In a night of passion and wild abandon that doesn’t bear thinking about, something happened. Biology, romance and, quite possibly, liquor worked together to create something incredible; at the moment of fertilization, two people irreversibly cross over onto an altogether different plane of perspective and understanding. They cease to be normal, interesting, exciting individuals in their own right and become…Parents.
The Folks: They conceived you, nurtured you and cut your toast into soldiers. They know about the time that you drew on Aunty Jeanie’s bathroom wall with purple crayon and they dried your tears when you buried Silvie the Goldfish in a matchbox in the garden. They filmed you when you played the third-sheep-from-the-left in the Christmas nativity play, and congratulated you on how it was, undoubtedly, the most convincing and moving portrayal of a farmyard animal they had ever seen.
And now, they are coming.
The preparations begin months before the actual arrival date. Hotels must be contacted and reservations must be made. Logistics and supply lines must be arranged and maintained. Paypal accounts must be initiated and lovingly watered. Monetary considerations must be discussed. Security issues must be prepared for. Questions that never once before breezed against the sides of your consciousness become conundrums of epic proportion as the details of Operation: Parental Unit are finalized. It is a seemingly endless series of headaches and banalities that makes one wonder how wars are ever engaged or adventures embarked upon. Then, all of a sudden the planning is over. They arrive.
Speeding through the darkness towards the terminal, a sense of anticipation mounted. After all the talk, it was happening. The parents had landed. Yet, despite the many hours spent designing their trip to the nth degree our reunion was not quite as I had imagined it. It turned out that somewhere amongst the leaf-pile of emails which preceded their arrival there was a cataclysmic, catastrophic communication breakdown. Somewhere, someone somehow buggered-up the flight details. I’m quite sure that it wasn’t me. They are quite certain it wasn’t them. Some mysteries of the universe simply were never meant to be known. (Psssst . . . It was them.)
Still unawares of the bugger-up, I leaped from the taxi with my most enthusiastic I’m-so-happy-and-aren’t-you-so-proud-and-pleased-to-see-your-eldest-daughter-on-this-side-of-the-planet hop, skip and jump. I was greeted with the sight of a semi-abandoned terminal building and my mother advancing through the sliding glass doors with tears streaming down her face. Been there for hours, apparently! Thought I was dead, apparently! The man at the desk had been very helpful, actually! But really, all alone in Guatemala City for hours, Hannah? Really?
Eventually the hysterics subsided and father quietly emerged from where he had been observing the outburst in the relative safety of the lobby. It was firmly established that, in retrospect, contact numbers should have been exchanged and that having to call Granny to say that I had been killed in a car accident or a drive-by shooting wouldn’t have been an ideal start to the trip. Then, following the appropriate amount of time spent hugging according to the amount of time apart (which, it turns out, equates to approximately 4.5 seconds for each month separated, i.e. a long time) we began the journey back to Antigua.
It’s strange how a road traveled so often can become new adventure when experiencing it with people who are taking that camino for the first time. The world flashing past the window became foreign once again as I tried to imagine how it must appear to the company sitting on either side of me. What must driving through this new land have felt like to dear old mum and dad as they peered out into the fluorescent night of downtown Guatemala City? Something strange was happening: two parts of my life which, heretofore, had been held separately were colliding.
With their arrival they brought the ghosts of my existence somewhere else: equally a part of me, equally important, but an existence of a different space and time. Driving through the darkness, I realized that I was hearing about how Robert and Caroline Kerr have just pulled down their old shed. Until that moment, Robert, Caroline (and certainly Robert and Caroline’s shed) would never have featured in my thoughts as I whizzed past Hiper Paiz on the Roosevelt. Yet, now my parents’ neighbors might as well have been sitting here in the car with me, the presence of The Kerrs’ shed a sudden and disconcerting intrusion of that other life into my little Central American bubble.
“Well, it always was an eyesore . . .” I found myself thinking.
I went to bed feeling discombobulated only to fall into a fretful sleep; a forest of childhood neighbors wearing Guatemala traje performing household modifications to the rhythm of a traditional wooden flute, dancing through my dreams.
The next morning I joined my parents in their painstakingly selected lodgings for a spot of breakfast and a conversational catch-me-up. “Darling, you look so well!” exclaimed mum.
My heart sank. As far I’m concerned, this phrase can generally be translated into “you’ve put on weight!” which is something that always seems to please both mother and father immensely. This is also something which, absolutely and categorically, does not please me at all. Comments such as this (and I do not think I am alone here) are similar to the way in which our collective parents most enjoy photos where their children appear young, chubby and rounded at the edges. Childlike and roundy is directly in contrast to the kind of look I’m trying to cultivate in my 20s. As such, I far prefer questions wondering if I’m eating properly and getting enough sleep. When received, I’m put at ease as it indicates that I am in excellent and suitably edgy shape.
A few days into their trip, I became aware of a bizarre sort of role-reversal which happens when one is responsible for, as my granny would say, “The Aged P’s.” Formerly benign expeditions immediately became logistically complex and potentially threatening. I became more aware of the potential pits and foibles that Guatemalan living presents. I anxiously hoped they wouldn’t notice the homeless, alcoholic gent spread-eagled on the pavement, or the fact the lancha driver had just tripled the price and then made us wait for 45 minutes in the scorching sun before heading across the water. I started analyzing, for the first time, the relative safety criteria of shuttle companies, opting for road security over buen precio. After I’d popped them in a taxi after a quiet dinner and (despite the fact you could throw a stone at the front door of their hotel from the restaurant) requested that they text me upon safe arrival. Ridiculous, really: they are both intelligent and well-traveled individuals, but still, that didn’t stop me calling reception to check that they were actually safely home in bed with the lights out.
