I just turned 50 on May 10th. And what with the arthritis, the back pain, and the hemorrhoids I’m starting to think I’m old. But I’m not. Not yet. My mother will be turning 83 in August. I think of her often during this trip. When she was younger she had quite an adventurous spirit, and she pulled my dad, brothers, and me along in multiple family adventures. Every summer we took car trip to go camping in Oregon, or the Rockies, or even the upper peninsula of Michigan. She wanted to experience the world. I’m sure this is what made me who I am. But my mom’s travels were mostly limited to the US. We went to Canada a couple of times and visited Mexico just over the border of Arizona in Nogales. She and my dad once went to Vienna to visit my brother. That was the only time she used a passport. Now she’s old and sometimes has a hard time adventuring to the dining room for dinner. Her body is bent and shrunken with osteoporosis, her memory slips now and again. She’s been married to the same man for over 60 years. Dad’s become ill during the year I’ve been away. He’s living in the nursing home of their retirement complex right now with Parkinson’s and kidney failure. My older brother is in Oakland, watching over them. Even though it hasn’t been a good year for them, no one ever complained about my absence. In fact, my mom seems to be proud of my adventure. Here are some of the things she would have loved to have done herself:
- Swimming with the fishes: While snorkeling through the clear tropical waters of Indonesia I had so much to show my mother. She has seen the sea urchins, the sea stars and the sea anemones in the tide pools along the Oregon coast. But she’s never seen a bright blue starfish, only red, orange or yellow of the Pacific. The angel fish and parrot fish nibbling on the coral would delight her, as would the the coral itself waving in the currents on the sandy bottom. She would stare as I did at the bed of sea anemone tentacles housing the little fish who darted in and out. I wanted to show her the huge Moray eel that hides in the rock, occasionally sticking its head out to look for prey. I thought of my mom as I examined the algae growing on the back and legs of a sea turtle as I swam a foot away under the water. She would have liked that. But unfortunately, she never learned to swim. One of her biggest gifts was me was summers full of swimming lessons.
- Praying with the orphans: My mother was raised a Methodist. She raised us without any religion. Yet she instilled in us a serious respect for people’s beliefs. At the ashram in Haridwar we spent many evenings in aarti singing to Vishnu. The kids of the orphanage ran the ritual. A boy at the altar would fling the holy water overhead to sprinkle it on each of us. He would carry the lamp around the room for everyone to pull the essense of the fire over their heads. One evening we went to the large aarti in Haridwar along the Ganges with thousands of Indians. Instead of one lamp burning there were scores. As the sun set the light of the lamps was reflected in the holy water of the river. Hundreds of Indians joined the service. It was a small celebration that night. In Nepal we spun prayer wheels and in Cambodia we watched as the teenage monks collected alms every morning. We’ve been woken by morning calls to prayer in almost every country we’ve visited. In Lamu, we were part of the daily lives of observant Muslims. They told us about their beliefs while we shared their food around the table. There we learned to eat every grain of rice on our plates, as the one not eaten might be the one that would have prayed for you. My mother would have told us that story at the dinner table every time we ate rice had she known it.
- Eating delicious, exotic foods: My mother loves food. When I was a kid she cooked food from all over the world, even if it involved some 1970’s interpretation. She made Chung King stirfry out of a can and Indian curries made with McCormick’s curry powder. No one else I knew in Iowa made corn tortillas by hand, using a tortilla press she had bought in Oregon. This was always my favorite meal just as now it’s Cat’s (although I buy the tortillas fresh from the tortillaria rather than make them myself). This year we’ve savored parmigiano-reggiano in a little town between Parma and Reggio. We’ve eaten spicy lentil soup accompanied by the crispy cheese and herb filled pancakes called gözleme in Turkey. With our fingers we ate goat stew with chapatis in Kenya. In India we stuffed ourselves during celebrations eating spicy chickpeas, homemade paneer and aloo tikki. Over Christmas we stayed in luxury hotels but ate dahl and naan in road side stands. In SE Asia we started eating raw vegetables again wrapping our spring rolls in lettuce and herbs. The kids learned to make nasi goreng and chicken satay with peanut sauce in Indonesia. In fact, my mother probably would have been even more brave than us in this adventure. We didn’t sample the durian until our last day in Asia. We couldn’t even finish one piece. My mother would have sampled it when she first smelled it and would have loved the creamy texture and the strawberry after taste. She would have also sampled the fried crickets. I just don’t know if she would have chosen the ones with onions or with chilis.
