I am mystified by the travel paralysis that seems to have gripped so many Americans. It's an odd, dangerous time, or at least it looks that way when I'm glued every night to CNN, but getting out in the world is really no more risky than staying at home. And travel is such a wonderful, therapeutic way to relieve all that news-generated stress. I'm not planning a holiday jaunt to North Korea anytime soon, but I am planning to get away somewhere warm, wonderful, fascinating. Seizing the moment has always served me well, particularly when it came to jetting off with my closest friend and most faithful travel companion-my mother. As an only child growing up in small-town Massachusetts, I was always very close to both of my parents. When I was just out of college, my father died suddenly. As a way of helping us recover from his death, my mother and I decided to use our nest egg to travel the world. We found an astonishingly inexpensive tour company in Boston, International Weekends, and booked our first big trip overseas: 16 days in China with air for only $899. And just like that, a mother-daughter traveling team was born.
There were so many trips available to the most exotic locales. We couldn't resist any of them. Over the next decade-from the early '80s into the early '90s-we traveled to Romania, Guatemala, the Soviet Union, Senegal, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Tahiti, and throughout most of Europe. We never found excuses not to go. It was almost as if we had a premonition that we should not delay.
We were lucky enough to hit every place at just the right moment. We traveled around China when it was first opening up to American tourists in the early '80s. At our first stop, Shanghai, my blond-haired, blue-eyed mother caused quite a sensation. Crowds of locals gathered around her, fascinated by this odd-looking Western woman. They stared, they touched her hair, they were awestruck. This happened throughout China and later in other isolated corners of the world. It was a thrill to be so out of place, to step into worlds not our own, to feel so very foreign.
We went to Romania and the Soviet Union when both were still part of the forbidden empire. Stepping behind the Iron Curtain delivered quite a frisson. Sometimes, unfamiliar with local customs-and restrictions-we'd inadvertently get ourselves into a bit of trouble. Once, in Moscow, a handsome young man asked us to dinner at a local restaurant. When the bill came he paid in local currency and asked if we'd give him our share in dollars, but not there and then-later, on the subway on the way back to our hotel. We passed him the money heading down an escalator, not realizing that we'd just broken the law on exchanging dollars with Russian citizens.
As time progressed we became consummate planners, booking trips with key annual events in mind: tulip season in Holland, the Stars of the White Nights Festival in Leningrad. For several years we spent Christmas and New Year's in Europe, each time splitting the holidays between two different European capitals: Christmas in Prague, New Year's in Budapest, the same for Lisbon and Madrid, for London and Paris. These were some of our most precious moments together, spilling into new raucous streets at the stroke of the New Year. We were even in Prague for its first independent Christmas free of the Soviet grip.
Traveling together elicited some great reactions from both locals and fellow travelers. Everywhere we went people were charmed to encounter a mother and daughter who got along so well, more like best friends than anything else. Local families adopted us along the way, feeding us in their homes, volunteering to show us the sights. And international young men, who must have shaved a few years off my age seeing me with my very young-looking mother, were drawn to me like magnets. I got marriage proposals in Romania, Senegal, and China.
To immortalize our trips together we'd always elicit some passerby to snap our photo in front of key landmarks. We developed them big and hung them in frames in our home gallery: Mom and me in front of the Great Wall; at Red Square; at Ayres Rock; near the Sydney Opera House; at the pyramids in Egypt. Before long the picture gallery was enormous.
These adventures together cemented our relationship and really did turn us into best friends. We were constantly planning for our next trip or reminiscing about our last. We'd cook up some specialty dish we'd discovered halfway around the world, explore wines we'd tasted, and polish off dinners with some newly discovered liquor-Japanese sake or maybe a Polynesian mai tai.
These trips became a big part of our lives, even long after they'd ended. People we met along the way wrote us letters and visited us in New York. I even helped our Romanian tour guide get out from under the wicked Ceausescu regime and immigrate to this country. Mostly everyone knew us as the mother-daughter travelers-"Lilly and Sheri, where are they going next?"
Then, quite suddenly, my mom fell ill and couldn't travel anymore. We eventually found out it was Alzheimer's. We often discussed how lucky it was that we had traveled so much when we still could. In her rooms at the various assisted-living places into which I moved her, I hung the large framed photos from our worldwide adventures-a complete picture gallery featuring decades of memories. These brought her immense pleasure. The photos jogged her memory, which was dimming progressively. On each of my visits, Mom asked me to tell her the stories of where we went and what we did. I'd recount our famous travel tales and she'd marvel that she'd actually been on all those exotic adventures. "Sheri," she'd say, "you mean to tell me we traveled all over the world? I can't believe it!" She died this past summer.
The time to travel with your loved ones is now. Not later. Now. Life is short. It may be risky to wait. Travel now.