Celebrating Life and Travel Heroism

It was a crisp, clear morning. A cool breeze was blowing as the piercing blue of the sky was punctuated by fluffy white clouds. An elder man in red and saffron robes led us down a rocky riverbed to a spot where the river water circulated in an unusual counter-clockwise motion, a significant direction thought to create merit, or “good karma.” “This is place” said the robed man, a local elder lama. “The place where the ashes of kings are scattered.”

Chamkhar River

This serene spot along the Chamkhar River in Bhutan’s central Bumthang region became my grandmother’s final resting place. One year ago this past weekend, my family and I scattered her ashes in the water, fulfilling her last wish that her ashes go to Bhutan, a land that she, a world traveler, had visited and truly loved. At that moment, it was hard not to see why.

A True Traveler

For an inspiring world traveler such as herself, it was the perfect send off. After all, this is a woman who kept a world map over her bed with pins marking the plethora of places which she had traveled to. Many of them she had explored in an era without modern conveniences like cell phones or the Internet.

Map & Compass
Photo Credit: David R. Evans

Armed with a travel agent discount card that she had obtained as “payment” for doing some bookkeeping for a small travel agency, she set off on jaunts around the world, filling up passports and bringing home more tchotchkes than you can imagine!

All throughout my adolescence I have memories of the plethora of times she would leave the confines of her casita in the Mexican state of Jalisco and drop in for a visit, using my family as a base from which to launch her adventures. Bhutan. Myanmar. Papua New Guinea with her pictures of the tribes and their penis gourds.

Encouraging Travel

This is a woman who encouraged travel, a far cry from many other people in modern society who think it’s a bit…well…wacky. When I was four and my family up and moved to Ecuador, she cheered us on. When I was fifteen and went on an exchange trip to the Ukraine, she was ecstatic. When I was twenty-one and went to study abroad in Thailand, she insisted that my entire immediate family come to visit me (though little did we both know that my parents would surprise us by getting married in Bangkok…).

My Grandmother at Wat Pho
My grandmother wearing my t-shirt at Bangkok’s Wat Pho when her luggage didn’t arrive!

My Travel Hero

She meant a whole lot to me…my own special hero who I once dubbed my “Auntie Mame.” She was someone that I looked up to so much, especially having grown up listening to her amazing stories that I wanted to follow in her foosteps. She was my inspiration to set off on my own adventures and she always cheered me on the whole way.

My three month Asian adventure last year was the first solo travel experience I’d had since she passed away. It was a trip that was inspired by and dedicated to her, a thought that really hit home on an emotional afternoon in Luang Prabang, Laos, a town we had both previously visited and absolutely loved.

As I set foot in the 600-year-old Wat Visoun, where three years earlier I befriended a novice monk who gave me a blessing for safe travels, I was overcome with emotion. I reached up and felt my grandmother’s tiny sculpted Buddha around my neck and I instantly felt her presence there. Right and then I knew that she was looking out for me.

Buddha Necklace
My grandmother’s Buddha

What is your inspiration for traveling? Do you have a travel hero?

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56 Responses to Celebrating Life and Travel Heroism

  1. jill- Jack and Jill Travel The World April 6, 2011 at 1:04 am #

    She looks like a spunky and spirited woman. I don’t really have a travel hero… but she could just as well be my first one. I love how she would encourage you to go travel as well, not many elders I know would do that.

    • Aaron April 6, 2011 at 11:30 am #

      Indeed she was spunky and spirited, a true hero to me. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Lauren April 6, 2011 at 3:22 am #

    Wow, she sounds like SUCH an inspiration. What an amazing woman!

    I don’t have a travel hero, as I’m the only person I know who has even considered doing something like that! Who knows, one day maybe I’ll be someone else’s travel hero! :)

    • Aaron April 6, 2011 at 11:31 am #

      Hopefully I can be too! What a feeling to know that you’ve inspired the next generation of travelers!

  3. david April 6, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

    Hi Aaron-

    I really loved this. Your grandmother sounded like a wonderful woman and you did a very nice job with this little tribute to her. I have a couple of travel heroes of my own that I also wanted to write about one day; they were siblings of my grandparents and they both inspired me, but I have to admit, your grandmother kicked butt compared to them. I don’t think they could have told me where Bhutan was, let alone travel there.

    I’ve also been trying to pass on my love of travel to my nieces and nephews, and I think my stories finally hooked my oldest niece; she just came back from her first trip abroad, volunteering in Guatemala. I’m really proud of her.

    Again, nice job!

