I’m not a parent, but I have become proficient in what parents don’t respond favourably to in blog posts and postcards from abroad. After extensive analysis, I was able to eventually identify key content that WOULD MAKE MY MOTHER REPLY IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Even when I found a distracting collector’s stamp for the postcard.
I didn’t think I had much shock value left in me. I’ve protested on logging roads on Vancouver Island, I’ve had three kinds of intestinal parasites. I’ve exchanged pleasantries with drug runners with AK47s slogging flour sacs full of marijuana on their backs. Really, my parents are unable to raise their eyebrows anymore.
Blogging about travels with the notion of friends and virtual strangers tuning in as audience members can dramatically change the body of your posts, and, largely, the profanity. It’s easy to censor yourself when you think of dad reading the lines and also between the lines, making mental post-it notes for future questioning. And beware the blog savvy grandmothers who link the rest of the family tree in a single swoop of a group email and a cut-and-paste link. It’s like trying to hide your open diary on the internet.
Maybe I’m too honest about bowel movements, the proximity of lions while sleeping and occasional hitchhiking stories. Egged on by the comments of friends who find hilarity and bravery in such tales, these are not topics of parent interest, ever.
Mom and Dad’s preferred reading definitely did not include my dramatic account of being lost in the Costa Rican jungle when I was 20(with the above-mentioned gun-toting drug runners). Luckily, this was 1994 and wi-fi and wordpress.com weren’t an option in my palm frond-roofed jungle hut.
I was volunteering with a dozen wanderlust-smacked bohemians from Australia, Canada and Costa Rica. All of us were channelling Indiana Jones with our machetes and embracing the raw jungle existence in boastful postcards home. We were off any flight path and 12 km (and six muddy river crossings) from the suggestion of civilization (a shack that sold melted chocolate bars and stale plantain chips).
For three months our communication was by radio, but we lost communication completely after the first day. Commandos delivered and retrieved outgoing mail only twice instead of weekly, as promised. This meant that my harrowing tale of being lost, that I hesitantly confessed in a letter home, was also lost and learned about months after I returned to Canada.
The original letter contained enough exclamation points for a POW! KAZAM! POOF!-filled comic book and minute by minute commentary on potential attacks by jaguars and/or a probable kidnapping by drug warlords. Back at home a few months later, still full of parasites, I entered a writing contest about my volunteer experience in Central America and told that very story. And won. First prize was a flight to Costa Rica and in my excitement, I blew my previously parent-censored story. I told them everything. They were not impressed with my lost-ness. The prize package earned forced smiles. “You’re not going back to the same place, are you?”
But sometimes it slips out, you know? When you are talking at hyper-speed about visiting whiskey distilleries and hopping along the hexagonal basalt columns of Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, it’s easy to blurt “and then we went to the most bombed-out bar in all of Europe. Can you believe it has been bombed 33 times?”
To me, the impressive part of this Belfast pub was that it had cozy snugs with buzzers that allowed you to instantly signal your server for another pint of Guinness. Genius! The fact that it was bombed more than any other bar I’ve been to was just a sidebar.
It’s a saving grace that postcards are so small. Maybe I should only Twitter my parents from afar? That would have instantly cut the story from the Slieve Liag out of my candid reporting. Still, in tiny peppercorn-sized font I blabbed about how I had heaved myself up Ireland’s highest sea cliffs near Donegal. The fact that the Irish fog was like hiking with a blindfold on along 600m-high cliffs was not exciting to my parents. I reassured them that a kind British couple advised to keep the wind to my left, as this would prevent me from getting turned around in the fog. Which would have left me at the bottom of the 600m cliff.
Ireland certainly paled in comparison with the announcement that I was going to volunteer in Uganda for four months. Parents who play Pictionary and pull “Africa” only think of deadly pythons, starving lions, car-jackings, civil war and United Nation planes flying ex-pats out in the middle of the night. They forget about the gentler parts, the explosion of bird sound and the sunsets on Lake Victoria that make poets out of those who bear witness.
