It was such a special trip to travel to where my father was born. I had heard about it in my youth, but never thought much about it, nor how my dad started there. It wasn’t until college, when my friends learned that my dad was born in Mauritius, that my family roots became interesting. From then on, my friends teased that I was part black since the island of Mauritius is 500 miles east of Madagascar, a larger island east of Africa.
At the beginning of the year, I asked my mom if she had any New Year resolutions. Not quite a resolution, but my mom replied with a desire to travel more. When I prodded further as to where she would like to go, she mentioned that she and my dad were planning to go to Mauritius for my aunt’s 60th anniversary this year because they were throwing an anniversary party.
As I walked to the MAX stop to work the next day, I felt prodded by the Spirit to go and see where my dad was born. The only thing was, I could not figure out how to bring the rest of my family with me. Traveling with two young children on a very long flight and special food needs would be difficult to accommodate.
It was a bit of deliberation and prayer before Jenni and I came to consensus. I will likely never go there again if my dad was no longer with us, since I do not speak the native language and do not know any of the relatives. So it was important to me to go while dad was still travel-hardy. So the plan was to go without Jenni and the kids; only with my parents and brother.
The trip consisted of three destinations. We would go to the Mauritius island to see where my dad was born and grew up until he was six. Then we would visit Réunion island, where my aunt lived and where the anniversary party was hosted. Lastly, we would stop in Paris, France because it was a transfer point to get to the islands from the states. Jack was unable to take as long of a vacation, so he did not stay in Paris with us.
Our flight to Mauritius was about 21 hours excluding layovers. We flew from Portland to Toronto, had a few hours layover, then to Paris, France. Since we had a 12 hour layover in Paris, we ventured out to see Paris instead of hanging out in the airport. Then we flew to Reunion Island, had a short layover, then finally, to Mauritius. We started our flight early Tuesday morning and finished Thursday night with an +11 hour time zone difference. It was exhausting, especially since I was unable to fall asleep on the plane. I did not inherit the gene that allowed the rest of my family to sleep sitting upright in an airplane.
Air Canada was a nice airline that provided power via plug and USB port. Their movie selection was pretty good so I spent a lot of time watching movies from Portland to Paris. The second airline we flew on was Air Austral and their movie system never worked, had no power ports for my iPod and MacBook, but their food was the best I’ve had on an airplane.
Once we were in Mauritius, we were greeted by family who took us to a relative-owned vacation home on the opposite end of the island from the airport. My dad’s brother and wife from Hong Kong joined us, and that made up our visiting team. My dad, mom, Jack, myself, my uncle “Gow Sook”, and his wife.
I’m going to make an aside for context. My dad is the eighth brother and the uncle with us is the ninth. They also have three sisters. So my grandfather had a total of twelve kids with two wives. Then, several of my uncles had large families as well—up to sixteen kids. Some of those kids had kids who are now my age. My dad is two generations up and I’m one generation up on some of the relatives we met, which made it interesting in the family hierarchy. Several of them call me uncle, even though they were years older than me.
The first day in Mauritius, it poured heavily in the morning. Warm, tropical rain. So my dad, uncle, brother, and I played Poker and Suicide Spades happily until the afternoon. It was a nice way to start the trip with some good o’ fashion card games. Then a relative took a few of us to a nearby beach and shops while others played mahjong, then we played in the pool for the afternoon. It was a quiet day. One of our cousins came in the evening and took Jack and I to a local bar to meet up with some more cousins. It was nice getting to know them. Some of them spoke English, but they were more fluent in French and Hakka, a dialect of Chinese in Mauritius.
Day 2 in Mauritius, we visited the Botanical garden, and saw some huge lily pads and large turtles. The garden also featured some leaves that blended multiple spices together. We also took a short boat excursion which had windows on the lower level to see the ocean floor, but there wasn’t much to see. In the evening, we were honored at a large dinner party with over 100 family members were gathered. We had a glorious seven course meal, my brother led toasts at each table (though many of them didn’t understand him, they happily toasted), my dad told the story of how my grandfather came to Mauritius, a group of ladies sang songs, then family portraits were taken.
Day 3, we visited the home where my dad was born and grew up for his early childhood. I wish I could understand what everyone said and learned more of my family history. The place was a maze, and I was amazed that such a large family could live there.
By noon, we had a tour bus, with at least 30 relatives on board, go out and tour the island. 15 minutes down the road, the bus died, and we had to wait for another one. During the drive, there were a group of ladies that joyously sang songs. It felt like I was part of a musical as they sang, waved hands, and joy filled the bus. We visited a few vistas, the ruins of one of my grandpa’s stores, then finished off at a relative’s beach house for catered dinner.
As I walked through the ruins of my grandfather’s store, I couldn’t help imagine what it was like, what it sold, and how he made it so profitable. My grandfather, Lam Cham Kee, owned and operated three stores in Mauritius. I still have many unanswered questions of how he grew his successful business.
