The Bugged Family
"This is our country, not India." Harsh words, nevertheless true.
Last month, I took my parents on their maiden overseas trip to Sri Lanka. Just to have done it brought me great joy. However, traveling with parents after 7-8 years needs more than a few words of explanation.
My sister and I have been brought up in an open environment. In our nuclear family, there exist four individuals who have their own wishes, dreams and goals; almost at all times. When we were growing up, my father's yearly agenda was to see a new place. Even if it was 50 kilometers from our house, he would ensure that he took us somewhere new. This happened for 15 years, after which, we started to grow out of their parenthood. But the travel bug had multiplied by then. My life, when I look back, is controlled by that bug.
My parents' life, however, changed. Once we were on our own paths, they only went on necessary trips, such as, for family functions. In fact, before Sri Lanka, the last time we went on a holiday together was in 2006. It was a road trip to Jim Corbett Park. Stories, experiences and jokes about the trip have been told a million times now. Last year, I thought, it was time to renew all of that.
On the 20th of Dec, we flew from Delhi to Colombo. On the flight, we got seats in different rows. So, I couldn't guide my parents through the international flight hospitality. It turned out to be convenient. They refused alcohol and picked vegetarian meals. My sister, seated in another row, enjoyed her drink and food. And so did I.
The entire trip was organised through an agency and we had a designated driver for all 7 days. Our hotels were booked and all we had to do was sit through the distances. A comfortable Nissan Caravan came to pick us up at the airport, and made the trip rides more than just blissful, although a bit boring. Over the week, we got a glimpse of the clean city of Colombo, loved the tea estates of Nuwara Eliya, were enchanted by the beauty of Yala National Park and walked through the fort city of Galle. The greatest highlight, however, was to watch the world's biggest creature - The Blue Whale.
The trip was planned and designed to introduce my parents to a world that's different yet pretty close to the societies they live in. However, I was quite surprised by their level of discomfort caused by relatively minor things.
Food - It wasn't the unavailability of vegetarian food but the abundance of meat that bothered them.
[We handled almost all these situations pretty well. Hotels we stayed in were good and although the items weren't familiar, my parents enjoyed the customized vegetarian food in most places. In fact, all of us absolutely enjoyed the home-cooked vegetarian Sri Lankan meal at Mettha's in Galle. And on the last day, we dined at a Chennai restaurant in Colombo. I think, eventually, their complaints were buried.]
Language - Despite 3 spoken languages (Sinhalese, Tamil and English), Tamil speakers were only found in Nuwara Eliya and Sinhalese English isn't regular English.
[My sister and I have traveled enough. So, we broke the language barrier easily. In fact, my mother managed to discuss/argue with a jeweler about the variation in the value of currency and the cost of various things. My father, however, resorted to sign language.]
Us - I tried to help them see a glimpse of the life that my sister and I lead. I ordered a glass of wine along with food and foolishly tried to explain why it's alright. Unfortunately, the wall between their world and ours was/is thicker than I thought.
[I learnt through my futile attempts and didn't try anything uncomfortable again.]
Outside of these expected challenges, I learned something about 'travel' as an activity.
We were in Yala National Park and during the safari drive, we discussed at length about how the country seemed to have a higher civic sense. We explained, to my mother and father, how they need to control the urge to throw trash around and kept a trash bag in the jeep to throw our food waste etc.. During our 4-hour Safari, we took a break on a beach in Yala (yes, there is a beach in the middle of a wildlife park!). We spent some time by the ocean and restarted the exploration. Just as we moved out of the beach, another jeep drove in from the other side. As we crossed each other, the guide in the other vehicle called us. Our driver was perplexed and reversed the jeep.
We realized that my father had dropped a plastic bag full of trash in the middle of a National Park, and the guy in the other jeep noticed that. I looked at my father in complete shock, and at that same moment, the guide from the other jeep yelled "This is our country, not India!"
The rest of the day was spent in deep introspection about all our lives. I thought about why and how my mother is less educated yet more open to other cultures; and how it's exactly the opposite with my father who is far more educated. This made me understand that to keep up with a ferociously changing world, we have to throw ourselves in unknown environments regularly.
My mother had to leave home at an early age and create her life in a new city. She had to learn 2 new languages, and adjust to a culture that was in contrast with her upbringing. Additionally, she had just a few pennies when she started. This, I believe, opened her mind up to other people's ways. Hence she was able to observe, question and understand the differences between Indian and Sri Lankan civilizations. My father, however, complained about the language problem and as a tourist, I think, he expected to be understood more than to understand. Although both my mother and father didn't want to be bothered with 'having to adjust', my mother's survival instincts helped her while my father's relatively unexposed life made him seek help.
I was disturbed for a while and recovered the day after the incident. My parents went through a few more hiccups but reportedly enjoyed the trip.
People tell me that my parents are too old to adjust with new environments; they are set in their ways and hence to expect them to reinvent their survival instincts is futile. I, despite the advice, have decided to do this more often. I need my parents to visit me but at the same time, not expect familiarity and comfort. It's harsh but I think, it will generate curiosity. When they have grandchildren, their understanding of my world will be a bit better than what it is today.
Some of us read books, watch the news and make global friends to understand and respect other worlds. For my parents, they need to travel to believe. Because that's what drives me too.