Three years ago, about to hit the half-century mark, Donna Marie Lynch, divorced and living with her mother, wondered, "What does 50 feel like?" Her life was more than half over, yet the manager of a dentist's office in Victoria felt far from a junior senior. As she found out, mortality often knocks devastatingly unannounced. On the day she turned 50, her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Soon after, Ms. Lynch had a dream about interviewing women in their 50s in 50 countries around the world. Her mother died in October 2007, three months after her diagnosis, at age 88. In May 2008, using her $80,000 inheritance to pay for the five-continent voyage, Ms. Lynch quit her job and headed to her first stop, Mexico, armed with a list of 25 questions.
This month, Ms. Lynch will release her self-published book, 50ish: A Journey to 50 Countries in 50 Weeks Interviewing Women in their 50s. The Globe and Mail talked to her about what her mid-life counterparts revealed.
Why this project in particular?
It literally came to me in my sleep. There is no back story.
How did you locate women in their 50s in all of the countries?
In 13 countries it was pre-arranged by contacts I had. In other places tour guides helped. In Nicaragua, I couldn't find a woman because the male driver I was using was asking women if they'd had a hysterectomy, as a way to find menopausal women. Quite a few people spoke English. In Morocco, a Muslim man went all red and said he couldn't ask about menopause. In China, my female translator wouldn't ask the woman about education because she knew the woman didn't have much and she didn't want her to lose face.
Did all the women know their age?
In lots of countries the women didn't know their exact age. In Nepal, the husband told me his wife was 51 but she had a 39-year-old son and got married at 19. In Cambodia, where during the time of the Khmer Rouge no records were kept, a woman said she was born in the Year of the Rooster so she was 51, not 57 as she thought.
Any notable lifestyle differences?
The other day I was having a hot shower and really enjoyed it. It just hits you. Some people never have this. In Kenya, I bathed in two inches of water in a basin every third day. But to welcome me, they baked me a cake with blue icing. I don't know how they did it. They made it over a fire.
Where would you not want to be a woman?
I wouldn't want to have to do the physical work women do in Laos, Cambodia, Kenya, Uganda. In Laos, all of the little boys were playing and the little girls were working, hauling water, selling vegetables. In Uganda I stayed in a religious home where 32 girls lived, aged five to 30. Most of them were married off as child brides. One girl was sexually abused by her father.
Were women who lived in countries of war different?
In Cambodia, there are still land mines everywhere. They're still afraid to walk places. In Laos, the woman forgot, but the grandmother remembered that during the Vietnam War they lived in the woods. They buried themselves in dirt to hide during the daytime and came out only at night. They grew silkworms to make clothes. I can't relate to how they lived through that. In Guatemala, I asked a wealthy woman how the 36-year civil war affected her. She told me they didn't have a war. She was dead serious.
What was notable about education?
Many of the parents of the women had no education. About two-thirds of the women had at least Grade 12 and most of the women's children were going further than Grade 12.
How did you stay healthy and safe?
I'm a Leo, but I have limits. I never went out at night. I'm a safe traveller. I got my sleep, didn't drink much. I ate a lot of chicken. I rarely ate beef or pork. I didn't eat off the street much. I was offered tarantula in Cambodia but I didn't eat it. I had six different days where I was running to the toilet. One might have been because of heat stroke in Jordan. I got sick twice after plane trips.
Did the women take a lot of medications?
Quite a few took hormone replacement therapy. Everyone knew what menopause was. Two women told me they prayed to God to get rid of illness and they said it works. In Bali, a woman told me she had to be happy. If she wasn't happy she wouldn't be healthy but she had to be healthy because they had no health care.
Do you keep in touch with any of the women?
Yes, the women from Kenya, Uganda, Finland, Denmark, Hungary, Spain and Nepal.
Did you learn anything about yourself?
I had already travelled to 43 countries so this wasn't a new thing. Since the death of my daughter Carly in 1992 at 10 months of age, I learned you really have to live every day for the day because life is short. Most people say it, but they don't do it. I also learned that Canadians, and Victorians especially, are the most fortunate people. We live in paradise.
This interview has been condensed and edited.