- Hiking the trails of the world: My mother was never an athelete. But we went on many, many hikes during my childhood. Every year we celebrated Easter on a hike looking for wildflowers. It was a tradition started in Oregon, but my mom continued it in Iowa even if that meant looking for wildflowers in the snow. She would have loved our hike in the Alps on a trail that defined the border of Austria and Italy. We watched as the clouds climbed up the Italian side to engulf us as we ran down the Austrian side in the rain. She would have enjoyed the view of the Mediterranean from the Via di Amore in Cinque Terre as well as the Italian food at the end of the hike. The Himalayas were more majestic than anything I’d seen. The mountains shot straight up from the narrow and deep ravines. The rivers of milky glacier water were green and fast. And the trail was difficult. As it was at Machu Picchu where the jagged mountains were covered in jungle instead of pines. I could just hear my mother saying it was time to look for four leaf clovers. This was her way of saying it was time to take a break. She almost always found one where ever we stopped. She’d have probably found one in Nepal.
- Watching elephants eat dirt: In Kenya we watched as a huge bull elephant only 10 meters from us, scraped mud up with his tusks, picked up the clods of dirt with his trunk, and shoved the mud into his mouth. He was looking for salt. A herd of females and youths joined him briefly in a quiet truce while they, too, ate salty mud in the rain. This is the kind of thing my parents would have spent hours observing. They were both scientists. My mother was trained as a chemist. My dad was a zoologist. They loved the natural world. They always knew the names of the flowers, the trees, and the birds we saw on our hikes. My mom would have spent hours with binoculars in Kenya watching the hornbills, the flamingos, and the storks. It was amazing watching these exotic creatures in their own environment and so close. On our safari we bought a guidebook and checked off all the animals as we saw them. I look forward to sitting down with my parents and showing them pictures in the book that we checked off.
- Having picnics: In the Alps we purchased a plastic knife/fork/spoon set at a camping store. We have used that set hard, slicing cheese in the mountains of Austria, spooning biryani on the trains of India, and spreading peanut butter on crackers at Angkor Wat. We’ve spread our meals out over lawns and ruins, rocks, and riverbanks. There is something about eating outside that makes my mom very happy. She would often fry up chicken in the evening to pack for a lunch in the park the next day. A picnic meant not just good food but a new environment in which to eat it. She would have been just as happy as my daughter was while watching the ants work with the crumbs from our picnic at the ruins of the Khmer Empire.
- Learning arts and crafts: In Ubud, Bali, I found a library that was much like a co-op. For me that was the perfect vibe. Many of the art and music classes we’d found elsewhere have involved high prices and someone trying to sell their wares. This place was more low key. Artists offered classes for a minimal fee. No sales. Just teaching. We took a class in silversmithing and one in batik. At the ashram the kids took tablas lessons with the orphans. My kids got to practice woodcarving both in Bali and Lamu. On a break from our bamboo train ride a small Cambodian girl taught Catherine to make a grasshopper by folding a palm leaf in on itself. My mother loved to work with her hands. We used to make candles for fun: ice candles, sand candles, and drip candles. All of my sweaters were unique, one of a kind, because she knit them all. She sewed all my clothes until I was a teen. She would have loved to create a pendant from a sheet of silver or to fold palm leaves into animals.
- Making new friends: This is my mother’s strongest skills. She can make anyone open up and tell her about their lives. Some of her favorite people were those with whom we rode the city bus every morning. She learned, for example, all about China from a fellow bus rider who had emigrated to Iowa. This year, we have met so many strangers and made so many friends. Bill is the best at befriending them. He simply asks them questions. He became a dear friend with our driver while we were touring for a week through Rajasthan, India. While the rest of us ate dinner at the restaurants in the hotels, Bill ate dinner in the parking lot with the drivers. With delicious matar paneer and plenty of whiskey Bill made friends of them all. My mother might not have drunk the whiskey, but she would have become a good friend talking about life while eating the paneer. The new friends we have from this year are the best and most precious of all our souvenirs.
The inspiration to do this incredible adventure could only have come from my mother. Her sense of adventure and her need for new experiences have had an incredibly strong influence on me. Thanks, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day. I love you.