When abroad, there’s never any warning about how septuagenarian parents will behave
Driving a self-driven electric buggy reserved for senior citizens at one kilometre an hour may not be everyone’s idea of fun. But it was one of my mother’s favourite experiences in Singapore. I didn’t know this. I would have laughed at you if you had suggested this before our trip. Why travel so far to get her to ride in an electric buggy, I would have scoffed. I could simply rent a golf cart in India and let her loose on our busy streets – where as it happens, most of us drive a kilometre an hour anyway. I didn’t know that my mom would enjoy a self-driven buggy that looked like a toy car. Heck, she didn’t know that she would enjoy driving around in this alien vehicle through monkey exhibits and fish tanks. But that’s what travel does, doesn’t it? It puts a new spin on things that you take for granted – like your mom.
What most tour planners, including me, don’t see is that the experiences people enjoy are as unique as the people themselves.
I know my mother so well that I can almost hear her thoughts. But on every trip that we take together, she surprises me with strange new responses. Best of all, she surprises herself. My mom doesn’t have a driving license. She attempted driving a car when she was 40 and gave it up when a Chennai auto driver swore at her. Yet, there she was tooling around in a red buggy, steering it around toddlers, banging into light poles and reversing when she needed to be driving forward. She was, in other words, having a blast.
At Singapore Zoo, the senior citizen vehicle wasn’t even in my scheme of things. I had planned the whole thing with elaborate precision. I had maps, guidebooks and binoculars. I would take my parents to see the orangutans, golden lion tamarins, Malayan flying fox, lesser mouse-deer: all the endangered, fragile species that they could not see anywhere else. Toads, iguanas and butterflies that they couldn’t see in India, that they wouldn’t see for the rest of their lives unless they travelled to the tropical forests of Borneo, which given their age and inclination was unlikely. The zoo was the next best alternative. We would rest along the way. I would teach my parents about the birds and the bees, just as they had taught me about the ‘birds and the bees’ when I was a teenager.
You know what happened? We did none of the above. My mom spent the entire trip navigating her buggy and my Dad worried about her ramming into stuff. It was exactly like taking your four-year-old daughter to see the Empire State building, pointing out all the glorious panoramas, only to see her fixated by a fly on the wall. Or dragging your son to see Disneyland only to discover that all he wanted to do was stay in the hotel room, bounce on the bed and play video games. Oh, the frustration. What was the use of dragging your brood to faraway lands if they simply weren’t interested in seeing all the stuff that you had planned out? That was right in front of their eyes? That they wouldn’t get a chance to see back home?
Immersive travel experiences are all the rage in the tourist world. Nobody wants to just gaze at a painting, even if it is the Mona Lisa, anymore. They want to make chocolate in Switzerland, bake a croissant in Paris, learn to surf in Hawaii, cook a tagine in Fez, and wear a sari in India. Tourists these days want to get under the skin of a country, live like its inhabitants. What most tour planners – including me – don’t foresee is that the actual experiences that people will enjoy are as unique, specific and unexpected as the people themselves.
Take my father, for example. The highlight of his trip was a haircut he got from a dour-looking Chinese auntie who shaved his face till it looked like a newborn’s thigh. He practiced his Mandarin on her and marvelled at her pristine equipment. “Look at how sterile they keep the place, with a face mask and everything,” said my Dad. “Not like Ramesh Barber.”
Travelling with aging parents is tricky. Just like our children, our parents know how to press all our buttons. They nag and irritate us, they say the same old things again and again – things that we have heard for ages. They are set in their routines and not open to change, or so we think. They treat us like kids. They bicker and argue with each other all the time. They don’t fit the modern love-profile that plays out on TV. They don’t hold hands or say “I love you,” to each other. And yet…and yet. They are also the source of our strength and resilience. They make us heroes or heroines in the long-running soap opera that is our life. They are the foundation of all our flights.
I thought taking my parents on a five-day trip to Singapore would be a gift. As it turned out, it was indeed a gift. To myself.
(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents, an integral part of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)
This Indian Life appears every fortnight
From HT Brunch,September 2, 2018
BRUNCH Updated: Sep 01, 2018 22:36 IST