The author and his son visiting Bali. (All photos courtesy of George Rush)
My dad took our family on typical vacations when I was growing up – Gettysburg, Williamsburg, the Wisconsin Dells. We stopped for clamwiches at Howard Johnson’s. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I left the United States.
When I finally procured a passport, I lit out with friends on a three-month trip around the world. We were in Kashmir, riding horses through the Himalayan foothills, when we crossed paths with an American couple and their two children. I found it incredible that these kids were experiencing such an ethereal place. Then and there, I said to myself, “If I ever have a kid, he or she is coming with me!”
My son, Eamon, was 1 year old when he got his passport. He picked up his first few immigration stamps in Europe and the Caribbean. Later, my wife, Joanna, and I, who are both journalists, started taking him farther afield – to Tunisia and Indonesia.
Eamon, 10, in Ghana.
One year, I got an assignment in Ghana. Joanna couldn’t break away from work. I asked Eamon, then 10, if he wanted to go. He said, “Sure,” though he later claimed he thought I’d said, “We’re gonna go on a vacation!”
I wanted to push the boundaries this time. So, besides touring the West African nation, we volunteered with Globe Aware, an organization that helps build schools. Eamon had never been a big chore-doer. But, in Ghana, he carried lumber, mixed cement, and sawed iron rods. He played soccer with village kids and showed them American football. He went to a voodoo ceremony, where, he likes to recall, I got a little carried away with the trance drumming and ritual libations. It was his longest time away from his mom. But he came home with some stories – like the day he scared a toddler who’d never seen a white boy.
Eamon was 13 when he and I went to Madagascar. His cement-mixing skills came in handy on another school construction site, this one run by Azafady, a pioneering NGO. He also helped take a census of frogs on an island crawling with lemurs, chameleons, and other species found nowhere else on earth. His main project was getting me to grow a beard. I didn’t want to grow a beard, but he seemed to think it was something dads did in the wild. He also insisted on naming my beard “Sebastian.” He asked Malagasy strangers if they wanted to touch Sebastian. Thankfully, most declined.
Last summer, we headed to Ecuador. By then, the burbling ‘tween I’d brought to Ghana had turned into a supremely cool 15-year-old who spoke to us sporadically. But, once we’d left the States,once he couldn’t text his friends and he’d run through all the movies he’d downloaded, he had no one left to talk to but me. We fell into our routines: gags with sleep masks and neck pillows, inside jokes about invasive worms, Eamon goading me to grow another beard. Again, we volunteered.
Fun with lemurs.
The terrific VenaEcuador program arranged for us to live with families while we tutored students in the Galapagos. We met some more astonishing creatures: Darwin’s finches, slag heaps of iguanas, the blue-footed booby. The trip was infused with more adrenalin – rafting, scuba-diving, mountain-biking, volcano-climbing. I tried to keep up. Fortunately, I now had someone who could help pull into the boat or through the hole in a cave.
It’s funny how you sometimes have to go far away to get closer. Eamon now appreciates more of what he sees around him. But there’s never a bad age for a kid to discover the world’s wonders and sorrows, and feel what it’s like to be an outsider. This summer, we’re due to volunteer in Kenya with the anti-poaching foundation, Big Life. Now Eamon is the one who can grow the beard. My only question: what will I name it?
George Rush has written for the Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Departures, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and Esquire, among other magazines. His new book is, Scandal: A Manual.
In the Galapagos.