Imagine my parents delight when I arrived back in Toronto safe and sound and parasite-less. “Well, we’re glad you got Africa out of your system.” This was probably the wrong time to tell them that I had met the director of a chimp sanctuary who suggested I come back for a volunteer stint in the Congo. “The Congo? Oh god. You wouldn’t go there, would you? They still have cannibals there!” I waited until I had my plane ticket to tell them the fantastic news.
In judging responses to previous stories: lost in the jungle, piranha fishing, the near-death whitewater rafting incident, chased by a wild boar– it was wise to wait until the Congo was confirmed. Why worry them for extensive periods? A shorter window of pacing and fretting has been my solution in parent-proofing my travels. Kind of like a surprise party– they enjoy it much more when it’s close and it’s going to be over with sooner than later. Then, maybe, finally I’ll have it all out of my system.
Because they are active blog followers, my parents detect restlessness like owls detect mice on the move. They can sense the hesitation in my words, and like seasoned detectives when I phone home, they say (on speaker phone, of course): “Oh no, where are you going now?”
I thought my time in the Congo would make any other destination appear as though it were covered in cupcake icing and sugar sprinkles. I reminded them that I had been in the Congo and look, it wasn’t so bad, right? The internet and electricity was wonky, the police were corrupt and the worst news was that I voluntarily ate goat testicles and my sunglasses were stolen.
Still, my favourite card to play is, “hey, I lived in Abbotsford (British Columbia). Remember how safe you thought it was there?” (Abbotsford, despite being in the Bible Belt of Canada is a hot bed of murder and gang activity. The Hell’s Angels share turf with the Global United Nations Syndicate (GUNS), the Red Scorpions and the Independent Soldiers). Surely, going to Cairo in September of this year was relatively safer than living with more gang members than Mennonites. Besides, the Revolution that had all eyes on Cairo in January had found a new calm. They were desperate for tourists. The election had been pushed back and Mubarek was in jail. Surely this was a perfect time to go to Egypt.
What I’ve come to realize is that, parent-proofing needs a new approach. Parent desensitizing. If you have siblings, information will be leaked anyway. Any censored stories will be barked out in sensational style over festive dinners.
“Remember when you were told in the Congo that if you hit someone with a vehicle, that you’d have to keep driving because there would be a mob scene and you’d be killed too?”
Or, “pass the cranberries and, oh! What was that story about you and Debbie having a gun pointed at you in Uganda? You were trying to stop a dog from getting shot by a guard and then she threatened to kill you?”
And, once the cranberries have been passed along with a dirty look and I segue into taking pictures of the family around the festive table– “Is that the same camera that the police tried to confiscate from you in Entebbe? You’re lucky you got away.”
Point is, you can’t parent-proof your travels or blog or postcards home. Maybe temporarily, but it all gets revealed like a winter crime scene with a spring thaw. We have to give our parents credit for allowing us to do anything at all, despite our age and independence. There’s no way I would allow them to go to the Congo or Cairo!
Last night we shared unfiltered pictures of our recent Egypt trip over wine. My mom closely examined the snaps of Tahir Square, with the riot squad police on guard. The next picture showed a tank parked at an intersection near the Egyptian Museum. She had already read my blog, and I had mentioned the beefed up military presence and tanks downtown as a primer.
“That’s not a tank,” my mother said. My dad agreed. “Nope, that’s an armoured vehicle. A tank has one of those bulldozer-things on the bottom. Those are just armoured vehicles, that’s all.”
And oddly, they were completely unaffected by all that I thought would have made them squirm and sweat. They were more worried about my diarrhea. The fact that we had walked past “armoured vehicles” on a daily basis was not as alarming as tanks with “bulldozer-things.”
The conversation quickly moved back to diarrhea and how we survived the hot-air balloon ride in such a state.
So, it worked. I’ve completely desensitized them in a remarkable 20 year time period. I’ve spent so much time worrying about what they might be worrying about, but, apparently, there’s no need to parent-proof at all. Desensitization is the answer!
*Disclaimer: My mother did say, prior to our departure for Cairo, “I better not see you two joy-riding around in the back of a pick-up truck in Libya.” So, I do have some ground rules still. And part of their desensitization involves posting pictures of them too: