The sun was setting over the Mekong river as birds roosted in the trees around us. “You don’t need to make a life plan,” Joelle said to me, as our boat moved silently through the jungle. “Decide where you want to be in five years and work towards that. It doesn’t matter if the goal changes, you can always be thinking five years ahead.”
I lay back on the deck and felt the cool evening breeze in my face. I had received a lot of advice this year — willingly. As an 18-year-old on a gap year, I need all the guidance I can get. But I didn’t expect to be getting it from Joelle, a woman in her late seventies who had been a teacher, an author, and now a painter, moving between occupations as it suited her in a way I had assumed was impossible.
This conversation would never have happened if I hadn’t gone on a vacation with my grandparents.
Before I finished my exams, we decided to go on a trip together, although I admit Nana and Grandpa, Rosemary and Jon Masters, did most of the work. They suggested a few options and I chose the one I liked best: a two-week trip through Cambodia and Vietnam that included a week on a boat going down the Mekong.
I was expecting to see the ruined temples of Cambodia, the jungles of the Mekong and the relics of the Vietnam War. In that sense, I got what I expected. Exploring temples and museums is great fun at any age. It was also much more luxurious than the sorts of trips I’d been going on this year — a far cry from tents and instant ramen.
At times we wanted different things. I didn’t relish long dinners after tours through vineyards and my grandparents didn’t want to slog up mountains. But we all wanted adventure. Surrounded by a foreign culture and the relics of a long dead one, we found common ground in the experience of new things and shared emotions: wonder, curiosity, awe.
Cambodia is a country dominated by the past; the ornate towers of ancient temples, the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge. Vietnam has moved on. It’s hard to find any memories of the Vietnam War in the skyscrapers of Ho Chi Minh City. My grandparents made the past more real. They had lived it, marched against the war, watched on television as the helicopters left Saigon. History became more than just museum exhibits and dates.
I’m not saying I only liked travelling with my grandparents because they are old. Spending so much time with them on my own was a new experience and I began to see them less as grandparents than as people — and friends — in their own right. Surprisingly, I felt more natural around my grandparents than my parents, maybe because they weren’t in any implied position of authority. I was able to treat them as equals.
We shared funny stories and I learnt more about their lives. My grandfather told me how his knowledge of American writer William Faulkner made him a favourite of his captain in the navy (if only studying English Literature was that practical today).
It wasn’t just me and my grandparents though. Our trip was organised by a tour company so there were about 30 other people there, most of them about my grandparents’ age. I was not expecting to be in a large group of retirees or to be the youngest person there by a long way.
I was worried at first: what if everyone just talked to each other about old people stuff? I have no idea what I thought these exclusive topics of conversation would be — babysitting grandchildren? Those damn kids next door? — but they didn’t seem to exist. Talking to people who had so many varied experiences was both unusual and rewarding.
They gave me advice, which wasn’t unusual — being on a gap year seems to mean that everyone dishes it out — but the advice they gave was very good, because it was based not only on their lives, but those of their children and grandchildren as well. I learnt that life tends not to care about the plans you make and that letting those plans fall away often takes you down a more rewarding and unusual path.
Our trip to Vietnam wasn’t just about gaining “valuable life experience” or some other vacuous platitudes I’ll surely repeat when I extol the virtues of a gap year. The trip was so much fun. My grandparents and I saw beautiful buildings, explored countries we’d never been to, met an old man who climbed palm trees fuelled by copious amounts of rum, and even danced together (they put me to shame).
If you ever have the chance to go on holiday with your grandparents, I highly recommend it. I promise you will all look back on it fondly in years to come.