Opinion

Anya Schiffrin

Traveling with parents

By Anya Schiffrin
September 26, 2011

By Anya Schiffrin
The opinions expressed are her own.


I love my parents. I love traveling in India. I am dreading taking my parents to India in November. It turns out that everyone who has traveled with her parents has a horror story. Financial Times US editor Gillian Tett’s parents came to rescue her once from the Sindhi desert when she was 17 and then later in Tajikistan when she was doing her field work. Of course she refused to budge. The intrepid anthropologist-turned-journalist gave me some mysterious advice. “Bring lots of ziploc bags and a clean knife.”

My friend Kent recalls bringing his father hiking in Queensland last summer. Worried about deep vein thrombosis his Dad wore those special socks that restrict circulation. The only problem was he wore the black knee-length socks every day he was in Australia. With shorts.

Why am I dreading this trip-of-a-lifetime and the chance to show my parents one of the greatest countries on earth? For starters my mother is a tremendous coward. As children, we took the ocean liners to Europe every summer to visit my grandmother because my mother was too scared to fly. In the early sixties, the SS France was cheaper than the plane so we were regulars on the New York-Le Havre route. We  kids were scared of the strict French nannies in the playroom so we spent the days wrapped in blankets on the deck chairs, reading books in the ocean breeze and stopping for 11am cups of bouillon. The SS France went out of business and so it was the QEII until that was taken off to fight in the Falklands War.

For a while we ate the pasta on the SS Da Vinci and SS Michaelangelo of the Italian line and then I got old enough to fly off on vacations by myself (mostly to go backpacking around India). My mother still took boats even when the only choices left were the  Russian ones, the SS Pushkin and the Lermentov, which, in a nod to the Soviet system, didn’t have classes but had categories.

For domestic trips, my mom took the train. Visiting our cousins in Mexico she took the train for five days while we flew down and met her in Mexico City. The one time she came to visit me at Reed College she made a three day journey by train. My mother, born in Spain and raised in England, had rarely left New York and this was her first cross country trip. “I had no idea that Americans hate New York so much,” she said upon arrival in Portland, Oregon.

Eventually she took a fear of flying course at JFK Airport. The first few classes involved sitting in the plane and peppering the pilot with questions about all the major air accidents of the last 50 years. Eventually they taxied down the runway and for graduation they flew to Boston. My mom flies now, but barely. She sits awake rigid throughout the plane and never takes long haul flights. Her flying MO is not too dissimilar to her erratic driving style.

As well as flying, she is afraid of terrorism and of getting Delhi Belly. I gave her Geoffrey Moorehouse’s wonderful book on Calcutta but she honed in on the section about communal riots and has now added to her worry-about list the fear of having her limbs chopped off.

I keep asking them if we should cancel the trip especially since my father recently broke his arm. But they claim they want to visit, especially since my Dad is going to launch his new book with speaking engagements in Delhi and Calcutta.

So I’ve spent months planning their trip. I am eschewing the interesting boutique hotels and local eco-lodges in favor of large, modern hotels with gardens where they can sit and read. I am stocking up on Pepto Bismol, antibiotics and those hard core pills that stop up any signs of stomach upset. A rickshaw joy ride in crowded Old Delhi is off the table. But if they are up to it, they will see the Red Fort, the Coffee House in Calcutta and some museums.

Meanwhile, I am frantically consulting websites with advice about traveling with senior citizens. I am bringing phone numbers of everyone who might know a good doctor if disaster strikes. I haven’t told them about the time I was hospitalized with dysentery in Islamabad at a clinic with blood stains on the sheets and goat curry for lunch.

A few years ago, my friend Sheri took her father and his wife around Northern Italy as her father’s one wish was to see the city where his parents came from. At the time, I didn’t understand why she wasn’t looking forward to this family holiday. Now I get it: when you travel with old people, the goal is not family bonding or imbibing foreign cultures or enjoying the sights and sounds of the journey. No: the goal is to get them home alive and in one piece.

Photo: Hindu devotees travel on a crowded passenger train to take part in the “Guru Purnima” festival in Goverdhan town near the northern Indian city of Mathura July 24, 2010. REUTERS/K. K. Arora

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