My mom has a hangup about washcloths.
It’s a preference she didn’t realize she had until we climbed the tiny, winding staircase of our boutique Paris hotel four years ago, exhausted from our first red-eye and in desperate need of a shower. As we stumbled into each other in our petite room, she kept inquiring about this face essential as I ordered us du vin.
I continued to shrug — a ritual we still repeat in all of our travels. She’s full of questions and I don’t always have the answers, but when in doubt, we drink the wine. Despite the lack of her beloved washcloth, we fell in love with France on that trip — snacking on macaroons, admiring picture-perfect flower shops, climbing the winding steps of the Eiffel Tower in dresses and laughing as the Parisian air flirted up our legs. While I had looked forward to my first touchdown in Europe, what I didn’t realize was how important the experience would be with my mother, my ever-optimistic cheerleader, by my side. Especially since I never thought she’d also become my best travel buddy.
“I’m booking a trip to Paris and Rome by myself, mom,” I told her over the phone, commuting to my apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side. “I’m tired of waiting on my friends. I just want to see the world.”
“Well, don’t go alone. I’ll go with you!” she said.
I paused and asked her again. She affirmed. I booked the flights. She found our Paris hotel, while I scoured for the best deal in Rome. She took French lessons. I signed up for Italian ones. We both were poor students at the time but we somehow managed to navigate our way around these iconic European cities — sans working phones — for 10 days, giggling at the mishaps and the adventure. Apart from falling in love with the splendid joy of travel and fully adopting my sprouting wanderlust, our first mother/daughter trip cemented a new bond: not only could we talk about anything, but now we could go anywhere, too.
Since then, we’ve scaled the steps of Park Güell in Barcelona, been dazzled by the flamenco dancers in Granada, stood in awe of the Plaza de España in Seville, nibbled on pastel de natas in Lisbon, and rode horses into the sunset on the black-sand beaches of Costa Rica. Each time, I drag her around with an overpacked itinerary to see it all, walking for 12 hours each day to ensure we leave no must-see uncovered or un-Instagrammed.
But a few weeks ago, we had a different type of #TigarTakeover, the hashtag we’ve created for our adventures. At the age of 57, my mom had another foray of firsts when she traveled to another country — all by herself — to meet me in Peru. Not only did this trip add another destination to our shared bucket list, but it was a reunion, following the longest amount of time we’ve spent apart.
Almost 10 months ago, my mom encouraged me to quit my job and take a leap toward the freelance life, helped me pack up seven years of Manhattan into an overpriced storage space, and bought me a bottle of champagne when I signed on the digital dotted-line to join Remote Year. This year-long program gives digital nomads the opportunity to live in 12 cities and 10 countries while working around the globe, spanning countries like Croatia, Japan, Thailand, and Argentina. It was, and continues to be, the greatest leap of faith I’ve ever taken.
When I set off, leaving my beloved travel buddy back in North Carolina, my mom wasn’t upset. Instead, she excitedly picked Peru as her month to visit. “I’ve always wanted to see Machu Picchu!” she said in her thick and sweet Southern accent, the one I only share with her when I’m tired or have had too much to drink.
At half-past midnight, she arrived with tired eyes, grinning ear-to-ear as we made our way up to my temporary Lima home. With a bottle of wine one of my treasured new friends bought for her, it felt like introducing family to family. As we walked through Miraflores and Barranco, admiring the rush of the sea and the plethora of impressive street art, we caught up on our lives. And though I couldn’t put my finger on it right away, something felt different.
It wasn’t until we’d had one-too-many pisco sours at the Country Club of Lima that it occurred to me — our mother/daughter relationship had changed. Or more to the point: I had grown up.
She will always be my mother, and my psychologist, and greatest fan, but as I approach 30, she’s more so my best friend. My heartstrings had always been tied to her in some way over the years — after all, she didn’t want me to travel alone, and I had depended on her. But with 29 countries under my belt, a burgeoning career, and a newfound confidence, I was now able to stand — and fly — on my own.
Perhaps she said it best when we decided to lounge in our Cusco hotel to beat the altitude sickness with complimentary coca tea, “You’ve really calmed down, honey. You’re your own person now. It’s nice.”
And it was nice: we sipped on pisco sours and felt “fancy-schmancy” (my mother’s words) as we took the first-class Inca Rail train toward Machu Picchu. We went a little overboard with alpaca and souvenir purchases in Aguas Calientes, trying to tire ourselves for an early bedtime and an even earlier 4 a.m. wake-up call. Even though I had lied to her about the “small hike” we were in for — Huayna Picchu, the mountain overlooking Machu Picchu with the best view — she scaled all 2,500 of those steps victoriously. And though she’s told me countless times how proud she is of me, it was my turn to return the favor. Once we returned to our hotel at the base, Sumaq, I ordered us a mini bottle of champagne and we toasted to the accomplishment. As I took a video of her popping the cork, I felt an immense admiration for my mom. For this best friend of mine.
Sure, she gave me life, but more so she encouraged me to live mine fully. She’s challenged me to say “yes” to chances, and she’s quietly followed behind my every step — sometimes literally, mostly figuratively. Much like travel is my gateway to new foods and cultures, fodder for my stories, and the fuel that keeps me curious, traveling has proven to be a mid-life permission slip for my mom. A way of stepping away from her responsibilities and experiencing wonder with her daughter. It’s become our middle ground and our challenge, creating the greatest friendship I hope will grow through new milestones — from marriage and children to aging and homeownership. It’s comforting to know she’ll be there, both as my pal and my ma, through it all.
And she’ll always bring washcloths. Just in case I need them.