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In praise of the senior traveler: Hanns Ebensten, the 82-year-old founder of the first gay tour company, tells why he prefers the salt-and-pepper set.

"Thank heaven for little girls," sang Maurice Chevalier in the movie Gigi. I thank heaven for old men, who make my travels meaningful and inspire me by their example.

I do not go to the extreme of Mr. Bucktrout in the lesbian writer Vita Sackville-West's novel All Passion Spent, who stated that he could "scarcely, nowadays, endure the company of anyone under 70." I much enjoy traveling with some delightful kids of 50 or 60, and even occasionally with a few who are in their 30s and 40s; but it is the older men who are imbued with the greatest zest for seeing and experiencing new and unfamiliar places, who demonstrate good manners and courtesy; who are blessed with resilience and adaptability and possess the gift of being at the same time detached and absorbed.

There was the night, which seemed endless, when we flew from St. Petersburg to Kiev. It was said to be snowing heavily in Kiev, we had to wait four hours in the dismal airport, and we felt distinctly apprehensive when the plane finally took off in a gale.

We landed in Kiev in a blizzard, unable to see the terminal building as we descended the aircraft steps. It was long after midnight, and we were herded into a room with hard benches, there to wait until someone could be found and persuaded to unload our luggage and bring it in for us. Half an hour, an hour, then 90 minutes passed. The motorcoach that was to take us to our hotel stood outside; I begged the unrelentingly bureaucratic Intourist people to let us drive to Kiev and be able to sleep; the luggage could be sent later. That, they declared, was quite impossible.

We waited another hour and my tour members became more than agitated; but while the older gentlemen resigned themselves in varying degrees to the frustrating delay, it was the younger ones who complained vociferously--until the oldest in the group, a highly respected man with the largest summer house at the Fire Island Pines, roused himself from the bench on which he had been reclining, his overnight bag serving him as a pillow, and loudly admonished his young travel companions.

"Come on now, you guys," he called out to them. "It's Friday night. When you go to a disco or a bar back home you don't get to bed till 2:30 in the morning or later--so what's the problem?"

And he lay down again and made himself as comfortable as the circumstances permitted. At least the waiting room was heated.

Old men who have taken care to remain fit and mentally alert make the best travel companions. A lifetime of experience has taught them their limitations and provided them with those human qualities that separate the true traveler from the mere tourist--stamina, patience, indifference to personal discomfort, and, possibly because they realize that their time on earth may be limited, the ability to make the most of chance encounters.

I have led tours for gay men for more than 40 years, all over the world, and it is always the young men who drive to the gym, the supermarket, and their place of work who make no practical use of their ploddingly acquired muscle. At the sacred Huang Shan mountain in China, where we are given the choice of taking the cable car to its peak or hiking up, it is invariably the oldest tour members who select to make the three-hour climb.

In Egypt we similarly have the choice of driving by bus from Queen Hatshepsut's Temple in Western Thebes to the Valley of the Kings or of climbing over a formidably steep 1,000-foot cliff and then down into the valley; here also the old members of my tours join me for that spectacular climb while the young take the bus. When I separate the men into the two groups and then begin to set off with the older gentlemen, our guide often believes that I have made a mistake: "No, Mister Hanns: Those are the men for the bus."

At Machu Picchu in Peru, while the young sleep, the octogenarians scale the steep mountain to see the sunrise from its summit. On Easter Island, Sprague de Camp, the cdebrated author, then in his late 80s, clambered into narrow caves to study petroglyphs and walked briskly for many miles to view the large stone statues, while his big, strong young bodyguard, having eaten and drunk to excess, spent all afternoon resting in bed.

The oldest tour member I have had with me, in Egypt--and also one of the nicest--was John Laurence Seymour, the composer, who was 92 and remarkably fit in November of 1985. His opera In the Pasha's Garden had been performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1935, and he thought it was high time that he compose another, which was to be based on the Roman Emperor Hadrian's love affair with Antinous, the Bithynian youth who drowned in the Nile. Despite his age, John Seymour was cheerfully ready at 4 A.M. for a dawn flight to Aswan, are sparingly and wisely; and proved to be an entertaining raconteur at meals, an inspiration to all tour members, who never suspected his real age. When we talked about Halley's Comet, which was to appear in the sky the next year, he said he had seen it last time and thought it was vastly overrated. "Don't even bother to go out on the porch to see it," he advised us. When he spoke amusingly of his meetings with President Roosevelt, it was Theodore to whom he referred. He was always suitably and elegantly dressed--blue jeans and a red flannel miner's shirt for dinner. He omitted no part of our taxing program of sight-seeing and, being unable to bend and crouch low in order to enter some of the tombs and pyramids, scrambled in and out of them on his stomach, to everyone's admiration.

Old men are indeed the salt of the earth.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVE
Author:Ebensten, Hanns
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 30, 2005
Words:1006
Previous Article:Whistle a tune while you wander.
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