Travels With My Aunt ... and Family

Late in the afternoon not long ago, I walked home slowly from work, enjoying the final rays of sun. It was my last day before vacation; for two weeks I would leave the cement-paved city and smoggy streets. I was going to a new world; I was going to South Africa.

This was a gift so immense I could hardly fathom it. My aunt and uncle, generous to the point of eccentricity, had invited me to join them - and an entire crew of our family that included my aunt and uncle's seven grandchildren - to see the newly democratic country. We would spend 12 days there, staying no more than two nights in one place. We would get a taste of everything.

What could I give them in return? I peered through shop windows, looking for a token of appreciation. Nothing was enough.

Ultimately, my feet steered for the nearest bookstore. It always happens that way. I end up staying for hours, leafing through whatever crosses my path. When I was small, I would sit on the floor in a corner and read and read, hoping no one would chase me away.

I smiled at the memory and thought I would bring a book for the grandchildren. It wasn't hard to find good titles; all my old friends stood in front of me. After painful deliberation, I settled on ``The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,'' by C.S. Lewis. Maybe a story about children finding a magic country in an old closet is too far-fetched for them, I thought, but threw it in my case anyway.

WE landed at Cape Town airport and immediately set off to see as much of the exotic land as possible. Would we ever have time to read? All our energy was spent looking at baboons, palm trees, and the stubby indigenous plants. For a little while the book stayed untouched in my bag.

We barreled through the countryside along the southern coast to Port Elizabeth, and then flew to Johannesburg. The parched countryside and ancient mountains pierced the turquoise sky, and I desperately took mental snapshots to hold on to the rough majesty.

But I soon realized that we wouldn't experience much of what the country had to offer. Our tour guides kept us on a tight rein, and the changes that South Africa's people had undergone remained a mystery to me. No hotels, streets, museums, or parks we visited gave evidence of the democratic elections that had captivated the world just months before, or the social unrest that had preceded them.

Only from a distance could I see the smoke hanging over the acres of corrugated metal shacks near Cape Town. Our guide referred to the huts as ``informal housing.'' I grimaced at the euphemism and later tried to ask her further about the country's social challenges, only to receive a reproach for buying into the biased media portrayals.

I settled for some souvenir key chains showing the new flag and quietly bought some more newspapers, considering myself fortunate to have had one real conversation about politics - with a park ranger at a game reserve we visited. He was a member of the Shangaan tribe and said he didn't mind working for days on end at the reserve because ``animals don't fight wars, and they don't cry.'' From him, I glimpsed an uncorrupted joy for life and a cautious hope very different from the hesitation I felt from my guides.

Even on such an engrossing tour, parts of our days were ordinary. Two seven-year-old relatives had been specially entrusted to my care, and food had to be found and beds had to be slept in. I stumbled through the first few days, trying to remember what it was like to be small.

Juliana and Luisa seemed to need help with everything: holding forks, drying wet hair, and finding underwear. Since they were twins, I often thought I was addressing one girl but was actually talking to the other. This disconcerted me and annoyed them. Everything took much longer than it should, we were always late, and I was always wanting to raise my voice.

One night early in the trip, the twins were bouncing all over their bed as I desperately tried to impose order. We had spent the whole day in a bus, and the scenery that had riveted me to the window left them keyed up and giddy. Could girls really be so squirmy? Had I ever been like that? Where were my pajamas, let alone theirs?

Once I found my nightshirt, I saw my trusted friend ``The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.'' Well, I sighed, why not?

I called out to the twins. ``I'll read a story to you as soon as you're under the covers.'' It was incredible. I didn't think books held that much attraction anymore, but the girls scrambled into bed fairly quickly and I began to read.

Some of the words were complicated - even ``wardrobe'' was a stretch - and at first I wondered if the twins could handle the plot. But it suited them perfectly; all they needed was a willingness to imagine. We traveled together with Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy into the magic kingdom of Narnia, where animals talk and live among dwarfs, giants, and fauns.

It almost saddened me to put the book down when the twins fell asleep. The next day we continued, however, and slowly our relationship strengthened from the common bond of reading. Every evening held more than simply asking for teeth to be brushed and clothes to be folded; and every morning, when we chatted about what I had read the previous night, grew into a happier experience than I had known before. The two girls became more substantial to me because we could love the same things, and I suppose I became more than just another grown-up to them.

Our journeys through South Africa continued along with the imaginary travels through Narnia. Though reading the book had little connection with our other real-life adventures, I found myself enjoying the whole trip a good deal more.

After all, the trip wasn't for me but for all of us - the children, too - and the more time I spent with Juliana and Luisa, the better I understood what they enjoyed and what they could appreciate. We cherished the short time we had, going to see ostriches, gold mines, lions, zebras. Just as I hadn't known the apartheid-torn country to have so many facets, I hadn't realized the children could be so individual or insightful. I even learned to tell them apart.

BEFORE we left, I went to another bookstore that was a bit like the first one I had stepped into at home. I bought the children some more books, more as a memory of how much fun we had had than anything else.

It didn't really matter what drew us together. I could go back to South Africa, but little girls' days are numbered; the next time we saw each other, they would be different - more sophisticated, more independent ... more grown-up. But this trip would always be a part of us.

As I left my aunt and uncle, I realized our trip together went beyond the miles traveled and sights seen; it was a gift of family. And there really wasn't anything I could give them in return beyond being a part of it.

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