Curiosity, Kindness and the Travel Gene
I have (mostly) recovered from my six weeks long Mandarin intensive in Guilin, China. I can honestly say that apart from marriage and parenthood it is the hardest thing I have done in my life. It was also exciting, energizing and totally exhausting.
Unfortunately the day after I returned to Maine I was on another plane to Alabama to be with my mother who was dying. I was blessed to spend some quiet hours with her and share my recent experiences. My mom loved to travel. She organized vacations for our family, often accompanied by the families of her large groups of friends too. After my dad retired they traveled all over the world by boat, train and plane until it became too physically difficult. She was fascinated by my trips because I traveled to places off the beaten path and stayed for longer than a few days. She wanted to hear about these places she hadn’t been, about the people I met, and the local stories that gave her the sense of knowing them better.
As I sat by her bed I told mom about the people, the food, the unrelenting heat, the sounds and smells and how hard the language was for me. She occasionally squeezed my hand when I stopped and I took this to mean she wanted me to tell her more. I told her about the 3 year-old singing the vocabulary song in a restaurant one night and the victory it was for me to understand what she was saying. I described the monastery down the road from the school and how I found solace and peace standing in its quiet confines. I explained to her the traffic and how I learned to cross the street with the crowd no matter what the light said. I shared the challenge of being reduced to ordering my food by pointing, at the picture or sign or the object of my desire, never really sure what I was going to get. I told her about my morning walks with Wolfgang, the only other student near my age, and the little stand where we got hot soy milk and hard boiled eggs for breakfast. I spoke about the young man from Kuwait that I became friends with and my amazement at how quickly he adapted and picked up new words but stopped comparing my inability when I realized he already spoke Arabic, English and a couple of other languages.
Mom loved parks and scenic places. There are several parks in Guilin as well as the Guilin National Park, through which the Lijiang river flows through an area of limestone rock pillars covered in vines and small trees. (These same mountains stretch all the way into north Vietnam.) I told her about Elephant Trunk Park where I met a shaman, who for a donation, blessed me with a year’s good fortune after which I was told to tie a red ribbon to the sacred tree (I did). I told her how I walked to Seven Star Park with its rock formation that is shaped like a camel. (Guilin seemed to have lots of parks with animal shaped rocks.) I talked about how the wild monkeys at the top of one of the mountain trails reminded me of a family story about monkey man. I want to think she smiled at the thought of that story. I droned on and on, sometimes crying as I told her my stories about this latest trip.
I wanted her to see the city streets, which were wide and often tree lined. I described the overly wide sidewalks where the tiny restaurants fed their customers at child-sized tables. All along the sidewalks restaurants were tucked in beside scooter repair shops, mini marts, plumbing/knife/clothing supply stores. Most businesses were small, with only one or two employees.
Mom always wanted to know about the people I met. I told her about the friendliness in the people I met in Guilin. They could say as much in English as I could in Mandarin yet were helpful in a good-humored way. We managed to communicate in spite of times when all I could do was point or indicate my confusion with a shrug of my shoulders. Mom believed in the goodness of people. She believed that if you were kind to others they would return the kindness. That is the way she lived her life, whether in her beloved hometown Decatur or around the world. I’ve followed her lead and it has served me well all these years.
I talked on for hours, not knowing how much she heard me, but hoping she did. I know she was in my heart and head as I was traveling. Death came the next afternoon and we were all blessed to be present to witness her final trip home.
If there is a travel gene in my DNA, I got it from mom. If she had been born in 1983 rather than 1933, I think she would be a world traveler with nothing but a backpack, her passport, and the love of her life, my dad, holding her hand.
As I reflect on both my trip to China and my mother’s death, two lessons become clear:
- Be curious about the world around you. Go explore.
- Let kindness be the largest and most important thing you take with you.
As I pack to return to Orkney, I will be taking both of my mother’s gifts with me.