By Sue Sanders
I crawled after my fifteen-year-old daughter into the back of a dilapidated van that was designed to carry eight passengers but already held almost a dozen. It was parked in a rutted lot that passed for a bus station in this tiny Sumatran village. Lizzie and I had just hiked a couple of miles from our thatched jungle hut and, although it was still early morning, my cotton shirt was soaked. Even my knees, jammed into the vinyl seat in front of me, were sweating. I fantasized about polar bears and ice floes.
“It’s a little squished,” Lizzie said, fanning herself with a packet of cookies. Then an Australian backpacker hopped in next to me just before the driver slid the door shut. “At least we’ve got a bit extra room,” I said, pointing at an empty seat as the van bumped along a potholed dirt road to the next town. A few minutes later, our driver pulled up to a corner, rolled down his window and called out our destination: “Parapat, Parapat!” A young Indonesian man got in and crawled over us to the last remaining seat.
There’s nothing like travel to forge mother-daughter closeness. Especially when you are wedged together in the tiny backseat of a dubiously maintained van for an eleven-hour ride.
Lizzie and I started taking trips together when she was ten, though all our previous getaways had been only a night or two and a short ride from our home. We’d never done anything remotely like this—backpacking for two and a half weeks through Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. Lizzie had been volunteering in Cambodia and, after her program, I met her in Phnom Penh where we caught a budget flight to North Sumatra’s capital, Medan. She seemed excited about the idea, although the van ride dampened her enthusiasm a little. I was used to challenging road trips having spent much of my twenties and thirties traipsing around the world, going wherever my backpack and a cheap plane ticket would take me.
I’d lived in Jakarta as a kid, and I wanted to show Lizzie “my” country. I also wanted a chance to test-drive my Bahasa Indonesia, which was so rusty it had corroded to the point of uselessness. We’d stay in $6-a-night huts without running water and with electricity only a few hours a day. We’d sleep under mosquito nets, eat nasi goreng and absorb Sumatran culture. We’d trek through the jungle and see orangutans and elephants and, with luck, avoid contracting malaria and dysentery. It would be an adventure. Since there weren’t many summers left until Lizzie was off to college and into her own life, it was, I reasoned, now or never. And I much prefer now to never.
Travel is a lot like parenting: you can’t really plan what will happen. Instead, you just have to roll with it. In this case literally, on a bad wheel and lackluster suspension. We rode through the jungle and endless palm oil plantations, past small towns with silver minarets gleaming in the sun. Then we hit a massive traffic jam. We’d been warned that travel during Idul Fitri, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, is especially difficult. We watched with equal parts awe and horror as our driver swerved onto the sidewalk to inch past stalled vehicles until we were out of the worst. Driving in Sumatra can be like a game of high-speed chicken, passing other vehicles in the oncoming lane with drivers leaning on their horns, waiting until the last second to see who will lose his nerve and back off.
And just like parenting, with travel sometimes it’s better to close your eyes and desperately hope you and your child will make it to your destination—and adulthood—in one piece. But even though you’re not always sure what you’re doing on that road, you’re glad you’re on the journey together. At least I was.
At home our lives are busy. There’s work and school, track and debate, movies and meals with friends. We eat family dinners most nights, Lizzie and her dad and I chatting about our days. Life has a hectic but predictable rhythm.
But one of the great things about travel is how it shakes up that routine, even if it’s temporary. On our trip, Lizzie and I were forced to live in the moment, a compulsory Zen of sorts. We didn’t know where we would stay, what we would eat for dinner or how we would get from point A to B.
During meals in Indonesia, Lizzie and I lingered over generous portions of spicy Padang chicken and finger-sized fried bananas, veering from the usual topics of classes, friends and sports. She asked me about my childhood, curious about the time I’d spent in Indonesia as a child. She told me her tentative plans for studying psychology or English or history or library science and perhaps joining the Peace Corps or traveling after graduation. Our conversation was without boundaries and borders. Time, it seemed, temporarily slowed.
I began to see Lizzie in a new way, through the eyes of strangers. At the airport in Kuala Lumpur, a young customs agent who appeared to be in his early twenties said something to Lizzie in Bahasa Malaysia as he stamped her passport. She smiled politely, not understanding a word. Another agent looked at me and said, in English, “He thinks she is pretty. How old?” I told her and she translated. Neither Lizzie nor I had any difficulty understanding his response as he handed her the passport: smiling while backing up and calling out “Ohhhhhh!’
“He was flirting with you,” I said to Lizzie as we tucked our passports away.
“Mom! Stop it!” Lizzie said, proving teenage embarrassment of a parent can span continents. Then she looked at me and burst out laughing.
It’s an odd feeling watching your daughter get hit on. At fifty, as I become less visible to the outside world, Lizzie is becoming more so. Each year I blow out my birthday candles and it’s as if a tiny bit of me is being exhaled along with the carbon dioxide and oxygen. I watch, both amused and ready to jump in, if needed. It’s as if I glanced away for twenty seconds and Lizzie had metamorphosed into this lovely and confident young adult. I suspect this isn’t new for her, but at home it’s sometimes as if we live in separate countries, Parentlandia and Teenageopolis and only occasionally set foot across each other’s borders. While traveling, we’re outsiders, together.
Seeing Lizzie in a different way in a new place makes me realize, yet again, that she’s on adulthood’s fast track. Soon we won’t share a house or even a city, but we’ll always have our trip backpacking through Sumatra and that cramped eleven-hour van ride we thought would never end. But, like childhood, it did.
Author’s Note: I loved traveling with Lizzie, who was an intrepid traveler and embraced new experiences like squat toilets and cold showers. Back home in Portland, we occasionally go out for lunch and relive our trip. “Remember how a tree fell across that road up the volcano? It was lucky that man on a motorbike had a chainsaw!” We’re planning another backpacking trip together.
Sue Sanders’ essays have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Brain, Child, Real Simple, Islands, Parents, the Rumpus and others. She’s the author of the parenting memoir, Mom, I‘m Not a Kid Anymore.