Travel Experience: The Intimacy of the Family Vacation

Maybe we had reached step 200 when a middle-aged woman came waddling down the narrow staircase with her pre-teen daughter and kindly told us, "It's 294 steps." I kept repeating the number in my head. We were almost, kind of, almost there. My heart raced a little faster, breaths came a little harder with each ascending step. We were hoofing our way to the top of the Bunker Hill Monument — our penultimate stop along Boston's Freedom Trail. With my sister and brother-in-law ahead of us, Stephen and I continued our progress, not wanting to miss the possibility of an outstanding view of the city. 

The Bunker Hill Monument during the Bunker Hill Day celebrations in Charlestown, Mass. sometime between 1890 and 1901. Image from  Wikimedia .

The Bunker Hill Monument during the Bunker Hill Day celebrations in Charlestown, Mass. sometime between 1890 and 1901. Image from Wikimedia.

For those less familiar, the Freedom Trail literally makes a 2.5-mile red line through the historic sites of Beantown's colonial past. Sometimes it's painted on asphalt, sometimes it's a narrow, brick-lined path, but we followed almost every step of it, starting in the Common, maneuvering past the State House and through at least two historic burial grounds. We got lunch at Quincy Market behind Faneuil Hall, toured Paul Revere's house, and saw the church where the lanterns hung declaring the British arrival by sea. After the hike up the obelisk at Bunker Hill, things wrapped up with an exploration of the USS Constitution. While two and a half miles doesn't sound especially long, this footpath also marked the final day of our family vacation in Boston. On this last day before we drove down to New Jersey for my graduation from Rutgers there was a sense that we needed to make the most of every possible moment and leave no stone unturned, even if it was raining most of the time. 

In addition to my parents and sister, this trip marked the first family vacation to include two new family members — my brother-in-law Joel and husband Stephen. (Unfortunately, my brother had to be in Colorado for a wedding, so we were down a man.) When I was thinking about our time in Boston as a travel experience, though, it occurred to me that family vacations and family-oriented travel don't often make it into our reflections on meaningful travel. Those narratives are usually occupied by the individual adventurer who wanders into some uncertain yet exciting terrain. The family politics of where to go for lunch, how to get there, and who gets to set the temperature on the thermostat — not to mention the possibility of childhood rivalries rearing their ugly heads — don't create a sense of wanderlust for the reader or the writer. We might love to laugh at Clark Griswold and his travel disasters behind the wheel of the family station wagon, but not too many would pay to ride along. For most of us, though, these are our travel stories. Saving for that holiday trip to see grandparents, making sure we have a little emergency fund stashed away in case a sibling's baby comes early or there's a complication with a loved one's surgery — these are the real, everyday, unglamorous travel experiences that comprise so many lives. 

While family travel moments don't always have the flash and polish that we see on glossy magazine pages, they carry that basic element that makes travel meaningful in all its varied forms. Travel breaks our routines, forces us to see the world in a new way, makes us reconsider how we understand home and what we love about it. If we're honest with ourselves, spending time with family can have the same effect. Traveling with family merges two boundary-breaking experiences — creating a corporate experience that hopefully draws us closer together because we've tasted the same new foods, seen the same sites, laughed about them, and maybe whined a little too. While doing all that, we were in the company of the people who know the ins and outs of some of our deepest personal moments. The family vacation could be among our most intimate shared life experiences.

After completing our ascent at Bunker Hill, more than the view, I remember the inescapable soreness we each felt in our legs for several days afterward. As Joel put it, there was a "ball of pain" encased in each calf. Maybe our shared build up of lactic acid doesn't make for an ideal travel story, but it's an important family story. One where a few years from now we'll remember and laugh about how painful it was to walk down even a few steps the next day, and the day after that. Those of us who love to travel get hooked on how the experience of a new place adds another facet to our sense of being human. Just as travel makes the person, the vacation — for better or worse — helps make the family. We didn't each see the Freedom Trail in the same way. But trek through Boston for the better part of day, make it rainy, a little cold and physically taxing, and you have six people who emerge with a deeper sense of who they are as a single entity, who we are as a family. 

