Travel News

Travelling with my mother

When her father died, Maggie Scardifield became her mother's new travel companion, bringing the two women closer than ever before.

By Maggie Scardifield
Ten years ago, my father died without warning. He was getting off a plane in Sydney. I was 22 and living in the south of Spain at the time, a place where my biggest qualms were whether the orange juice was pre-squeezed, or if my breakfast bodega was being stingy with the jamón. I woke in Seville to a missed call from my mother. She rang again. And that time I didn't miss it.
The pain of losing him so suddenly, and of being on the other side of the world when it happened, is still there. But like me over the years, it's changed shape – the grief morphing from heart-piercing attacks on all senses to dull aches and pains, skittering shadows or light fogginess, depending on the day. Now there are two distinct time-markers in my life: "before Dad died" and "after Dad died". And those chapters continue to frame my relationships, new and old, whether with family, lovers or friends.
I've felt those before and after chapters most dramatically with my mum, Penny. My two siblings and I didn't do much international travel with our parents growing up. They took a two-week holiday together every couple of years and returned with tales of crossing the Alps on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, or of white-water rafting down the Zambezi River. The adventures we had together as a family took place on the far south coast of New South Wales every January instead. No need for passports or even suitcases at Pambula Beach; just our togs, fishing rod and boogie board along with the promise of hot cinnamon doughnuts from the caravan park and riding the toboggan at Magic Mountain.
It wasn't until after Dad died that I became something of a "regular" travel companion to Mum. And we've had some memorable rides. We've held hands (and breath) going under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge on the Queen Mary 2, scared of whether or not we'd fit, and sung with the London Philharmonic Orchestra as we crossed the Atlantic. We've danced until dawn in a taverna on Symi island in Greece, linking arms and clinking glasses with locals who greeted us like family the next day. And, alongside my brother and sister, we scattered my dad's ashes under bridges in Seville and Paris, from the dizzying heights of the Llangollen Canal, and across the silk-like waters of Bora Bora.
Our first major trip together came when I was living in London. Pen-Pen, as we call her, invited me on a small-group tour for 10 days on a 26-metre ketch gulet yacht in Turkey. The two of us had never done such a long stint overseas together before, and began our "reacquaintance" at a hammam in Bodrum. When I was a teenager I'd scoffed at the suggestion of joining Mum at a Korean bathhouse. Being rolled in sludge and stamped on sounded like some kind of medieval torture – not to mention the sheer horror I felt as a teenager of getting naked, with or without my mother. I was always a firm "no" when she took herself off to the Ginseng bathhouse in Kings Cross, even though she always floated back, slick and soft and smelling of honey and cucumber.
In Bodrum some 20 years later, I was more enthusiastic about having my delicates scrubbed, pummelled and burnished by a burly and almost-as-naked Turkish woman. Stripping down next to my then 62-year-old mother, surrounded by other glorious glistening bodies of all ages and shapes, it felt like a re-birth. The two of us were like kids, high on the adventure of having our hair washed.
Travelling with a parent gives you a front-row seat to all your biggest differences and, whether you like it or not, your greatest similarities. We're both quite good with languages, but bad with maps. I fold and Mum rolls. She dances with her thumbs, and I my knees. I travel with 40 pairs of underpants so I can avoid washing at all costs. Mum packs seven and a worn-down bar of savon de Marseille; with just a week's worth of black cotton knickers, she converts any five-star hotel room, New York City brownstone or river cruise water-closet into a French laundry. Where my dad kept his cards close to his chest, Mum and I are more transparent. When a taxi driver tries to rip us off, it's personal. And when our "luxury beachfront accommodation" in Tulum doesn't have so much as a bathroom door, let alone a wall separating bed and porcelain throne, it's war.
Of course, some trips require more planning and patience than others. My mother loves facts, and in the months before a trip is the one cutting out articles and filling folders with snippets on galleries and neighbourhoods we should visit. She gets frustrated when I forget to read them, but I, for the most part, prefer to turn up and stumble across something on my own that I can later recommend. After multiple trips, she knows now how beneficial an apartment can be over a hotel, and how, despite her dislike of offal, I'm always going to order San Sebastián's kallos de bacalao al pil-pil, tell her it's fish (knowing full well it's stomach) and make her try it.
In times of grief, stress or even just too much of anything, water is the only thing that calms us down. That's great when what ails you is sore feet after a long day wandering the Marché aux Puces in Paris, and another gommage at the Grande Mosquée in the Latin quarter awaits. It's not so foolproof when what should be calming you – a waterlily-dotted cenote in the middle of the Mexican jungle, say – decides it has other plans.
The latter came in the Yucatán, after a 20-minute ride in a Mad Max-looking exoskeleton of a van with blown-out windows. There to visit one of the peninsula's 2400 registered cenotes, or sinkholes, we arrived to find the only way to get into the "agua dulce" water was via a rickety old zip-line. To this day, I don't know what I was thinking, but I let Mum, almost 40 years my senior, go first. She pin-drops gracefully into the abyss like a spear of asparagus, emerging with a smile. When I whizz off the 16-metre-high deathtrap shortly after, rather than letting go of the zip-line's tree-branch handle on cue, I imagine my teeth shattering mid-flight, panic and cling on. I hurtle sideways towards the water. My body hits with a thunderous clap, taking skin off my legs in the process. Every inch of me is on fire as Mum wipes the tears from my eyes and helps to carry me from the water. Later that night, as only a mother would, she sleeps with one eye open to make sure I'm breathing.
Thankfully, not every excursion is as dramatic. Regardless of where we are, most days on the road finish up with Mum throwing on her bathrobe to sit up in bed and write her travel journal. It always begins with detailed coloured-pencil drawings, perhaps of the fish she's spotted when snorkelling in the Gulf of Mexico or skinny-dipping in the Aegean, and ends with snoring and spilt wine. I might laugh at her sleeping giant-like alter-ego, but I've been known to do the same thing.
Somewhere during our 10 years travelling together, things have shifted. In many more ways now, I'm taking care of my mother, not the other way around. I worry when she walks down stairs or when we find ourselves in back streets that aren't very well lit. "I can do it," she snaps, struggling with her suitcase at the baggage carousel. She misplaces her phone (forgetfully folding it away in a newspaper) and her passport (that bloody newspaper again) and everything takes longer. But while a taxi to and from the airport is now a given, she never forgets the way to her favourite pâtisserie in Paris for pains aux raisins or another tarte au citron.
If you have the opportunity to travel with a parent, pack your patience and do it. You won't always agree, but you're destined to discover plenty about each other that you probably should've known and somehow missed. You'll surprise each other. Despite championing all the best-laid plans, Mum is the one to suggest we pull over roadside en route to Gallipoli after spotting a wiry woman cooking gözleme in her front yard. And after a lifetime of disliking beer and being nervous about street food, in Mexico she runs towards curbside sizzling carnitas and tacos al pastor with longing, and guzzles frosty beers with the same ceremony she does Champagne at home.
Seeing the world together, Mum and I see more of each other. Our trips have taught me that family dynamics are not rote-learnt for life; they require constant negotiation, time, generosity and energy. Every time I sit down with her, too, I learn more about my father.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, "You are not dead yet, it's not too late / to open your depths by plunging into them / and drink in the life / that reveals itself quietly there." For the next little while we're destined for less street food and fewer zip-lines — that much we know for certain. And here in Sydney, with great privilege, we're never too far from water or from drinking a life together that reveals itself quietly.