Travels with mum

22:57, Jun 14 2009
MARINO BALLENA NATIONAL PARK: Three generations of women have fun in Costa Rica.

My 20-year-old daughter Emma has been following me on strange trips all her life - Beijing on a bike, rural Romania, the frozen Boundary Waters in January and campouts at 3,050 metres.

Now that she's in college and her own wanderlust has kicked in, it's my turn to traipse after her.

But my trip to visit her while she spent a semester abroad in Costa Rica turned into a three-generation adventure, when her grandmother and aunt decided to join us.


And it was there, on a jungle beach, that I learned a lesson about backing off. But I didn't learn it from Emma; it was my mother handing out that lesson - her and her unlaced tennis shoes.

After one year on campus Emma couldn't wait until the typical junior year to study abroad. So she left for Costa Rica in August to study ecology and Spanish.

Her college doesn't encourage family and friends to visit the students in Costa Rica. But how do you resist the lure of travelling with your child in a tropical setting? In December. Did I mention she was on the Pacific coast near great beaches?

I found reasonably-priced airfares. Emma found me really reasonable accommodation in a wildlife refuge a short bus ride from the home of the family she was living with near the grungy surf haven of Dominical.

I mentioned the weeklong itinerary to my sister, Cecelia, and my mother, Mary, and presto, another strange trip took shape - three generations together in the rainforest.


No one, except Emma, speaks Spanish. But we're all pretty hardy. In fact, when Mum read about Hacienda Baru, where we would be staying, she said she'd forego the canopy zip line over the jungle. But not out of fear.

"I just did one a few months ago in Mexico," she said.

Sure she's 78, but, so is Clint Eastwood.

All sorts of neurotic mayhem ensued from the moment we landed. There was the usual bickering and simmering that happens when people with too much shared DNA spend a lot of time together in a hot place with unreliable transport.

But things didn't get ugly until one morning - I think it was Day Three - when we took the public bus from Hacienda Baru to Marino Ballena - a national park with a beautiful, deserted stretch of beach.

Mum hadn't slept well the night before, and her energy seemed to be sagging. We had stocked up at a tiny store on sardines, crackers and water, which revived her some. But by noon, we needed real food.

Mum stood up, seemed a little shaky, and pulled on her pink and white tennis shoes. She looked like she was struggling with the laces.

"Here," I said. "I'll tie them."

Note to self and any other people with go-get-'em ageing parents: Don't offer to tie their shoelaces. Ever.

"You are not tying my shoes!" she said. "Some day, your children may be tying YOUR shoes. But you are NOT tying my shoes!"

Things got worse when Mum said she wanted to take the early bus back to Hacienda Baru rather than wait for the 4pm bus the rest of us were taking.

You'd think I would have learned, but I offered to go with her. I don't know what possessed me.

"You have GOT to be kidding!"

Mum got on her 1pm bus alone. Emma, Cecelia and I walked back to the beach, with me offering expletives about what Mum could do with her indignation.

I spent the rest of the day in awe of the beach, its emptiness and perfect waves, and of the confusion mothers and daughters can summon.

I had wanted to help. But instead I insulted. How I missed the cues to give my mother room, to wait until asked, I will never know.

I doubt Clint's kids offer to tie his shoes. Of course, I don't know this for sure, but it's a safe bet, right? After all, who wants people who are supposed to look up to you think you could use a hand?

If you're travelling the world, zipping around the park on your bike, studying French and basically yanking as much out of life at 78 as you ever were, you can probably tie your own laces and might even bristle at someone with half your energy offering to do it for you.

Figuring this stuff out may be part of ageing and watching people you love age. But it's not the easy part.


The rest of the trip was a hodgepodge of bickering and delight. A thigh-sized green iguana fell from a tree, landing next to Emma with a splat.

We played Hearts before dinner. When Hacienda Baru ran out of vodka, Mum took up tequila. Capuchin monkeys navigated the canopy above us. Toucans flew from our backyard trees.

On the last afternoon in Dominical, after leaving Emma at a spot where she could catch a bus back to her home, I joined Mum and Cecelia on a shuttle bus crammed with young people and surfboards for the four-hour ride to San Jose. Our flight home was the next day.

But just as the shuttle was leaving, Emma came walking up the road.

"I missed the bus," she said, clearly exhausted. "And, I can't find a taxi."

Dominical is a fun place. But it's not somewhere you want your daughter to be stuck at night without a ride home. Emma - like her grandmother - is very independent and asks for little.

And here she was tired, a little worn out - most likely from too much time with her mum, aunt and grandmother.

The shuttle driver said he wasn't going her way. I got out and unloaded my luggage.

"We'll figure something out," I said.

We were both relieved, I think. Emma wasn't asking me to tie her shoelaces, but I could still help - even if it meant just standing by as she looked for transport.

And Mum could happily find her own way home.


Hacienda Baru: National wildlife refuge in Dominical, Costa Rica;

Marino Ballena: National park in Uvita, Costa Rica: