“They” said it was dangerous, they said I shouldn’t go alone, they said I was too old, too young, too reckless, too impulsive, too female, too late. “They” were the thoughts in my head. Oh, there were a few naysayers who heeded me unsolicited warnings about traveling alone to a foreign country, and my sweet 84-year-old mother who worries for my safety whether I am ten minutes away from her or 10,000 miles. It wasn’t my friends or family who told me I shouldn’t go, it was those pesky negative thoughts in my head that have swayed me away from solo travel for many years. Then one day as I scrolled through pictures of the Seven Wonders of the World on many a travelers’ Instagram feeds, I decided to take the advice I give my clients in the therapy room. I challenged my thoughts, silenced the negative messages, embraced my impulsive side and booked the ticket to Cusco, Peru. I chose to go alone.
I also choose to challenge the narrative of middle age women. How we should look, talk, act, do. We are aging, and we are relevant. While advertisers, and even friends and family attempt to tell us that we should fight aging and spend billions of dollars on anti aging products, procedures and surgeries to stop or slow the process of getting older, there is the other side of aging. Women who are rejecting those messages and accepting the truth. The truth that our bodies and minds are aging and what we are experiencing is natural, expected and unstoppable and beautiful. We refuse to be invisible and we are fierce. We are women of a certain age who want to push the boundaries of what beauty is and dispel the myths of aging, including the storyline that women should stay in their designated roles, roles where others feel comfortable about where women go and what women do. What parts of our body we are allowed to show or expected to cover up. We are taking up space and making no apologies for it.
My new storyline is to embrace my age, weight, wrinkles, age spots, cellulite, sags and empty nest. I am learning to celebrate my adult children building lives without me, and my role as a mother changing to where I am no longer the caregiver for my children but I am now the caregiver of my mother as she leans into the twilight years and faces the experiences of the elderly. I, along with countless other middle aged women are creating a life of meaning outside of raising a family or chasing a career, being the dutiful wife and daughter to expanding our essence to include all of above and more. We are not one identity at the cost of another, but we are all identities. One without apologies or expectations from others. We climb mountains, we dance, we sing, we seek out new experiences, we eat and drink whatever we please, we seek thrills in adventure, we zipline waterfalls, we bomb down hills on mountain bikes, we summit peaks, we have sex, we rappel caves and cliffs, we ski, we laugh, we cry, we mourn, we celebrate, we plan, we love, we grieve, and we travel solo.
My daughter Tasia @tasiajensen was my first inspiration to explore the idea of traveling solo. She took her first solo travel trip to Peru at age 19 in 2011. My husband I watched with tears in our eyes, as our first born navigated through TSA, complete with pink neck pillow wrapped around her neck and sporting a purple backpack. She turned once and gave us a wave and blew us a kiss and disappeared into the crowd of travelers and boarded a flight to South America, a place my husband and I had never visited, nor had either of us traveled internationally alone, yet we encouraged our daughter to take the trip, which brought up bittersweet feelings of worry and excitement for her and a mix of regret, nostalgia and missed opportunities for me. I believed it was too late for me.
For some reason, I held onto the belief that if I am married and have people who I enjoy traveling with that I shouldn’t want to go alone. I knew a lot of young people who traveled solo, but in my group of friends and family, I didn’t know many women of my age who traveled solo, nor did they have the desire to, or they didn’t share it with me. I felt alone in my desire and it caused me to second guess myself. I thoroughly enjoyed travel with others, whether it was with my husband, my kids, my friends or on a day excursion with strangers who became friends by the end of the adventure. And yet, there was a yearning for solo travel that I couldn’t explain away. An itch that became more intense over the years. I held that secret inside and didn’t share with many people due to the judgements I felt came my way, or the “why would you want to do thats” and the “you shouldn’t go alones.”
Nearly 11 years after my daughter took her first solo trip, and a month before my 56th birthday, I decided to follow in my daughter’s shoes and booked a solo trip to Peru. At first I felt the need to justify my decision. I had a bank of skymiles waiting to be spent, it was spring break for the boarding school where I worked as a therapist for teen boys, Peru was affordable and I wouldn’t have to break the bank to go, my entire trip would cost me less than a car payment, it was my birthday, etc, etc. Justifications aside, I finally admitted my secret desire. I wanted to go alone. That was it, no excuses or justifications . I packed a carry on, kissed my husband good-bye and boarded a red eye flight destined for Peru. I felt secure and confident in my travel know-how. For the past 14 years I had booked many vacations, trips, hotels and Airbnb, experiences and excursions. I booked my own flights through Delta, United, JetBlue, American, Allegiant, Air France Turkish Airlines. I knew how to navigate websites, get the best deals for the shortest flights, how to pack a carry on, how to be my own travel agent. I had taken trips several times a year with friends, my spouse, my family and my girlfriends, been the guest on many excursions and trips, but for some reason I didn’t think I “should” go at it alone, until I did. Facing that fear of the unknown and challenging our old story lines is the key to self actualization and I was ready to explore what I was made of.
