This is the last few days of what should have been a year away, but now has to be eleven months as we have to go back to get The Boy into his comprehensive school, so he’s not classed as a re-admission and on a waiting list. We go on our last excursion from Quito to the belt of the world at Cuidad Mitad del mundo (Middle of the World City).
We jump back and forth from the northern to the southern hemispheres. The Boy is reluctant and remonstrating with us, “It’s such a sad touristy thing to do.”
“Yep, but when someone asks you how many times you have crossed the equator, you can say ‘dozens of times’. “ He is not convinced, he is practising to be a proper teenager in a few days’ time.
“In the merchant navy they shave your head the first time you cross the equator. We could shave your hair off in a symbolic gesture of solidarity to seamen.” He laughs, well, he’s nearly a teenager. “We could just shave it off anyway, so your new brutal hairstyle matches your personality!” A young non-nonsense Australian joins in, “Hey, you are a tourist, mate. Get jumping, you’ll feel better for it.” So reluctantly he joins his sister who is already bounding the line like she is in a Disney musical. He feels better for it and it lifts his, and everyone else’s mood. We take the obligatory photos of the brutal monument dedicated to 0º-0’-0”Latitude.
We visit The Magic Bean Café for the last time on the morning of our departure and evaluate our nearly-year away. It feels like we are in an ephemeral bohemian novel – Marquez springs to mind, surreal that it will soon end. We, the parents, could travel onwards forever now, more addicted than institutionalised, more enthused than jaded, with a topping of escapism thrown in. Should we have paid forty grand off the mortgage, rather than spent the equity on taking a gap year? I say ‘squandered on coming away’ to The Wife to evoke a reaction. The answer is obviously ‘no’. We discuss the best bits about the last year of our lives, and the good seem to outweigh the bad bits by about ten to one. But don’t kid yourself there won’t be travails, annoyances, and resilience needed during a full year away. Even the relative hardships untarnish to memories that make us laugh and smile.
We are in Quito airport, this is the last time we will need to check our bags in, the next time we will be reunited will be in Manchester, after they get delayed at Heathrow!, and we will be ‘home’. Customs have taken it upon themselves to go through all our bags quite methodically, (except The Girl’s, or ‘Pequena mula de drogas’ as we like to call her. The Boy is not only accosted by this perceived violation, but his hormones are nipping away at him as well, he is about to explode, we both try and calm him, but he can’t fight against it any longer, he bursts.
“My life is over…”he tries to contain himself, but he has no chance, “I’ve been backstage at Glastonbury… and, I’ve been around the world. WHAT ELSE is there left for me to do?!”Both The Wife and I burst into laughter. “WHAT, WHAT? “ Exhorts the pre-teenager.
So we are back in the routine, we have been for, total disclosure here, ten years! This all happened ten years ago, ten years have got behind us all. Writing now, only affirms how much it has enhanced all our lives. All those that appear scared by life, or cannot bare the stress of any change, the comfort of the everyday, some seem visibly shocked by what we have done, even now after both the children have made it to university. But how did you educate them? What did you do for money? What about your jobs? I know most of us are only a few months away from the streets, but you cannot let your fears paralyse you, or you become a ghost in the machine, living to work – stay optimistic and good things happen to you, it’s not purely by chance – you won’t win the lottery, if you don’t buy a ticket. The Wife gets the same job back she left. My job as a shortage secondary science teacher is not only left open, they have decided to give me a three-grand pay increase for some unknown reason. The Boy gets back into his old school, but tells all but his very closest friends he has been away in London for the year. The Girl starts a new junior school nearer to our home. I ask her how her first day of school went.
“We had Geography, and we are doing about the Amazon Rain Forest. “ I light up as she tells me.
“Did you tell them you’ve been, about piranha fishing, the caimans, the anacondas, collecting poison arrow frogs, swimming in a river?”
“I didn’t want to show off!”I am both sad, and immensely proud of her at the same time.
“Did you not say anything at all? Offer to bring some photos in? The trinkets you bought from a Shaman?”The look she gives me, reiterates what she has already told me. Then she adds, “The teacher had most of it right, but I didn’t want to correct her!”
Two months after being back I’ve been sent on a middle-management course. We have to give a five-minute talk on any subject after a coffee break and a few of us are deciding what to talk about. I genuinely have no idea and express these feelings aloud. ‘You must have done something interesting across the summer holidays?’ ‘I did go around the world with my family all last year.’They look at me as if I’m taking the piss; I’ve not even considered it might sound a bit showy. So I talk about this, I set about my talk giving a very brief résumé of the places and the people and pre-empt the worried questions the professional middle-classes always ask, always the education issue comes up first – can you image the fine now? I tell them semi-flippantly, ‘schools don’t mind when middle-class people take their children out of school, it’s the working classes they object to, as they’re not taking them to museums and immersing them into the language and culture.’ My time is up and the ‘facilitator’ asks if anyone would object if I was given a little more time to answer some more questions that people may have. A resounding ‘yes’ ‘that’s fine’ ‘I want to know…’ I become defined as the teacher that took a family gap year for the rest of the course, but there are worse things to be defined by.
