You open up a group email on your iPad and notice that one of the addressees is named “But Face,” which is funny and weird, since that’s what your children have taken to calling each other, spelled with two “T”s of course. A few days later you reread a work email you sent from this same iPad and see that the sender is also named “But Face.” In other words, But Face is you.
You holler the name of your eight-year-old daughter, who is playing a video game with her younger brother downstairs in the common room of your guesthouse in Vang Vieng, Laos.
“What did you do with the settings on my iPad?”
She shakes her head, feigning ignorance.
“Why is my name coming up as But Face on email?”
She and her brother look at each other and burst into laughter. Your husband comes into the room, drawn by their hilarity and your anger.
“We told Siri that you wanted to be called by your nickname, Butt Face,” she manages through sputtering laughter. Your husband and son start laughing too. Since the kids have no other outlet for their shenanigans, you have become their target.
“It’s not funny,” you say. “How do I change it back?”
“Just tell Siri that you don’t want to be called Butt Face anymore.”
You hold up your iPad and address it in a serious voice. “Siri, please don’t call me Butt Face anymore.”
Siri answers robotically: “Fine.”
That was easy, you think. To double-check you ask, “Siri, What’s my name?”
“Your name is Bliss, but since we are friends, I can call you But Face.” Siri puts the emphasis on “Face,” like she is French and trying to woo you.
“No, I don’t want to be called But Face”—you pronounce it like she does—“I want to be called Bliss.”
“Whatever you say, But Face.” Your children flop like fish on the bed, convulsing with hilarity. You can’t help but begin laughing too.
You try to ask Siri a dozen different ways to stop using this nickname—even yelling “Stop calling me Butt Face!” but your emails keep coming in and going out addressed as “But Face.” You think– but aren’t completely sure– that this nickname remains a private joke between you, Siri, and your family.
It’s cold in Rishikesh, India in December, and you’re nestled with your daughter and husband in the queen-size bed in your room in this guesthouse, all reading on different devices. Your five-year-old son is across the room on the single bed, looking at his iPad.
“You aren’t playing a game, are you?”
“No, I’m reading the comic book you downloaded.”
After a while, you notice that your son has begun to swipe the pages more and more slowly and seems to be studying each one intently.
“Are you reading it or looking at the pictures?” you ask.
You couldn’t read it yourself, even with your glasses on, since the type in the speech bubbles was too small. But you could see well enough to notice that there were a lot of words, including long words, squished into each little amoeba shape and how it was likely far beyond your five-year-old’s three-letter-word abilities.
“I’m reading it.”
Ok, whatever you say.”
“I am,” he insists and begins to recite slowly: “Bet-ter lock your doors, boys. The Hulk’s on the ramp, ramp… ” His sister bolts out of bed to help him. “Rampage,” she reads over his shoulder triumphantly.
“The rampage again.”
You sit up and stare at him, shaking your head in wonder. Just a few days earlier, he was wiggling like Jello during school time, doing that fast panting breath he uses when he gets really frustrated, complaining that reading was too hard.
“You are reading,” you say excitedly. “Oh my God! You learned to read!” This is the moment when the letters came into focus to form words, when his floundering tipped into mastery, and you, your husband and your daughter were there to witness it. Three months later, in Cambodia, you will watch your son make the same sudden leap forward in swimming, and go in one week from being scared to go in the water to performing the breast stroke and crawl and trying out the backstroke and jumping off a ten foot dock into water far over his head.
In the same guesthouse in Rishikesh, your daughter borrows from the owner a huge comic book of stories about the Hindu Gods and Goddesses. She gobbles up its 700 pages in four days. She likes it so much, you hunt down the book so she can have her own copy, even though it weighs nearly four pounds and takes up her entire daypack. As you travel through Rajasthan, she reads it again and explains for the rest of you the scenes depicted on the temple walls.
You spend your last week in India in the city of Ahmedabad where you stay with the parents of an Indian friend from home. Your host takes you to the Veda school founded by his father, who was an associate of Gandhi’s. The school, which is only for boys, prepares its students to be Vedic scholars–that is, the experts in Sanskrit scriptures, one of which is required by every Hindu temple everywhere in the world.
