I'm sitting despondent at my friend's house in Oxfordshire, England, trying to zip up my overstuffed suitcase while listening on the phone to the bewildering UK rail timetable for trains to London. Once off the phone I sigh deeply in frustration. My friend, a young Englishman who read my first travel book and e-mailed me in Canada saying he was a "fan", looks at me disappointedly and says, "Your reputation as a hard-core traveler is being shot to hell."
It's true: I'm a mother of a three-year-old, and clearly, I've forgotten how to travel.
I used to travel the world with a backpack, hitchhiked through several continents, slept in caves and hollowed-out trees, camped on tropical far-flung islands and negotiated Asian metropolises where I didn't speak a word of the language. All this wasn't very long ago either.
Now, I'm in Britain on a book tour for my second travel book about more intrepid treks through jungles and places north of tree line. But instead of a backpack, I'm lugging an unwieldy suitcase, can't figure out these trains and tubes for the life of me, and feel a little panicked about arriving in London. And this is England, where they speak English. How did I manage crossing Sumatra on my own? How did I survive seventeen-hour bus journeys over pot-holed roads crammed into the back corner of the bus, the only female onboard, while men all around chain-smoked clove cigarettes and wouldn't let me open the window even though we were on the equator, the hottest place on Earth? They even showed a porno flick one night on one of those buses, and all the men turned around to stare.
But when it comes to traveling, I seem to have become a wimp. Actually, I seem to have forgotten how to live in the regular world entirely. My life can be divided into BC (Before Child) when I was that independent girl who could have adventures and stay up until 4 am writing about them, to AC (After child) when I've emerged as my mother.
Having spent so much time at home over the last three years, being sleep-deprived, nursing, playing with Lego, reading Winnie the Pooh, and strolling my son to the park, a trip alone to another continent is like going to Pluto. How ironic that I'm here for a book tour about my worldly travels. I've become the furthest thing from worldly.
Maybe I'm just out of practice, need to get my traveling legs back. I used to know this country quite well, spent three months here when I was 23, and even had a job selling umbrellas on Charring Cross Road. When I left the UK for the continent and Morocco, coming back to England after several months felt like coming home.
I'm now at Marylebone station in London waiting for my old university friend Shazea to meet me. She's late and I'm getting a little anxious. Am I in the wrong place? Did I take the wrong train? When I was 23 in a situation like this, I would have sat on my backpack, pulled out a book and relaxed while waiting. Now I'm standing, tapping my foot, looking frantically around, checking my watch. Again, I've become my mother. No, wait. I've become a mother. This seems to be what happens when you become one: you fret, you worry, not just about your own child apparently, but about everything else too.
Shazea finally arrives, a little panicky and apprehensive about being late. Surely this isn't my old roommate Shazea who used to dance for hours, go to parties with me, have guys lick Jello off her toes before dashing off to hitch a ride home so we could watch Mary Tyler Moore re-runs at 2 am? This Shazea is a little, well, uptight. Could the explanation be that Shazea also is a mother?
In my son's first year, I thought I'd made the biggest mistake of my life and would have given anything to go back in time to my former free self. My son had colic and seemed to cry nonstop, woke up every hour all through the night, and I was so exhausted I could barely walk straight or remember my name. I wanted to escape to a village of women, back to the Jamaican village I'd stayed in years earlier where the large extended family of mothers, aunts, cousins and sisters all shared in the child-care. That seemed the only natural and humane way to survive being a new mother, far better than an isolated couple trying to figure it out on their own. It seemed that everything of who I was had been stripped from me: my identity, my body, my mind, my fierce independent streak, my writing, my traveling; even my relationship had completely changed since my husband and I were now on full domestic duty instead of focusing on each other.
Slowly, I'm getting those things I lost back, but I seem to have surfaced as a different person. For example, when I was in London years ago, I naturally gravitated towards other travelers like myself. "Where are you off to next?" we'd say, or, "How was India?" "Are you taking that cheap flight to Athens tonight?" Now, I'm drawn to different sorts of people. In Hyde Park, I walk up to mothers of toddlers. "Oh, so cute! How old is he?" "Is she a picky eater?" "Mine too." We laugh and watch the kids play.
I used to be able to get around places without speaking the language, knew how to phrase questions so I'd get honest answers, knew how to eat cheaply even in expensive cities. Now I have different skills: in the grocery store I can push a child in a cart down an aisle without him being able to grab stuff off the shelves; I can traverse a dark hallway at night without tripping over rows of toys trains, and I can turn almond butter sandwiches into jelly rolls so they look like fun to eat.
Here in London, I'm now wandering around by myself, going to bookstores, museums and galleries, free of strollers, sticky little fingers, and time constraints. In fact, for the first time in three years, I have all the time in the world. I like this wandering, walking miles and miles through the historic capital, but I'd forgotten that after several days, exploring even a fascinating city can get a little lonely when you're by yourself.
It's the last day of my trip and I'm running up a flight of stairs, heaving the giant suitcase behind me, trying to get the right train to Gatwick Airport. I've taken the wrong train and run to the stationmaster in this tiny outpost to ask directions. Although kind, he shakes his head at my incompetence. After waiting half an hour for the next train, I board, and then at the stop for the Gatwick train, run as fast as I can on seeing the train doors starting to close. "GATWICK!" I yell into the crowd of passengers. A man sticks his foot into the door and I dive in, giant suitcase and all.
When I finally arrive at Gatwick with just 40 minutes until my flight to Canada, I discover I'm at the wrong airport. "Air Canada?" chuckles the Swiss Air man. "You should be at Heathrow."
Clearly, this is one of the stupidest things I've ever done. Ten days earlier, I arrived at Gatwick, but that was on another airline so I really should have checked this one. Can I blame this on motherhood too? On the hour-bus ride to Heathrow I try to calm down. This isn't the end of the world, I realize. Inconvenient, yes, but I'll survive. I've survived much worse, like my son's first year.
Luckily, they squeeze me in on a later flight, and when I arrive at the Toronto airport, my son runs as fast as his little legs can carry him with his arms outstretched, straight into my own.
I may not be such a great traveler anymore, but I have something else now, and can't imagine traveling back across all the years to my old self for the world.
Laurie Gough is author of the recently released Kiss the Sunset Pig, and Kite Strings of the Southern Cross, shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and silver medal winner of ForeWord Magazine's Travel Book of the Year in the US. Sixteen of her stories have been anthologized in various literary travel books, including Sand in My Bra: Funny Women Write From the Road; Hyenas Laughed at Me and Now I know Why: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure; and A Woman's Passion for Travel.
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