“Do you feel older than us?” asked Mhairi, as we sat in a cosy cafe on a Wednesday afternoon, discussing our travelling plans for the months ahead.
I didn’t know how to answer for a minute. It’s a pretty loaded question to be honest, particularly when you’ve chosen to spend six months of your life with people significantly younger than you.
The volunteer company I’m working with out here with has a recommended age limit of 25; a limit which, since my birthday last month, I’ve actually reached. And our program’s length means that the majority of people are going to volunteer either before or after uni. In my case, everyone still has their university experiences to look forward to.
Hitting the wall
And so it is that I’m spending six months with a group of eighteen year olds, when I’m seven years older than them. SEVEN! It’s a horrible realisation that I am actually getting older. And the biggest worry of it is starting to wonder whether I’m past a particular type of travelling.
There’s no doubt that I’m at a point where my eyes will light up when I discover a hostel is “quieter than the rest of the surrounding hostels” and is known as the least party-atmosphere-like of the available options. And I prefer getting involved in a deep conversation with a fellow travelling stranger than sinking large quantities of whatever the local alcohol is.
Is this much of an age gap effectively the same as hitting a travel-based wall? And if so, is there any chance of return?
Luckily, I had the strength of my convictions when deciding to move to Ecuador with a bunch of teenagers. After thinking long and hard, I figured that anyone who wanted to spend six months of their gap year teaching English instead of sunbathing on a Thai beach was bound to have a certain level of maturity.
And much to my relief, I was right.
Age is just a number
Part of my confidence stemmed from the fact that I’ve been in this age gap situation before, too. I signed up for a two month trip around India with no knowledge of how old my fellow travellers would be; and as it turned out, my core group of friends were a group of girls both younger and older than me. There was a ten year age gap between the oldest and the youngest – and I didn’t feel a single bit of difference between us all. Not in maturity, intelligence or confidence – and I still count all of them as close friends, over a year later.
It’s something you pick up early on when travelling; that age is just a number, and what really matters is how you behave with others. Over the last six years of travelling I’ve made the best friendships with people who are nowhere near my age, and it doesn’t matter in the slightest, because we connect on a level that’s totally different to what year we were born in.
But moving to Cuenca is a unique case. Not so much because of the younger friendship group I find myself in; it’s more because of Cuenca’s reputation as a city for the older generation. Which puts me in a slightly odd position.
The younger crowd
But the truly fascinating thing for me – a traveller who normally wants to feel like I at least look and act my own age – is how comfortable I am with essentially reliving my teenage-dom. And it’s because, quite apart from being with my fellow volunteers, I spend basically all of my time in Cuenca around people younger than me.
My mornings involve dealing with classrooms full of rowdy teenagers, my afternoons see me attempting to prevent one year olds from crying constantly and seven year olds from pulling my hair, and my home life is spent with two teenage host brothers, who make “that’s what she said” jokes and giggle at any kind of sexual innuendo – both in English and Spanish.
And in the moments when I’m not actively surrounded by youthful faces, there are constant reminders of it. There are the babies tucked snugly into blankets tied around women’s backs; the patches of grass littered with swings and slides; the constant appearances of school entranceways; groups of tiny uniformed school children clutching hands on the bus.
And I love it.
Because this is literally the reason why I travel; I get to see a completely different side to Cuenca than most foreigners who visit.
The unseen city
People know Cuenca for its architecture. For its easy standard of living. For its upper class families and its genteel atmosphere. But while they delight in ornate architecture, smoothly paved streets and comfortable cafes to sip coffees in, I see blank walls primed and ready for new graffiti, roads that are perfect for skateboarders, and cafe windows where locals catch the eyes of all the people they know who walk past.
I see this city differently.
I see colour. I see excitement. And I see youth. It’s in the groups of teenagers who press each other up against brick walls while waiting for the bus, still dressed in their school uniforms. It’s in the fire spinners who stand patiently at traffic lights, all dreadlocks and bare feet.
It’s in the underground gigs, played to a tight crowd in a dusty basement overlooking the river, located under the Panama Hat Museum of all places. It’s in the palpable excitement of a Friday afternoon, when children forgo their school uniforms and throng the centre’s streets in newly washed outfits, the boys with gelled hair and the girls with artful curls.
It’s in the gangs of boys who sit low on their bikes and circle the church, and in the break dancers who practice their moves furiously in the empty bandstand at the centre of the city, music pumping low and heavy from portable speakers as the rest of Cuenca starts its Saturday night.
And it’s in the riotous graffiti colours that blanket the stairways and the billboards and the scaffolding, inching their way across every last free space in the city. Pieces of work that you learn the stories behind, the longer you stay here.
Like the vast stretch of crazy painted characters that lead you up the stairs from the river, which were completed by the students from the local art school.
Like the as-yet-unidentified tagger who leaves his mark in the form of a cross-eyed pig in the most unlikely of places; old electrical outlets, street signs covered over by leaves, and the inside of toilet cubicle doors.
Like the never-ending stretch of surrealist pieces that used to sit on the temporary walls surrounding Parque de la Madre – before they were torn down as the new park opened.
And it’s the realisation that the youth of a city are who make it what it is. Those who take eager ownership of its walls, roads, empty buildings and redundant spaces; creating something new out of something forgotten. Painting their thoughts onto the walls.
Feeling older or younger?
So the upshot is no, I don’t feel out of place in a city filled with people younger than me. Partly because spending my time with eighteen year olds means that everyone we meet can’t believe I’m actually twenty five (I have a young face, ok?!). But mainly because spending so much time with them offers up a new appreciation for the younger generation.
I actually feel lucky to be able to relive my teenage time again. Because, to tell you the truth, it’s a ridiculous amount of fun.