Today is my birthday.
It is not a significant birthday, the last one of those was three years ago, and the next one is still way off in the future—although we all know that the next significant birthday is never really that far away. On birthdays we tend to reflect on our lives as age is often a signifier of success: don’t you remember saying ‘by 25 I hope to have a career, by 30 I hope to be married, by 35 I hope to have children…’. Even if you’re not saying it you can be sure that the society around you is. How many times have people commented on your age and asked if you’re married or when you intend to have kids? Or that question that no doubt every traveller dreads, ‘travelling is all very nice, but shouldn’t you settle down now?‘
Well today I turn 33. I am not married and I don’t have kids. I have forged a successful teaching career and paid off all my debts. And then I quit a good teaching job in order to travel, in the full knowledge that I will spend all the savings I have worked so hard for. Many people would say I am reckless.
Today would also have been the birthday of my Grandmother, or ‘Nana’ as we called her. For 32 years we shared a birthday. She died in August last year after old age, and the various ailments that come with it, finally finished taking its merciless toll on her body. In her last months she said to me many times that ‘old age is cruel’ and she was right. Right until the end it was clear to see that while the spirit was willing, the body was oh-so weak.
My Grandmother was born in an age where travel was only for the wealthy, for six years during the Second World War it was impossible. But she also lived through an age when even the impossible became possible—a man could stand on the surface of the moon. In her later years she lived in a society where getting on a plane is as common as catching a bus. She even had family members who lived overseas. When she became confused and could barely remember the names of her own children and grandchildren, she always remembered that I had lived in Japan and then Vietnam. To somebody who lived through both WW2 and the Vietnam War living in such places must have seemed incredible.
Years ago she visited Canada with her friends. She travelled around and rode a Greyhound bus. I remember her excitement about this trip. In the hospital at the end she had her photo album of this holiday by her bed. It stood alongside her numerous albums of family, and she proudly showed it to the nurses and all her visitors. My Grandmother lived a difficult life which included the tragic deaths of three of her children—two in infancy—and her eldest daughter in adulthood. She lost her beloved husband at a young age but remained the strong matriarch of a large family, including an army of grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. But she also had a good life. Her family loved her and she had many, many friends, all of whom were recipients of her frequent handwritten cards and letters.
All of her friends and family were present at her funeral.
After the funeral, many of my Grandmother’s friends spoke to me about what I was doing. I was about to leave for my South America journey. Every single one of them said to me ‘Well done! Do it while you’re young, you’ll only regret it later if you don’t. I wish I had travelled.’
Like my Grandmother, for many of them it had been impossible during their own youth. Many of them pointed out that in this day and age, having a family can come later. And they are right.
I do not criticise anybody who marries young and has a family. I do not criticise anybody who stays at home and works hard to create a career and raise their children. When I see people happy and content in their lives, whatever they are doing, I admire them.
I do criticise a society that suggests that there is something wrong with you if you do not wish to live this way. On the whole, we live much longer these days, there is time to travel and have family later—if that is what you want to do.
To travel the way I have, I have made sacrifices. I don’t have a permanent home, I do not have children, I am always far away from my family. Maybe in time I will settle down, even have children. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I will regret some of my choices later in life, maybe I won’t. These things sometimes keep me awake at night. Should I feel guilty about travelling, because sometimes I do? Should I stay at home and suffer with recessions and the rising cost of living because that is what we are taught life is all about? Does travelling mean I am running away? Should I turn back and face adulthood responsibly by paying my taxes and raising the next generation? Will I look back at the end of my life on my hundreds of travel pictures with pride, as my Grandmother did, or with regret for what it cost? She died surrounded by family, but will I?
I can’t answer these questions but right now I feel happy about what I am doing. I shouldn’t live a life that society dictates just because that’s what has always been done. Just because I choose travel over raising a family right now doesn’t mean that I won’t choose a family later. Perhaps I can even find a way to combine family and travel successfully as other travel bloggers have done. My Grandmother’s generation had no choice yet I don’t believe that they would begrudge their own grandchildren the chance to do what they themselves could not. The freedom to choose how we live our lives is what many of them fought for.
So I should not feel guilty about it.
As a devoted Christian, my Grandmother looked forward to her final destination, even though she didn’t enjoy the last few stages of the journey. At the end she talked of hearing singing and entering Heaven to be reunited with her God, her beloved husband, and the children that she had lost and missed so dearly. She made the ultimate journey to a destination where even the Lonely Planet has not been and I hope that she found peace there.
I know that she is proud of me whatever I do, and I think that she would tell me not to feel guilty about travelling.
Do you feel guilty about travelling? Do you sometimes feel under pressure to live in a particular way, and that travelling is an easy escape from the realities of life? Have you settled down after being a traveller? What changed your mind? Do you think that you can find a balance between travel, career and family or do you believe that something must be sacrificed? Leave me a comment below.