Gloria, a recent guest writer on this blog wrote, “Life is a journey and like all journeys, it’s all about who you cross paths with”. Throughout my 36 years on this planet, and especially during my travels, I’ve often found inspiration in the many people I’ve met. During my five-month solo round-the-world trip last year, I met a variety of people whom I found inspiring in one way or other. There was one particular lady I met whose life story just blew me away. Despite the odds that were stacked up against her, she made a clear choice and persevered. Her positive demeanour and enthusiasm for travel were almost tangible in her company.
I met her the night that Obama was elected as President. I was travelling around South America at the time and was staying at a hostel in Santiago, Chile. As I watched the CNN breaking news feed, I noticed a lady sitting at the table a few yards away who was considerably older than the other twenty or thirtysomething guests at the hostel. I felt intrigued by her presence and struck up a conversation with her. She spoke with a distinct American accent but, it turned out, she was from the Netherlands (like me)! I learned that she was travelling around South America on her own for several months, brushing up on her Spanish along the way, and my fascination grew. I didn’t ask her how old she was (my Mum taught me never to ask a lady that question!) but, sensing my curiousity, she told me she was 64. We stayed up talking till 3am and decided to spend the following day exploring the sights of Santiago together.
We had a wonderful day sauntering around the colourful Bellavista neighbourhood. We even hitch-hiked up the San Cristobal hill because she wanted to see the views from there. She certainly possessed a healthy dose of curiosity and adventure! That afternoon, she told me about her solo travels around Asia, Africa and South America. I thought it was amazing that she was travelling on her own. She said that she preferred it that way as she found it was the best way to enjoy the sights, meet new people and discover herself. I was very curious about that last point – I mean, she was 64, what more self-discovery could there be? – but I didn’t delve further.
I felt increasingly privileged to be having a meal with such a remarkable woman.
That evening, we met up to have dinner together. We chose a cosy restaurant across the street from the hostel. After a few sips of wine, we started talking about our lives back home in the Netherlands. She had two sons and was a school teacher but had retired several years back and she’d been travelling quite a lot since then. I asked her what her family thought of her travelling, especially on her own. She smiled and said that she was divorced and her two sons, though initially hesitant about it, encouraged her to do her own thing and see the world. They gave her a cellphone with a global roaming card and an iPod Touch for her music and to keep in touch via e-mail.
Throughout the evening, I felt increasingly privileged to be having a meal with such a remarkable woman. She told me about the conservative, close-knit community she came from in the Netherlands, in which girls were married young and spent their lives serving their family. Having a career was frowned upon but she persevered and became a school teacher.
Her two sons moved to the city in the 1980’s and she stayed behind with her husband. She said that it was really sad to see her sons leave. She joked that they kept her sane (though I think she really meant it). Twenty years later, she reached another milestone: her retirement. As a present, her school sent her and her husband to a Dutch seaside resort for a few days. On the first evening, she sat out on the deck and gazed out to the sea. She said that she’d never felt so lonely and so empty as at that very moment. She sat there, as the sun dipped its head under the horizon, and wept.
She often pondered about that moment on the deck in the weeks that ensued, and why she felt that way. A multitude of questions had popped up but she had no answers. A month later, she went on a solo train trip to visit her cousin in Switzerland for a few weeks. She was thrilled to make the trip as it was her first time travelling alone. It wasn’t easy to convince her husband that she would be fine but she succeeded. As she sat in the train and watched the German countryside flash past, she had an epiphany. This is what she wanted to do! She wanted to travel, see the world, explore places and cultures and make new friends. She’d never been outside of Western Europe before as her husband didn’t like trains and had a fear of flying, and he often disapproved of her going anywhere outside the country on her own. In fact, she realised, apart from the occasional summer holiday on the Spanish costas, hardly anyone in her community had ever been outside the borders of the country.
one day, she decided to choose for herself
In the following months, she began to find some answers. She realised that she wasn’t living the life she wanted to lead. Her parents pushed her to get married to a church member when she was in her 20’s. The life that she led was the one that was prescribed to her by her husband, parents and the wider community. She had found some contentment in her teaching job, and at the time it was an escape out of the house but she felt that there had to be more. She could not continue to live a life in which everything was dictated to her. She’d spent her entire life doing just that! So, one day, she decided to choose for herself; choose to do the things SHE wanted to do, like studying archaeology, travelling the world and helping communities in developing countries. She didn’t want to do “great” things. No, she wanted to do the things that her heart prescribed, find out what made her tick and re-light the fire within her that she’d felt when she was younger. When she broke the news to her family, they thought she’d gone mad. But nothing was stopping her. Her determination was boundless.
Life is too short for it to be mediocre
Before the end of the year, she’d enrolled at a local university to follow classes in archaeology and she’d taken up Spanish lessons. She had also divorced her husband and moved out of their home. Her community was appalled by her decision to file for a divorce. They told her that she was destroying her life and that she was an ungrateful wife. She said she didn’t mind and took the criticism and gossip in her stride. I asked her why she divorced her husband – wasn’t there a way to reconcile achieving her new goals with her married life? She shook her head and replied, “He’s too set in his ways and that was holding me back. He could not understand and accept that I had to do this for myself. I realised then that life is too short for it to be mediocre”.
I was simply awe-struck by her courage and determination. Here, sitting across the table from me was a lady who made a tough life-changing decision – to choose for her own happiness and well-being – and overcame many barriers to see it through. As I looked at her, I couldn’t help but notice the unmistakable twinkle in her eyes and her unyielding exuberance. She was following her heart, having the adventure of her life and each day, she was learning a bit more about herself. She was 64 and had just made her greatest discovery: LIFE and she was living it to the fullest!
And that is one powerful and inspiring example I shall never forget.