I’ve just squeezed in a backpackers’ bus bound for the Alps, crammed with teens, twenty and thirty-somethings of all colors when a nonagerian hopped onboard,
We all gawked. He’s 92 to be exact, the oldest globe-trotter I’ve ever met.
His fellow Australian “gray warriors” – retirees belatedly bitten by the travel bug, are retrofitting a senior-friendly trailer for a two-year European tour, he confided. But he went ahead solo because he can’t wait.
Afterwards, catching my train to Nice, France, a 75-year old Italian hiker helped heft my luggage up the overhead compartment.
Ramrod straight under the weight of his pack, compass and maps dangling from his neck in a ziplock pouch, he told me he’s taking a break from his 2,000 kilometer trek to Santiago De Compostela, Spain – one of the most famous pilgrimage routes since Medieval times – the St. James’ Way.
“It’s my third time to do it. I’ve done the Via Francigena (Canterbury to Rome) then the Cammino di Assisi.” He showed me his dog-eared Pilgrim’s Passport stamped at each stop. “Before I’m eighty, I’ll do the Holy Land.”
Well, in almost two decades of wandering through 77 countries, I’ve stopped counting the gray warriors I’ve met.
Age posed no barrier for these dauntless members of the G.I. Generation, the Silents and the Boomers. After all, the oldest man to summit Mt. Everest was 80; the oldest woman, 73. Both were Japanese.
I wasn’t really surprised when Japanese septuagenarians overtook me in my first, solo, night ascent of their highest and holiest mountain, 12,400-foot Fuji-san.
Active seniors of all nationalities even wrangle big cats and tuskers as volunteer travelers although some wildlife facilities impose age limits.
Thailand’s Tiger Temple specifies volunteers should be between18 to 50. However, the Elephant Nature Park in Chiangmai requires no age limit. I’ve worked there as a volunteer, walking, bathing, feeding and caring for rescued tuskers alongside people of every age, from kids to one American lawyer on sabbatical, a German ex-physical therapist and a British ex-nurse, all in their sixties.
In Bolivia, Comunidad Inti Warayassi’s wildlife sanctuary accepts animal lovers well into their eighties – for as long as they can work with adult jaguars, pumas, ocelots and other exotics.
But everybody signs waivers – no shirking that requirement.
CHILLING OUT IN THE ISLANDS
Should seniors want to chill out in the Philippines, our 7,100 islands have lots to offer.
But I’ve always thought travelers sixty and above will enjoy more quiet enriching respites in the likes of El Nido, Siargao and Batanes.
El Nido’s 45-islet cluster studs Palawan’s Bacuit Bay like a tiara atop molten emeralds. The place took its name from the edible nest swiftlet inhabiting the crags of its 300 million year old limestone.
Natives harvest the nests, made of swiftlet saliva and moss. Once they’ve been cleaned, restaurants cook and serve them as the famous Nido soup.
El Nido is home to Cathedral Cave – a nature-hewn temple of limestone, with stalactites and stalagmites for spires, and 22,000 year old Cadugnon Cave, where pre-historic men dwelt.
Tourists flock to Miniloc Island for its Big and Small Lagoons. Lagen, Entallula, Pangulasian and the rest of the cluster, feature karst formations, verdant slopes, mountain trails, mangrove forests and coral-fringed shores.
I’ve done drift dives here, cavorting with moray eels, eagle rays, schooling jacks and reef sharks.
Over a hundred species of birds and 20 species of mammals live in El Nido’s forests. Its waters host 200 species of fish, more than 100 species of corals and three species of endangered sea turtles.
On the other hand, the reefs that corral the coasts of Siargao, a teardrop-shaped island facing the Pacific Ocean, pick up the best surfing waves in the world – fifteen to thirty foot monsters that roll in perfect barrels every monsoon.
Surigao del Norte, the mother island, takes its name from the Spanish “surgir” – swirling eddies and turbulent currents. Siargao itself teeters on the edge of the Philippine Deep, an almost 35,000-foot abyss where you can drop Mount Everest with plenty of room to spare.
Siargao resembles the Rock Islands of Palau, Micronesia’s diving paradise, except that it’s less crowded, closer and cheaper.
Here, they also have Guyam, a local version of Robinson Crusoe’s island. Daku resembles an untouched Boracay.
Bucas Grande, two hours boat ride away, hides a realm of caves, half a dozen inland lakes abloom with millions of stingless spotted jellyfish and ironwood jungles where eagles, hawks, hornbills, giant fruit-eating bats, tarsiers and rare fauna forage and frolic.
It’s a fisherman’s paradise too. Should you get tired of picnics, cruising, snorkeling, diving and trekking, you can try your luck with hook and line in waters teeming with jacks, yellow fin tuna, marlin, barracuda, sailfish and swordfish.
Want to experience the Scottish highlands in the tropics? Batanes is the perfect bet.
Two great oceans – the Pacific and the South China Sea – clash in this bunch of windswept islands fringed with black volcanic beaches and white coral sands. The stone houses of locals (Ivatans) huddle in the coasts and inner valleys – clusters of gray, typhoon-proof, cogon-maned mini-fortresses.
Fittingly, Ivatans look as indestructible and timeless as their houses. Centenarians still farm taro and yam. They’re also so honest an unmanned Honesty Coffee Shop managed to flourish there for decades.
Ivatans leave their houses unlocked. Visitors can camp outdoors or sleep in the beaches with no fear of being robbed. Crime rate in the island is zero.
But to travel between the islands, you dance with the waves in “falowas” – flimsy wooden boats with no outriggers. For the young and old, it’s an adventure in itself.
Over communal pastures, you can still see mountaintop stone citadels (“idjang”) where Ivatans kept watch over marauding tribes and pirates thousands of years before the Spanish conquistadores.
Close to the citadels lay the “tampan” – boat-shaped burial mounds similar to those of Europe’s Vikings, with stone grave markers laid out in a pattern resembling the Ivatans’ modern boats.
Every October, Batanes’ second summer, migratory birds fly in from Siberia and darken the skies. Whales come in the vicinity to calve. Giant sea turtles lay their eggs on the beaches and juvenile tiger sharks patrol the waters.
(To be continued)