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Latecomers welcome: Glen Mutel

When’s the right time to go travelling? Is there really a window of opportunity and, if so, have you missed it?

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If I have a talent, it’s my ability to resent young people. When I think of them — with their ringtones, vacant stares and tedious music — it’s hard not to sink into despair. I suppose, at the root of it is the nagging suspicion most of them are making better decisions than I did at their age.

Nothing illustrates this better than travel. You see, when it comes to exploring the world, I was a bit of a late starter. As a young man I was one of those misguided idiots who’d take weeks off work and do precisely nothing with them. I used to tell people I was tending to my affairs, but what this involved I couldn’t honestly tell you.

There was no gap year, no volunteering abroad, not even many weekends away — just a bored young man taking time off to tidy his flat. But then, when I was 24, a girlfriend suggested it really might be quite nice if we actually went somewhere. So we did, and it was. Who’d have thought lying on a beach with a cocktail in your hand could be so pleasant?

Several more package holidays followed, and by the time I was 28, I felt it was time to tick the Independent Travel box. So I brushed aside my misgivings and headed to Thailand for a month. What an eye-opener it was. Having never been out of Europe before, it was thrilling to be somewhere so different.

But I couldn’t help but feel annoyed with myself. Why hadn’t I done this before? Why had I waited so long?

I suppose when I was young I must have just thought Foreign Travel looked too tricky. I didn’t know one could just grab a guidebook and improvise. I thought if I went away on my own I’d end up roaming the streets, lost and forlorn, like an abandoned toddler in a department store.

But that month in Thailand had shown me the error of my thinking. And, having been relieved of my ignorance, I finally felt ready for a Proper Adventure. I would disappear to India for six months, and at last, I’d be a bona fide traveller. Except by the time I actually set off I was 31. And while this may not seem that old, when you’re treading the boards of a backpacker circuit, it can feel ancient. I started off on the hippy beaches of Goa and, naturally, there were plenty of young people about.

I’d see them in groups, laughing and getting drunk together; so young and yet already so well-travelled. They’d mooch about in cafes, plotting their next adventures. With no financial debts to service many would be out indefinitely — in fact some of the little swines are probably still out there, onto the fourth or fifth continents of their grand world tours. And once more, my resentment resurfaced. Why hadn’t I travelled when I was young? Why did I spend my early 20s working in Boots when I could have been backpacking around like these half-wits?

But once we’d left the established tourist trail things started to change. By the time we ventured deeper into India, younger travellers became quite thin on the ground, and those who could be found didn’t seem to be coping especially well. They’d seemed so at home on the beaches of Goa, but when faced with India at its most relentless and hectic — and I suppose most authentic — they clearly weren’t ready for it.

And I remembered something I’d always secretly known — young people are great at having fun, but they’re not always that good at being happy. And it dawned on me there was something to be said for being reasonably late to travel. Because I’m just not sure that the young fool I once was had enough about him to truly appreciate the world.

So the moral of this story is, no matter how old you are, if you ever find yourself yearning to travel, then it’s the perfect time to do so. And that envying the young is ultimately pointless. They’ve got their own crosses to bear. Live your life, and leave them to their ringtones.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got affairs to tend to.

 

Published in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)