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Hope and happenstance: A grand tour of sorts

By Ruth Chamberlin

For the Observer

Published on August 8, 2018 10:34AM

The kids were fine ambassadors. Here’s Tucker making a friend despite the fact that the two spoke different languages.


The kids were fine ambassadors. Here’s Tucker making a friend despite the fact that the two spoke different languages.

“We three kids are going home! (Jamie, Lindsey and Tucker) … but now we can’t!” The note — here, in the album — still quivers. Giant, filled-in letters. Fat exclamation points. An inky drawing of a globe. (Jordan’s name is absent. He relished travel, delighted in trying food our guide warned us to avoid. He ended up with a parasite, perhaps from risking some of that food…)

Why did I do it? Drag the kids to aid projects on three continents, stay in cold water rooms?

I did it to expand their world, and mine. Idealistic? Yes. Naïve? Yes. But that’s how it was. Burt and I wanted, always, to help our kids be comfortable around foreigners and “others,” see people as individuals, not clichés, and feel compassion for those in need. We’d dreamed of taking them to their places of heritage, and ours, too — the British Isles for Jordan, the Philippines and Portugal for Jamie, Africa and Ireland for Lindsey, Africa and Poland for Tucker, Western Europe for Burt, Finland for me. (Later we adopted Sherry from the Philippines, Benjamin, Anna, Katie from Korea.)

Now we had a brainstorm. Jordan was 12, Jamie, 11, Lindsey, 10, Tucker, 9. Great ages for travel! We were selling our Altadena, California, house, moving to Atlanta, Georgia. Why not use the time “between schools” for a trip? Use a portion of house sale proceeds to pay for it? (Whoa! Wiser to save money for family needs! Skip the trip?)

Burt couldn’t go. He had to start his new job. So the kids and I would go. I would write for World Vision Magazine. We’d visit WV projects and refugee camps in Asia and Africa, stay in third-class hotels. I didn’t want to be “rich Americans” peeking at poverty from a snazzy hotel.

• • •

Kneeling on a canvas tarp, surrounded by brushes, rags, maps of Asia and cans of paint, a Princess phone crinked to my shoulder, I paint a stretch of baseboard and say, “How about Caracas?” Agent says, “Caracas is in Venezuela. Karachi is in Pakistan.” I grin to myself. “Oh. Right.” The final itinerary: Los Angeles, Honolulu, Manila, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Bombay, Nairobi, London and Atlanta.

Our house has sold! Closing is today! Today is also the deadline for special fares. The travel agency is only a block from the bank, but it closes at five, and it’s already ten to five. I’ve signed. The buyer’s taking forever! At five to five, the conference door opens. Someone hands me a check. I fly down the street and call to the woman locking the door. She lets me in. I come out with tickets to fly one adult and four children around the globe. On the sidewalk I gurgle, thrilled. And I shiver. What have I done?

• • •

Surprises happened early. During a flight delay in Honolulu, men in business suits sprawled across our seats, slept, and stayed asleep. They got priority. We got seats rows apart. From Honolulu to Manila, the plane would fly with the sun, so attendants made an artificial night. Lights off, shades down. Pin-lights on the floor. Passengers settled and tried to sleep. In the hush, a yell: “Mom! He’s gonna vomit!” I ran in the dark, found the right row, reached over people’s bellies, bopping one or two (sorry, sorry), and held out a sick-bag just in time.

First day in the Philippines, Jamie and Lindsey got sick with fevers. Our cabin sat under palms on the ocean beach. The concrete floor flooded. The toilet had no seat. (Remember, I’d insisted on third-class.) Tender Filipina nurses gave the sick kids massages and did errands, brought back fruit, crackers, nuts, cheese. Jordan and Tucker ran in turquoise shallows while I washed jeans. I hung them on chairs, but they stayed wet. (Naïve lesson No. 1: Never take jeans to the tropics.)

Jet lag and culture shock hit hard. Everything felt wrong, as if my shoes were on the wrong feet. Simple answer? Switch shoes. Go home!

Five days after departing LAX, I wrote to Burt (the letter sizzles in the album), “… sleepless, headache, have to exchange money, plan schedules, make sense, when I’m thinking, ‘What will everyone think when I cancel the rest of the trip?’”

We stayed. The kids were gallant. That first week, when the fevers broke, we followed our guide through tight slum alleys, walking on planks, and when we passed a latrine all four kids kept silent about the stench. They didn’t even make faces. We were feted at a lavish meal of shrimp, rice, vegetables, fruit, and sweets, the elderly host couple hovering, smiling and gesturing, “Eat, enjoy.” Children waved behind the bamboo fence, right near our table, trying English words.

“Hello.” “Hi.” We waved back, wishing that they, and all the villagers, could eat this feast. The villagers lived in poor conditions but radiated kindness.

Parents and grandparents filled the Home Economics room, many standing against the walls.

Our chairs faced the crowd. A small girl named Nerissa limped forward and said in shy Tagalog translated by our guide, that she would sing about the beauty of the Philippines. She placed a hand on my knee, drew a sturdy breath, and belted a song in a voice fit for Broadway!

When she finished, I kissed her cheek. Tucker erupted, “That’s not right!” I took him onto my lap, hugged him and whispered, “It’s okay, honey, I still love you.”

I told the guide, “I think he’s jealous.” She passed along the message. Around the room, villagers nodded and smiled. Yes, yes, we understand.

• • •

Was the trip worth it? Yes. In many ways, one way? We experienced “other” from the other side. We were the foreigners. People humbled us with their cheerful, generous, sacrificial welcome.

Our nation could use more of that kind of welcome.


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