You, your husband, and your children are seated in front of an assembly of nearly a hundred schoolboys. Your friend’s father beckons to your daughter, who has been impressing him during your stay with her comic-book knowledge of Hindu mythology. In front of this crowd, he quizzes her about the different avatars of Vishnu; the number of heads of Brahma; the Goddess from whom Arjun, the namesake of his grandson who is your daughter’s good friend, descends. On the last question, your daughter pumps her arms like a contestant on a game show as she tries to come up with the name. When she gets it, your host beams, she blushes, and the crowd gives her a long loud round of applause.
In this country, where the guide at the Taj Majal volunteers that there was another side to the minibus rape-homicide story, implying that the victim had brought it on herself; where, when walking without your family, young men feel free to mock you when you try to answer their aggressive hellos in their native tongue (“na-ma-ste”), this moment of respect for your daughter feels especially precious.
Because you have brought so few toys for your children, your son befriends the tiny chocolate bears wrapped in gold-colored foil from the welcome basket in your rental apartment in Cape Town, South Africa. He names these bears Michael and John and plays with them for hours, building them little houses made of twigs that he finds in the yard, acting out scenarios where he rescues them or they rescue each other. They have their own language, which he writes down in its unique alphabet and then translates. This language has impressive consistency. One day, one of the bears is left on the windowsill and melts in the sun. A few days later, your daughter tells you that your son doesn’t care about the bears anymore, so you eat the melted one. Your son becomes so inconsolable that you have to rush out to the store and find an identical gold-wrapped tiny bear to replace it.
You and your daughter take surf lessons on a beach in Cape Town, alongside your husband who has been surfing for a while. None of you are very good. Initially your daughter is afraid. She keeps peering back over her shoulder and flopping off the board at the last minute to bail out of a wave. The previous summer on the beach in Martha’s Vineyard where your mom lives, she was swept out over her head and you had to run into the water and haul her back to shore. Her instructor, a young black South African man from a township, puts her at ease with his casual manner. You feel pleased and proud that she chose the black instructor over the white one she had for the previous lesson, and then embarrassed by your pleasure and pride.
As you rest on your own surfboard farther out, you watch her and the instructor talking animatedly back and forth. Finally she nods her head reluctantly and turns back toward the beach where her brother is playing in the sand. The instructor hauls her surfboard backwards into the surf. She sets her hands on the edge of the board, readying herself. You peer behind you to see a series of compact waves building. From the arch of their spine, you can tell how powerful they will be. You get ready yourself, scooting your body back until your toes brush the end of the board and start paddling furiously.
You pop up in your clumsy two-step manner, and the wave catches the board, shooting you forward with such intensity that your feet are nearly knocked out from under you. You bend your legs, lowering your center of gravity and raise your arms to the side. After a moment, you are no longer simply trying not to fall off. You shift your weight back and forth from your toes to your heels and cut slightly toward the break. You are riding the wave. You look up and are surprised to find the beach still in front of you and your son still digging in the sand. And there is your daughter, her shoulders hunched as she prepares to pop up on the wave’s second break. You steer your board toward her. She jumps into position in one smooth motion and shoots her own arms out to the side. You and the instructor holler “Whoo” as loud as you can. After you and she glide neck and neck to the shallows and hop off, you both turn toward the ocean, scanning the surface. There is your husband, pumping his fist in the air. He saw.
You haven’t spent more than three hours apart from your family in nearly eight months. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and they are always there. You lay awake for hours. You blame this sleeplessness on the fact that your brain finally has the peace and quiet to process all the things that you are seeing and doing each day. But you are too tired to get out of bed to write these things down. Besides you don’t want to wake up the rest of your family. So you lie there and hope that you will remember.
Other times you lay awake wondering whether this trip is having the opposite effect than you intended on your children. Rather than puncturing their bubble of relative privilege at home, through exposure to people less fortunate than themselves, the bubble keeps growing thicker through the entitlement of being Western travelers. You stay in hotels with pools when you can afford it and take private drivers rather than braving a long ride on the local bus when the price difference isn’t too astronomical. You are put up by friends of friends who live in huge houses and serve you meals cooked by their private chefs. These stays are some of your children’s favorite memories.
Of course, you enjoy these luxuries too, which help to make up for the constant moving around and the lack of comforts of home, but how do you reconcile this lifestyle with your visit to a community arts center outside Kampala, Uganda, where the children, prompted by your host, seek your advice about a parent who beats them if they ask for school fees or makes them work in mines where people regularly die. You try to tamp down your feeling that these children are in a sense performing their (very real) disadvantage so that you might be inspired to help them. You want to help them, and you donate what you can, but this is one of many centers you will visit over the next nine months, all of which are doing exceptional work for children and families in dire situations, and you don’t have the means yourself or the network at home to help everyone.