    • Aaron April 6, 2011 at 11:45 pm #

      Thanks David! She really was an incredible (and inspirational) woman! But everyone has their own personal experiences. I’m sure that your grandparents’ siblings did incredible things in their own right!

      And isn’t it wonderful to inspire the next generation of travelers? Yes, we do some of that through our blogs, but there’s no match for having someone close to you inspire you through their stories and actions! Congrats!

  4. Lisa E @chickybus April 6, 2011 at 10:14 pm #

    What a powerful story….loved it. You’re so lucky to have had your grandmother and how wonderful that you fulfilled her last wish in such a beautiful way. She sounds like she was very special. How awesome that she inspired you as she did, too. (PS: She had great taste in destinations!) Love the photo of her and the necklace!

    • Aaron April 6, 2011 at 11:46 pm #

      Thanks Lisa! :-) I was very lucky to have her and the parents that I had, both of whom are also very travel centric! I guess you can say it was in my blood!

  5. Sarah Got A Passport April 6, 2011 at 11:03 pm #

    That’s so amazing that your grandmother was such a travel and life inspiration. Thanks for spreading her good karma online.

    • Aaron April 6, 2011 at 11:46 pm #

      Thanks Sarah!

  6. Theodora April 6, 2011 at 11:58 pm #

    What an inspirational woman, and a great story, Aaron. I don’t have a travel hero. But my parents inspired me to travel. They did overland to Afghanistan in the 60s.

    • Aaron April 7, 2011 at 12:02 am #

      Thanks Theodora! That’s great that your parents did overland to Afghanistan! That’s the old “Hippie Trail,” isn’t it? I would’ve loved to have done that! What a great inspiration!

  7. Thecompulsivetraveler April 7, 2011 at 2:07 am #

    What an amazing person! I hope one day I’ll be an inspiration to my grandkids and they will write something similar about me :)

    • Aaron April 7, 2011 at 2:22 am #

      Haha! I’m sure you will be! It helps if you retire to an exotic place and take your grandkids somewhere fun every time they visit! :-P

  8. Sally April 7, 2011 at 2:13 am #

    What a great story! Your grandmother sounds like one rocking lady. My grandmother never traveled — but she certainly didn’t let anyone stand in the way of her doing what she wanted to do. I try to channel her when I feel like giving up.

    • Aaron April 7, 2011 at 2:25 am #

      That’s such a great philosophy (and one my grandmother definitely subscribed to)! You are responsible for your own destiny. That can be one of the most valuable life lessons that our elders can pass down!

  9. Nomadic Chick April 7, 2011 at 2:23 am #

    Aaron,

    Your grandmother is the kind of woman I long to be. She sounds like a strong, intelligent and passionate woman.

    This story makes me remember why I travel, too. My mommy!

    Cheers, and thanks for sharing. :)

    • Aaron April 7, 2011 at 2:31 am #

      Yes…she was definitely all of the above!

      I’m glad you were inspired by your mom! In what way did she inspire you?

  10. Laura April 7, 2011 at 11:09 am #

    Thanks for sharing this story about your grandmother. She sounds like a true citizen of the world and a great inspiration for your travels.

    • Aaron April 7, 2011 at 9:29 pm #

      Thanks Laura!

  11. Roy April 7, 2011 at 10:01 pm #

    Wow, what a lovely story about a truly inspirational woman!!

    • Aaron April 7, 2011 at 11:03 pm #

      Thanks Roy!

  12. Cat April 8, 2011 at 2:05 am #

    Happy to have stumbled upon this this morning. When my grandfather got remarried within a year of my granmother’s death, my mother swore to never like the woman. But how can you not grow to love smeone who is calm and collected, rolls with the punches, and has twice as many stamps in her passport as me? (I have two free pages and the passport turns five this month). Helen and I come from two different places, but we couldn’t match together better for traveling. As my graduation present, a proposal to pay my way around Spain while I translated and led the tour meant three weeks of memories and laughs etched into my consciousness, and I look for flights to LA more often than fligths to my native Chicago. For a worldly and conscious women to be called my step-grandma, or abuelita, I thikn I’m pretty lucky.

    • Aaron April 8, 2011 at 2:59 am #

      Hi Cat,

      Thanks for sharing your story! My grandmother also frequently went by abuelita as she had retired in Mexico. Sounds like you had a similar experience to me and I’d agree! Much like me, you’re pretty lucky to have an ace traveler to look up to!

