Much like Claudia I often struggle to find the Christmas spirit (aside from the spirits in the liquor cabinet) but, as it’s a special time of year for most, I thought I would do something a little different on here and just touch upon the big “why” that almost everybody asks me about. While I could write essays on that topic, there’s mainly one thing I wish to talk about today.
That woman in the photograph is my mum. The headless guy is my dad. My mum is one of the two main reasons why I chose this lifestyle. Once she got so drunk she looked up a Scottish man’s kilt to find out if the rumours were true, and she was too drunk to remember what she saw. Once she had her underwear stolen by a monkey. Once she accidentally referred to Indians who sell staircases over the phone as “not real people” at the dinner table. I have learned a lot from this woman that has broadened my perspective and enriched my travelling life, and as today is very much a family day, I would like to talk about this influential person in the hope that some of her worldly wisdom might make a small difference in somebody else’s life. So here are some lessons I have learned from my mum.
When I was a grumpy teenager of about fifteen, and “grumpy” really is an understatement in my particular case, my parents took us on a holiday to New Zealand to go and visit the relatives and to introduce my brother and I to the half of our culture we sort of knew nothing about. We had been dragged around the North Island to meet people who claimed they were our “stepsister’s uncle’s cheesemaker” or whatever and to get kissed by grannies with moustaches at various reunions and social events, and to be honest, it all went a bit over my head at the time. We spent a few days in Wellington to catch up with the best man from my parent’s wedding and were taking a walk around the waterfront and library. I was watching my feet pad along the pavement without thinking too much when I physically bumped into a solid mass. It was my mum, who had stopped to face behind us and take some photos. I naturally apologised, and her response was somewhat life changing for me.
“Tom, if you don’t look back, you’ll never know what you’re missing.”
I turned around to grace my eyes with an awesome sculpture that still hangs from the sky, against the burning South Pacific sun and a whole multitude of people doing their various every day people things. I’ve never not observed all of my surroundings since, which has resulted in my falling down various holes, tripping over a plethora of obstacles, walking into trees and looking like a clumsy dick, but I have never missed what’s behind me. I can only imagine how much I missed before.
Quite often a hike will be just one way, and you should always take the time to look back. For example, on the famous Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand, if you do it the right way (another story for another time) and you only look forwards, on a clear day you might miss the sun rise bouncing off Taranaki all the way on the West Coast. If you only look at the road on the way to Milford Sound, you will miss a thousand waterfalls and snow capped mountains (but for the love of god, do keep an eye on that insane road and don’t be too distracted by the beauty around you). If you’re walking along a trail in Banff in Canada and you don’t look behind you, you might miss the grizzly bear about to drag you off to the teddy bear’s picnic for lunch. Don’t focus on trying to complete the walk in record time; always take a moment to look around and appreciate everything that’s happening around you. Next time you laugh at me for tripping over a rock it’s probably because I’m admiring a tree… or maybe I’m contemplating throwing you into a lake.
Secondly, what a lot of people don’t realise is that when you’re travelling it’s not all pictures of hot dog legs on the beach, alcohol and instagram. In fact, while you have your greatest moments during your travels, you will probably also experience your lowest moments too. Where you have no safety net to catch you, when things go wrong, and they surely will, they go very wrong. I will admit now, there have been one or two moments in my travelling life I called up my mum in sheer panic, much to the love of the phone companies charging for international rates.
There was one incident when I genuinely thought it was all over, and it could easily have been too. All I could think to do was to call her up, and she calmed me down and told me everything was going to be alright. She told me that people pull through shit situations, and when in need, humanity will always be there to help. In this moment she taught me to be an optimist and to look for the best in people (and surely enough, the taxi driver who picked me up from the side of the road noticed my situation and waived the fee and wished me luck), and she taught me even more importantly to give as much as you can because there will be moments when you will have to take and there will be moments when other people have to take and when somebody’s life is falling apart and there’s nobody there to catch them, it pays to be one of the people holding the net, because one day they might be able to do the same for you, or for somebody else. I don’t believe in karma, I believe that good things are always happening and it takes somebody with a good mindset to realise this, but I do believe in being a good person. Believe it or not, my main motivation for Indie Road is to help the travelling community, not just boast about where I’ve taken a poo.
In December 2013 my mum was diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease, also known as ALS. To be completely honest with you, I don’t know that much about it as she made me promise to never google it and I have kept that promise, but effectively you begin to lose the ability to use your muscles and limbs one by one until it becomes fatal. It was during this time that I learned to truly respect her as a person; despite her failing body she would always find a way to do what she wanted. With the help of my dad who made huge sacrifices to be at her side, she travelled the world again. When her arms failed her, she drank her wine through a straw. I’m sure she often felt like her life was a tragedy, but seldom would she show this. This taught me that no matter how bad the obstacle in my path, there was always a way around it, and it further emphasised that with a little help from those people in orbit around you, you can, and should, always try be an optimist. I learned that there is absolutely no excuse to deprive yourself of what you desire, because, while you cannot eat The Himalayas, everything else is possible one way or another, and one day it will be too late. I also learned there is always a way to put wine in my body.
On the 10th August 2015 she peacefully breathed her last breath. I missed out seeing her again by a few days. I still stupidly expect her to show up and to admit it was all a horrible joke.
It took me some time as I inwardly wallowed in what felt like an endless night to really be okay. I was functioning as a human but my emotions were far too complex to put into words, my feelings were a mixture of selfish closed minded pity, depression, self loathing, self blaming and genuine concern for my family. What I struggled with was realising that sooner was probably better than later in her case, and that it was highly unlikely that any of us would get the hollywood goodbye that we all felt like we deserved. I wanted my mum, and felt like a German deprived of decent bread. When the sun finally rose and my perspective broadened again I realised a few things. Firstly, nobody gets out of life alive, and while this may seem obvious it’s very hard to accept. Secondly, people are temporary, and that time is by far the most valuable resource that we have because of this. Lastly it was people and experiences that were going to make me feel like everything could be okay again. A chapter had ended, albeit a little too soon, so it was time to start the next one.
I saved up some money and packed my backpack. It was difficult to leave my family again, but necessary to have my life back.
My destination was Canada, as when I was child she had infected me with this idea that I had to see it for myself by telling me stories of her travels there. What I didn’t realise was that she had left me with the most wonderful gift – her footsteps to follow. This was a side of my mother that I wasn’t born in time to witness; the young adventurer. All I had were her stories and a few locations to discover this person I had never met. I’m by no means religious, but I did feel like I revived a few of her moments, and while emotionally draining, it was a life changing experience, and something I will truly cherish for the rest of my life. I don’t think she drunkenly sang Stevie Wonder in a karaoke bar, but we’ll never know. I would imagine there was a fair amount of debauchery she didn’t want to confess to me as a child, and I hope there was. I was also lucky enough to see America and Iceland in the same trip, which were two important destinations for her and my dad. I met some people who have changed everything. I found out I wasn’t so alone, and the sun shone a little stronger.
It’s been about a year and a half now, but I no longer lament when her songs come on shuffle. I smile instead.
So now I’m exploring the territory that none of my family has explored before. I feel like I have seen the majority of the world that my parents have explored and now I’m making the new footsteps that hopefully, one day, somebody else will want to tread in so that I can give the gift of planet earth to somebody who wants to discover just how beautiful this little blue dot of ours can be. If I can infect the world a little more with the adventure and optimism that I have inherited from my mother, not only will she live just a little longer, but the world will seem a little brighter.
Merry Christmas from Ecuador, and from the rest of the team at Indie Road. I hope your day is filled with alcohol, food and delinquent behaviour.
– Tom @ indieroad.