“We had to hide from the river pirates,” Mom said in the darkness. The lights were out as this was a bedtime story, and I was four years old.
“From the pirates?” If the lights had been on she could have seen my eyes open as wide as the full moon.
“Yes, we hid under the wooden bunks and couldn’t talk all night long. Even the kerosene lamps were out. We had to be invisible.”
My mind tried to conjure an image of the Yangtze circa 1920 from the black and white photos I looked at frequently that my grandparents had taken of their many trips on this legendary river. My young mind could see the steep banks shrouded in mist and trees tumbling down to the shore and imagine the junk pulled into a cove hidden from the marauding pirates. Yet I couldn’t get an image of Chinese pirates, only the ones from my comic books, which I knew weren’t Chinese because I didn’t think they had parrots in China.
“But they didn’t find you, right?” I was pretty sure they hadn’t because Mom was right here in my room and pirates made people walk the plank.
“No, they didn’t, and we continued to Kuling in the morning.”
“But why were they being pirates?” I asked because I knew pirates always wanted doubloons and rum, whatever they were, and I didn’t think China had those.
There was a long pause from my Mom. I thought maybe she wanted to end the story since I was supposed to be getting sleepy not excited. Yet her voice , not mine, sounded weary. “Because they were hungry. They wanted food. They knew boats with foreigners would have food.”
I had heard that before. (“Eat your lima beans!” I hated lima beans. “The children in China are starving.”) So I knew that was true. For you see, my Mom wasn’t making this story up. It wasn’t fiction.
The daughter of American medical missionaries, my Mother was born and lived until she was 13 in Changde, a city a thousand miles up the Yangtze River. My grandparents worked and lived in China for most of the first half of the 20th century until being ejected by the retreating Japanese in 1945. My bedtime stories were not fiction; I grew up hearing first hand what it was like being a foreign child in China during its turbulent years after the 1912 Revolution – the year of my Mother’s birth.
I grew up with images in direct contrast to the bucolic beauty and calm of Pennsylvania’s historic Bucks County circa 1950s.
Then there were the Nova Scotia stories from my father on other nights. Stories of my family sailing from France in 1650, settling that rocky coastline and still living in the same fishing village I visited every summer. I have a pair of ice skates my father strapped onto his boots to traverse the frozen harbor when he was a boy.
First hand stories were the sparks that inflamed my mind with a desire that turned into passion and finally a career as an international travel journalist. Once I could read I devoured books on geography and history, poured over maps, paged through every volume of the World Book Encyclopedia multiple times and read National Geographic magazines as if they were comic books.
Once out of high school there was never anxiety as I went off to universities far from home in the USA, Canada and Ireland. If my Mom could survive river pirates, I could navigate hostels backpacking in Europe. If my father’s family could cross the Atlantic in 1650, I could move to the Caribbean for a decade working as a teacher, chef, writer and father children who, like my parents, where born into a language different than my native tongue.
Dozens of countries and many jobs, hundreds of published articles and thousands of photos, it’s the pirates that still haunt me. Why were they hungry? Why were they at war? I need to know, and I don’t want to hide.
Other travel writers can marvel at the newest luxury hotel and discover the next trendy beach scene. What drives me is discovering the “why” within the destination. Why does the land take this shape? Why does the food have this taste? Why did that cooking method develop? Why is that festival so important to their identity as a people?
Without that drive to discover “why” why go.
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