OOO: What Makes a Family Vacation?
My family didn't take "typical" vacations, but it wasn't about the destination.
I’m hopping on an airplane today, which means I won’t be posting this Thursday and possibly the Thursday after that.
I’m sure some of you are thinking, “I’m sorry, who are you? How did you get in here?”
But I didn’t want those of you who care to think I was passed out in the back of a pickup truck, unable to perform my epistolary duties.
This coming trip will be the first international vacation I’ve had in four or five years, which got me thinking about how lucky I am to be able to travel, especially considering that wasn’t always the case.
My family rarely went on vacation when I was a kid. If we went anywhere, it was usually a day trip to Sandy Hook down the shore or the Meadowlands Fair — a sprawling carnival erected in the massive parking lot of the stadium where the Giants and the Jets played.
We didn’t go on any of the all-American family vacations to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Washington D.C.
Well, I guess we did one.
Most Magical Place on Earth
We went to Disney World when I was four years old, although we didn’t have the typical experience. It wasn’t The Florida Project-sad, but it wasn’t “I’m going to Disney World!”-happy either.
My sister was about to turn 15. My parents didn’t have money for a big blowout quinceañera, but they did know someone who had recently moved to Kissimmee, Florida, which was a 25-minute drive from Disney World. It meant we wouldn’t have to pay for our hotel and that we would have some of our meals covered. Having our trip subsidized was the only way my parents could afford doing something special for my sister.
Too bad that was the last place my sister wanted to be. The house in Kissimmee belonged to her former piano teacher, Margo, who had recently moved down to Florida. Margo was the bane of my sister’s existence — a martinet who relentlessly pinpointed my sister’s perceived flaws, no matter how petty, including her complexion, which, according to Margo, was gross for having visible blue veins.
We had to rent a car to get around, since Margo was at work during the day. The car rental place was a good half-hour walk in the thick Florida heat. My mom hadn’t planned on being out in the sun, so we had no sunscreen and no other way to block out the relentless glare. Our skin would flare up like a bad rash.
My memories of that trip are vague, like a fading dream, but one image stands out: Warm rain drizzling down on us while the sun beamed just down the block, with our own personal rainbow materializing at ground-level. I didn’t know weather could do that.
Another stand-out memory wasn’t as pleasant: Space Mountain. No ride has ever scared me like Space Mountain. Hell, not even skydiving did.
Space Mountain didn’t boast any fancy loop-the-loops or twirls, just up and down and around, like the old wooden roller coasters. But. It. Was. In. The. Dark.
There were lights on the domed ceiling that were meant to be stars, and I think I remember some neon track lighting, but beyond that it was dark. Since the track and the lattice of beams supporting it was obscured, it felt like we were floating around in this inky ether, like Eleven sloshing around in The Void. At one point, as the roller coaster ascended and we were tilted up toward the “stars,” I remember fearing we would never stop, that we would keep climbing and crash into them.
I cried. My mom was furious with my sister, who later confessed she had stood in front of the “you must be this tall to ride this ride” sign so that la mami wouldn’t object.
On the last day our trip, we ran out of money. We had $20 left which was earmarked for a taxi when we got back to New York. Instead, she used the money to buy a burger, fries and soda. I was a really picky eater. I played with my food, completely indifferent to the last meal any of would have down there, while my mom and sister starved. They eyed me ravenously and said gently, “Come, Pablito, come.” (Eat, Pablito, eat.)
It’s one of the longest-standing running jokes in our family. If you encourage someone to have something you really want, that’s what we say.
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The Mendoza Exception
On my first international trip, I went to Argentina, where all but my immediately family lived. I was around 8 years old that first time and went three or four times between the ages of 8 and 18. I haven’t been since. I’m 41. My niece will study abroad there next year, so my streak of absence will likely be snapped soon.
I cherish those trips, but it’s hard to call them vacations. It was surreal to visit a place where suddenly I had so much family, who, up until that point, had been disembodied voices living inside a plastic receiver.
“Say hello to your tía,” my mother or father would say.
I would balk at the obligation that had been forced on me, as I saw it at the time. It meant I had to speak Spanish, which didn’t come as naturally to me as it did my sister, who spent a few years in a school in Argentina. I’m ashamed to admit that if I heard my mom or dad speaking to family in Argentina, I would make myself scarce, pretending to do homework.
It was hard speaking Spanish unbroken for three weeks straight, but it was eye-opening to see that those disembodied voices were real people who loved me just for being me. It’s one thing to understand it as a concept. It’s another to feel it. My abuela on my dad’s side bear-hugged me when she met me, picking me off the ground as a 70-something-year-old woman. My abuela on my mom’s side introduced me to dulce de leche. I arm-wrestled with my cousins on my dad’s side. When I came back as a teenager, we went out and got drunk. I was mesmerized my tío Paco’s fireplace, which he let me prod and poke. I saw Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Andes firsthand, and cried when snow got in my boots, which were definitely not waterproof.
It was only after my trip to Argentina that I realized how lonely our little family was. My friends always had cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Mine had been 5,000 miles away my whole life.
The Delaware River
Looking back, the trips to the Delaware River were most like family vacations, even though they were only overnight trips.
Whitewater rafting on the Delaware was my sister’s brainchild. She’d moved out of the house a year or two earlier, at which point it dawned on her that we’d never really been on a family vacation. We packed a K-Mart tent into her blue Volvo, and we drove south.
Growing up in north Jersey, I didn’t see much nature, save that one time we went to Bear Mountain and my dad had to hoist me onto his shoulders and gallop down the mountain because I freaked out when I saw the entire forest floor covered in little, red spiders.
Paddling down the Delaware, I was enthralled. The river would narrow, the riverbank giving way to a cliff whose peak leaned over the river while rock formations rose from the water, creating intimate, almost grotto-like spaces, before opening up into a vast panorama of serene river and rolling hills of unbroken deciduous forest.
The wider, open parts of the river were beautiful, but they were more work. There was less of a current, which meant we’d have to paddle a hell of a lot more, and we weren’t great about coordinating our paddling. We’d veer too much to one side, which would take a lot of effort to course correct.
Later on, probably on the second day, once my sister had gotten fed up with the endless toil of paddling, she used a new tactic: If we veered too far to one side, what she at that point considered the point of no return, she would paddle with the veer instead of against it so that we would spin 360 degrees. That last leg, we spent mostly spinning. My sister, now delirious, laughed her ass off. We couldn’t help but join her, exhausted and happy, rivulets of tears cooling on our faces.
The night after the first leg, we roasted marshmallows. I didn’t even really like roasted marshmallows, but I loved the experience of poking twigs in them and holding them over the fire. Our sleeping bags weren’t plump enough to cushion the tent floor enough so that we wouldn’t feel the rocks and twigs as we slept. I didn’t sleep well, but it didn’t matter: It was the best trip of my childhood.
What makes a family vacation?
When I think about my childhood, I never think about the places we might’ve gone. I don’t regret not seeing Mount Rushmore, but I do wish we would’ve gone white water rafting more often. We only went twice. Maybe I should be happy with the times we had, or maybe we should plan another trip to the Delaware.