We got a bunch of press releases this summer about “stay-cations” — mostly from area hotels whose marketing departments somehow thought that poor working joes like you and me would actually believe that plunking down $250 a night to stay in a hotel three miles from home was a viable way to simultaneously reduce our carbon footprint and get away from it all.
I created my own stay-cation this year. I sent my only child halfway around the world for two weeks. Yes, I sent my 12-year-old, who had never been away from home, not even to sleepaway camp, on a 14-hour flight to Japan — with 43 other middle schoolers and five leaders on a program called People to People Student Ambassadors. President Eisenhower started the program 50 years ago. He believed if young people learned firsthand about another culture at an early age and that people in other countries have more in common with us than we think, that world peace would not be an unattainable goal.
I was proud of Mackenzie for being accepted; however, after forking over the tuition, which hovered in the high four digits, a new suitcase, a new camera, a new pair of $300 glasses (I wasn’t going to send him without a spare pair), an Archos (one of those handheld numbers you can load movies and music onto — check it out on Google), and spending money, we weren’t exactly in a position to swim with the turtles in the Galapagos or go on a riverboat cruise through the Dutch canals. In other words, I was staying put at home this summer. That was my stay-cation. It was just me, our two beagles, my husband, and the two cats.
As Mackenzie counted down the days until his July 6 departure, I became increasingly frantic. I ate a lot of York peppermint patties and drank a lot of mother’s little helper. I rolled and unrolled 14 pairs of tighty whiteys to fit just so in Mackenzie’s suitcase. What if the plane exploded over the Pacific Ocean and they found his left hand in the swimming pool at the Four Seasons in Fiji? What if he got homesick or all the kids hated him? What if contracted one of those infections where all your organs dissolve in 20 minutes? By the time I flew there I imagined the hospital staff would hand me a jar: Here is your son, we’re so sorry.
What was I thinking, sending my 12-year-old halfway around the world? Oh, yes, I kept reminding myself, this is a tremendous opportunity and the itinerary is amazing: Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima; three days in the country living in the thatched-roof cottages of Gokayama, a World Heritage Site, where only schoolchildren are allowed to stay; a ride on the bullet train. (Day 5: Enjoy a scenic drive to Mt Fuji’s Fifth Station, sometimes called “the boundary between heaven and earth.” Day 9: Visit the morning market of the old-fashioned city of Takayama, where you can find local fruits, mountain vegetables, and pickles. I especially liked the pickle part.)
I felt better when my sister, who has lived twice in Japan, wrote Mackenzie a do’s and don’ts E-mail before he left. “Don’t blow your nose at the table,” she wrote. “It will really gross people out. Don’t talk loudly on the train or the subway. DO NOT do this. No, no, no. It really bothers people. Japan is a really noisy country, and people appreciate it if you can sort of tone it down a little bit. You can, however, burp. Don’t like, blow the house down, but you don’t have to be embarrassed about it. Oh, and there are little slippers in the public bathroom, special bathroom slippers. Don’t walk out of the bathroom with them on. Everybody will die laughing.” She told me every province in Japan has their own pickle.
The night before Mackenzie left, my husband read him the riot act: You must come home with your glasses, your camera, your Archos, and your travel journal. As I tucked him in, Mackenzie was murmuring to himself, “glasses, camera, Archos, journal; glasses, camera, Archos, journal.” July 6 dawned and the second we arrived at Montgomery Middle School, where a big motor coach was going to take the kids to JFK, Mackenzie took his suitcase and backpack and bolted right over to hang with Josh, Cosmo, and Kyle, the friends he had made during the orientation meetings.
As the motor coach got smaller and smaller on the horizon I felt as if a piece of my body had actually been torn away. I imagined I’d feel it like a ghost limb during the next two weeks. He’s right upstairs in his room. No, dear, I’m sorry, he’s in Japan. No, really he’s here, I can see the grass stains on the knees of his jeans and smell that half sweaty preadolescent, half-baby skin smell of his neck, and I can poke the cowlick that drives him crazy every morning. No, I’m sorry, lady, you sent him halfway around the world. And you get a stay-cation.
I have never experienced two longer weeks in my life. Days that normally zoomed by slowed to a snail’s pace. After work each day, I pulled a lot of weeds in my garden. I went to a lot of movies. I gave the beagles baths. I scoured the Internet for news of outbreaks of ethnic cleansing or civil insurgency in Japan, although everyone’s very well-behaved and polite there, according to my sister. But what if Mackenzie were accosted by one of those ko-gals, the Japanese equivalent of California valley girls, who rebel by pinning up the skirts of their high-school uniforms thigh-high, and accessorizing with Burberry scarves, Louis Vuitton handbags, and long, white, baggy socks that make their legs look like tree trunks.
