“The Uncharted Territory of Mother and Daughter”

The Jewish Exponent, August 21, 1997

"Hija?" the customs officer at the Peruvian border asks with a broad grin, nodding to my 22-year-old daughter a few feet ahead of me, as he examines my passport. "Mama," I say, patting my chest and smiling.

Sharing our last name and a family resemblance made it apparent to a stranger in a strange land that we were mother and daughter. But during our ten days traveling together in Latin America, I hardly recognized this familiar connection, so seamlessly had our roles shifted.

Like many college students, Margot spent several months studying, working and traveling out of the country. We talked every two weeks but our fifteen-minute phone calls were plagued with static and echoes. I hung up frustrated. I missed her and wanted to experience first-hand the land and people with whom she'd lived for the last four months.

I assumed I'd learn a lot about South American history, culture and politics on the trip but little did I anticipate that the most meaningful journey would occur on uncharted territory as mother and daughter.

I sensed the first seeds of change during our fuzzy long distance phone calls trying to make arrangements for my husband Dick's and my 6 a.m. arrival in La Paz, Bolivia. I saw no reason for Margot to get up at the crack of dawn to meet our plane. Dick and I could easily grab a cab and meet her and her boyfriend David at our hotel. "No," Margot insisted, "David and I will pick you up. You're in a strange country. You don't have any bolivianos and you can't speak the language."

Her uncharacteristic chutzpah surprised me, but when I told a friend about our conversation, she had a different interpretation: "Isn't it nice that she's taking care of you?" That was what threw me: she was looking after me. It was nice but isn't that a Jewish mother's job? What was my role now? I'm only in my early 50s. It seemed too early for this transition.

Margot booked us in a charming little hotel, Residence Rosario, in the heart of downtown La Paz, just blocks from Plaza San Francisco and the artisans' alley. As we walked the few feet from the cab to the entrance, we stumbled around Aymara women sitting next to their wares: huge canvas sacks of multi-colored potatoes; oranges, bananas and papayas stacked in pyramids on the sidewalk; bolts of fabric piled four feet high.

Over a breakfast of toast and tea with coca leaves (to combat altitude sickness), we planned our ten days together. Margot and David spent most of the day on the phone, haggling in Spanish, trying to make reservations for the buses, trains and hotels for our trip to Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas, high in the Peruvian Andes. Exhausted and short of breath, Dick and I retreated to our room to adjust gradually to the near 12,000 foot altitude.

During the all-day bus ride from La Paz to Puno, Peru, Margot and I sit together and catch up. As flute and guitar melodies serenade us from the speaker, we wend our way through a changing landscape: from the vast, stark Bolivian altiplano to the brilliant royal blue of Lake Titicaca to scrubby Peruvian farmlands, all surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks. We chat, we laugh, my eyes well up with tears. She tells me about her travels, her writing, the people she's met. She confides that she feels a stronger connection to Judaism in a Catholic country and embraces every Israeli she meets like a brother or sister.

Then I talk about my life at home. At one point I ask, "How's your PMS?" She answers and then queries, "How're your hot flashes?" I chuckle to myself at the parallel but respond as honestly as she did to my question. Sometimes we don't say a word, comfortable in our silence, or one of us dozes off.

That night in Puno, I can't stomach the pizza and leave dinner early to go to bed. I'm still feeling the lingering effects of the high altitude. I pant as I climb the four flights to what Dick affectionately calls our "penthouse"-- a small, bare unheated box of a room. I slip under the layers of alpaca blankets shivering. Everyone comes up after dinner. Margot sits on my bed, strokes my forehead, pulls up the covers and kisses me good night.

On our eleven-hour train ride to Cuzco, Peru the next day we sit two by two, Dick and I facing Margot and David with a table between us. We play Scrabble, our eyes darting from the board to the parade of scenes rolling before us: llamas and alpacas grazing, women scrubbing their clothes in the river, a roadside wedding. We savor our goat cheese and avocado sandwiches and talk. David asks how Dick and I met (a blind date) and before long, the four of us are involved in an intense, open discussion about the nuances of our personalities and our intimate relationships. I forget I'm talking to my daughter and her boyfriend. We are two women, who have a special connection, traveling with our men.

The four of us tour Machu Picchu, then fly back to La Paz, and head for Coroico, the mountain village where Margot and David have been living for the last month. The only way to get there--besides hiking--is a hair-raising three-hour ride by mini van on a one-lane dirt road. We can almost touch the mountain to our right; on the left, sheer drops of thousands of feet. It's a foggy day and we can barely see beyond the gray mist enveloping the van. I shut my eyes and try to put my faith in the driver.

We spend three days in Coroico, a semi-tropical mountain paradise lush with sugar cane, coffee and banana trees. We hike the back road to a waterfall, swim in the hotel pool, catch up on reading. David goes back to teaching English, for which he barters their meals, and joins us when he can. Margot gives massages to the owner of the hostel in exchange for their board. I've been waiting for my massage the whole trip. As I lie on the floor on a thick white alpaca rug, birds singing, a soft breeze wafting through the open windows, Margot's fingers knead my shoulders. I think about all the times I held those little hands when she was frightened, clipped her nails, put band aids on her cut fingers.

Before long, Dick and I say goodbye to David and the three of us head back to La Paz for our last day in Bolivia. The van lets us off on the outskirts of town and we take a cab back to the hotel through the noisy streets teeming with indigenous women scurrying about in full skirts, dark bowler hats, and brightly woven shawls filled with everything from breads to babies. Margot chats the whole way with Walter, our cabdriver. When we get out, she tells us she has arranged for him to pick us up at 6 a.m. for our flight home the next day.

We spend the last afternoon running around, bargaining in the market, loading up with alpaca sweaters, hand crafted pillows, vests and pocketbooks. As the sun goes down on Friday afternoon, we feel chilled and exhausted as we traipse back to our hotel. Margot comes to our room to survey our bounty. Then I pull the Shabbat candles from my duffle and we recite the Hebrew prayers together. As Dick plugs in the electric heater, we climb into bed. For a few brief minutes we huddle together under the covers--our daughter snuggled in the middle--mesmerized by the flickering candles.

At dinner we toast to more adventures together. "You don't have get up early tomorrow," I tell Margot over coffee. "We'll say 'goodbye' tonight and we can get to the airport ourselves. Walter will pick us up."

"Si, Mama," she concedes, grinning.


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