On my flight, I didn’t have any of the luxuries of home, yet the discomfort I felt sleeping in the aisle seat in coach, hip-to-hip with a complete stranger, created space in my soul to grow, explore and create a new chapter in my 50s. I had to get uncomfortable, face the unfamiliar, to view myself in a different light, one illuminated by my aloneness.
While I was alone on my flight, I was surrounded by people going places, some alone, some with a group, some with couples. I was delighted that the seat next to me opened up allowing my five foot four frame to sleep somewhat more comfortable, scrunched into two coach seats instead of one. I have learned through my years of air travel that there are three middle age lady essentials for air flight; an eye mask, Bombas compression socks and Mack’s silicone ear plugs.
Two flights later and I disembarked, alone, into the city of Cusco. I was giddy to say the least. I had arranged a driver to pick me up from the boutique hotel I booked through Booking.com. It was a mere seven U.S. dollars for a ride from the airport to the Ninos Hotel Meloc. I was greeted by the lobby host with a steaming cup of Coca Leaf tea. The leaves floated in my mug and it was a delightful gift to a weary traveler. Weary as I was from the red eye flight, I dropped by backpack in my room and headed out to explore the Plaza Del Armas, the historic public square in the center of the city. It was mid-morning and vendors were hustling to sell their colorful wares. I wandered the cobblestone streets and found my way into an alleyway where two elderly Peruvian men sat drinking tea on a patio of an unnamed restaurant. I found an empty table, void of QR codes or menus of any kind and took a seat. I was greeted in Spanish by the restaurant host and said my best pronunciation of “Buenos Dias” as she placed a bowl of soup before me. I savored the hot quinoa soap, rich with large chunks of squash and anticipated what I would receive next. I didn’t ask any questions, I was just open to the experience. I soon received a plate full of rice, beans and chicken which I ate slowly, enjoying every bite.
I spent the rest of the day immersed in a five senses experience, exploring the shops around the square, marveling at the colorful textiles and whitewashed buildings, smelling the aromas of street food, listening to the Spanish spoken around me, trying to decipher some of the words and practicing my rudimentary Spanish with patient locals. I stumbled into a Starbucks and shamelessly ordered me a latte and posted my proof of life photos to my family and friends back home. While enjoying my solo exploration, I also felt the need to share it with those I loved. There was a paradox found in my journey as I was thoroughly enjoying my solo experience, while at the same time wanting to share the experience.
My solo exploration of Cusco ended the next day as I joined a group of strangers on an excursion to hike a portion of the Inca Trail. I joined 12 travelers through Alpaca Expeditions . The group included hikers from New York and Texas, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Malaysia and France. All but the four Americans spoke Spanish and several other languages but we all spoke the language of hiking. Looking around the room, I recognized a stark difference. It wasn’t skin color, race or gender, but age. I was the oldest by 25 years and I would be celebrating my 56th birthday the first day on the trail. I felt insecurity creep in as I assessed my hiking skills and abilities against the others. Those pesky negative thoughts huddled in my brain, “can I keep up,” “I hope I am not the last one” “what if I have to pee?” Our group leader, Flecher eased mine and the others’ fears during the orientation as we all expressed the same concerns, except I was pretty sure I was alone in my worry about my bladder. Thank goodness I had packed my Attn: Grace pads for the trip. Being a middle aged woman, my bladder is something I have to think about and prepare for in advance, but it doesn’t stop me from traveling and I don’t apologize for having an overactive bladder, you just better get out of the way when I announce I have to pee!
The next morning we had breakfast, strapped on our backpacks, filled our water bottles, applied our sunscreen and stepped onto the ancient Inca trail. My backpack held all of my personal clothing items and water. The Peruvian porters carried the rest of the gear, including tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, a porta potty, dishes, food and simple comforts, such as toilet paper and coffee. The porters, both male and female hauled 50 pounds on their backs to each of our campsites for our four day three night trek. They carried it up, set it up and carried it back down again. Peru is unapologetically committed to preserving the environment and the leave no trace mentality and that allows its trails amid the Andes Mountains to be marveled by generations to come.