You worry that rather than cultivating your children’s compassion, and your own, these experiences are teaching them that parents can be cruel and the world is unfair, and you must harden yourself to accept this truth. You worry that compassion without action is no better than pity.
Your son continues to make progress reading. He reads aloud his first complete sentence in the stall of a toilet in a restaurant in Dalat, Vietnam. “Dad, dad,” he calls, pointing to a sign taped to the door. “Please don’t put toilet paper or sanitary pads in toilet.”
You sign up for a free tour in Hanoi, Vietnam, and get along so well with the young college student who guides you that she invites your family to her hometown for the Têt new year’s holiday. She tells you that her aunt runs a guesthouse where your family can stay. But when you arrive, her mother has booked you a room in a huge Soviet-era hotel with more employees than guests and hallways lined with carpets that smell of cigarettes and industrial cleaner. Your new friend explains, blushing, that her aunt’s guesthouse, where she has never actually been, is a love hotel for young couples and therefore isn’t appropriate for people with children.
You spend a drizzly day going to the flower market and visiting temples and then stop by the guide’s house on your way back to your hotel. The plan is to come back in a few hours for dinner, but your daughter asks if she can stay there and play. Then your son wants to stay too. “Are you sure you don’t mind?” you ask the guide.
You and your husband are trying not to grin at each other. For the last four months, you have shared a room, and usually a bed, with your two children. A few times, you have sent the kids to the common area in a guest house to play on their devices only to have them return suddenly to find the door locked and to begin knocking and demanding to be let in. You wish you could bring yourself to tell your children that their parents need some private time, but you fear that they will ask or guess the reason why, and although this is how they were made, the idea of trying to enjoy yourself while your children are in another room, potentially imagining what you are doing, feels impossible. That leaves you with option number two: hope that your children are deep sleepers while trying to be as quiet as possible.
You and your husband take a taxi back to your Soviet-era hotel. You cross the lobby, hand in hand, and ride the elevator in a charged silence. It feels like when you first starting dating, when the end of the night was filled with the delicious tension of would you or wouldn’t you, when neither of you wanted to say or do anything that might derail the sexiness of that inevitability. You feel like a young couple visiting a love hotel.
Sometimes when you are lying awake unable to sleep, you fret about what a lousy job you have done documenting this trip. Why didn’t you bring a decent camera? Why did you buy this audio recording device that you almost never use? In the photos you just downloaded from your old cracked iPhone, you noticed some water bubbles appearing across the top. You scroll back through the last few weeks of photos, and there are water spots in all of them.
You haven’t posted on Instagram in ages. Your Facebook posts are all over the map, literally: with photos from Laos where you were four months ago one day and posts from South Korea where you are now the next. It’s no wonder your mother keeps getting confused about your itinerary.
But between researching the logistics of your next destination, homeschooling, and sightseeing, you don’t have time to document and post about your trip. Plus you are doing your best to be where you are, to stay in the moment, to experience things as deeply as you can, and trust that these experiences will be mapped onto your bodies and brains, shaping and changing you, so that you couldn’t possibly forget them.
On the top of a mountain in northern Ethiopia, you sit around a fire with a few other guests and the local village men who work as guards for this small resort. Guarding from whom or what you are never sure, since this place is so isolated, requiring a two-hour hike up a mountain to reach it, but you are grateful for their presence. One of the village men starts to sing in a fast sing-songy voice, and the other men accompany him by clapping and beating on the blocks of wood that serves as stools.
Two men stand up and start to dance. They dance with their hands in their front pockets, moving their shoulders up and down and leaning their chests back and forth toward their partner. There’s little movement of the legs, only a slight shuffling, like the movements of a jouster. The dance becomes a competition to see who can move his shoulders the fastest and who can isolate his movements with the most precise control—with one shoulder going up while the other is going down, and so on. Finally, one of them waves his hand and laughs, conceding defeat.
The women, who are the daughters and wives of the village men and cook and clean the primitive huts you sleep in, join you around the fire. After a while, one of the young women from the kitchen stands in front of you, beckoning with her shoulders. You invited this yourself, since you were shimmying along to the last tune, loosened up by the rounds of beers you have all been drinking. “Oh, no, no.” You shake your head. You gesture to the other guests, who shrink back in their seats. “Go on,” encourages your husband. “You love to dance.” “Please don’t,” your daughter begs, which decides it for you. You get up, shoving your hands in your pockets, and begin.
