The last time my uncle was about to visit me and I told friends he’d be with me for nearly two weeks, their first impulse was to offer sympathy. They couldn’t have been more mistaken! I’ve now traveled twice with my Uncle L, and both times it has been both fun and mind-opening. He may not be an Aunt Augusta and, barring a passion for dahlias, I’m certainly no Henry Pulling (see the Graham Greene novel Travels with My Aunt for details), but my uncle has made even minor excursions into a fest of lovely surprises.
Travel with a parent could mean hauling (and unpacking) a lot of invisible Baggage, but all bags are likely to be the visible type when you go on the road with any other older relative. So here, in case you are contemplating travel with someone who fits that description, I’m providing a list of reasons for travels with my uncle that you could use as a yardstick. And since both Uncle L and I are avid photographers, this is also a good place to treat you to a photo essay.
Reason #1: You go places you would never ever go with a friend or partner (or on your own).
This is not to say that we ruled out going places I’d go with anyone else, but my uncle has some very specific interests that we indulged whenever possible. Churches come at the top of that list.
The church Emily Dickinson didn’t set foot into — even though it was right across the street and her brother was the minister.
As a retired minister, he is especially attuned to church architecture and church practices. So when he visited me recently in Massachusetts, we not only stopped to admire the exteriors of churches, but even went to one of the regular church suppers at the old Congregational Church up the street from me.
Shanghai, Protestant church by People’s Park–closed for renovations
And when he visited me in China in 2009, he was especially curious about churches there. We tried getting into the generic-Protestant church across from Shanghai’s People’s Park but it was closed for renovations. We stopped outside the Shanghai Catholic Cathedral, and found that it’s become a photo-shoot site for local couples getting part of their obligatory series of wedding pictures taken outside places they’ll never go back to, in clothes they’re only renting for the picture.
Wedding photo shoot outside Shanghai Catholic cathedral
Outer entrance to Beijing’s Chongwenmen Methodist church
Waiting for entry to church at Beijing’s Chongwenmen Methodist Church
We had better luck in Beijing. By the time we got back there, my uncle was determined to find a Sunday service. After a bit of online research, I discovered the one non-generic Protestant church in town, the Chongwenmen Church, which identifies itself (though not in its sign out front) as Methodist. The entrance area was Chinese in flavor, and the organization of attendance was a bit Chinese as well. There was another service going on when we arrived, and a small and growing crowd was milling around in the courtyard.
As the time drew near for the end of the previous service and the start of ours, people began lining up. We and the other few foreigners were asked to go to the front of the line, even in front of some very elderly ladies who were resting on folding stools. That seemed unfair to me, but the organizers insisted. As it turned out, this was intended to make it easier to shepherd us towards the section reserved for Foreign Guests, which was equipped with receivers and headsets for English translations of service and sermons. I have no pictures of the interior, alas, except in my head. My uncle observed that the interior was set up like American Methodist churches of 70 years ago, and that the sermon (which emphasized obedience to Authority) was not the type you’d be hearing from most American Methodist pastors today.
You’d never get that from a guidebook.
Reason #2: You get more photo ops.
Most foreigners look really… foreign to most Chinese, and especially to children. That can make them standoffish. But two foreigners who are best known and fondly regarded are Santa Claus and Colonel Sanders. Thanks to them, any older white guy with white hair and a beard is instantly “recognized”—and, I think, more welcomed than most other Westerners poking their noses in would be.
Smiles from a worker at park in Xi’an
Inspection by a kid in village on Xi’an outskirts
Fortunately for me, Uncle L looks enough like Santa and the Colonel, in Chinese eyes, that people often responded naturally and for long enough that I could get a good picture.
Kids in Dunhuang back street
Whether or not my uncle was in it! Sometimes the reactions came while he was standing next to me. So I could get full honors (if I weren’t so honest) for eliciting the response myself.
Scholar with scholar, on the Spirit Road at Beijing’s Ming Tombs
Finally, although a friend or partner could possibly help out this way, I have to credit my uncle with adding particular gravitas to photos along with scale perspectives or muted visual jokes. These could be especially apt, like the pose of my Ph.D.-holding uncle in front of a statue of an imperial scholar on the Spirit Road a the Ming Tombs. (That is a cap, not a doctorate, in his hand.)
Reason #3: You get more time to observe carefully.
Obviously you could do that on your own, too. But sometimes, humoring a traveling companion who wants to just sit and watch, or roam around taking photos, is a good way to slow yourself down and take more in. And whom are you more likely to humor than an older relative?
