As we sat listening to the sweet sounds of jazz, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see an elderly lady, who was sitting with her husband at the table behind us. She wanted to know where my opera-singing friend was from. John (the friend in question) had just left the stage after singing an operatic ‘Happy Birthday’ to one of the band members. I smiled and said “Australia”. She smiled back, as if that answered everything.

Let me paint the scene for you. We were sitting up front and center at a small jazz club called ‘The Crypt’, which is quite literally situated in the crypt beneath Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral. It’s a small and very intimate space that lends itself to the music well. In addition to John and one of my other travel buddies, I was there with my husband, who had flown in to celebrate me reaching the halfway point on my African Expedition.

Moments later, I felt another tap on my shoulder. “Where are you from?” she asked. I told her that I was from the Philippines, and turned back to watch the band. Another tap… “My grandfather was from Cebu”, she said. I smiled again, broader this time, as you do when you’re in a faraway country and you meet someone with a connection to home. As I turned towards the stage once more, there was another tap… “Your husband looks like a good man”. I could see that she wanted to talk, and so I angled my seat towards her, and we ended up chatting for the rest of the evening.

Yvonne has a way of making people feel special. She is charming and has a beautiful spirit and boundless energy about her. She’s 85 years young, and her energy and palpable zest for life belies her years. Whenever one of her favorite songs was being performed, our conversation would pause as she she’d get up to dance, and then we’d pick it right back up again as she sat back down. We shared stories of our travels and the places that we’ve both visited, and it was clear that we’re cut from the same cloth.

Flashback to a month earlier, and as often is the case at the end of a long day of travel, I found myself sitting around a table with my travel buddies, drinking beer and posing deep questions to each other. It was my 45th birthday, and so appropriately (or inappropriately, your call), I was asked how I felt about being middle aged, and my thoughts on aging. I told them that while I unreservedly embrace middle age and am totally fine with growing old, my goal is to age gracefully. John asked me to clarify what I meant by that, and I explained that I want to be a happy old woman surrounded by people that I love and who love me back. I told them that I hope to stay active and vital, and to have the opportunity to share my knowledge, my adventures and my experiences with anyone who is interested and willing to listen. I told them how I plan to still be dancing in my old age, and to continue to be open to new adventures. I told them that while my body might age, I want my heart and my mind to stay young and be open to new ideas. I told them that as I grew old, I plan to always keep my zest for life.

Little did I realize it then, as we sat around that table in Matadi, was that within a month, I’d meet my perfect role model. When I think about Yvonne, she embodies the sort of woman that I want to be as I grow older. Later that week in Cape Town, we spent another night at The Crypt and I spent much of it in deep conversation with Yvonne. As the evening came to an end, I asked her advice on how to age gracefully, remaining so happy and full of life. She had two answers for me. First, she said that you must be true to yourself, and then added that you, only you and no one else is responsible for your own happiness. Wise words indeed, and words that I’ve taken to heart.