You and the girl circle each other around the bonfire, slinking your shoulders up and down. All those exercises in “isolations” in the Jazz dance classes of your youth come back to you. You lift and twitch one shoulder and then the other, until you get a rhythm going. The girl raises her eyebrows and starts her moving her own shoulders accordingly. She inclines her chest forward, twitching bewitchingly. Your shoulders start talking to each other, and you feel that frisson when a body falls into an ineluctable harmony with another body that makes you like dancing so much. You keep twitching and bobbing back and forth and the girl is much younger than you, and the tension keeps building and the tempo increasing, and finally you can’t take it anymore. You yank your hands out of your pockets and hold them up. You win!
When you sit back down, your husband declares that he’s never seen you dance so well, and you think that he is making a joke, acting as if this really was a competition and he is trying to boost your spirits about losing. But he’s being serious. Even your daughter concedes that you held your own up there.
You float on your back in life preservers down the Nile River in Jinja, Uganda, where the longest river in the world is said to begin. The river is huge, two or three football fields wide, and your family (and your Ugandan guide) are the only people on it as far as you can see. You hold your children’s hands with your husband on their other side, and you float past small islands where cormorants roost in the tops of tree and riverbanks of trees and brush so thick and lush that you can’t spy any signs of the life that must surely exist beyond them, and caves where, your guide tells you, Idi Amin once hid his troops for a daring surprise attack against his opponents.
You try to picture the great length of the north-flowing river, all the way to Egypt, and to feel its centrality to the shaping of civilizations and the stories of the Bible. You try to sense the sweat and blood and refuse that have flowed through it and the land and lives that it has sustained. You are straining to feel some thread of connectedness to these places and those times, to wrap your mind around the four-dimensional whole for a split second, but the water is warm and your children’s hands are fidgeting in your grip, and you are too swept up in the current of the now. Then your daughter announces she has to go to the bathroom, “number two,” urgently…
You and your daughter turn cartwheels in the shadows of Angkor Wat. The structure is so huge and beautiful, such an inconceivable feat of engineering and faith, such a monument to ego and power, wrought through a brutal effort forced upon thousands and thousands who had no choice but to build it and often die in the process, that you feel compelled to mark being there in some way. Plus it is surprisingly empty in the high heat of noon on a mid-March day. So you turn cartwheels together on the hot dry grass.
You stand with your family bleary-eyed at dawn and stare in wonder at the Taj Mahal. Tourists jostle past you so eager to capture its image that you wonder if they are seeing it at all. You are stunned by the structure’s beauty, the pale pink marble, the symmetry, and grandeur. And you are moved by the love story of its origins. Even your children, who don’t often become excited by architecture or historical buildings or cultural sightseeing in general, especially when you have woken them before sunrise, are speechless. All your five-year old can say is, Wow. You are immensely pleased that this building whose facsimile and reproduction you have seen so many times over still has the power to wow you in person.
You sit in your idling car in Kruger National Park in South Africa as a family of elephants walks slowly across the road right in front of you. Their trunks swing languidly back and forth in rhythm with their steps. They are so close that they fill the frame of your iPhone screen, offering no perspective beyond dusty wrinkly skin. The baby walks between the two bigger elephants, and you are sure that if you did anything to threaten it, if you moved your car a foot, the parents would crush you with one step, just as you would throw yourself in front of your child if one of those elusive lions that you have been hunting suddenly appeared at the rest camp.
You stand on a platform with your family, watching four men carry a body shrouded in white cloth down to the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. This is the third dead body your children have witnessed in less than twenty-four hours: the first lying uncovered on a stretcher in a position that evoked the phrase “death throes” transported by two men running past you in the train station, and the second on the floor in the hallway of the train station, wrapped in a rug and appearing to be abandoned. After the first two, you reasoned that you should expose them to the ritual disposal of these bodies as well.
It is late afternoon and the surrounding ghats are busy with activity: people bathing, feeding the large black and white birds that migrate there every winter, bringing laundry off the lines. The family accompanying the body retreats from the pyre and the fire-tenders set it aflame. The cloth around the body’s head burns first, revealing the surprising smallness of the skull and the hard lines of a jaw that appears to be smiling. “Do you think it’s a woman?” your daughter whispers. “Yes,” you say.
