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October 18, 2007

It Was, Indeed, Worthwhile!

Tom McLaughlin

"You are taking your daughter with you"? I heard this everywhere. Even across cultures.

Malaysians, Australians and Europeans expressed surprise that she was accompanying me. One lady from Belgium actually burst into tears and stated she wished her father had taken her on a trip. None of this made any sense to me because I could not fathom why this would surprise anyone. I still can't.

I had a lot of experience in overseas travel and I imparted this advice on my daughter. It was my Rule of 5. Five of everything and only two pairs of shoes in one suitcase, I advised. Since we were going to be doing a lot of hiking, the one pair should be of good quality with strong treads.

We went to pick her up at BWI and there were three suitcases, the mama, the papa and the toddler. One could not call it a baby because it was bulging and straining at the zippers. When we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, I watched the taxi drivers' eyes pop and muscles strain as he lifted these bundles into the car. After a lifetime of airport taxi driving, he non-verbally communicated that these were the worst he had ever lifted. I would not be surprised if he had been most thankful for socialized medicine.

The bellman at the hotel had the same reaction. In a land where tipping is not part of the culture, I handed him and extra 20, about US$6 after he wrestled the luggage into the small elevator. There was no room for us.

Finally, at the room after 32 hours of travel, we flopped on the bed. I immediately opened my one suitcase extracted my swimsuit, changed in the bathroom and was on my way to the pool when Christine opened hers. The zippers required extra strength and when they were finally freed, the top popped open like one of those joke cans where a cloth covered spring jumps out to scare the wits out of you.

I was really proud of her cultural sensitivity. Instead of yelling "you drive on the wrong side of the road," she took it right in stride. When she confronted her first squat toilet, she asked me "Daddy, how am I supposed use that?" I said "Christine, you are just going to have to figure it out for yourself." And she did.

After one lesson, she was adept at eating with her hands. We visited the National Mosque of Sarawak where we both donned robes and admired the geometric decorations. She wore a headscarf during the Muslim ceremony of praying for a healthy child, sitting in the rear of the home with the women.

We spent some time with my Peace Corps Malay family of 30 years ago. These Muslims treated us like sultans and invited us into their lives and homes.

I did not know how she was going to get her suitcases closed. Upon checkout, she piled all the clothes into the case; I don't think she ever heard of folding. She then sat in the middle of it and in a contortionists pose, she reached around and slowly pulled the zipper, moving her butt where the zipper resisted. A little hop packed the garments even tighter allowing the zipper a millimeter of extra room to pass on the track.

Finally, the zippers met. Upon standing the suitcase on the wheels, there was a significant bulge on each side with toppling to the side of greater mass, as per the laws of physics. This went on for 10 weeks, six countries and the rainforests of Borneo.

I wondered if our journey had any impact on her. Later, one of her co-workers made ignorant, disparaging remarks about people of the Muslim religion. She retorted "Well, let me tell you about some Muslims in Malaysia."

It was then I knew the trip was all worthwhile.

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