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Dear Dad, Thanks for Making Me a Traveler

Student Work Narrative Couples
by Annabelle Needles Oct 27, 2014


Since my earliest moments, you’ve told me about how when you were in high school you had a choice between getting a car and taking a trip to the Philippines for the Boy Scouts World Jamboree. You chose the Philippines.

You’ve never looked back.

I was five when we went to Spain. I remember chicken fingers, greasy and perfectly crisp, and sitting at a small restaurant table. I remember this was after a morning being pushed around in my umbrella stroller, staring up in awe at giant paintings by Picasso and Goya in the Prado Museum — paintings I knew nothing of then but would later learn about in school — but what I remember most clearly is eating those chicken fingers and knowing, somewhere inside my little five-year-old heart, we weren’t at home. We were somewhere else. I kept my first travel journal on that trip, because even then you were teaching me to remember.

I was 11 when you pulled us out of school in Chicago and took us to Sydney. It was my first, but not last, study-abroad experience. I remember standing on the balcony while you took photos of my first day of school “Down Under.” My uniform was plaid and I wore a maroon scrunchie in my hair. You snapped away as I listed to the sound of the waves crashing below our apartment. I thought about how I loved the ocean, and how I felt at home even though we were halfway around the world. And then, like any kid anywhere, I went to school.

It was the other side of the world and yet it felt all the same to me somehow. My new school friends tried to talk me into tasting Vegemite, but I was skeptical of the salty paste that smelled like leather. You told me I might be surprised, and that part of life is being willing to try new things. I hated the Vegemite. But I liked the idea of being brave enough to seek out strange and unknown experiences. I still do.

By junior high, back in Illinois, my friends would joke about how you worked for the CIA; you were always off somewhere we hadn’t heard of, and I could rarely account for your whereabouts. The world felt so big then, and you felt very far away. But I was proud of you, and enjoyed bragging to anyone who would listen about how my dad was in South Africa, my dad was in Buenos Aires. You have made the world seem small for me, in the best way. You have taught me to hustle and to network and to figure out a way to make things happen. And I learned that you can always find a way to see the world, even if you’re not in the CIA.

Then I was in high school, and it was my first time traveling without you. It was the Dominican Republic. I watched my wide-eyed schoolmates observing the holes in the floor of our bus, and later, the leaky A/C units over our beds and men with huge guns guarding our hotel. I wasn’t wide-eyed, and I moved without their trepidation or discontentment. Instead, I went and stood on our hotel’s rooftop deck and looked out over Santo Domingo. While this place was new and different and you weren’t there with me, I was content because you had shown me that travel — and life — rarely goes as planned. I’d come to see that as part of the adventure. While my schoolmates whispered to one another about going home, I wondered if the Dominican Republic felt to me like the Philippines felt to you. I wanted to thank you then, standing on that roof.

While my childhood friends went on vacations to Wisconsin Dells and Disney World, I found myself walking the Great Wall of China, taking helicopter rides in New Zealand, and swooning over lavender fields in Provence.
Sometimes I was jealous of my friends’ water slide and theme park memories. Swapping stories at school, they would look at me with heads tilted in confusion, a resounding chorus of “Where’s that?” Some days, I wanted to be the same. But I trusted you, and I knew you had reasons for dragging me to these corners of the Earth. And I couldn’t be who I’ve become today without those little glimpses of distant lands — each place visited, each place where I held your hand and my feet sank into the earth has been woven into the very fabric of who I am.

After college, you and I went to Istanbul. The trip seemed like all our others, with that blue Rick Steves guidebook tucked under your arm and those cargo pants you always wear on, but it was entirely different for the small but unmistakable difference that you didn’t take me; we went, together. Me, the traveler, learning to do it on my own. We watched the sunset behind a minaret skyline from a boat on the Bosphorus, and everything was the same, and everything was different. You invited me to dinner with your university colleagues and I admired you once again, as I have for most of my life — this time for the fact that everywhere you went in the world, you had a friend. I couldn’t wait to make that story my own.

I used to roll my eyes at how you would always stop and take pictures. I would grow impatient — I couldn’t imagine why you would need so many memories. But those giant albums of photographs you keep in the attic hold some of the best moments in my life. When I’m home I pull them out, run my hand over our faces, across narrow European streets, across me in the maroon scrunchie with that distant look in my eyes, across the minarets of Istanbul. The whole world, and my whole life, is sprawled across each page. These days I’m the one stopping the car at scenic viewpoints, coming home with maxed-out memory cards or handfuls of film in my pockets. Like father, like daughter. I get it now.

I remember looking at all the stamps in your passport and wondering if mine would ever look like yours when I grew up. I remember the little bags of currencies from all over the world, leftovers from your trips that you kept in your desk drawer for “next time.” You always taught me to travel like there was going to be a next time. You’ve collected a lifetime of stamps and loose change and stories. While you were doing it, you made the entire world my home.

And now, here I am at 27, with no car, no lease, and no plans. I have a feeling I’ll choose the Philippines.

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