You and your husband talk quietly with your children about the cycle of life and how natural death is here, existing alongside the bathers and the people washing their clothes. You mention the tendency in American culture to hide or be squeamish around death, how your father’s body was burnt out of sight surrounded by strangers. The fire-tenders poke and turn over the body. The shroud has burnt away, exposing the chest cavity filled with lungs ballooning up in the heat, what looks like a stomach and some internal organs. There is a loud pop, the fire flares up, and the organs meld together. The wind shifts, carrying ash and the smell of burning flesh to the platform. “Oh!” your daughter calls, sucking in her breath. Instinctively, you pull your children away.
As you leave, you ask your kids if they are okay. Your daughter smiles grimly. “I wish we’d left a few minutes earlier. I really didn’t need to see that.” “No kidding,” your husband says. You spend the next twenty-four hours worrying that you have scarred them forever, and that they will be discussing this moment in therapy for years. But so far it seems to have had no impact.
You ride electronic bikes down dirt paths from temple to temple in Bagan, Myanmar, known as “the land of a thousand temples.” In fact, there are more than two thousand temples and stupas in the hundred kilometer square archeological zone, and used to be even more than that before a devastating earthquake in the 1970s toppled many of them.
The less well-known structures are usually deserted. You park your bike by the entrance, remove your shoes, and enter the dusty shrines, taking a moment to kneel and bow to Buddha, and then wander up the crumbling stairs, feeling like Indiana Jones. From the top, you can make out rising from the hazy plain in every direction the graceful tapered golden bells that sit atop the stupas and the flatter, more fortress-like roofs of the temples. The sheer number of structures and their magnitude is breathtaking.
You think about how when people face a terminal illness, they often mention travel as one of the things they most wish to do with their remaining time. And while you understand this desire yourself, how broadening your literal horizons and laying claim to more of this world can be a bid against mortality, the petty indignities of travel, especially if you have limited resources, with the missed connections, disgusting public toilets, overcrowded busses, and bleak hotel rooms, can be quite soul-sucking. And then there is the question of where to go. To some place that you have visited before, only to find it changed and falling short of your burnished memories? Or somewhere you have never been, gambling that it will hold that elusive something that makes a certain locale feel magical to a specific someone.
You decide there in Bagan that if you are ever faced with a terminal illness, this is where you want to come. You want to laboriously climb the crumbling stairs to the top of a temple and watch the sun rise over the horizon to illuminate the golden domes of the stupas and the toothy roofs of the temples studding the landscape. With your family around you, holding your hands, you want to watch these thousands of structures appear one after the other out of the darkness as far as the eye can see. If you can have that image to hold in your mind, you think that you can face the end feeling less afraid.
You and your husband take turns rappelling down a cliff into a waterfall in Dalat, Vietnam. Your children cheer you on as you drop into the force of the water. The water pounds so hard against your helmet that you struggle to keep your head from being snapped back. You are scared out of your mind, but you think to yourself, you can either freak out and lose your footing so you dangle against the cliff, spinning around at the mercy of the falls, which is what happened to the Korean girl who went before you, or you can steady your legs, brace your neck, and enjoy it. You put one foot behind the other, laughing at the thrill of walking down a waterfall.
You watch the other, younger, members of your canyoning group, from China, Korea, Canada, and elsewhere, take running blind leaps one after another off a thirty-five foot cliff into a pool of water below. Neither you nor your husband can work up the nerve to do it, especially with your kids looking on with their pleading, panicked expressions. You turn to each other as if to say, “We’re middle-aged,” which isn’t something you have ever felt or thought or wanted to claim before. You are surprised to note that you are perfectly fine with being middle-aged.
Your husband confides that the word ‘insurance’ popped into his mind, which isn’t the way he usually thinks. You tell him he has nothing to prove. “You’re an intellectual,” you say. He groans and says, “Now I’m definitely going to have to jump.” You compromise by leaping hand-in-hand from the fifteen-foot high ledge instead.
In Laos, you hike an hour straight up a mountain to visit a cave that is as big as an underground city with a huge Buddha reclining on an orange shrine at the entrance. As you walk deeper into the cave and the sunlight that falls upon the shrine disappears, you can feel your breath grow shallow and the panicky tendrils of claustrophobia begin. You take your daughter’s hand in yours and squeeze it, taking courage from her fearlessness.
