Travelling light


TRAVELLING AND LIVING abroad has given me a different way of looking at age. At my own age, and at the – relative – ages of other people around the world.

In some countries “old age” comes far earlier than it does for us. According to the UN, average life expectancy in Ireland is nearly 80 years. That’s only a few years behind the Japanese, who are the globe’s top oldies. Cheery statistics for us, but they contrast bleakly with some sub-Saharan countries, where life expectancy can be under 40 years.

In nations still sentenced to a Medieval span of mortality, merely struggling through to your 40s can make you a venerated “elder”. A few years ago, on a film scouting trip in east Tanzania, I spent a couple of days in a Masai village. Life beside Lake Natron was harsh.

As teenagers, the boys were sent out to guard the cattle against lions, armed with no more than spears and buffalo-skin shields. Girls who’d barely be starting secondary school in Ireland were old enough to join the dances that attracted lovers and husbands. Compared to me, the villagers seemed to be living their lives at an accelerated rate, burning years up twice as fast.

I was put with the “elders”, quite a few of whom were younger than I was. When I suggested I’d rather go out with the youthful warriors into the bush, I was treated like a senile grandfather threatening to try a bit of break-dancing. The Masai reckoned that, in my mid-40s, I should be easing into a quiet old age dedicated to talk of past exploits and dispensing wisdom to youngsters.

On the first of many trips to Patagonia I met a middle-aged gaucho who was locally famed as a horse-breaker, drinker, smoker, dancer and philanderer. He lived to the full. During my time on the ranch at the tip of South America, we rode horses through the day on cattle round-ups in miserable weather, and spent the nights feasting with local cowboys in farm kitchens or at dances. My new pal was always talking, drinking, dancing or singing; often managing all four at the same time.

When I returned the following year I asked after the gaucho. There were glum looks. He’d gone into hospital a few months before with stomach pains. And had come out in a coffin.

What did he die off, I asked? One of his friends reckoned it was from too many cigarettes. No, no, said another, he drank too much. Another argued that he’d fallen off too many horses, and been in too many fights.

A quiet – older – man spoke up: “No, no! It was not one of those things,” he said. “It is clear, he died of too much life.”

Travel, though, underlines that a “good” age is not merely about quantity of life but as much about quality of life. Lives lived to the full don’t have to be short and sweet. Many Greek villages seem to be presided over by feisty octogenarians only too ready to down shots of ouzo before leaping up to dance.

And the remote corners of Scandinavian countries are populated by pensioners zipping around the place on cross-country skis or splashing past in kayaks or overtaking me at a fast running pace. Their years contrast with the tens of decades that are all too often staggered, worried and wheezed through by other Westerners.

Arguably travel itself has the potential to keep us all young. Puzzling out unfamiliar languages and calculating exchange rates on long tramps around strange cities laden down with baggage while dealing with the challenges of modern transport are just the types of mental and physical exercises that medics prescribe for a fit, perky old age.

Like old cowboys say, age isn’t about the years, it’s all about the miles.