Post-Covid Travel While Old: Totally Worth It?
A recent trip provides an answer
A frequent traveler in her younger years, Naomi Beth Marcus and her husband embark on a trip to Central America, joint replacements and all. Along the way, she asked herself, is it worth the hassle to travel while old?
Whenever I go through airport security, I light up their machines like a Chernobyl chicken. “FEMALE ASSIST!” the cry goes up for a pat-down and I get that look. I explain that a car wreck in my youth left titanium holding my knee and hip together, but somehow my images show me riddled with hot spots all over. Some “female assists” are gentle, some not so much.
Air travel was stressful for me before Covid. So, before flying to a small Central American country for a wedding, I had to consider, let’s see: TSA, customs, Covid, masks, (no masks), proof of vaccination, bottled water only, and my own recent Covid infection that led to lasting shortness of breath. Plus traveling to 5,000 feet above sea level. Being, well, older than I was before the pandemic.
To go or not to go, that was the question.
What happened to the intrepid tour guide I used to be? The Naomi of the 1980s, who took tour groups on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and to Azerbaijan, Tashkent, and Samarkand on rickety Aeroflot planes that smelled of sour cream and rode like amusement park rides? That Naomi, who got dropped by helicopter at a yurt village in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia, accompanying American geologists who were there to study the rocks.
“When are you coming back for us?” I screamed at the pilots over the roar of the blades. “What if I get a toothache?”
“Maybe in one day, maybe in two, depends on weather,” they screamed back, ignoring the toothache query. They waved. I shrugged and waved too. OK, whenever. What happened to THAT GIRL?
She got old. But she did go on this trip. And, no suspense, it went off without a hitch.
No mechanical plane issues.
No bad weather.
No nutcase passengers.
Just the normal hell of modern-day international air travel, while a senior.
And I am here to report that it is totally worth it.
I finally caught Covid in December, with one symptom: shortness of breath, but it lasted, well, until now. My UCSF pulmonologist at the post-Covid clinic assured me it would pass, eventually. She said, “Go On Your Trip!” So I did.
When I felt somewhat breathless at the Dallas/Ft Worth airport where we changed planes, I went to one of the, oh, thousand airport bars and had two, (dos!) gin and tonics while my husband looked on, askance. But that helped. Breathless in Dallas. Was it being in Texas or being post-Covid? You decide.
When traveling while old, one is warned about crime a lot.
Do not carry cash.
Do not walk about late.
Don’t get kidnapped.
Don’t get drunk and don’t fall down.
Don’t get robbed and don’t get murdered.
Call me naïve, but common sense carried me through this world before Covid, and I could not summon any fear of being kidnapped now.
Actually, when traveling while old, you can be somewhat invisible. That is not always a bad thing. Unseen, I watch people freely, staring as long as I want. I intimidate or irritate no one. I don this cloak of invisibility, and I am fine with it.
We found that we become visible when we sit at the communal table. In Europe, and in Latin American eateries, there is often a larger table reserved for a big group. We ask to sit there, saying, sure, we will move if a large party comes. We look genteel and harmless and attract others. “Mind if we share?” we are asked by other couples, in French, German, Dutch accents. Then all sorts of wonderful conversations ensue, there at the communal table, with younger trekkers and travelers. It’s hard for young travelers, with their ubiquitous phones and laptops, to imagine how we went anywhere before the internet. Almost as if we are from the Paleolithic era. At the communal table this spring we learned about the strikes in Britain (doctors and nurses, the NHS is in a bad way), the state of nuclear energy in Germany (they are doing away with it), and how Brexit has affected the Irish, among many conversations we enjoyed. We learned new words, heard new jokes, took selfies, and laughed a lot. We were seen.
How old are you when doctors start asking the question, “Have you fallen recently?” My husband and I are always cautious pedestrians (as a couple we boast ankle, knee, and hip replacements). Now, when we travel far afield and traverse unfamiliar terrain we step up our game; a whole other level of attention is required.
On a recent trip to Antigua, Guatemala, many sidewalks were being repaired. Curb cuts are uneven, and as you delicately step on and off to avoid the construction potholes, you risk moving into the path of zig-zagging “motos” that careen and barrel through intersections without stop signs or stop lights. Some drivers stopped so close to me, we could have embraced. Or died in each other’s arms. We called these streets “joint replacement testers,” and we blessed our orthopedic surgeons as we successfully navigated hours of walking.
What is different now:
- My bandwidth is not as wide as it was.
- I am more limited in my capacity to take in and absorb new impressions.
- I am slower: it takes me longer to put on my damn shoes at the airport.
So I resolved:
- I will not be tyrannized by any app that counts my steps.
- I will not change places every few days.
- I make an adjustment – we go to ONE PLACE, one destination, and remain there, and “be there now” to quote a famous line.
That worked wonderfully for us. We choose a place so we can become part of the neighborhood, known to the regulars: the café waitress, the grocery store clerk, the neighbors sweeping the street, even the dogs.
And here’s a sweet surprise: in countries that respect the elderly, we found ourselves to be “gringo good luck” charms. Sitting in the main plaza, resting a moment from our explorations, we were approached shyly by a newlywed couple in full bridal finery. They giggled a bit, hemmed and hawed, and finally asked to have their picture taken with us. Sure, but porque? You will bring us good luck, was the answer. With that kind of faith, how can you not travel?
Naomi Marcus was raised on the Big Sur Coast and attended UC Santa Cruz, majoring in Russian. She got her graduate degree in Journalism at Columbia University and will soon attend her 40th reunion. She worked in the USSR as a tour guide and interpreter in the hopeful 1980s. She came back to California, married, and worked as a social worker with immigrants and refugees, and her last job was as a vocational counselor with the severely mentally ill, at UC San Francisco’s dept of psychiatry. She has written for the SF Chronicle, Mother Jones, American Photographer, and many other publications.
Also by Naomi Marcus: “My Mother’s Clothes”