Crossing historical paths with Tom Askwith in Kenya

As a historian, you hope for that moment when your path through the archives will intersect with your subject in some meaningful way. You want to find a place, an experience, a sense of understanding that helps bring the past more fully to life. When those connections to the past catch us off guard, when they are less expected, less sought after, however, they should give us pause. Questions regarding how a particular place came into being and what circumstances allowed it to take that form have drawn me back to our time in Africa last summer. 

After our stay in Nairobi, we went on safari in Masai Mara. Here are a few pictures taken by  Stephen DeVries .

After our stay in Nairobi, we went on safari in Masai Mara. Here are a few pictures taken by Stephen DeVries.

I recently read Caroline Elkins' Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Britain's Empire in Kenyawhich relates the extremely violent behavior of the British in Kenya, particularly the white settlers, as their position of dominance in the country declined following World War II. I traveled to Kenya for the first time last August. It is my husband's favorite destination, and we made a point of going there together soon after we were married. When we arrived in Nairobi, Stephen's friends arranged for us to stay in the United Kenya Club — and here is where my path intersected with the events that Elkins describes. 

The United Kenya Club was founded by Tom Askwith, who established the social club complete with a library, hotel, restaurant, and bar in hopes of creating Anglo-Kenyan partnerships that crossed racial boundaries. Askwith established the club in 1948 and served as its first president. His vision for interracial partnership, however, failed to abate the violence perpetrated against the Kikuyu of Kenya's Central Province. Worse still, his belief that detention camps might be used for the re-education of the imprisoned and tortured Kikuyu was deployed by the government as a public relations front for their brutal tactics. Why were these supposed rebels being detained in prison camps without any formal charge? Well, because they had to be trained in how to be properly civilized, and freed of their "savage" ways — or so the logic went. While Askwith did not have a direct hand in the violence, the camps remained sites of ongoing persecution while the government paid lip service to Askwith's hopes a more peaceful, socially cohesive future. 

When I read Askwith's name in Britain's Gulag something came full circle for me. The United Kenya Club remains a reserve for today's political elite in Kenya. While it was a hospitable and comfortable place to stay, something about it also felt dated or perhaps out place to me. When I first saw Askwith's name at the top of its list of presidents last August, I knew it had colonial roots, but I didn't understand what they might be. Even after learning more about Askwith's career in Kenya, the tension didn't exactly resolve. Here was a man who did not directly participate in the torture of the Kikuyu, yet he knew about it and didn't mount any significant opposition. Perhaps he hoped that it was a means to an end in achieving his vision for interracial harmony. Now his club remains, but is that because of or in spite of him? 

Retrospectively, the United Kenya Club gained the kind of meaning I might have searched for in the archives, yet on different terms. I was a tourist in Kenya, privileged to get to stay in this club because of my husband's friendships. What does it mean that I could access this place in 2013, as an American tourist married to someone who has done extensive nonprofit work in the country? What does it mean that the club remains the reserve of an elite, although now one predominantly African? And what of that founding message of interracial harmony, which lost its urgency as most of the white settlers in Kenya left the country decades ago, often making homes in South Africa? I don't have ready answers to these questions. Perhaps the most significant point is the ongoing existence and use of this building in profoundly altered circumstances. Does it memorialize Askwith as an awkward testimony to his own incomplete vision for breaking down social barriers? Did in succeed in spite of the paternalism of his vision? 

It is not necessarily profound that my feet crossed paths with Askwith some 50 or 60 years removed. Everyday in Birmingham I walk the same sidewalks as the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. I do not pretend to access the experiences of the past through these common paths. Yet those former footprints shaped the places we inhabit today in uneven, complex, and sometimes confusing ways. Can we really understand the places we inhabit today if we don’t know how they came into being?

