The Rock That Sprouted Leaves

Sweat poured down my face and back as I galumphed my way down from the train station to the harbor. In the distance, I could see several mammoth ships moored alongside the barely visible narrow docks and framed by a cerulean and gold-inlaid sky; had I not been so late for my ferry, I would’ve enjoyed the picture-perfect scene. I think she would’ve, too.

It was August, and I had decided to make my getaway from Hungary and check off a few other countries on my list of places to visit. While I could hardly believe that I went to Cairo and lived in Budapest – two cities I dreamt of going to since I was a child – my heart skipped at the thought of my last leg of this journey. The mountains to be climbed.

But first, back to that wasted picture-perfect scene. I had just arrived in Hirtshals, Denmark, after having taken two wrong trains, all the while toting a 60-kg rucksack and a shoulder bag containing an unwieldy, eight-pound computer.  A ship – I couldn’t tell which one – blew its horn.

Suddenly an awkward teenager again, running alongside her as we hurried to catch our departing cruise ship in the Caribbean years ago. Crew members, lined up on either side of the plank, glaring at us as we boarded.

The ships seemed close enough, albeit for the circuitous maze of docks, none of which seemed to be a direct route and seemed to shift places when I looked away. I stumped my way to a large rectangular building raised on four pillars above the water in the middle of the harbor and which looked like some menacing Bond villain ocean stronghold. After checking my ticket, a kind servicewoman pointed to my ship – which looked miles away now – and told me I’d have to take a taxi if I wanted to board on time.

Taxis. New York City. My fist and last years living there. The driver who, after a misunderstanding over my confusion with a credit card scanner and his would-be tip, sat outside my apartment screaming all sorts of obscenities I dare not repeat here. The cabbie who, on the way to my interview for the job I would actually get in a few months’ time despite being 20 minutes late, zigzagged block by block down the grid of Manhattan until I had had enough of his meter-pumping scheme. She would’ve said something sooner.

There were more incidents, none of which more enjoyable than the other, but needless to say, I tipped my driver well as we pulled up before my ferry and tusind tak’d (“a thousand thanks” in Danish) him generously. Relieved, I dumped my burdens in my tiny, single-bed cabin and set to exploring the ship.

The next morning, I dragged myself from the edge of the toilet, put on my weights, and blearily swayed down the corridor and out of the hellship that some day I’m sure will ferry souls over the Styx after the current one retires. Stavanger, Norway was smaller than I expected, more of a Scottish highland village with no discernible downtown, just a few diesel stations and some cute houses embedded in the lush hillside.

It was also not Stavanger.

A long and trying trip not-to-be to Dobogókő, Hungary. A late start, as it was still twilight at dawn. Missed Dobogókő by mere half a kilometer. Unawares, continued on, mounting hill after hill, only to be frustrated by a view of more hills rolling on endless in the distance. Rain. Sleet. Snow. Nine straight hours without stopping, the rollercoaster of emotions in my head mimicking the tireless ups and downs of the Hungarian landscape, until finally reaching the Danube River and serendipitously sitting down on a curbside as a bus pulled up, its electronic marquee reading “Budapest”. Did she ever live inside her head, too? I never asked.

Traveling alone – and generally being alone – can give peace of mind, offers rewards for challenges overcome by one’s own merit, and creates opportunities that might otherwise not come around with another person in tow. On the other hand, being inside your own head for such a long time can bring on a mild sort of madness, exactly what I experienced as I had hiked north in Hungary and as I trekked the 17-km trek that lie between that lonely little Norwegian town and my intended port of arrival. I’m afraid to know her personal hardships.

The last leg of my journey that summer was not Norway; of course, it was third after Cairo and Budapest, only just beating out Japan and New Zealand. I was coming home in time to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday. Selfishly, I was also coming home to see my mother.

The Pittsburgh Airport. A security checkpoint that separated the goers from the stayers. My mother crying, and my heart breaking.

I didn’t cry until halfway through my flight between Chicago and Tokyo. The madness came on gradually, as I was by myself once again, left to battle with the frayed wires of memories, ambition, and aimlessness that have always plagued my every thought and action.

Buttermilk Falls.
A Ph.D. graduation ceremony.
A surrealistic European visit.
Piano lessons. An emergency appendix removal. A personally embarrassing and yet unhesitatingly granted birthday wish. An acceptance of what I was. A reacceptance of what I am.

It’s difficult to travel when there’s someone in your life who is the essential comfort of home, who is home. When they spotted my mother in my hometown of Blairsville, Pennsylvania, my friends would remark how she “tore out of the parking lot” or would refer to her as Bonn-I: a strong woman who didn’t like the “e”, so simply got rid of it. A woman who told you you’d be eating her dust as she sped past you on the highway at age 90.

Unfortunately, she is the exact opposite of me. For a long time, I thought otherwise, but the unmovable gave rise to the ever restless, and I’m still mucking my way through the meandering stream to reach the river of life. Or something less overdramat- and metaphor-ic.

Still, although my memories of them are disjointed, I have too much for which to thank my mother. In the end, I hope she knows that mountains are not so important and that everything I do is either because of her or for her.


Happy Mother’s Day!