The best gift I've ever received as a father didn't come on Father's Day. It came when my daughter was 13 and we sat alone together atop the biggest pyramid the Mayans ever built, looking down on the trackless jungle ...
The best gift I’ve ever received as a father didn’t come on Father’s Day.
It came when my daughter was 13 and we sat alone together atop the biggest pyramid the Mayans ever built, looking down on the trackless jungle spreading toward Guatemala, and ate a sack lunch while we watched for toucans.
Or it came one moonlit night, after several long nights of patrolling a lonely beach with a sea-turtle-rescue project, when my daughter, then 12, and I finally got to help play midwife to an endangered leatherback turtle as it laid eggs on a remote Costa Rican coast.
Or maybe it came when the girl was 15, across a cafe table in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, as I saw the look of delight at her first taste of Cuban food in a restaurant called Cha Cha Cha.
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It’s tough to choose among the many memories that Lillian, now 16, and I have shared since we began our father-daughter trips. Once a year, we travel somewhere together, just my daughter and me, while her mother — my lovely wife, Barbara — stays home with the cats.
Started at age 11
The best trip definitely wasn’t the first. Lillian, our only child, was 11. As part of the travel-writing team at The Seattle Times, I was planning a quick trip for a story on California beaches. My destination: Santa Monica and the Venice boardwalk.
The father-daughter travel was my wife’s idea, one for which I owe her thanks. Barbara remembered how her father traveled the world on business when she was a child. He brought presents home, but she only ever got to dream about most of the places he went.
“Lil has some time off for teacher work days. Take her with you!” my wife urged. Thus began the tradition.
The only problem, that first trip, was that California beach culture was too scary. Maybe it was the steroidal hulks at Muscle Beach, or the family of Harley riders with a 7-year-old in leathers, or the overly pierced woman with the boa constrictor around her neck.
We had fun on the Santa Monica Pier Ferris wheel, and biking the boardwalk. But after a couple of days, the girl just wanted to go home.
A travel buddy
But high points have far outnumbered the low. We soon went farther afield. A camaraderie grew. More than just my child, she became my travel buddy, a fun sidekick.
The good times live in snatches of remembered smiles, in laughs that ring out from crannies of my mind. It wasn’t just about places seen, but about adventure shared and challenges met.
There was our Mayan quest, driving 1,200 miles around the Yucatán in a rented red econobox so tiny we called it the Clown Car. It had no radio, so we sang together as we drove. Our favorite song of the trip:
I got me ten fine toes to wiggle in the sand,
Lots of idle fingers snap to my command,
A loverly pair of heels that kick to beat the band,
Con-tem-plating nature can be fascinating!
We opened the windows and belted it out as loud as we could as we bombed down lonely Mexican highways. Whistled so hard our puckers wouldn’t pucker anymore.
And we laughed almost until we cried at a plucky wild turkey who decided he owned a narrow jungle road and wouldn’t let us pass.
I relished her delight at using her own allowance money to buy a handmade dress in the market square in Mérida, the Yucatán capital. Her eyes glowed at the beauty of the raw cotton and the fancy cut, and she twirled when she tried it on.
In search of America, too
There was the winter-break trip to Boston when we tramped through snow along the Freedom Trail, and braved slushy streets to go hear cellist Yo-Yo Ma play with the Boston Symphony. I traded raised-eyebrow looks with Lillian when he produced a long buzz like an angry bee, a sound you wouldn’t think could come from a cello.
We raved over the sweet-potato-and-pecan biscuits — Thomas Jefferson’s favorite recipe — at Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern, and bought the cookbook to take home to Mum.
I smile when I think of the trip she chose and planned on her own. We stayed at an old hippie hotel in the Haight-Ashbury, and she led her old man up and down long staircases on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill in search of wild parrots who live there. (We finally found some!) For the first time, we shared in writing a travel blog.
The tests of travel
She’s made me proud as she’s weathered the challenges, from crowded airports to health scares. She never again asked to go home.
She didn’t shy from adventure, as when we boarded an overcrowded local bus on our way to the Costa Rican village where we would help with sea turtles. It was hot and sticky, every seat taken, and other passengers carried cargo such as boxes of live cheeping chicks.
She kept her cool when Mexican soldiers, on drug patrol, stopped us for a search of the Clown Car on a deserted road not far from Guatemala.
The worst episode began in a thatched-roof bungalow on a Yucatán beach when Lillian awoke with a red and swollen lip, and we had to worry all the way home about Chagas’ disease, a potentially fatal ailment transmitted by lip-biting insects that sometimes live in thatch. Back in Seattle, two episodes of blood tests were negative, but for two numbing weeks I wondered if our adventures might end in tragedy.
Parents love to watch their kids learn, and that I got in spades.
In Mexico, we studied an elaborate mural display of Mayan history, a grim story of indigenous people crushed by an invading culture. “Anybody who ever stood up for the Maya or took their side, it seems like they were assassinated or executed,” observed my daughter, taking in a lesson she might not get in school.
In a snowy graveyard in Boston, which we visited shortly after her school class had studied Colonial America, a 4-year-old child’s gravestone caught her eye. “Goodness, the poor little girl lived only during the Revolutionary War and she died just as it was over!” said my daughter, with a dawning of why it’s important to live every day like you mean it.
She played with the smiling 3-year-old son of the loving Costa Rican couple who took us into their modest, tin-roofed home in a village with sand paths instead of streets — a lesson that happiness doesn’t require mini-mansions or multicar garages.
Finding the way
Wherever we’ve traveled, Lillian has been the navigator. On our most recent trip, exploring California’s Big Sur coast in April, I recognized not just a girl but a confident young woman in the seat next to me as she competently deciphered maps and directed us to our destination.
And reflecting the bond forged through our many miles, she fanned open a CD case and asked me to help choose our road music — this time we’d brought tunes.
We chose The Proclaimers, the rocking twin brothers of Scottish pop:
I would walk 500 miles
and I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walks 1000 miles
to fall down at your door.
And we opened the windows and sang along, as loud as we could, as we bombed down a busy California freeway.
To me, travel has been the best gift I could give my child. Who can know the ways of the world if they haven’t seen some of that world?
And my daughter has given me the best gift a child could give a father. She came along for the ride, with open eyes, a curious mind and a generous heart.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or email@example.com