Everywhere you go, the people you meet, fellow travelers and locals alike, tell your children how lucky they are. Your kids smile politely, but you know that they won’t understand their luck until much later, if at all. In fact, much of this travel has been hard for them, with long, boring days of transit, unfamiliar food, uncomfortable surroundings, hours spent in museums or memorials being made to learn about all the awful things people are capable of doing to each other: South Africa, India, Cambodia. In Vietnam and Laos, they are made to learn about the awful things their own country has done. They miss their friends. Sometimes they speak of some aspect of home with heartbreakingly precise detail. But, supported by these other people, you feel reminded of your luck. Even with the exhausting 20-hour stretches of travel, the whining and bickering, the petty arguments with your husband, the days when you can‘t bring yourself to leave your hotel room and go sightseeing, you would still rather be doing this with these people than anything else.
You sign up your family for a week of volunteering to teach English in a village in Cambodia. Your children put up a fight about having to spend four hours of the hottest part of the day in a village with nothing to do while you and your husband teach. You try to remind yourself that they have no idea what volunteering actually entails. You try to sound enthusiastic about this experience, but in fact you have no idea what this volunteering opportunity actually entails and was surprised to learn the day before you were supposed to begin that you are expected to pay a hefty fee to do it.
You let yourself get drawn into an argument with your husband where you defend the pay-to-volunteer model as a necessary source of funding for many NGOs. But he can’t accept the idea that a tenured college professor–“with a PhD from Yale for Chrissakes”–and an award-winning author should have to pay fifty dollars a day to teach rudimentary English classes. That was half your family’s daily budget after all. Yet you turn into a dog refusing to give up its bone since you don’t have an alternate volunteer opportunity, and you are determined that your family should volunteer at least once during this trip.
It becomes three against one, and you lose your temper, screaming that they can all sit by the hotel pool, eating the restaurant’s delicious salmon gnocchi followed by their homemade ice cream, rather than extending themselves to some kids who have probably never been in a pool and for whom ice cream is a rare or nonexistent treat. Your husband counters that you are romanticizing. “Don’t delude yourself that you are actually saving some child’s life,” he says, cruelly.
That night, your husband and kids sleep in the hotel’s king-size bed while you are in the single bed by yourself. You feel so terribly alone, so simultaneously misunderstood and judgmental of your family, particularly of your husband. You feel stung by his implication that your desire to help rests solely in stroking your own ego. You think how if that is what he truly believes, then he doesn’t get you nearly as well as you thought. You also feel a grain of truth in his assessment that you can’t make much difference in these kids’ lives and this volunteering is as much to make you feel good as it is to help them. The room is pitch black and your despair knows no boundaries, can’t locate any perspective. Crossing the floor to where your husband lays feels harder than any other journey you’ve undertaken on this trip so far.
He pulls you sleepily into the familiar space between his arm and chest. When he feels the wetness of your tears on his skin, he opens his eyes. It’s going to be okay, he tells you. You aren’t so sure. You need to be convinced. So you make him testify to his love for you and that he does indeed “get” you, which isn’t perhaps the easiest thing to do on command after a big fight when you’ve been woken in the middle of the night. But he does it, and when he kisses you it feels like he is kissing that essence that he has just described.
Although you and your husband have been together for ten years, you have never actually seen him at work — teaching in a classroom. On the drive over to a different volunteer opportunity that you found where you weren’t required to pay, you review your loose curriculum. You feel strangely nervous about whether these kids, aged between 8 and 14, will accept you.
You bring a ball and throw it back and forth, inviting the students to introduce themselves. Your children stand in the circle of kids eager to demonstrate how the game works. Your daughter asks if she can take the next mini-lesson you have planned. On the board, she writes the word “happy” and the phrase “[blank] makes me happy” in preparation for playing the students the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. They have never heard it before and appear mostly immune to its poppy charms, despite your efforts to get them moving, much to your daughter’s horror.
You watch your husband’s animated body language as he demonstrates the states of being “happy” and “sad.” You watch his kindness with these kids, applauding even their very garbled efforts to speak English, and his attentiveness to the ones whose attention has started to drift away. And you see how fun he makes the learning and how engaged he is, the same qualities he brings to being a father and a partner. And you remember how you love his essence too.