People ask what our family gap-year away was ‘really’ like? At least for the first few weeks anyway;
Basked in the glow of the Golden Temple with relatives and roots,
met and impersonated penguins,
observed tigers on the stalk,
walked in the footsteps of Ghandi,
counted and framed shooting stars in the Australian dessert,
submerged ourselves on the Great Barrier Reef,
ridden through Pushka on a camel with the wind in our hair,
stepped through petrified forests,
experienced the havoc a few can inflict on the many,
surveyed the sunrise over Micha Picchu,
Traced the Nazca Lines,
upheld the natural jewellery of poisonous arrow frogs,
been awed as pink dolphins break the water’s surface,
Epicured on piranhas in the Amazon,
abandoned black-screens for analogue books,
lived with few material possessions,
set our watches in every time zone,
witnessed The Boy undergo the biological change; wrestle the hormonal beast,
laughed with friends of every nation,
grown much closer as a family,
and… seen the world is connected by love and friendship…
I think… but mostly I just reply, “Yeah, it was great.”
If you take your kids out of school and go around the world for a year, you have to expect them to be more; independent, confident, secure, better readers, empathetic, wiser. The flipside for some is the travel bug bites them, they are more, as the great philosopher Eric Cantona once said: secure, independent and loved. But now they also have wings and they may glide further from the nest and end up working in Australia, or travelling through South East Asia, where they are now, but would we have had it any other way?: No! Don’t forget as parents we are only the bows, our children are the arrows, we have done the best we could, and will endeavour to do so, when at times it’s bloody hard, but that’s what families are about, that’s the invisible glue that sets fast.
I may have a break from my blogginations for a while; there is tricky book to finish. Recently I spent two and half months in Central America and Cuba with The Wife, I may tell you about that at some point. The biggest complaint I’ve had while writing this irreverent flickering images nonsense is calling The Wife,‘The Wife!’, feminists hate this, and they have every right to do so, I appreciate that – she doesn’t hate it, and she is a proper feminist. When I set off with the first blog she didn’t want her name mentioned, this was probably a wise thought, ‘I know what you can be like, people that know me might read it.’ She has mellowed, she is the reason we went away in the first place, she is the real risk taker in our relationship – I was only a risk-taker by association. She was the one that made a decision that has enhanced all our lives measurably, and the memories only get rosier with the passing of time, for this and many other reasons, is why I love her, so when I write: ‘The Wife’, what I mean is ‘my’ intelligent, beautiful, Punjabi Princess.
BIG LOVE to you all for reading these blogs in numbers that have astounded me, and as you travel and travail through life, catching and avoiding the pointing fingers and arrows of outrageous fortune, take my BIG LOVE with you, always… and make sure the glue is setting hard.
I write books. You can buy any of them at very reasonable prices here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=ian+m+pindar
My latest book: Hull, Hell & Homecomings, is out later this year to coincide with Kingston upon Hull being the 2017 UK City of Culture.
Epilogue: Through the Sun Gate: Machu Picchu.
This was the highlight of our family gap year: at least for The Wife it was. The sun creeping over the verdant Andes, the conical sides of Mount Huayna like benevolent reaching arms, to the blanket of the scattered ancient Inca ruins below. The Wife fighting for words to express its beauty; for her no anti-climax, for the rest of us the satisfaction that we have all made the three and a half day trek without oxygen and stretcher bearers. To stave off altitude sickness I have chewed the recommended cocoa leaves – all that occurred was an aching jaw like I had been hit a few days previous by Mike Tyson in a bad mood. The continued expectant eyes’ of the porters that I might have some ‘spare leaves’ – I felt like a drug dealer, I gave them all of them.
I have equal measures of wonderment and relief that we have made it, especially with a nine-year-old daughter, not so much in tow, more running ahead. The Wife has led us to the iconic photographic point – you know the one I mean. The children now more interested in the Mother and baby Llama just to our right, which are now bathed in the smiles of their own mother. The place is deserted; it is seven in the morning, ideal for photography in the still. She is punctuating the endless pictures with sighs of contentment and flowery adjectives – ‘this is why we are here’. The children are getting restless and not sharing her excitement now. Then it happens, whilst the baby llama is content to feed from its mother’s milk. The Madonna lets out the loudest expulsion of mammalian wind we have ever heard – ever! At the same time her short tail rises up and levitates in the air momentarily, before comedically falling back to its resting position. The children fall with it, into uncontrollable fits of laughter, I have no option but to follow suit. The laughter is not echoed by The Wife at the end of her (rudely) interrupted pilgrimage. Now would be a good time to break open the unused oxygen cylinder.
Several years pass and my wife is relaying the tales of our year out in the kitchen to a friend. She is waxing lyrical about the Incan ruins, her highlight, just as both the now teenage children enter the kitchen.
“What you talking about?” enquires the eldest.
The wife knows best not to mention Machu Picchu, it has been code named ‘Old Peak.’ – the rough Quechuan translation into English.
“She was telling me about Machu Picchu, it sounds soo wonderful. You are so lucky to have been.”
“Did she tell you about the Llamas?” The children look at each other trying to suppress something.
“No, what about the Llamas?” she lightly demands looking at The Wife, whom is shaking her head rhythmically from side to side.
Then they’re off again, transported back, memories underlined by laughter, and I have little choice again, but to join in.
Madonna and child!