a task that Debbie eagerly undertook but taking into account my desires to go to the Galapagos, Antarctica, the Angel and Iguacu Falls and the Rio carnival. She then disappeared under a pile of travel guides, magazine articles, newspaper columns and any other information she could grab.
We went off to Covent Garden in London and raided the travel and trekking shops for boots, backpacks, waterproofs and other travel gear that we thought or imagined that we might need. Some of it never made it to the starting line through lack of space, other bits we took but we didn’t use (compass, Ethernet LAN cable, fire starting equipment) and some stuff we took but didn’t need (hand held GPS, extra towel, medical equipment for broken bones).
Although we didn’t know it at the time, the best purchase was vacuum bags into which we put our clothes. With the air sucked out, these compressed everything down whilst also keeping our clothes dry. They were also helpful for separating clothes that weren’t immediately required and for quarantining anything dirty.
Over the issue of a tent, we had something of a domestic in the middle of a busy store. I wanted one, imagining us stuck in the middle of nowhere without anywhere to stay and with local inbreds sizing us up for the cooking pot. Debbie indulged me for some while, allowing me to discuss with a rather attractive salesgirl the virtues of the triple aspect, two person, single ply, extra lightweight, award winning tent before giving me both barrels. Had I considered the bulk, the cost, the weight, the fact that we would also require sleeping mats? And all for what? A couple of nights possibly? Was I stark raving mad?
Suitably chastened, I was marched off to look at sleeping bags. “What do you want one of those for?” I asked, “We haven’t got a tent.”
“I might get cold. You should get one too.”
No chance. My pride dented, I certainly wasn’t going to lug a stupid sleeping bag around the world. I would rather freeze.
As we couldn’t make a start until after Andrew (number one son) had got married to Harriet, we took ourselves off to Spain for nearly four months in order to learn some basic Spanish so that we could get ourselves around South America. It is relatively easy to absorb the basics of Spanish but I can never understand why they spell something with a ‘c’ and pronounce it ‘th’. The same goes for ‘j’ which is really an ‘h’ and ‘ll’ which is a ‘y’ and ‘v’ which is a ’b’. It would make life much simpler for a simple person if they simply changed the spelling. How difficult is that?
Anyway, after an intensive course of lessons and, thanks to the good natured patience of our Spanish teacher, Andreas, I emerged with the ability to order a beer in Spanish without having to think what I wanted to say in English, translate it into Spanish and then produce the words in a terrible accent.
A round the world air ticket purchased, we made our final preparations. We stripped ourselves of valuables – wedding bands were replaced with curtain rings, nice watches were replaced with something that came out of a sweetie packet, other jewellery put away. Debbie had to make most of the sacrifices to rough travel from soft, comfortable life in leafy Surrey: High heels, hairdryer, make up, elegant clothes, clean finger nails, expensive scented shower gel, perfume. It was all bid a fond farewell.
For the next couple of years or more we would get ourselves about with just a mobile and a laptop for communications. We had some dates fixed to be in certain places but otherwise we could go where we wanted, do whatever we wanted and enjoy whatever came our way. Our overwhelming anxiety was that we would not complete the trip, the end of which seemed too far away to imagine; that we would be defeated by the sheer enormity of the real and imagined difficulties that we would encounter.
Then there was our relationship. Would it survive with us being together 24/7? According to western and Chinese astrology Debbie and I are supposed to be incompatible. The Chinese tell us “This truly is a clumsy match….with little potential. Much better for both to move on…” Wise words indeed. The verdict from European astrology is no more hopeful, “funny old union and not one that astrologers recommend.” What personal quirks would no longer be small and ignorable but become insuperable barriers to us living together? There was only one way to find out. So we jumped on a plane and headed for San Francisco.
What could go wrong?