Thu, 03 Jul 2003

Elderly tourists make the most of Bali's offerings

Marian Carroll, Contributor, Denpasar, Bali

With a walking stick in hand, Elve Tickell steadies herself as she makes her way down the uneven steps to join the small group gathered at the beach bar to watch the sun go down over Bali.

It has been a long day of sight-seeing and Mrs Tickell -- or Elvie as she prefers to be called -- gratefully accepts a glass of cool white wine and settles onto one of the small plastic stools encircling the bar, which is little more than an esker on the sand.

The bar's other guests cannot hide their admiration.

At 88 years of age, Elvie, from Melbourne, is a far cry from Bali's surfing and backpacking crowd, but she still enjoys an adventure, and was unaffected by the panic gripping the global travel industry in the wake of terrorist attacks, war and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

As younger tourists demur over whether it is safe to fly, Bali's elderly tourists do not give it a second thought.

"People couldn't believe I was going to Bali on my own," says Elvie, who was widowed four years ago and has not been overseas since 1970.

"But blast them, I'm a fatalist and I believe if something's going to happen, you can't stop it," she says with spirit.

While getting to the beach, the local cafe or the shops is an enormous effort usually calling for an afternoon nap, Elvie does not see her age as a handicap. Instead, she sees it as another incentive to make the most of every day.

"I'm past my 'Use by' date, so every day's a bonus. It doesn't matter what I do, either way, I'm in front," she says.

Nancy Whyte of Auckland shares Elvie's passion for life and has been traveling to Bali every year since 1995 to visit her daughter and son-in-law.

"I have no desire to live to be 100," the 86-year-old says. "While I'm of sound mind and still enjoy traveling, I want to go on living. But once that ends, I'll be happy to go."

Nancy never contemplated observing the government travel warnings issued after last October's bombings, nor did she take part in the mass panic over SARS that has delayed the recovery of Bali's tourism-driven economy.

"You've got to go on living your life," she says. "You could go out on the street and get hit by a bus, and all you've done is worry about planes."

Getting on a plane holds different challenges for Bali's elderly tourists, some of whom come from as far afield as Europe.

Marge, 88, and her 76-year-old traveling companion have been coming to Bali from the United Kingdom for the past 21 years, and say they are not worried about any perceived safety threats.

"We love it here," Marge says, "and we will keep coming back."

For these senior citizens, a trip to Bali means fantastic views of pristine coastlines and lush rice paddies, the fragrance of frangipanis, five-star restaurants at three-star prices, tasty nasi campur (rice served with an array of side dishes) at the local warung, or cafe, shopping for the grandchildren, and enjoying the friendly hospitality for which the Balinese are famous.

But it also means sitting out a long plane trip and being the last one off so as not to hold up the other passengers, adjusting to the intense humidity, remembering not to drink the tap water, encountering the odd bout of diarrhea, and practically risking their lives every time they take on a set of uneven steps or a patch of broken footpath exposing a one-metre drop into a drainage canal.

If they want travel insurance, they need to get a doctor's certificate stating that they are fit and well despite their age. Their doctor also needs to provide documentation to ensure that customs clears the pharmacy's stockpile of drugs and other medical supplies crammed into their suitcases.

Once here, they usually request a wheelchair to get around the airport and take taxis everywhere.

Choosing accommodation is a matter of finding a place with ground-floor or lift access, a stand-alone shower and easy access to the main street. This rules out many of Bali's most beautiful resorts, which are set upon acres of land and not made with walking sticks in mind.

It sounds exhausting -- and it is. But the trip is worth the effort and they make sure they get plenty of rest in between outings.

"Bali is recognized as a holiday destination for young people and families, but I think there's just as much here for the elderly," says Elvie, who has included a Balinese cooking course, art gallery tour and shopping on her 11-day itinerary covering Ubud, Canggu, Seminyak, Legian, Kuta and Jimbaran.

If what she says is true, Bali's street vendors may soon add walking sticks to their shop windows, alongside the ubiquitous kites, sarongs and jewelry.