During the two-and-a-half-week visit, we did the usual things one does with guests: The Lake, Rio Dulce, all that jazz. Mum took endless photos of flowers and different types of tropical foliage; we drank Brahva, swam, went to markets, took tuk tuks and talked about NGO’s, malaria and the Royal Wedding. There was, of course, the novelty of eating out in restaurants, which provided an exciting alternative to the diet of avocados, tomato, granola, onion and spinach (or as we voluntarios pobrecitos like to refer to them: The Big Five) which the members of our financially challenged household subsist upon. There was even an impressive canoe capsizing incident which was, apparently, a spectacular first according to the people who hired my parents the special capsize-proof canoe.
Meanwhile, the “pay-you-back-soon” tab was extended dramatically with inappropriate and unnecessary purchases from various artisan markets. Indeed, I spent over 45 minutes selecting a pair of jaunty slippers which are like little floppy colored bags for your feet. A frugal buy when you’re living on thruppence halfpenny a week? I think not. Yet with mum and dad standing in the wings wielding their crisp and plentiful quetzales, the little foot sacks suddenly seemed like a brilliant choice and a way to improve my quality of life overall.
During the trip, dad took at least a stab at getting by with español, maneuvering his excellent Italian into mediocre Spanish with an Italian accent, while mother resorted to her usual all-purpose, speaking-to-people-who-aren’t-from-England language. It is a phenomenon that has to be heard to be believed, and something which haunted me throughout my childhood, providing many many hours of entertainment to both myself and my younger sister. Basically, what happens is this: she adopts the most bizarre hybrid of a conceptual accent as soon as she steps out of the plane / off the boat / or is faced with anyone who doesn’t have English as the first arrow in their linguistic quiver — no matter how fluently they might speak the Queen’s tongue. The untrained ear would be forgiven for thinking that they were listing to a Congolese immigrant who had grown up in Wales after having been adopted by a family with roots in Northern Pakistan. I think she thinks it makes her easier to understand (which it utterly does not), and that by contorting the tone and flow of her words (still in English) to somehow mimic the form of the local vernacular, she is doing everyone a favor. She is, however, sadly and completely mistaken. She is indecipherable. Still, she cannot be swayed from her intense conviction that this is the appropriate way to communicate with the natives. Further, she claims to be absolutely unaware that this is something she does, and thus makes no attempt to stop doing it.
I have stopped, however, trying to find rhyme or reason to my parents and their thought processes. Something happens when people pass on their genes, which alters the way they understand the world around them. Mother, for example, was über-chilled during one of the most death-defying camioneta journeys of my life, only to emerge from a benign minibus jaunt days later with a look of gaping terror and a demand for strong drink. Dad, for his part, successfully shattered the enjoyment of a breathtaking mountaintop view by refusing to relinquish his fascination with an old-fashioned water heater we had spotted on the hike up: “Was that a . . . no, it couldn’t have been . . . ! Was that a Whittington? Hannah, I really think that was a Whittington!”
Fabulous, dad. No, really. But can you just shut up and look at the lovely butterflies? Jeeesus.
The evidence to support the theory that parents operate in a slightly (but fundamentally) different universe is endless.
Alternative galaxies aside, however, all too soon their departure date dawned. Last-minute take-home purchases were made, and there was a flurry of retail activity at which point bag-sales in Antigua quadrupled and anybody who has ever made a fleeting acquaintance with my mother (with special reference to The Kerrs, of course) has now been made the lucky recipient of at least one bolsa woven by an “authentic Mayan weaver” (forward slash: a machine round the back of Pollo Campero).
Yes, the Wallace-Bowman Guate party was over. A sad moment indeed. Sadder, in fact, than I’d anticipated. It was an incredibly difficult goodbye. All parties pretended to be pretty cool about the situation until the mirage was unceremoniously exposed by mum sobbing into her morning fruit medley. The awareness of the two separate existences, one here and one there, which having been forced to acknowledge each other and discovering they got on pretty well, were being pulled apart once more. Home was becoming home again, a life here was becoming a life here.
As I cycled away from them, off into another Antigua morning, I didn’t mind admitting that the parting brought tears to my eyes. I’m not sure it’s true for others reading this, but for me the ‘rents aren’t just a biological propinquity, they’re my mates. I mean, who could not have infinite respect for people from whom you receive an email with the subject heading: “breaking news: just made a rather dramatic mushroom pâté”?
Sure, they piss me off sometimes. They often wear inappropriate or embarrassing items of clothing and ask too many questions about bollocks to which no one would ever know the answer, nor care, but I wouldn’t have them any other way.
Thanks for procreating at just the right time, folks. I owe you one.*
*Dad, I also know I actually owe you a lot of money. I haven’t forgotten. Lova ya.
Hannah Wallace Bowman is heading off for greater adventures, likely in Africa. Save her work, she’ll be famous someday. Promise.