In the summer of 1972, my 23-year-old mother packed her bag, grabbed her copy of Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 A Day, and took off across the Atlantic. She was about to spend eight weeks backpacking across Europe with her sister and two friends. Three years later she would traverse the United States in a Volkswagen van. She was a Go Girl before it was trademarked, jumping off of trains in Swiss railway stations and getting food poison from bad lamb in Greece, camping on the Vegas strip and losing her brakes in the Rocky mountains. In last month’s column I wrote about three fictional women who influenced my insatiable need to travel. This month I am writing about a very real one who continues to inspire me: my mother.
My mother didn’t talk much about her travels when I was growing up. I’m not sure I ever heard much about either trip until I started traveling myself — asking questions about the places we had both been, comparing our love for Venice and our disapproval of rowdy tourists. Before leaving on my trip, I didn’t stop to think of the significance of the destination or the timing for my mother, or to anticipate the many conversations we would share about it…
When my mother went on her first grand adventure, America was nearing the end of its involvement in the Vietnam War, fought in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Exactly forty years later I would set off to backpack across the same region. I would see for myself some of the devastating effects the conflict had on the people and culture. I would visit museums with plaques and photographs detailing the atrocities committed by American soldiers. I would tour the Ho Loa Prison in Hanoi and see the cells where U.S. prisoners-of-war like John McCain were held and tortured for years. And I would talk to my mother about it. About her memories of living through and protesting against the Vietnam War — of the men who had graduated from her high school only to go to war and die. About the legacy of Imperialism and hubris that comes with being a citizen of America.
I’ve yet to find a way to negotiate many of my government’s policies and actions with my own values, but getting outside of the United States helps — not only for the chance to talk to other citizens of the world, but for the chance to return home and recognize the ways in which America succeeds, too. For the chance to have these conversations with my mother in person, rather than Skype.
Our respective travel experiences have connected us in other ways, too. Forty years apart, we met with similar attitudes concerning out respective trips. My mother quit her secretarial job to travel. She remembers people thinking this was strange, that she was not moving up the career ladder or starting a family. That she was putting off a “normal” life to travel.
Forty years later I had a similar experience. When I told friends and co-workers of my three-month trip to Southeast Asia, many wished they could do the same thing. I would smile at them, rarely pointing out what seemed obvious to me: they could. I am not ignorant enough to argue that everyone is in the position to travel, but — for some — it is a question of priority rather than possibility. People get caught up in the rat race, in accumulating wealth and power. They are choosing a traditional sense of “security.” Others choose to invest their time, money, and energy in other pursuits — creative, social, etc. These aren’t lesser goals. They are just different ones. When my mother was in her twenties, she chose to travel — and, four decades later, so did I. I have a feeling those choices are related.
They are related to the way my parents raised my three sibling and me, and to the fact that they waited until their late 30s to do it. To the way my mother as a lover of history and retired social studies teacher values education over almost anything else — and to how she considers exploring other countries and cultures just as valuable as any traditionally academic pursuit. My mother and I move through the world in similar ways: as self-assured introverts.
We prefer to listen rather than talk. We give information about ourselves only when prompted, content with listening to people’s stories and sharing ourselves with a carefully-chosen few — with those who bother to ask and look like they mean it. I like to think my mother and I conducted our respective twenty-something backpacking adventures in similar ways: with a quiet passion. I wonder if my 23-year-old mother could have ever imagined this eventuality, that, in 2012, her daughter would be traveling across a region she associated with war. I wonder where my own maybe-daughter might be traveling 40 years down the road from my backpacking adventure. Hopefully, a place now torn apart by war. Hopefully, every place now torn apart by war. Because that would mean the world is a kinder place.