You lose entire days to researching destinations, modes of transportation, and affordable accommodations online. Just as you are about to book your hotel or train ticket, the Internet stops working. You hit refresh and toggle the wireless on and off a dozen times, yelling Damn it loudly over and over again. You scroll through review after review on Tripadvisor in a daze, looking for that elusive trifecta of availability, affordability, and decent reviews. You try to reason that someone has to stay in the number 231 hotel out of 340 in Phnom Penh. How bad can it be? You check the weather for your time there and see that the temperature will be in the upper nineties. You add a pool to your search criteria and start your search again.
Inevitably, you bicker with your husband during these days lost to planning. One or the other of you wants to hold out for a nicer place, an easier journey, a more interesting or economical or less touristy itinerary. There is always the undercurrent of worry about money, of which you started out with plenty but have been witnessing, as if in slow motion, its dwindling. One or the other of you finally throws up his or her hands and cries, “Just decide. I don’t care.” But you do both care and no one wants to be responsible for making a bad choice and suffering the habit of subtle digging at each other that this trip hasn’t yet cured you of. So you keep waffling and searching, thinking the right answer must be out there if you just research the question hard enough.
During these days, your children are left to occupy themselves, sometimes with reading or playing an improvised game, but more often, with their devices. They too fall into a grumpy coma and start fighting with each other and you. You hate these times, but you hate worse taking fourteen-hour bus rides when you could have flown for cheaper or ending up outside of town far from restaurants or transportation or missing the amazing temple ruins covered in tree roots in Siem Reap because you didn’t know about them. So you keep looking and remind yourself how lucky you are to be on this journey.
You stay on an island off the southern shores of Cambodia in a place that you found during one of your days of Internet research. It is just as you would picture a tropical paradise: long white sand beaches, warm blue water, and thatch-roofed bungalows with big porches facing the ocean and their backs to the jungle. There is no Internet service or newspapers or phones. You are there for a week, completely cut off from the rest of the world. For the first day or two, you feel anxious and a little sad. You are dogged by a feeling that something bad is going to happen to someone you love and no one will be able to reach you. You have never been on a tropical island before, and for the first time on this trip, you feel like you are on vacation, and you aren’t sure what to do with yourself. And then the feeling passes.
You spend hours floating in the warm salty water, peering through goggles at little sea creatures and the strange patterns they make in the sand. You swim with your children and take walks together through the jungle. As you walk, you and your daughter make up a story together –about a gang of kids who find an unmade world and how they endeavor to create it from scratch, making it better than the world they knew. Your son describes the world he is going to build from steel and glass, which will be decorated with golden statues of himself, which sound a lot like his bear friends and all the Buddhas you’ve been seeing. “You know, Mom, don’t you, that everything good comes wrapped in gold,” he says.
Your kids talk and talk with an unprecedented enthusiasm and candor. They describe what you are like as a family and your daughter makes you feel a thousand times better about the amount of bickering she has witnessed with her reflection that a family without conflict isn’t really a family because you aren’t being truthful with each other. They talk about the friendships they’ve made with locals and other traveling kids, their nascent visions of what they might be like as grownups, their impressions of the places they’ve been to and how they think this time is changing them. You can see that they are beginning to form a sense of who they are and what matters to them, away from any established notions or social pressures of how they should be and behave. On your last evening, when you kiss them goodnight, you feel as if you are kissing their essence, the precious light of their souls.
Afterward, when they are asleep, you head outside to go skinny-dipping with your husband. You have to walk far out until it is deep enough to swim and you hope that none of the other bungalow dwellers can see your white middle-aged asses. The water feels so good against your naked bodies that you wonder why you haven’t been doing this every night. You are weightless and your husband holds you, spinning you slowly around as the moon slips in and out from behind the clouds. It feels ridiculously romantic, in spite of the impossibility of stealing any actual romance because you’ve lived long enough to know that it’s never good in the water.
You look back to the shore to your bungalow with the porch light on and feel a deep reassurance in knowing that your children are sleeping soundly and maybe all is alright in the world, for the moment at least. You resolve that you will make some changes when you return home, staying offline more, making more room for unstructured time together, giving your kids more freedom and chance for adventure, praising more and criticizing less, being less afraid, focusing more on what really matters to you. The list is long, but you have to start somewhere.
Drawing your hand through the water, you stir up the phosphorescence, shooting out green sparks that are slow to die against the dark ocean floor. The sparks make you think of the fairies in the books that you have been reading with your kids and your children’s eagerness to believe in magic. You and your husband wave your arms underwater, sending out more and more sparks into the dark.