by Shelly Schlueter, Guest Blogger
Professional boxers like to say that everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth. Milestone birthdays can be that punch. On the other hand, there is also a Zen saying, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
At 50, the waters of life can get downright roiling. So, how was I going to honor this milestone? I decided on a trip.
Traveling reminds me of that old conversation starter. If you could have anyone you wanted at a dinner party, whom would you invite? Exploring the world solo and meeting different people is like a different dinner party each time.
Feeling restless, and trying to tame my inner undetonated warheads known as pre-menopausal hormones; I knew the whole Eat, Pray, Love thing to ingest steamed mung beans and meditate wasn’t going to cut it. That is unless I were guaranteed Javier Bardem would be waiting for me in a romantic thatched hut!
I opted for the luxury and heart pounding excitement of a safari in South Africa – I wasn’t disappointed.
I will never forget the small eight-seater prop aircraft, which was my third flight in 24 hours. As it sputtered over the savanna I mentally tried to recall exactly how comprehensive my travel insurance was and if I could pinpoint the exact spot in the Kalahari Desert, should my luggage drop out of the cargo hold. Peering out the small window, herds of zebras raced in Beyoncé style formation, black and white zigzagging below me. My African adventure was beginning.
Descending onto a dry and dusty landing strip, a young man in a crisp Khaki shirt and matching shorts emerged from a thatched building, more of a hut really, and gave our pilot a friendly wave. This was air-traffic control, African style. I gradually recovered the use of my cramped legs and was safely ensconced in a Land Rover with Andre, my guide and driver. We began our trek to the lodge. My head was turning so much it was as if my neck was on a swivel. It was 2003 before I had a smartphone to capture everything as it unfolded.
On my right, rambunctious baboons scrambled up a fence along the sandy runway and hurled themselves into the nearest tree, out the other side, a lone giraffe grazed lazily from the top of another tree as if it were a muffin top. Baboons, giraffes and utter exhaustion, the shock to my senses was overwhelming.
Once at the lodge, locals were surprised by a lone traveler and stunned because I was female. My legal name is Michele, and they were sure it was just Michael misspelled because it was a single reservation. Over the next week I was questioned again and again “You are alone?” and each time I answered, “Yes,” I felt an uplifting surge of confidence.
One lazy afternoon as I was nosing through the pages of the guest book in the open aired lobby, I noticed, to my disappointment I had just missed Bono by a week! A few pages further back I was shocked to see an old high school classmate and her family, who now lives in Toronto, had been there the month before me! Maybe it is a small world after all Mr. Disney.
That time in Africa defines my 50th. Traveling alone can be exhausting, and lonely, particularly because I had no one with whom to share immediate experiences. However, it was the best gift I ever received.
Going half way around the world on my own, gave me a sense of accomplishment. It was physiological Botox, smoothing out a wrinkled self-image. I’m sure that adventure gave me the courage to face the challenges of the years to come. My 50’s were full of joy and turbulence. Later in the decade, I experienced love again when I remarried and then profound grief, that covered me like a wet towel when he died unexpectedly two short months later.
Today at 63, I realize it was the last decade–my ’50’s–that made me who I am today. If life is a journey, then milestone birthdays are the defining detours. I’m not looking forward to 70, but then I remember, Tina Turner headed out on another world tour in her 70’s and Dame Helen Mirren landed a cosmetic modeling contract at 71!