What do people do to cope with midlife crisis – or any crisis for that matter? James packed his bags and went for the ‘geographical cure’.
I think I experienced a midlife crisis the last couple of years. It kicked in around the age of 38 – an excruciating need to change everything, start over, move somewhere else. I hadn’t felt that awful tug-of-war inside since my late twenties. This wasn’t as bad but it still had me swinging from anger to depression, wanting to change everything but too scared to do it. Mostly I wanted to take off overseas but I didn’t have the energy. I also knew I’d just be taking my emotional baggage with me.
After a year in therapy the weight began to lift. The ‘gates’ seemed to open and I found direction and inspiration. The ‘midlife crisis’ sparked a move to Northern NSW and a trip to South America to mark my fortieth birthday. South America was always a dream destination and now I’m in the last six weeks of a solo four-month journey. It’s been incredibly exhilarating yet daunting. I started in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with its balmy nights and a sensual mix of Italian-Latin people. It’s a city that never sleeps, where you can dine under the stars with tango dancers kicking their heels up by candle-lit tables. My first night off the plane was a Friday, and a full moon. The city was absolutely pulsing and I was crazed with jet lag. Hundreds of musicians danced and belted drums in the street. I loved Buenos Aires but its thirteen million people overwhelmed me.
I flew to Lima, Peru, and was confronted with a chaotic, polluted metropolis. Where you can never see the sky for smog, the traffic is out of control and millions of horns rage at each other. I was struck with a bad flu and had a passionate yet doomed affair in Lima. Thankfully I discovered Parque Kennedy where hordes of playful cats roam free. They sleep the day away and come to life at night when the park fills with tourists and locals perusing markets, meeting amigos and grabbing an emoliente – a favourite warm syrup made of secret herbs.
The ‘flu subsided and I took the bus 20 hours to the historic town of Cusco, gateway to Machu Picchu and other Inca ruins. The bus sailed through sleepy desert towns and climbed high into the Andes with spectacular views of snow-capped peaks, rushing rivers and remote villages. It was awesome exploring Inca sites, still intact after hundreds of years. I felt like an Andean nomad clambering over ruins and hiding in secret caves.
Another seven hours south and I landed on the shores of Titicaca, the world’s highest altitude lake that spans the border of Peru and Bolivia. It was a delight to see fresh water after many weeks inland. At around 3500 feet above sea level, altitude sickness kicked in and I found myself dizzy and short of breath. Meanwhile women in traditional garments, cholitas charged by with llamas and mules and huge sacks on their backs.
I took time out from the tourists on the majestic Isla Del Sol (Island of the Sun) —a lost paradise almost touching the sky. I got slammed with food poisoning and spent three days crawling from bedroom to bathroom. I didn’t want to be here then. It seemed odd to think that way on ‘the trip of a lifetime’ but it gets tough travelling solo for an extended period. I’ve felt physically and mentally pushed to the limit — packing and unpacking, moving from one hostel to the next, faced with trickling showers, stiff sunken beds, giant cockroaches and drunk, noisy backpackers. I didn’t feel 40 when I left Australia but I can see it now. There’s more lines on my face and the hairs on my chest have mostly withered to grey. People here don’t bat an eye if someone looks crook or shabby though. They’re not as vain and self conscious as we are. Their natural, unpretentious way of life is something I adore. And while it’s lonely at times with very little Spanish to connect with them, there’s something special about that too. The spoken word is often used to create a false impression and there’s something more genuine about communicating with smiles and gestures. And I can still share a como estas or buenos tardes with anyone.
I took the bus another four hours to Bolivia’s largest city, La Paz — and I’ve been here almost a month. I got on a bit of a roll, salsa dancing at dingy nightclubs, exploring fantastic museums and galleries. It’s a superb location 4000 feet above sea level. There’s only two million people but it’s always hectic. I wander ‘The Prado’ where performance artists clown around and dance to hip-hop — but my favourite thing is braving the back streets and public buses. They look like giant toy trucks splashed with funny logos like, ‘Oh Linda! La Paz’. I’ve found wholesome food, a crazy yet comfortable climate, friendly locals — and lots of fresh jugo and saltena stalls (juices and pastries). I have a small but cosy room in a high-rise block with views of crumbling rooftops — like a scuzzy bedsit in New York.
I love it but perhaps I’m a little stuck? My digestion hasn’t been the same since the food poisoning and I’m struggling to find the energy to move on. With six weeks to go, I’m waiting out the rainy season so I can journey to the Amazon Basin. Right now I’m just trying to eat nourishing food and maintain my body weight. I watch people scoffing cakes and drinking wine with envy while I dine on another plate of salad or quinoa. Some days it feels like a survival test but I’m inspired by the challenge and feel myself growing and transforming. My meditations have taken on extraordinary dimensions and my connection to the universe is thriving. I’m astonished by the energy I’ve been able to draw from it at times of physical and emotional exhaustion. This trip to South America feels like an amazing gift for navigating a tricky midlife crisis. I might return to Australia worse for wear but I know I’ll feel more inspired, resilient and grateful.
James May has returned from South America and resettled in the remote wilds of the Northern Rivers, NSW, where he plans to write, garden, build fires and stargaze until his next big trip.
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