Saturday, October 18, 2014

“So Near and So Far Away,” a travel story by Laurie Nguyen

My search for the perfect travel buddy has been filled with even more heartaches than my search for the perfect mate.  One might think that in fulfilling the latter, the former would be satisfied – a BOGO deal of sorts, but this was not the case for me.  I love adventure travelling.  Cliff diving, scuba diving, and sky diving are all activities that get me going.  But the only diving my husband is interested in is at a resort’s buffet table.   
            I readily admit that I am a difficult catch.  I'm a teacher and summers are my only windows of opportunity for long travel, and understandably this does not jive for everyone.  When I turned to friends, my oldest friend Monica, whom bunked with on a school trip to Ottawa, said that she detested travelling in the summer. 
            "I hate the crowds," she complained.  "And why pay more for hotel and plane tickets when I can go during low season?" 
            Feeling rejected I turned to my friend Dawn, an ER doctor, whose travel budget far exceeds my own. She suggested that I try travelling solo.
            "You'll meet so many people when you travel.  It won't feel like you're alone at all," she promised.
            And so I tried this on a trip to Banff, Alberta, figuring that a place as beautiful as the Rockies would be filled with other travellers to meet along the way. 
            "How long do you think this ride will be?" I asked the people with whom I shared my mountain gondola ascent.  Their response however was less than friendly. 
            "You're from Toronto aren't you?  Always worried about time," they scoffed. 
            And they say Torontonians are unfriendly!
            I decided to just appreciate my alone time.  At Lake Louise my gaze on its clear turquoise waters, lasted all of ten minutes.  Frustrated, I attempted some canoeing, hoping that an activity would bring me some pleasure.  I let the cold glacial water run down my arm with every paddle stroke and even took some selfies to show everyone at home that I was having fun.  And although, I sighed at the breath-taking view of the nature around me, I longed to look over my shoulder and have someone with whom to share the experience. 
            Time passed and a part of me had given up.  So when my jet-setting Aussie cousin, who came over to visit and explore North America casually asked me to go on a trip with her, I initially thought nothing of it.  She was family after all, and past family vacations had taught me that these types of travels weren't necessarily fun. 
            Flashbacks of my worst family vacation arose likes waves of nausea.  Imagine, twelve family members, crammed into an 8-passenger van, driving 18 hours to Orlando, Florida, to visit Disney World, which by the way we didn't end up reaching.  The vacation highlight for me: Biting into a cold Vietnamese submarine sandwich in the dark of the moving van to find a hot pepper hidden between the pickled carrots.  The family van stop stopped only for emergencies and because we had plenty of pop in the van, regardless of my cries of pain, we did not stop. 
            One should note, that my parents were Vietnamese boat people, who clearly recall being two of 49 people crammed into a small fishing boat to escape their lives in a post-war torn Vietnam.  They sailed for four days and four nights and dined on cans of spicy tomato flavoured mackerel in hopes of reaching the land where all their wishes could come true.  Who ever said that history doesn't repeat itself?
            In fear of having to relive these painful memories, I convinced my brother to come along for the ride.  The three of us eventually decided Costa Rica would be our choice destination and after booking our tickets and eco-adventure tour, departure date for July 12, I started to bloom with excitement, recognizing that my travel buddy checklist was actually being fulfilled. 
            But almost simultaneously fears of inadequacy washed over me as well.  I hadn't adventure travelled in years and couldn't escape the sensation that I was getting old.  Would my body be able to take all this activity at once?  I shivered at the thought of my last trip to lazy Bahamas where I ambitiously tried to swing on the trapeze at the resort at which my husband and I were staying.  During my first big swing upside down, my back gave out, and a bunch of secretly snickering hotel workers had to carry me down and back to the comfort of my hotel bed. 
            But to my delight, ten days in Costa Rica turned out to be a dream.  We laughed and shrieked with delight as we pummelled the waves down a roaring river on an inflatable raft, and I relished in every splash of water.  We hiked around an active volcano and didn't let the fact that it was still spewing dangerous fumes of sulphur and chlorine stop us.  We zoomed across the clouds and over the rainforest tree-tops and we let ourselves be surrounded by eels, manta rays and schools of fish in the deep ocean waters.  The high was fantastic.
            But what surprised me even more were the down times with my two travel buddies.   When our restless bodies were stuck on the long tour bus rides for hours and hours, we turned to each other.  My cousin, Cathy and I would find ourselves gossiping about past loves, complaining about our parents and sharing our dreams for the future
            I learned that my brother Scott was more than just a brother.  As the older sister, four years his senior, I’d always felt a need to take the lead and protect him, whether from the neighbourhood bully or the conniving girlfriend.  During this trip, I learned that he was very much a leader of his own, a bright, knowledgeable guy whom every one flocked to for help because of his generous spirit.
            Always the professional photographer, Scott took amazing pictures which captured our time together.  And yet I didn’t notice that this trip to Costa Rica had become a moment of such emotional weight until almost the last day of our adventure.
            We had rented a scooter and ATV to explore the South-eastern coastline and after using both vehicles to find two beautiful waterfalls, it was time to return them.  We decided to leave Cathy at a quiet beach called Playa Carrillo so that my brother and I could fill up the gas tank and return the ATV before late charges incurred. 
            "Just stay on the road and we'll be back to get you in no time." I told Cathy as we carelessly raced off.  But no time turned into an hour and a half (my brother and I stopped to book a Turtle egg-laying tour for the evening before the office closed) and when we returned for her, she was nowhere to be found.  I was filled with panic.  We had lost her.  What kind of companions were we to leave a poor (we didn't think to give her any money), and defenceless (she spoke no Spanish) girl alone in the streets of Costa Rica? 
            To our relief, after what seemed like a frantic never-ending search, we found her back at the hotel (some kind strangers had given her cab money), and she explained that she had walked into town to try and find us. 
            "Wait until you see the turtles tonight!  Did you know they can each lay up to one hundred eggs at a time?" my brother chimed, in trying to cover our mistake.  Her lack of eye contact told me that at this moment, she didn't care about the turtles.  I was saddened that our great trip was ending on such a low, and that I had not given it the care it needed. 
            That night, we ended up seeing five turtles lay their eggs in the black sand, and on our long drive back to the hotel, in awe of what we had seen, Cathy surprisingly turned to us both and proposed that in celebration of Scott's graduation from university in two years, that we plan another trip together. 
            "We can meet in the middle somewhere," she suggested, knowing she would be returning back to Australia in a few weeks.
            "You mean you still want to travel with us even after we abandoned you in Costa Rica?" I half jokingly, half-guiltily responded.
            "Well..." she paused.  "You left me with no money, no food, and no back-up plan and I survived.  It can only get better from here."
            How I stumbled upon finding two travel buddies, one from so far away and one right underneath my nose, I'll never know.  But I hope that we keep our promise of meeting two years from now, at another adventure destination so that we can keep up our friendship and share in even more journeys of love.

Laurie Nguyen lives a mild mannered life as a teacher at a French High School and can often be found reading or writing in the early morning light.  When school’s out, she can be found travelling to see the various corners of the earth or simply adventure camping in Ontario’s Provincial Parks with her husband and two children. 

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Barrie, Brampton, Bolton, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Niagara on the Lake, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Stouffville, Sudbury, Toronto, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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