Traveling solo on a small group tour in Bolivia, Marie Javins finds that becoming an older traveler brings new insight…and attention in unlikely places.
Illustration by Steve Buccellato
About eight years ago, I was walking south on Manhattan's Orchard Street. An older man passed me, heading north. He angled his chin towards me as he walked by, eyeballing me carefully before grinning. I almost slowed down and stopped, thinking maybe he wanted to ask for directions.
"You still got it."
Aghast, I'd thought I wasn't aware I'd lost it. Talk about a backhanded compliment. At 34 years old, I wasn't exactly sagging around the edges.
I'm 42 now and in January, when I joined a nine–person group on a small circuit tour in Bolivia, I reflected that his comment might now be appropriate. Of the nine, six were in their twenties or early thirties.
Watching the group dynamic around me, I felt more an outsider than an active participant. I'd been on a half–dozen small group expeditions in the past, but on the other trips, I'd been of the median age. Now I was the only one in my age group. I bonded with a man and woman each in their sixties, feeling closer to them than to the younger travelers. Though the sixty–somethings seriously outclassed me. On New Year's Eve, my 62–year–old roommate went dancing with a 28–year–old man from our group. I stayed in and poked around on Facebook, trying hard to ignore the bottle rockets and marching bands that began at midnight and continued on well after sunrise.
Our group's two youngest women primped and vamped and made themselves up at night for dinner. I watched them with a little envy but mostly with relief. Let them put on the show and vie for attention. I wasn't in Bolivia to flirt or meet 27–year–old men. I didn't feel any pressure to perform—or even really to shower.
But staying clean feels nice so I showered as regularly as I could, like on our last morning in the remote town of Uyuni, the final stop prior to Bolivia's famous salt flats. We'd be gone for three days, heading first to a cemetery of rusty old locomotives, then driving west to lagoons where we'd see thousands of pink flamingos, and finally we'd encounter the main event—a seemingly endless white desert of salt. We'd stay in rustic hostels and eat whatever our cook could make on her gas camping burners. Rumor had it there might be a shared single shower in a new hostel on Night Two, but no one was sure.
Hair still sopping wet, I studied carefully who was getting into which one of our two Land Cruisers, then joined the group that looked calmer and like it might have less flirting going on over my head. An hour or so's drive into the trip, we stopped in the small town of San Cristobal for a potty break. Our drivers and cook went shopping in the public mercado, a concrete square that housed fruit and vegetable vendors, toy sellers, beer, and giant bags of pasta, presumably sold to tourists going to eat out of their Land Cruisers for three days. No salt required.
"The banos are in the mercado," announced our trip leader, a charming 29–year–old man with a North Carolina accent. The other women and I trotted cooperatively into the concrete building, past the beer and pasta. I made a beeline for the door labeled "Damas." Who knew how long it would be before we saw another toilet? And there were unlikely to be many bushes to squat behind in the plains of salt.
The other women lined up behind me outside the bathroom door, near an unusually tall, handsome Bolivian man who was chatting with his friends.
A small boy attendant held out some toilet paper to me and said "Uno Boliviano."
The fee for the toilet was one coin.
I reached into my jeans pocket.
I checked my other pockets. I had nothing but large bills. The small boy could not possibly have change for so much money, and I was embarrassed to even pull it out of my pockets. I blanched… I didn't have the money to enter the ladies room.
The handsome Bolivian man and his friends had been watching me as I'd worked myself into a state of mild panic. Mr. Handsome stepped in. He gallantly forked over one of his own coins, smiled, and waved me into the ladies room.
I reddened and walked in, as my group and a few Bolivians tittered behind me. Better than a drink, a man had bought me a pee.
I still got it.
Marie Javins is the author of Stalking the Wild Dik–Dik: One Woman's Solo Misadventures Across Africa, as well as two guidebooks and a 3–D children's atlas. By day she is the editor of Kuwaiti superhero comic books, and by night she writes and blogs.
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