Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Wanderlust Has Found My Son

Wanderlust has found my son Jason and he has given notice at the vegetarian restaurant in Boulder where he is employed as executive chef. He has always scoffed at the label executive as well as his name printed at the bottom of the menu. A noble yet humble man, this one.
He will be leaving in January and this trip should take a year. He and friends will visit southeast Asia, India, and then back to Central America. This will be his third international journey although he has camped and travelled numerous places in America including Alaska. They will stay in hostels, most of them researched online ahead of time and they will take only what can be carried on their backs. They will camp when the natural setting is appealing and will buy and prepare food only when it is cheaper than eating out which surprisingly is not frequent. Jason's employer owns five restaurants and a young waiter working in the Latin America cafe will join him for six months of the trip. Kate, Jason's associate manager and friend, is also going and will hopefully be able to make the entire trip. Plans are flexible and changeable when one travels in this fashion. Jason and Kate have given two and a half months notice to their employer and if necessary, will postpone their departure so as not to leave the boss in a predicament, they being important to the running of the restaurant. A fair and generous guy, this one, too.

Jason's trip to South America a year and a half ago caused me some trepidation. Jason had done the backpack-across-Europe thing after college but somehow the knowledge that he was visiting a continent of politically unstable countries who any day of the week would suddenly announce that all Americans had to leave their borders NOW was unsettling. I pictured Jason hog-tied with a dirty bandanna stuffed in his mouth thrown in the back of a jeep driven by desperadoes holding machine guns and smoking Cuban cigars. Or he would be chased from the jungle by a giant anaconda hissing angrily as he gained on my terrified son. There was the thought that maybe he would survive all these prementioned calamities and come back safely to his own people but months later while shaving he would notice a small worm crawling across the inside of his eyeball. I actually saw this on a parasite show on a science channel.
This is what mothers do when their children leave the country. There are enough frightening occurrences from the moment the child rises, steps into the slippery shower, chews undercooked bacon, and drives the freeway to the job. But send him to a foreign country and the possibilities multiply by the thousands.
And when he travelled to South America, one of those things did occur. A little over a day after his departure from New York I came home to a message on the machine. Jason in his usual slow spoken manner said something like," He-e-e-e-e-ey, guys, it's Jason. Uh, I have something I needed to ask you but I guess I will need to talk to you later. Okay, uh-h-h-h, by-y-y-y-ye." Just a hair and a half rose up on the back of my neck. He sounded calm. But I semi-joked to David, did you hear any guard dogs barking in the background. Next day on the phone he tells me in an even voice that on his arrival in Lima he traveled to the hostel, deposited some of his stuff in the room and then asked the proprietor for a map. He went out into the city and crossed a bridge unknowingly entering one of the worst neighborhoods that slimy side of Peru had to offer. Before reaching the end of the bridge he felt two arms encircling his neck and when he instinctively reached up he realized the arms were the size of tree trunks and to fight back may bring an even worse result. He was left unconscious on the street - his money belt and new camera gone. When he awoke the two policemen he found could not understand this gringo's gesturing and Jason had not begun the Spanish lessons that would start next week. He was unhurt, a sore neck, yes, and he did not blame the forgetful proprietor who had neglected to mention this area on the map. "I should have known," he said.

My mind was leaping towards hysteria, silly emotional human, and I had to command my brain not to race towards those useless feelings and instead listen to the instructions he was giving me. I grabbed a legal pad and numbered each item trying to question anything that I didn't understand and having him repeat and then I would repeat. The cell phone would have been an expensive item to bring south so it was back in the car at the airport. I wouldn't be able to reach him by phone should I need help. He gave me an 800 number for further assistance. Reluctantly, I hung up the phone, aching for my son.

I was going to set up an account at the embassy in Lima and wire $500 cash, thanks to the generosity of David. I took my legal pad covered with underlined phrases and I drove to the transfer office . The young woman at the desk said she had done this many times but she hesitated and studied the forms, obviously not understanding. I decided to try the 800 number just to make certain we were not making mistakes with these complicated instructions. The robot voice on the line identified the office and then said, "If you are calling about an American citizen traveling abroad and this is an emergency situation, please press 1." Not an emergency, a damn sad and scary situation, but not an emergency. "If you are calling about an American citizen traveling abroad and that person is missing or has been kidnapped, please press 2." If I had been calling with that hellish situation, I'd be damn well pressing 1. What the hell was an emergency then? Death? How could it be? That traveling citizen is dead and nothing can be done so you better not be pressing 1. My stomach felt sick as I realized the tremendous scope this situation was developing into. So much evil out there past the Iowa cornfields.

Jason went on to have a remarkable adventure and to meet many interesting people. He took surfing lessons, tracked through jungles, sat at the tops of mountains, climbed ancient Inca ruins and stood breathless at the bottom of great waterfalls. I admire his courage to continue the trip. Others would have returned home but his strength of character is not to be reckoned with.

I tell this story not as a reflection on Jason's judgment. He is one of the most intelligent people I know, continuing his education like my father, reading, traveling, meeting all kinds of people. It is to say, be careful, children, all children. Go forth, your lives are not here with your parents. Your life is out there. Go find it, live it. Just, be careful.

"It liberates the vandal to travel - you never saw a bigoted, opinionated, stubborn, narrow-minded, self-conceited, almighty mean man in your life but he had stuck in one place since he was born."
Mark Twain, 1868