We recently asked to hear your most memorable travel stories. We received an incredible number of wonderful and worthy submissions, and for that, we thank you. But the big winner of this year’s Tablet travel story contest is Kathryn Parker, whose tale of longing touched our hearts and took home first prize.
Waiting For Your Return
by Kathryn Parker
I can’t tell you where I am because I could be anywhere right now, but I can tell you I am always with you. There’s that deep blue moment we dove under the waters of the Great Barrier Reef before seaplaning 39 nautical miles away to be washed up on shore for a night of skinny-dipping, reef-sleeping and a seafood dinner we cooked ourselves on a barbecue made for two. Our Robinson Crusoe moment was supposed to be like a daring Daniel Defoe novel but it turned out to be more matted hair, salty air and a torch light that went out long before we finished talking. Then there was the humidity hitting us like a Swedish sauna in the Arizona desert as we drank rum under an oversized cactus saguaro, and the reminder of sharp pinprick cold water felt as we swam in the North Atlantic Ocean on a spur-of-the-moment Icelandic winter trip. I still see you in the sun and snow, in cherry blossoms in London and Washington D.C. and in the rainswept streets of Berlin against a backdrop of tangled history.
Sometimes I wake in a sweat reminded of the solid blocks of centuries-old ice we took a pickaxe to as we climbed to the top of Franz Josef glacier thinking we were more mountaineers than mesmerised travellers. I remember your rosy cheeks and the freezing cold air turning our underarms into a hot mess of dripping sweat the further we went through those tiny gaps in that majestic mountain. I also remember indigo nights spent in a packed bar as the roof opened up under a star-strewn Wanaka sky where we drank ourselves silly and laughed about hiking boots that didn’t fit, landing in rubber rings after abseiling into Waitomo’s caves and how the glowworms and stalactites were an impressive force of nature we wanted everyone in the world to see.
I remember riding waves with you on the northern beaches of Sydney, drinking Pimms come summer in London and getting lost on sunny Sardinia down grit roads we thought would lead to nowhere before being rewarded with a warmly lit, heaving restaurant where we chose our own lobster. We walked for miles in Rome trying to fit every ancient story and gladiator battle into our ever growing album of photographs, some in our memories and others sent to friends we collected on every corner in nearly every continent. We thought seeing the Colosseum and the Vatican would be enough, but it was those tiny heartfelt tips given to us by fellow travellers that made the trip – a walk after dusk behind Palazzo dei Senatori to see the illuminated glow of the Forum and a dawn stroll to the Trevi Fountain throwing in that coin before the crowds arrived. We still have Africa to do, I called out in the middle of the night. I meant, of course, we still had Africa to do.
Because you left us all last year. Amid a thousand memories of a ton of countries travelled and toured, and some, in quiet corners of Cornwall and the Cotswolds — places we knew so well — where we didn’t explore anymore, but just sank into sumptuous beds on duck- and goose-down pillows and revelled in the luxury of wood fires, crab soup and all the time in the world. Truth be told, we didn’t have the time. You were getting tired. And the ravages of an illness so quick to steal you took their course in the blink of an eye.
You rested your head for the last time in a country that comforted you, no longer able to grab that surfboard, take hold of the pickaxe or write with me a thousand lists of all the things we still wanted to see. You were just 33. There’s still the taste of white rum, sugar and lime juice we left behind in Havana, the footprints made in sands along Sri Lanka’s coastline and gravel marks left by bikes we rode through Veronese green Valpolicella vineyards. We saw the world before our eyes and you told me to take it in my stride. Sometimes I didn’t. I moaned about the hunger pangs on long journeys, the sultry heat that frizzed my hair, the dolphin tours when no dolphins appeared and the missed connections in Hong Kong and Dubai that somehow all worked out, leading us on a discovery of different agendas we might have otherwise never seen. But isn’t that the beauty of the journey, I say to myself in the still of the night when only my cheeks feel the tears. Sometimes a well-crafted path but more often than not, a road less travelled. Because for all the books in the world that tell you of all the places to see, it’s the people that live there, the seasons that change and the farm-to-table dining sat next to a group you never thought you’d meet which tend to make the head turning moments almost impossible to repeat.
And I sit here now, waiting for your return, in some way or another. Might your parents, in their dreams, rub away the sand between your toes one more time, just like they did when you were young? Could you break just one more wave? Or may we ride back through the vineyards to find that age-old cherry tree where we indelibly carved our names in bark we knew would still be waiting for our return.
Click here to read the runners-up.