Alex Cotrufello, 129 YinD
A year had come and gone since I had last seen my mother waving at me from our tiny airport gate in Oregon. A year is a long time, so long in fact that I had forgotten what it was really like to be in person with her. Over Facetime our traditional mother-daughter dynamic (her getting annoyed at me for not emptying the dish rack, me getting annoyed at her for getting annoyed at me) had relinquished its power to the stronger emotion of our desire to remain close despite our physical distance. Our conversations were frequent and easy, full of the day to day workings of our lives, as well as the deep philosophical ponderings of life itself that we both enjoy contemplating. I had almost forgotten that our relationship was anything but respectable, that is, until one year later when Linda visited me here in Thailand.
Let me set the scene for the beginning of our adventure: Me lost in the immense Suvarnabhumi Airport. Linda nowhere to be seen. This after 24 hours of me traveling by song taew, bus, and skytrain to her and the same amount of hours spent by her flying over oceans to see me. My stomach clenched with anxiety and apprehension. Why didn’t I think of the fact that we should have a meeting point? It’s not like she had a working phone or any previous knowledge of how to navigate an international airport. I paced the packed corridors looking for the middle aged woman with curly brown hair and olive skin, presumably carrying too much luggage. Time passed and my anxiety flared into low-level panic. After 45 distressing minutes, I finally saw her pushing an overburdened luggage cart through the throngs of tourists. I made my way to her and melted into her embrace, crying from the relief of finding her, the joy of seeing her in real life and the sadness of knowing that our clock was now ticking until the next time. I looked up to see her dry-eyed and utterly decimated. She had gotten ill from the travel. Our adventure hadn’t even started yet.
I naively thought the worst part was over. We were reunited and our vacation had begun. All we needed to do was drop off her extra luggage, including a whopping 50 pound bag full of gifts for my community and I at the Peace Corps office before we headed south the next morning. I am mildly traumatized by the struggles of that day, Linda’s first in Thailand, so I’ll synopsize the events. The next 8 hours were spent with me leading my poor, exhausted, sick mother around the endless maze that is Bangkok. There were the requisite traffic jams. The crush of people on the skytrain during rush hour. The old man taxi driver that said he knew where we were going, took us completely in the wrong direction, and still charged us full price when we finally arrived at our hotel an hour later. Oh, and we almost got hit by an ambulance. All of this whilst dragging around enough cargo to get a Mayflower voyager through her first harsh winter in America.
None of that deterred my unwavering optimism. We paid our stress dues on the first day so that we could enjoy smooth sailing for the rest of our vacation together. The next morning we made our way back to the airport and down to Khao Sok National Park and then to Koh Surin. I had high expectations, not only for what I heard was some of the most stunning nature in Thailand, but also for all of the luxuries a mom vacation could afford. I had fantasized for months about the hot showers and air conditioned rooms, the snorkeling trips and seafood dinners. Inadvertently, I had also set very high expectations for myself and my tour guiding abilities. This was Linda’s first real international adventure, therefore I had to make every moment perfect. I was determined to make her love this country as much as I do. I wanted her to accept the “Thai way” of doing things by expecting little and living in the moment (though I myself have clearly not yet mastered this skill). What I had forgotten within my daydreams is that my mom and I, though changed in some ways from a year of experiences, are the same people we have always been to each other. No matter how much we both grow up, to some extent she will always be the mother who oversweats the small stuff and I will always be the daughter who tries to make her be the way I want her to be.
Don’t get me wrong, we had an amazing time that first week. We kayaked all alone on a fluorescent blue lake, lined with limestone cliffs and jutting pillars. The monkey’s crashed through the jungle around us and dozens of different bird calls echoed from deep within its humid core. We went on hikes and left the trail to find our own watering hole. It was untouched as if no one had ever stepped foot there but us. The boulders parting the rapids were giants, the bugs perched on the dewed hibiscus flowers were as large as soup spoons, the bamboo forest towered over us like skyscrapers. It felt as if we were prehistoric women, waiting at the water’s edge to catch a glimpse of the majestic elephants we knew came to bathe there in the morning light. It was truly magical, but as you know, real life isn’t just one fairytale moment after the next; It’s also liberally salted with complaints and unsympathetic reactions, peppered with impatience and unnecessary arguments. I’m not proud that I so naturally fell into this unproductive way of interacting with my mom. I was just desperate for us to have the best time we could within the short amount of time we had and even the smallest amount of negativity felt like an assault on all of my hard work and planning. Was paradise not good enough? Was I and this experience not enough to make all of the small troubles of daily life vanish?