We hiked nearly nine miles that first day and had an amazing gourmet meal cooked by the chef of the expedition. To my surprise at the end of the meal, the chef presented a fiery bananas flambe and the group sang happy birthday to me. Our age differences disappeared as we all celebrated together. Again the paradox emerged of me enjoying my solo experience and wanting to share it with those I loved, my husband and my children.
The next three days consisted of waking up before the sunrise and hiking through four different ecosystems. I started out the day in a Patagonia half-zip fleece, then stripped down to a tank top, only to summit and don a Pantagonia rain jacket, puffer coat, gloves and a beanie, only to descend in the next hour and be back in my tank top, applying sunscreen to my shoulders. Our guide Flecher shared with us the history of the Inca Trail, its people, customs, myths, fauna and flora. Hailing from Inca descent and speaking Quechua, Flecher shared his love of the country and his desire and commitment to preserving its history. He reverently educated and shared his knowledge of each Incan ruin site. I found myself taking in multiple moments of awe during the day as each turn, summit and step offered views that cannot be described by words or pictures, but experienced through the presence of being one with the mountains. These moments of awe were different for me than the ones I have experienced at home amid the majestic Utah mountains. Standing on the trail and watching the clouds engulf the Andes and then lift again to expose their jagged peaks lit up by the night sky and the brightest of stars, I felt both aloneness and a deep connection to humanity and a recognition that we all exist under the same sky. I may have been on my solo journey, but I was not alone.
Day four arrives, the final leg of our journey of strangers who have found common threads weaving us into the fabric of friendship and shared experiences. The porters nudge us awake just after four a.m. whispering “buenos dias” and offering up a steaming cup of cocoa leaf tea just outside the tent flap. We sip our tea, turn on our headlamps, fill our water bottles, pack our bags and head to the Wiñaywayna Gate leading to Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the world. We eat by the light of headlamps silence with anticipation, nibbling on a sandwiches on a wooden bench and keeping one eye on the closed gate. Giddy with anticipation, the ranger finally arrives and unceremoniously opens the lock and swings open the iron gate, bringing us to our feet and to a frenzied scramble to the trail, backpackers racing with the sun hoping to make it to the top before it lights up Machu Picchu. I don’t want to rush it, nor do I run. I savor every step of these last few miles. If middle age has taught me anything it is to be present, to be grateful and to just be. At home, I struggle to be present with all of life’s responsibilities, but not today. I am fully here, walking the ancient trail and feeling grateful to all the feet that walked this trail before me.
I didn’t need to run, I made it through the gate just moments after Inti, the sun god of the Incan religion blanketed his rays over Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I stood at the gate and marveled.
I was in a strange and wonderful place, physically and emotionally. The Oxford dictionary describes awe as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear and wonder. ” Both the physical and the emotional aligned on the ridge that day. Wonder at what I accomplished on my solo trip, fear that I would be judged for enjoying it immensely and wanting to do it again. Wonder at the beauty and history of Machu Picchu, fear that this ancient archaeological site would continue to be damaged by the influx of tourists, including myself, and hyper aware that the precautionary measures to protect the site are not enough.
Obligatory selfies were snapped and high fives were shared as we toured the ancient site, careful to follow our guide and honor the rules, treading lightly, hoping to preserve it for generations to come. I didn’t rush through my time there for I knew that when and if I returned, it would not be the same. I would not be the same, not the same physically and not the same emotionally. As I write this blog, I am not the same physically as I was nine months ago when I stepped onto my first solo international trip, nor am I the same emotionally. Machu Picchu is not the same. It continues to age and crumble and no feat of engineering can restore it to its original form. We as humans will never be restored to our original form either.
We are meant to age, our bodies and our minds, just like humans, cultures, cities and empires before us. The question we should ask is how will we age? What will we leave behind? For me, I look for awe daily, whether at home, amid the people I love, with strangers, amid conflict, in nature, in travel and in the mundane. I also look for moments of awe when I challenge the narrative of middle age and growing older within my own mind. I want to surprise myself, go outside the narrative I have written, edit it, erase it and make a new one. One that makes no apologies for aging, embraces my wrinkles, my cellulite, my bunions my boobs, my butt. One that makes space and supports women of all ages. One that takes solo trips, one that wants more, one who will continue to ask, challenge, embrace, forgive and love self. When we make space for ourselves it opens us up to make space for others.
So while many women have already traveled solo internationally, good for you, keep doing it and inspiring others to do the same. It was because of you that I chose to speak my truth and take that solo trip. For those of you who have a desire to do so, but have not yet booked that trip. Speak it. Act it. Share it. I’ll be waiting for your story.