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Why I quit my job and took a gap year at 55

Susanna in Machu Picchu in Peru, 5 April 2018
Susanna in Machu Picchu in Peru, 5 April 2018

An impulsive decision to quit her job and travel the world changed Susanna Walker’s life in ways she never expected

It was while I was trudging through the jungle in Guatemala that the enormity of what I was doing hit me. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by feelings of homesickness, missing my son, and questioning why I’d quit my job to travel the world on a six-month mini-gap year. I was a 55-year-old working woman. What on earth had possessed me to jack it all in and jump on a plane?

These feelings were cemented later that day when, exhausted from hiking, I opened the door of the ramshackle hut I was sharing with my friend to find several giant cockroaches scuttling across the bed. ‘I can’t stay here,’ I wailed to her, close to tears. Teenage backpackers might have been unfazed, but this was way out of my comfort zone.

For the previous 25 years, I’d worked as a magazine art director, immersed in the world of glamorous photo shoots. I hadn’t travelled extensively when I was young, partly because I was a single mother, which made it impossible, but also because I’d always prioritised my ambition to succeed at work.

Venice Beach, Los Angeles, 10 April Credit:  Susannah Walker 

But within the past five years, I’d been diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer twice, and lost both parents, all incredibly traumatic; it made me reconsider what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I honestly felt that the universe was telling me it was now or never. And my son, by then 22, encouraged me to work out what my dreams were then follow them.

I’d always wanted to travel the world, so when one of my friends was made redundant and suggested a month in Bali, I agreed excitedly. But soon our trip snowballed – why didn’t we explore the rest of Indonesia too? And then there was Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu, both of which I was desperate to visit. By the end of that week we’d bought round-the-world plane tickets, intending to stop at various places in the Americas, then head to Hong Kong, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

‘You two are bound to get into trouble,’ warned our friends. We’d met at work and our colleagues knew us as the ‘wild ones’. Secretly I’m sure lots of them thought us mad to go at all, particularly as our budget meant we’d have little in the way of creature comforts and needed to share dormitory rooms in hostels with other backpackers. Still, I couldn’t wait.

A temple in Tabanan, Bali, 28 April Credit:  Susannah Walker 

I’ve always been organised but it was all so last-minute that we ended up booking just a few places to stay, then relying on Lonely Planet guides and making decisions on the go. Our only plan was to move to a new place every couple of days, but also to incorporate some ‘beach chilling’ time.

We set off in January 2018. Looking back the whole trip feels like a dream, as if it happened to someone else, but there are certain moments that stick in my mind. The young girl in Costa Rica who cried with joy when I gave her my lipstick; the toothless old lady who dragged me up to join in the folk dance on the Uros floating islands in Peru; watching the sunset from the top of the ancient ruins of Tikal in Guatemala.

I tried to embrace each moment – cockroaches aside – and to realise while it was happening that 
I would never be there again.

A safari in North Central Province, Sri Lanka, 8 June Credit:  Susannah Walker 

I missed my son terribly but we spoke often – with him giving me advice for a change. And he enjoyed having our flat to himself for six months. When he met us in Bali for a holiday on the final leg of our trip, it hit me how grown up he looked, and I realised that the separation had been healthy for us both.

Ultimately, the trip changed my outlook, and when I returned, rather than going back to my old career, I decided to fulfil another lifetime’s ambition to write my first novel. The gap year gave me the courage to do that – and having taken such a dramatic midlife risk means I will never again be scared to jump in feet first, and grab every experience I’m offered.