My husband downloaded Google Earth and punched in the coordinates of Mackenzie’s first hotel in Tokyo. The Google globe spun around and around on the computer monitor and then, like an Apollo landing, zoomed in closer and closer to Earth, until yes, we actually saw the hotel itself. Wow, I thought, this technology is unreal. I half expected to see Mackenzie waving at us, like Dorothy’s Auntie Em in the Wicked Witch of the West’s crystal ball: Hi, mom, I just spent half my spending money and it’s only day one (which, he admitted later, really did happen, not the waving but the spending).
Two things saved my sanity as I counted the days. First, the delegation leader’s husband, Frank, sent us these very elaborate E-mails summarizing what the kids did each day, full of details about the historical and cultural significance of each place visited, and photos of the sights, even what the kids ate at every meal.
Second, every night, long after dark, I would walk barefoot out into our garden, where we have a wrought iron table and chairs. With my feet on the cold grass, I would sit on the same chair every night. Over my shoulder I could see the Big Dipper behind me, then I would turn back around and watch the moon rise slowly over the treetops. The constancy of the stars of the Big Dipper, the simple fact that they appeared in the sky in the same place every night somehow anchored me. When I watched the moon rise, I thought, Mackenzie can see that moon too, that very same moon, so really, how far away can he be? I sat in the same chair at the same time every night, looking first at the Big Dipper, then the moon, and only then could I go back in the house. I convinced myself that if I changed the pattern even one bit something bad would happen to Mackenzie.
July 19 finally arrived and there we were back at Montgomery Middle School waiting for the same motor coach to deliver us back our little delegates. The bus got stuck in traffic on the Cross Bronx expressway, so we waited and waited. But then, lo, on the horizon, there it was. The motor coach! People had brought their dogs and written “Welcome Home” on their car windows. Parents held flowers and balloons. Everyone had arrived early, after Frank’s disturbing E-mail: “Every year we have had at least one parent arrive late to pick up their child. We have had children in tears when their parents were not there to greet them when they arrived. Be early!” Well, none of us was going to be That Parent.
The motor coach pulled up to the curb. And then 43 very tired 12- and 13-year-olds piled slowly out of the bus. And not one of them was Mackenzie. Oh, God, I thought. They either left him in Japan or he’s on the bus but very sick, and can’t get off by himself. I started shaking. All the saliva left my mouth. I kept looking at my husband and our eyes said to each other, Where is he? Where is he? There was an interminable space of time after the last kid got off the bus. Oh, God, oh God, OK, I can handle this, whatever it is. I wondered vaguely why they hadn’t telegrammed us (bad news always arrives in a telegram, does it not?) that they were very sorry but Mackenzie had taken a false step off the platform and been run over by the bullet train. Flat as a pancake like Tom and Jerry. Only without the popping back up part.
Fran, the delegation leader, went back on the bus and then, after what seemed like enough time to listen to all of the Harry Potter books on tape, Mackenzie came out, his glasses slightly askew on his face. He looked pale, older, and a lot taller, like a completely different person. Are you alright, I said, as I suffocated him in my arms. “Yeah,” he said sheepishly. “I didn’t want to get off the bus because I couldn’t find my glasses. You said not to come back from Japan without them. Well, I took a power nap in the last 10 minutes, and when I woke up I couldn’t find my glasses. Turns out I was sitting on them!” And a big grin broke out across his face. OK, that’s my kid. Then, naturally, I burst into tears.
My kid is a different kid from when he left. More confident. Calmer and centered. More mature. As I sit writing this, coincidentally, on September 11, I believe I saw 44 changed children get off that bus. They had discovered that on the other side of the world there are regular people leading regular lives, sustaining their own unique history for generations to come. That not all people hate Americans. Some don’t mind having us visit. Children go to school and parents go to work there, just like here.
When we looked at Mackenzie’s pictures of the preserved ruins of the city of Hiroshima, I knew that when he started to learn about World War II, he would remember how he felt when he had stood on that very site of nuclear horror. And he and his 43 compatriots on the bus would never forget. That was worth a stay-cation.
Let Your Kid Go Global
People to People Student Ambassador Programs, started by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, provide international educational opportunities for grade school, junior high school, and high school students. Journeys combine hands-on cultural experiences, behind-the-scenes access to fascinating people and places; and outdoor adventures to create life-changing educational experiences.
Students return home with a broader, more enlightened perspective of the world .
High school credit is available for some programs. An orientation program for the central New Jersey group for middle schoolers, which is going to China next summer, takes place on Saturday, September 27, 3 p.m., at Montgomery High School. Registration is required: visit www.studentambassadors.org, then click on “Reserve a Seat” in the top toolbar, then “Reserve Without a PIN.”