  13. Norbert April 8, 2011 at 2:14 am #

    Wow, really loved reading this piece. You’re lucky you had (and still have) such an inspiring grandmother, not only in travel but in how to see and experience life. Keep traveling to all those places your grandmother visited, follow her footsteps and create your own at the same time.

    • Aaron April 8, 2011 at 3:00 am #

      Thanks Nortbert! She inspired me with some lofty travel goals. And I know she’d be incredibly proud of what I’ve accomplished thus far!

  14. Marsha April 8, 2011 at 2:55 am #

    Aaron–your grandmother sounds like an amazing woman. So glad that she was such an inspiration to you. So touched by her life story.

    • Aaron April 8, 2011 at 3:01 am #

      Thanks Marsha! She really was an amazing woman!

  15. Erica April 8, 2011 at 4:04 am #

    AHH! Your grandmother seems so amazing! How fantastic that you had a travel cheerleader to be with you for so long. What an amazing soul. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    My grandmother was also a main reason I started traveling. While my fam didn’t understand travel, she would take us on roadtrips all over.

    • Aaron April 8, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

      Thanks Erica! Our elders can teach us quite a bit! Though times have certainly changed a great deal from when they were our age, travel is still travel. Thanks for sharing your story!

  16. Caz Makepeace April 9, 2011 at 6:49 pm #

    What an amazing story Aaron. I think your grandma is an inspiration to all of us. I hope to be that kind of a role model and inspiration to my children and grandchildren. Someone who is out there living life and encouraging others to do the same. Loved this!

    • Aaron April 9, 2011 at 7:44 pm #

      Thanks Caz! Considering that you’re already out there traveling with your family, I don’t think that will be too hard!

  17. Tran April 10, 2011 at 9:26 pm #

    Your grandmother sounds absolutely wonderful. Beautiful post and love the “Same Same But Different” shirt!

    • Aaron April 10, 2011 at 10:45 pm #

      Haha that’s actually my t-shirt that I bought in Laos! Her luggage didn’t arrive and after wearing the same clothes for the whole flight, she wanted to shower and put on something clean so I lent it to her! And yes, she was absolutely wonderful!

  18. Ali April 10, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

    Aaron, this is an amazing story! That’s so awesome you had and still have such encouraging people in your life. Travel is such a wonderful thing, even better when you have people who understand that passion.

    • Aaron April 10, 2011 at 10:46 pm #

      Thanks Ali! It certainly is wonderful to have people who support and even encourage your endeavors!

  19. Andrew April 15, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    What a neat story. It is cool that you got to fulfill your grandma’s last wishes and travel at the same time.
    I have a great Aunt that traveled a fair bit and often encouraged following dreams. Though not so much a travel hero for me, I still think about what she told and taught me.

    • Aaron April 15, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

      Thanks Andrew! It’s always nice to have some strong ecouragement from within your family!

  20. Carrie - PipeDreamJunkie April 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

    Your grandmother sounded amazing. I hope that your travels since have been nothing but therapeutic for you. It’s always a comfort to find those small (but precious) moments when you know the people you loved and looked up to are still with you.

    • Aaron April 17, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

      I always find travel to be a theraputic activity and a wonderful chance for personal growth. As this was my first big travel experience after her passing, It certainly was a comfort to feel that she was still with me.

  21. Charu April 18, 2011 at 12:52 am #

    Love that photo of her with a tee shirt…what a spunky spirit Aaron, and I loved the tiny Buddha statue. Everyone has an inspiration, so glad to hear yours is so close to home.

    • Aaron April 18, 2011 at 2:32 am #

      Hahaha! It’s actually my t-shirt that I lent her when her luggage didn’t arrive in Bangkok with her! And remind me to show you the Buddha necklace next time I see you.

  22. ryan April 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

    I am just a passer through and I just wanted to let you know how much this entry meant to me. I’ve never had a travel hero, but your grandmother just sounds so lovely and I’m so glad you got to spend amazing time with her like that. I one day hope to be like that. This was beautiful and your grandmother looks like the happiest person I’ve ever seen. Congrats on knowing such a powerful lady!

    • Aaron April 8, 2012 at 9:22 pm #

      Thank you Ryan for sharing your thoughts! I’m so glad that this post touched you. And yes, she was an absolutely incredible, happy woman who lived life to the fullest! And I’m so very proud to carry on that tradition in the family!

