Remote Year, Unraveled

Leaving a Travel Legacy


Three weeks ago, one of my biggest fears while being on Remote Year became a reality: My grandmother, whom we lovingly call Mamu, passed away on Feb. 5 after fighting cancer of the liver for the past 3 years. I was at an Irish pub in Mexico City watching the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl with 20+ RY friends when my mom called me via WhatsApp to share the news. It wasn’t a surprise, but that didn’t soften the blow. I walked back into the bar a little numb, just as the energy around me was ramping up as the Patriots surged from behind.

Just two days earlier I had walked out of her hospital room in Walnut Creek, CA, knowing it was probably the last time I would see Mamu. I had the chance to visit her twice during my two-day visit to the Bay Area, and I was so grateful for the “unraveled travel” complications that ended up giving me the opportunity to spend quality time with both Mamu and Granddaddy. On the first day, her face brightened and she got a burst of energy as soon as I walked into her room. She was brimming with questions about Remote Year, asking about the group dynamics, the food, our accommodations and more. I told her stories about attending a Halloween party at Dracula’s castle in Transylvania and laughed with her about how everyone in our group had each other’s limited wardrobes memorized. I showed her videos of the Tamborada festival in San Sebastian and joked that by the time I saw her next, after spending 6 months in Latin America, I’d be fluent in Spanish.

Most of all, I reveled in sharing quality time with the woman who instilled in me my sense of wanderlust. In 2009, I published the following blog post:

My love for travel and interest in foreign cultures began before I ever had a passport. I have my maternal grandparents to thank for that. As the head of the University of California Alumni Association, Granddaddy led overseas tours for Cal alumni every year. And every year he and Mamu brought back little dolls from the countries they visited. The ever-growing shelf of international figurines was a constant presence in my childhood. In this way, my grandparents were my first tour guides. I listened to their stories, reveled in their photographs and treasured their dolls and other souvenirs.

On the left is the poster that hung in my grandparents' home, celebrating the many international tours they led for decades. To the right is the collection of dolls they brought back from all their travels, thus inspiring a new generation of world travelers as their legacy.
On the left is the poster that hung in my grandparents’ home, celebrating the many international tours they led for decades. To the right is the collection of dolls they brought back from all their travels, thus inspiring a new generation of world travelers as their legacy.

When I took my first trip abroad to France in 1996 at age 14, Mamu and Granddaddy sent brochures and maps of their favorite places in Paris and beyond. When I spent a semester in London, I carted with me a token from my grandparents: a folder of pamphlets, a list of England’s hot spots and my great-grandmother’s personal account of the Chelsea Flower Show. They were my own personal Lonely Planet guides.

This year the roles were reversed for the first time as my grandparents sought my tips for a good time in Hanoi, Saigon, and Bangkok. It was a moment of pride for me. I was finally able, in some small way, to repay them for all their years of inspiration and advice. But I can never thank them enough for fostering in me a love for travel, curiosity of foreign cultures and desire to pack up and go see the world.

Mamu inspired me beyond travel as well. Her lessons were numerous:

  • Always keep a bottle of bubbly in the fridge because good news could come at any time, and you should always be prepared to celebrate.
  • Similarly, keep a bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling cider on hand (especially when hosting a party), too, because kids and those refraining from booze should also be able to join a toast.
  • A lady’s best asset is her smile and her confidence.
  • Being a lady, though, doesn’t preclude you from challenging the minister to a burping contest or seeing who at the dinner table can dangle a spoon off their nose the longest.
  • They’re not “coincidences,” they’re “Godincidences.”
  • Find a cause dear to your heart and invest in it with your money and your time, serving the cause for decades. Mamu’s cause was Las Trampas, a home for mentally disabled adults in the Bay Area.
  • Diet Coke is a good hangover cure.
  • Poetry is a connector. Use it to connect with people and your own emotions. Mamu used to email poems when she read one that spoke to her. This one was one of my favorites:

    by William Stafford

    It could happen any time, tornado,
    earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
    Or sunshine, love, salvation.

    It could you know. That’s why we wake
    and look out—no guarantees
    in this life.

    But some bonuses, like morning,
    like right now, like noon,
    like evening.

  • Don’t just go out to dinner. Take time to dine.
  • Get to know your waiter/waitress. You will have a better dining experience when you pause to converse and connect with the people who know the menu best. If you ask for a recommendation from the server, always take their advice.
  • Similarly, when you get your nails done, talk with the person doing your nails. Get to know them as a person.
  • Find your signature drink. Mamu’s was a Bombay Sapphire bone-dry martini, straight up, no olive.

My cousin Molly recently posted a similar list of Mamuisms on Facebook:

  • “Don’t worry too much about “good” and “bad” wines. Everyone has a different palette. Find what you like and go from there.
  • You know, my dear, I had friends who used to pluck their eyebrows as thin as yours. Today, they have no eyebrows. Something to think on.
  • Call me anytime, day or night. I’m probably still awake, and I either did what you are thinking about doing, or considered it.
  • Always make time for lunch or cocktails with friends. Or both!
  • Travel. Don’t worry about not speaking the language. I had a marvelous time in Italy speaking one word with a smile. Well, and being blonde.
  • If you are going to lie about your age, always age yourself up. People will be very impressed and tell you how great you look.
  • I met both Frank Sinatra and Prince Charles. The most enchanting part about them? When they looked at you, it was as if you were the only one in the room and they had no interest in anyone else. Something to strive for.
  • You’re an Aries. A fire sign. In times of stress, head to the tub.
  • You are too fiscally (conservative). You need to learn to live a little and spend some money.
  • Manners matter, and they don’t cost anything. But never embarrass someone if they pick up the wrong glass or fork. Just follow suit.
  • You asked for 8 scoops of ice cream. I gave you 8 scoops. You never specified they couldn’t be from a melon baller. I aim to please.
  • I used to send back my laundry by train to my mother if it wasn’t pressed correctly. One must have standards, you know.
  • I fell in love with that painting the moment I saw it. It was the first day of our trip, and your grandfather cautioned me that I would have to lug it all around Europe. The next day, I bought it, and to this day, it brings me joy every time I see it. There are things in this world, my dear, that are worth the effort.

Most of Mamu’s lessons were about investing time with people: the family and friends closest to you of course, but also those whom you may meet only in passing. She was truly interested, engaged and invested in the people around her, and nothing demonstrates her love and acceptance than the ending she added to every prayer:

“Be with all those we love. Wherever they are. And however they need you.”

Wherever I go in the next five months and beyond, I know Mamu’s love will surround and inspire me.


1 Comment

  1. Sally Mehaffey

    Thank you for this, Erica.
    It brought tears to my eyes…..almost had
    a day without that.
    Love you bunches!

    03 . Mar . 2017

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