Taking a gap year to backpack around the world is a rite of passage for many young Australians. Maggie Counihan did it solo at 60, first stop India. And as Robin Storey discovers, thirteen years later those distant lands still beckon.
When Maggie Counihan left Australia for her first trip to India, she had no idea she would spend the next ten years travelling the world. But Maggie was not your average traveller – she was sixty and backpacking alone.
‘I had a very comfortable life and a comfortable apartment in Perth, but I had a recent divorce and a bit of a barney with my family, and that was enough. I thought, “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”’
Born and raised in New Zealand, Maggie married young, raised four children and worked in a variety of jobs. But now she was restless and dissatisfied with her life and as she’d always wanted to go to India, she booked her ticket and packed her backpack. It hadn’t occurred to her to ask anyone to go with her, and with a combination of nervousness and excitement she boarded the plane for her new adventure.
Maggie began her trip with three weeks in Nepal before travelling through India by train and bus. This is where she gained her travel degree. ‘I learnt so much there – I learnt how to be assertive, how to look after myself. In India there’s no such thing as joining a queue, I had to learn to push and shove. If I waited politely for my turn I’d still be there!’
On one occasion, when disembarking from a train, she became trapped in the crowd of oncoming passengers. ‘Instinctively I yelled at the top of my voice, “Help! You’re behaving like animals!” I felt I was going to be squashed to death. Suddenly there was a moment of quiet and the crowd parted to let me through.’ This was her first lesson in using her voice when in trouble.
Having successfully survived her first solo trip Maggie was hooked. ‘It still amazes me how life changing it was and I never even realised it until later.’ She spent the next nine or so years backpacking through forty countries across Asia and Europe, as well as Mexico and parts of Canada and the USA. With no set itinerary, she often decided on her next destination on a whim or advice from fellow travellers.
Reactions from the local inhabitants, especially in the Asian countries, ranged from amazement to horror. ‘Reactions would be “madam, what you are doing here? Where is your husband?”’ In India especially she was an oddity as the women are usually chaperoned when they go out, and she quickly became used to being stared at.
Travelling on a budget, she stayed where possible in backpackers’ hostels. The reaction from her fellow travellers, mostly much younger than herself, was admiration. A common comment was ‘I wish my mother was doing what you’re doing.’ During all her travel she met very few women of her age travelling alone.
Maggie fell in love with Cambodia and ended up staying there for 18 months. She set up a business as a masseuse in Phnom Penh and also did voluntary work at local orphanages and an HIV/AIDS clinic. However, the country she enjoyed living in most was Thailand. ‘The people are gracious and generous and the lifestyle is easy.’ She bought an apartment there and used it as a base for her travel over the next few years.
When asked about her most memorable experience she couldn’t narrow it down to one. ‘All the sights I saw, all the tourist spots – standing on the Great Wall of China, living on a houseboat on the Dal Lake (in India), standing on the rim of the Baltic Sea for the first time… but the most wonderful experiences were the people I met whom I would never have met otherwise.’
Maggie recalls only a couple of occasions when she was in danger. In Thailand a man broke into her room and in Prague a group of young people surrounded her in a railway station. On both occasions she screamed and her assailants ran off.
‘Never doubt the power of your own voice for protection…these things only happened when I was tired and not concentrating.’ In the Prague incident, she’d been travelling for 17 hours through 3 countries by plane, bus and train. It was a learning experience that made her more careful.
The advantages of travelling solo, she says, are many. ‘If I liked a place I’d stay, if I didn’t I’d move on…I enjoyed my own company and found it exciting to make my own decisions.’
Last year Maggie published a book about her experiences, ‘Backpacking to Freedom, Solo at Sixty.’ To others of any age who are thinking of travelling alone, her advice is simple. ‘Just have a go. You don’t know how much courage you have until you try.’
She also has plenty of practical advice for solo travellers. Don’t eat in an empty cafe. Never read over a meal. Be open to people. Often just asking the question ‘are you alone, can I join you?’ results in sharing a meal, a room or a trip and sometimes an enduring friendship. If you’re in a country where English is not commonly spoken seek out students, who are usually only too glad to practise their English.
Her most useful tip, she says, is ‘Go with the right attitude. Don’t expect things to go wrong, I never expected things to go wrong and they didn’t. I wasn’t harmed in any way and I didn’t get sick, I looked after my health.’
Now 73 and living on the Sunshine Coast, Maggie exudes vitality and has no plans to stop travelling. Her days of solo travel are over since she met her partner Rollo 4 years ago. They spent 12 months teaching English in Hanoi in Vietnam and have a trip to Europe planned later this year. Maggie says she’ll always be a gypsy at heart and hates booking return tickets. ‘When people ask me how long I’m going to be away I say, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’
50 Something Magazine