  23. Kle September 4, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

    wow! even if i promised to myself i had to go to bed, i couldnt resist and read it! WHAT A WOMAN she was! i was almost crying :) so brave and so inspiring! i wish there were more people like her around! for a woman, in times where travelling wasnt as easy as it is now, well, she was sensational!! and i need to thank you in a way, since now i remember when my fever for travelling began! well apart for my grandma (she wasnt as brave as yours but even being illiterate she managed to travel all by herself, taking trains, boats ( and YES planes!) to travel all around italy. Maybe my destiny was defined when my parents decided to name me after her :) and then, my encounter with the MOST inspiring person i’ve ever met so far: my philosophy teacher in high school. She was AMAZING. She changed my way of thinking completely and she also was a great traveller, she told us about her extensive trips around the world, travelling with basically no money, and i remember i was in total adoration listening to her adventures…i was probably the only one in the class who kept her after the lesson asking her to tell me more stories.. Im trying to track her down at the moment, but is not that easy. I wanted to thank her so many times, because i am who i am now, also because of her! And your grandma story reminded me of her A LOT!
    I think we were lucky to have had such inspirational figures in our life. They certainly made a huge difference in the way we see the world now! :) Great great article! thanks!!

    • Aaron September 12, 2012 at 11:51 am #

      Thanks! She sure was inspiring, though to my young mind, what she did was totally normal so I never really thought of her as brave. But for me to think that she did all this before the internet was around, with its endless stream of advice, really doubles the inspiration. As for her, it really was, to an extent, stepping into the unknown. And my dad once told me that he thought her travel spunk had skipped his generation and gone straight to me. Perhaps the same happened with your grandmother? That’s great that she traveled while illiterate, yet sometimes I feel that way too when traveling and am surrounded by signs in another language!

      Teachers really can shape our lives in ways that lots of folks don’t seem to give them enough credit for. And you’re right! Inspirational figures can shape our lives like none other!

  24. AJ Aerni January 18, 2013 at 12:00 am #

    I’m so very sorry to hear of your loss, but am at peace that she is in such a wonderful place and lived such a fulfilling life. We should all be so lucky to live such an adventurous lifestyle.

    • Aaron January 19, 2013 at 10:35 pm #

      Thank you.

  25. Andrea April 11, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    What a beautiful tribute to your grandmother! She looks like she was a very, very cool lady! A little piece of her will live on with you in your travels. I’m sure you probably imagine what she would think or say about a place as you’re going there, and it must be cool to go to places that she recommended to you. Glad I found your blog and I’m looking forward to reading more!
    Andrea recently posted..A pretty delectable chocolate brownie

    • Aaron April 14, 2013 at 5:08 am #

      Thanks Andrea! I sure do imagine what she’d think about my travels, particularly the more offbeat places like Iraq. While my parents weren’t the biggest fans, I’m sure she would have been. She understood that the world was not nearly as dangerous as the media makes us thinks it is.

  26. Joseph Santiago May 18, 2013 at 9:10 am #

    After reading this entry I had one thing in my mind, I wish that my grandmother was as cool as yours. I know that somewhere out there in heaven, she is smiling down on what you have accomplished. Thank you so much for inspiring all of us.

    • Aaron May 19, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

      Hehe…what can I say? Traveling is definitely in my blood! She taught me so much about the world and really pushed and inspired me to get out there and explore it myself. I don’t think I would have done what I’ve done today if she hadn’t been in my life. And I’m sure she’s out there smiling down on me! Even my parents thought it was a little crazy when I said I wanted to visit Iraq last year but I know she would have been cheering my on the whole way!

  27. Walter Bailey May 21, 2013 at 1:49 am #

    Looking at her in the picture, makes me wonder how adventurous this lovely lady is… I’m sure she lived her life to the fullest. Where would be your next destination? I can’t wait for your next post of your adventure.

    • Aaron May 21, 2013 at 2:06 am #

      She certainly did.

      I’m actually heading up to Montreal tomorrow morning (errr, this morning) for a little Canadian exploration before I head over to Toronto for a blogging conference. It’s just a short two week trip. There’s a lot of exciting content coming down the pipeline though, especially about my time in the Middle East last year.

  28. Izy Berry May 24, 2013 at 1:48 am #

    Wow, your grandma is way too cool! :) I know that she is always there to guide you with your travels. :) Look at her smile on the photo, its just priceless, you’re very lucky to have someone like her.
    Izy Berry recently posted..Volunteering at Youth Star Cambodia

    • Aaron May 25, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

      I know she is too and I feel it in me with that necklace of hers that I wear. And thank you. She was such a unique character who really made a huge impact on my childhood and adolescence. And I know she’d be proud of what I’ve accoplished thus far!

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