This morning I woke up on the edge of a dream. In the dream, I was falling out of a hostel bed in a sunlit room, but instead of hitting the floor, I just kept falling. The sheets unfurled furiously as an endless roll, their energy holding my body aloft through some kind of physics. When I opened my eyes, it was pitch-black. Where am I? Then I heard Kidlet, who was cuddled against me, talking to a stuffed doll and sounding very awake. What time is it? My body told me it must be the middle of the night, but my cell phone said it was 5:30am.
I lay still for a moment. I’m home. The sun doesn’t rise in Seattle until almost 7:30am, hence the darkness. It was my second morning home but everything still feels strange. I look around and am struck by how unreal it seems. How cold it is – Seattle is in the midst of an “arctic blast”, as it was when we left -, how white the walls are, how much stuff there is in our flat, and how it’s all mine. Nothing here seems to have changed, it’s been like stepping into a showroom of memories.
Hubster did a great job of housekeeping – coming home to steam-cleaned carpets and a mildew-less shower is wonderful. Kidlet has latched on to Hubster as playmate and companion, freeing me up to unpack and run laundry. I spent much of yesterday taking out my braids while watching the live streaming video coverage of the Seahawks’ post-Super Bowl championship celebration. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of downtown Seattle to observe the parade. We live just 2-3 miles away but after 16 hours of travel, I was not ready for that kind of outing – especially not with a windchill of 18 degrees. I enjoyed watching the festivities in warmth and comfort.
On Being Comfortable
The incredible thing about modern day travel is the speed, of course. And, compared to the last time I traveled internationally, there is wi-fi and social media that can make it feel as though you haven’t quite left home. Initially, I’d planned to abstain from social media for the most part, wanting to feel truly immersed in Colombia. That lasted a few weeks, until I couldn’t resist the siren call of connection to the familiar.
I have mixed feelings about it, and am not sure it was a good idea to use social media so much. On the one hand, it helped me keep sane with a young child; on the other hand, I looked at backpackers spending an hour or more in the evenings, logged into their FB pages, doing video chats with friends back home, and otherwise “connecting” and saw the reflection of myself. To connect with fellow travelers – the people we’d traveled thousands of miles to encounter – took a lot more effort. And at the end of a long day of stretching your mind with a foreign language, testing your patience with foreign customs, and aggravating your stomach with foreign food, “more effort” isn’t always appealing.
One thing about our 56 days in Colombia is that I felt like so much happened, yet I’d wanted so much more. We didn’t go to the Amazon (I’m okay with this because BUGS), we didn’t make it to the desert, and we didn’t make it to a white sands beach (this I truly regret). My Spanish, though it improved dramatically, did not improve as much as I’d wanted – because I didn’t study the way I’d planned. I’d underestimated key things, like the amount of time it would take to travel around the country; and overestimated other things – like how well we’d handle the heat.
There were days I thought, “I give up; I just want to go home.” And if I’d had the ability to instantly transport us back, I’d have done it. There were nights with scary bugs, and frightening rural animals, and vomit, and sickness and discomfort. There were days when Kidlet and I would literally be standing in the street, glaring at each other; if we possessed horns, they ‘d be well-worn by now. And yet, as easily as one might turn a page, the next day we’d be smiling together in the sunshine, hands swinging together, feeling like the most fortunate pair of people to have each other and this experience.
It was always remarkable, the way things turned around. By the end of the trip I’d begun to anticipate that experience of dawn after the night. A horrible, lousy experience would seem to be followed by an especially wonderful one. A case of comparison, or was it objectively the case? It’s hard to say, and I can’t claim objectivity. On this trip, state of mind accounted for almost everything.
Parenting on the Road
I took Kidlet on this trip for many reasons: I missed traveling; I wanted to improve my Spanish; I wanted to introduce her to Spanish; I wanted her to see the world; I wanted her to understand that life is different in other places, and not to take her cushy life in Seattle for granted or assume it was the same way for everyone everywhere; I wanted her to develop patience, learn to do without so many things and get used to schedules and plans that didn’t revolve around her. But as is often the case when I, as her parent, try to “teach” Kidlet anything, I discovered that my determination for her to learn certain “lessons” was a cosmic joke. Two weeks into the trip and I was constantly and miserably aware of my hypocrisy. After hearing myself irritably and even aggressively tell Kidlet, “I need you to be patient!” over and over, I began looking at myself with the same wary look she was giving me..
Kidlet, to her credit, met me head-on with obstinate, outspoken and downright rude behavior the likes of which I had no idea she was capable of. It was a struggle. Traveling solo for two months with a five year old was far more challenging than I’d imagined. There were days when I resented her so much, right alongside feeling that she was the saving grace of the entire experience.
Night after night I’d lay in bed feeling like a failure, as a traveler and as a parent. But day after day, the sun rose and I could try again. We began to start the mornings off with the words, “Today, let’s love each other and be kind to each other.” A futile exercise? It felt so, at first. I tried so many manipulative methods to get Kidlet to do what I felt I needed her to do, methods I’d barely entertained at home – bribery, threatening, intimidation, guilt-tripping; bribery with threatening and guilt-tripping, etc!
Kidlet threw them all back in my face. She gobbled up my bribes and then demanded more while refusing to do what I’d “asked.” She repeated my threats to me at the most embarrassing, ridiculous times. She started saying horrible things about herself that I’d originally said about myself in useless attempts to elicit sympathy from her. There was no escape. Whatever one of us threw out, the other would be hit with, and it would just continue back and forth like a ball bouncing between two walls placed irrationally close together.
The whole while I kept waiting for a breakthrough, an epiphany, that tremendous a-ha! moment – in part because I’m writing a book about the experience, and that kind of thing is convenient. But I should have known by now that in my life things don’t happen like that. There is no sudden storm, relief from the drought – there is no drought! There’s just one not-too-dissimilar day after another, lined up like beads on a string. And so finally, towards the end of our eight weeks on the road, I began to surrender to the reality of moving forward one half-step at a time. Some moments or hours I wanted to throw a fit, “I just can’t anymore! Why do I have to be kind! Why do I have to work so hard to be the parent!”
But eventually I was able to get to the point where I could surrender with dignity. I could refuse to say something cruel or manipulative, I could abstain from churlish demands for “respect,” I could resist the urge to throw my weight around. I could just say, “That is NOT okay,” and leave it at that for the moment. One foot in front of the other. And I apologized more, and when I apologized I found she would often immediately apologize for her actions. And by the end I was very amazed, and very proud of Kidlet for pushing me to parent smarter and demanding better of me than what was easy.
When I was her age, I wouldn’t have had the fortitude or self-regard to withstand the badgering she suffered from me for weeks on end. I was a good little girl, who never caused anyone any trouble; I had no guts at all. It’s become apparent over the last two months that my daughter is very different from me. She is already starting off on her own path, and the influence I have over her is more and more about what she observes me doing on my path.
Was it a good experience? Yes, obviously. (Is it obvious?) Would I do it again? Well, that’s like asking me right after I gave birth to Kidlet if I would “do it again.” I’m glad it happened, and I don’t regret it, but I’m not ready to do it all over again right now. It was a lot of work, and there’s still a lot for me to reflect on and collect from the experience.