Of course this is nonsense. As the adage goes, life is not black and white; it’s all the colors of emotion mixed up into one complicated and mysterious can of paint until the joyous dalia yellow can sometimes no longer be discerned from the lonely cobalt blue. You can be in love and hate someone at the same time. You can be afraid yet brave, sorrowful yet optimistic. I think as an American I sometimes assume life is supposed to be a Norman Rockwell and forget that in reality it’s a Jackson Pollock. And that’s fine. Life is chaos. It’s messy and doesn’t make sense most of the time. But when you take a step back and accept it for what it really is, it’s utterly beautiful. I had to accept this fact within my mother too. It’s hard for children to see their parents as actual, vulnerable people. Yes, she is the mother I’ve always known, but she is also a woman with struggles as unique and visceral as my own. Once I did acknowledge this, that my mom could be having an amazing trip with me and simultaneously dealing with internal battles, I was able to let go of how I thought the trip should be, and just let it be.
The overarching feeling to our adventure changed after this realization. It’s not that all of our problems suddenly vanished but my altered perspective allowed me to welcome, and even appreciate, the salt and pepper of our wavering moods. We went on to Koh Surin, where we camped on the beach of a secluded island and woke to the noise of waves lapping at our tents edge. That, and the excessively sharp “Owww”s and grumbling “Arggg”s that escaped us after tossing and turning on paper-thin mats all night. Early afternoons were for snorkeling in the turquoise jewel of an ocean right outside our figurative door, whereas late afternoons were reserved for bitching about how our bathing suits never fully dried. At night we’d stroll the illuminated beach during full moon searching for the perfect shells to add to our driftwood mobiles. Then we’d return with our feet caked in sand and agree seashell mobiles aren’t worth the trade off of having a clean tent. Every moment was wonderful, not because it was perfect, but because it was genuine. When our time in the islands was complete, we journeyed past Bangkok to central Thailand in order to fulfill a promise I had made a year before. Little did I know that the most seemingly innocuous part of our epic adventure would turn out to be the day my mom finally fell in love with Thailand.
This promise I made, to bring my mother to visit my host family in Singburi, was sealed during the days of PST. At the time, it seemed like an easy deal to keep since I wasn’t yet familiar with Thailand’s geography. It turns out, Singburi is in the middle of nowhere. I almost called our visit off, I was so tired from traveling already. Due to scheduling mishaps, we would have to travel 3 hours to Singburi and 3 hours back to Bangkok the same day, giving us only an afternoon to actually spend with them. But I knew I had to go. And not just because I am convinced my grandmother is powerful enough to curse me with 7 years bad luck like a spited witch, but because I love them like my own flesh and blood. As it normally happens when I says yes to things I don’t want to do, it turned into one of the best experiences of our trip. Watching Linda get out of the car and immediately be embraced, not figuratively but literally (which is abnormal in Thai culture) brought tears to my eyes. My real mom and host mom laughed and chatted, somehow understanding each other despite speaking two different languages. We spent the day being plied with Thai canome and sugary drinks, shuttled from temple to market to monkey infested Lopburi, all so Linda could get the genuine Thai experience of this country’s renowned generosity. It’s crazy to think of the impact we make on each others lives after only a short amount of time. For 10 weeks I lived with these people and miraculously, they transformed from complete strangers into family. Now, it was my mom’s turn to join this growing family tree and after only a single afternoon. This kind of stuff just doesn’t happen in America. It was the most influential reason for my heart opening to this country, and as it goes, it became the reason why my mom started to soften to it too.
After about another week spent in fast forward through Bangkok and Chiang Mai, whizzing through markets, swimming with elephants, and eating ourselves dizzy with blood sugar spikes, we finally pulled into my sleepy village. Everything plays in slow motion within my community of 500. We woke early and took our time. Linda would spend the day doing projects around my house or walk to my school to have lunch with my co-workers and I. She would sometimes come to watch me teach or help the kids prepare for their performance at Thai Youth Theater. We’d take sunset walks past the garlic fields, make special Mexican dinners of tequila and tacos for my co-workers (not surprisingly, they all liked the tequila but only two liked the tacos), or relax and do nothing. I think this was a nice change of pace for my typically overworked mother, who in her regular life is always required to be doing something. I could see the difference in attitude this style of living allowed her, as it had me. Here, she could just live in the moment and not worry about the things that plague most of us in a typically competitive and hectic American life. She got her needed rest, and then finally, after almost a full month in Thailand, we set forth on the last leg of our journey down to the TYT performance. She was able to see what I had helped create for my kids. She got to meet some of my best friends. And then she did the long journey back to America. I can’t say what she took back with her, or if her perspective on life changed, but I can say what she left me with: How to keep an adventurous spirit at any age. The importance of staying true to oneself in times of insecurity. To appreciate every moment as it is. And most importantly, 50 pounds of delicious American treats.
On Wednesday we’ll share Linda’s story of travelling through Thailand with Alex, “Embracing Thailand with ‘Malee'”.