Travel writing and high heels in Rwanda and the DR Congo

Last fall I reviewed a collection of women’s travel writing in Egypt for the Journal of African History and it struck me afresh with the challenge of writing in an engaging and meaningful way about travel. When you travel to a place like Egypt, that has so much history, it can be easy to forget that it also has a modern existence. In the collection, I read narratives of women who expected to arrive in Alexandria and somehow access the experiences of Alexander the Great. There were trips along the Nile from Upper Egypt loaded with imagined pharaohs and their servants. While history is certainly engrained into the meaning of a place, our present day travels cannot expect to directly participate in some staid historical idea, out of sync with the location’s contemporary existence. History of a place — just like history of people — is best used when it informs our understanding but doesn’t fully define it. In turn, I have come to relish travel writing that opens up a sense of possibility rather than creating narrow, historically-derived blinders.

It would be hypocritical to leave my criticism there and not make my own attempt at the kind of travel writing I admire. To that end, I have decided to relate snippets of my own travel experiences in a way that might make a place appear in a new light. My goal is to focus on events that surprised me, caused me to ask important questions, or shed new light on the complexities of a location. When debating a topic for this first work in progress, I immediately recalled a woman I saw twice, but never talked to while in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last summer...

I am always impressed by women who look put together, organized, and professional while traveling. It is something I aspire to, but I’m not sure I ever quite achieve. I seem to have one bag too many, or my book in hand at the wrong moment. I am all the more impressed, then, when I see someone looking especially capable — as opposed to overwhelmed — while traveling to the developing world.  When Stephen and I de-boarded our plane in Kigali, Rwanda one July night, however, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with a woman I saw mingling with us among the baggage. She was white, with wavy brown hair that hung somewhere between her chin and shoulders, and was a bit disheveled, as I imagine we all were. If I recall correctly, she was speaking on a cell phone to someone in French. What drew my attention most, though, were her shoes. As she searched for her luggage she wore spiked high heels that added at least four inches to her height. How did she comfortably get around the airport — any airport — in those shoes, especially with luggage in tow? What brought this woman to Rwanda? I felt of mixture of awe and confusion.

We found our bags, as did she, and moved on. That night Stephen and I stayed at a guest house in Kigali, and the next morning we made the three hour drive to Goma, DRC. We stared out the window for most of morning as the driver took us through the rolling hills of Rwanda. The road was smooth and freshly paved — creating a positive sense of Rwanda growth. The scene outside appeared like a bucolic paradise as mineral-rich red soil gave way to green pastures. 

Perhaps my positive impressions became all the more vivid because of the contrast between Rwanda and the Congo. Upon crossing the border the sense of possibility immediately faded. The eastern Congo has been devastated by war for 20 years. When we arrived fighting had just intensified as the United Nations began actively battling against the M-23 guerillas who had caused so much turmoil. We met our hosts at the border, and carefully made our way with all of Stephen’s camera gear into the Congo. A full explanation of the scene and our first ride through Goma will have to wait for another post... 

To gain entry into the DRC we had to present a number of documents at the immigration counter, and were immediately indebted to our host Katavo as he translated for us and helped us with our bags. As we stood there waiting, I turned around to take in the scene. I could hardly believe it when walking up behind me was the same woman from the night before. Still in her high heels, this time she carried a large paper shopping bag full of books among several other pieces of luggage. As she made her way up the stairs to the immigration desk, her paper bag split open and half a dozen books spilled onto the ground. She gave a frustrated laugh as she attempted to pull her things together. Immediately two Congolese men proceeded to help her. In a single moment she looked completely out of her element, and yet I also felt that perhaps she had a much stronger command and understanding of what was going on around her than I did. After all, how could she make it this far without knowing what was expected of her. Rather than appearing vulnerable, she seemed to know precisely what she had to do. I couldn’t decide if she presented something to aspire to, or to avoid. 

That was the last time I saw her. She made her way to the immigration desk, and we got our visas stamped and headed further into the city. The roads were cavernous compared to Rwanda, and the white woman in high heels faded from my concerns. How oddly trivial and strange that the simple detail of her footwear could make such a lasting impression. Perhaps because she at first appeared to embody every travel pitfall I tried to avoid, and yet she remained above it, undeterred, and oddly capable.