Dancing in Shanghai’s Fuxing Park
Traveling with my uncle made me soak up more ambience even in places I’d been to or through numerous times. (I exclude the Terracotta Soldiers in Xi’an. Enough already.) On a weekend visit to Shanghai’s Fuxing Park, where I would ordinarily walk past the couples dancing to boom box music, we sat down and really watched the dynamics. Hence I noticed the frail white-haired man in a wheelchair raptly enjoying the scene, the fortyish woman practicing her dance steps solo behind him, off by the poster-decked barrier wall, and one couple who were sashaying elegantly through the crowd. Better observation, better photos, and more just breathing and relaxing.
Reason #4: You can get lost without panicking.
Maybe not in the Gobi Desert. But closer to home, why not?
My uncle is an avid hiker. When he’s at home up in the northern Wisconsin woods, he usually hoofs it a couple of hours a day. He’s hiked up hills and down dales in France, Wales, Scotland, to name only a few. And now he’s done that in Massachusetts too.
I think the trail goes that way…
Sometimes he gets lost on his own; sometimes there is a misadventure, like the day he came back from his jaunt down a conservation trail with his shin still bloody from the plunge when his foot went through a rotten board on the marsh path. After that one, I insisted on going with him on his next hike. Which was our opportunity to get gloriously lost. We chose the Robert Frost Trail, but were perplexed by the infrequency of blazes on the trees, and the variety of colors when we did find them.
The peace tepee in the woods
Leaving a trace
At one juncture we went the wrong way (my bad; we took the road less traveled), but were rewarded by stumbling upon “Lucky’s Peace Spot” (named after somebody’s late lamented cat), with a tepee of poles housing a mailbox which housed a notebook in which you could lodge your reflections.
Ninety-year-old lady on Shanghai side street demanded photo with my uncle
Further afield and years before, we also got ourselves lost in Beijing’s old alleyways (hutong, for the initiated), Dunhuang back streets, and Shanghai side streets. That was always on purpose, and except for Dunhuang, we had maps so maybe it’s cheating to say we were lost. But we couldn’t always find ourselves on the map.
As for not panicking, the way I see it is that if after all these years he’s still not permanently lost, my uncle must be good at finding his way. And even if we didn’t find our destination immediately by following his nose, we always ended up somewhere interesting.
Reason #5: You travel back in time.
Traveling together shakes you out of routines enough to encourage talking about things you don’t ordinarily get into. One of those things, with an older relative, is delving into more of the family history.
Learning the family past…
My uncle has plenty to say on that topic, and it’s never boring. In past years he has occasionally written out some reminiscences about his (my father’s side) family’s history, and all of his nieces and nephews and the generation after us have loved reading these. We all wish he’d write more of them. But at least when we’re traveling together, it gives me a chance to pump him for details. That’s given me some of the juicier tidbits about family members in their youth (I doubt those will ever go into writing—and I hate to disappoint my readers, but there is no Aunt Augusta type among the lot), or insights into my grandparents’ relationship, or a more nuanced view of the town where my father grew up.
Reason #6: You get a good role model for aging adventurously.
Maybe the rest of you can age adventurously without a role model. But I like having a preview of the things to come.
Can you bike with only one pedal?
Aging adventurously is probably easier for somebody who’s been adventurous all along, and my uncle fits that description. He traded pastor positions with a Welsh colleague and went off to Wales for a summer; he was chaplain and academic counselor on a Navajo reservation; and he taught at a university in Tokyo. Those were all many years ago, but he continues to embrace new adventures. These days he’s scampering up steep hills in New Mexico with a hiking club. He can take the unexpected in stride (like the time we were biking on the ancient city wall in Xi’an, and halfway round the 13-kilometer circuit the pedal came off his bike) and in good humor. He’s game for just about anything, whether it’s semi-legally picking raspberries in Massachusetts hill country, or setting off to explore Buddhist cave paintings in the Gansu desert.
With a role model like that, how could I stop trying to emulate him? At least until I can worm the recipe for his famous peach pie out of him.
So, if you have an older relative you’re thinking of traveling with—or if this has made you think about doing so, see how s/he fits with the six reasons list, and if you find a match for at least three, I would say go for it! If you already have experiences in this arena, or you can come up with even more reasons, please share them using the Comment link below.
Book referred to in this post:
Graham Greene, Travels with My Aunt (Penguin Classics reprint edition, 2004), at: Your independent bookseller | Powell’s | Amazon