Day 4, we traveled to more tourist sites: a Hindu temple, vista, gorgeous waterfall, and the colored earth. The Hindu temple had a lake which they considered holy. People would bring water bottles to fill up there. The waterfall we visited was distant from the viewpoint the parking lot was adjacent to. By the viewpoint, however, was a small hole through a wall of trees which my dad, Jack, and I ventured in and, through an unconventional path, we arrived at the top of the waterfall. It was great to sneak away with just the guys.
The most fascinating site was the Colored Earths. When it was described to me, I thought it would be just a cliff side showing different levels of sentiment rock. Instead, we were greeted by round mounds of dirt that varied in color. It’s like a desert landscape where God brushed watercolor to it.
The next day, we traveled to Réunion island in the morning, and heading out to a vista immediately after settling in a relative’s hotel in the city of St. Denis. Réunion has a large mountainous area in the middle and we visited the closest vista. Then we went to Rosemay’s house for dinner, and watched them rehearse some of the anniversary party events. Rosemay was a name I heard a few times growing up, but I never had a face to put to the name. She is the youngest of three daughters of my aunt who was celebrating her 60th anniversary. Her bubbly spirit was contagious. Her fun personality was a delight. Her husband was a cheerful fellow who Jack and I enjoyed conversing with.
Day 2 of Réunion was the start of many long driving days. We visited a market, a waterfall, and more of the mountain side.
Arriving at the waterfall was amusing. We drove through a road with sugar cane fields taller than our vehicle on both sides of us. Then magically, everything cleared, and we saw a waterfall.
The roads around the mountainside were paved, however they zigzagged constantly to get altitude. I got a bit car sick from the accelerations and decelerations going up and down the mountains.
Day 3 of Réunion, we visited another vista, the turtle museum, a beach, then a boat ride to watch the sunset. The turtles were fascinating and the aquarium room allowed us to photograph them as they swam by. I’m thankful we were able to take the boat ride to watch the sunset—I just wished Jenni could’ve been there as well.
Day 4, we drove around the entire Réunion island. It would normally take 3 hours to go around the island’s circumference, but we were making many stops along the way.
The highlights were visiting the church that, by miracle of God, survived a volcanic eruption. The lava poured down the hillside, melted everything in its path, but it stopped short of the church, and went around! The wall of lava that parted in front of the church was at least six feet tall. It was quite miraculous. They say attendance to that church increased afterward.
The beaches of Réunion were not as welcoming to walk barefoot on since they consisted of lava rock. Still, the waters retained the blue color of the sky. I experimented with long-exposure photography to make the ocean waves look like mist, but got mediocre results.
Day 5 was the anniversary party, so we hung around all day before going to a crazy party. We sat at the honored guests table, witnessed our family go into party mode, and had fun times.
I, unfortunately, did not come as prepared in clothing, so I looked like a dorky programmer with a short-sleeved dress shirt and a tie. My dad and brother got the memo and came in suits. But at least I stayed cool as the restaurant filled with guests.
Because we were honored guests, we were part of the welcome line where over 200 relatives and guests came and greeted us. The French greeting was the custom, so I popped my personal space bubble and touched cheek to cheek on both cheeks for many of my relatives. I also learned how to say good evening in French quite well.
Our aunt had a grand entrance with her children and grandchildren preceding her. They were applauded before seating for the first few courses. All these customs were new to me and the party felt much more like a wedding reception.
The first event of the evening, my aunt’s children and grandchildren sang songs and danced. The mayor of St. Denis came and said a few words. Not many people live in Réunion for so long and fewer still celebrate this many years of marriage. Some party songs were played and Jack took the opportunity to be the favorite long-distance relative. He led them through the Macarena and other party antics. I was content to shoot photos on the side.
The music paused while everyone enjoyed a few more courses of the dinner. Then the dance music came back and my family boogied down. Even my dad got in the middle of a dance circle. So that’s where Jack gets it from.
Around midnight, they had Jack and I demo dancing with my aunt’s daughters. Jack’s nightclub two step impressed a lot of people. My aunt’s second daughter loves dancing, and her salsa background helped her and Jack do a great lead-follow dance to “Everything I Do” covered by Brandy. I did a simple single-time swing with the oldest daughter.
We finished the party at 2am and helped clean up a bit before going to bed. Then we recovered the next day before our evening flight to Paris. So I got to go another night without sleep.
Jack connected to a flight home from Paris while my parents and my uncle and aunt wasted no time checking into our hotel and explored the city. We went to the Notre Dame, Panthéon, and explored the shops in the Louvre. I had heard from an Apple keynote that there was an Apple store in Paris. When I asked where it was, I was surprised to hear it was in the Louvre.
Paris Day 2, Dad and I visited the Rodin museum and enjoyed the sculptures. The plan was to see the Louvre afterward, but the Louvre was closed on Tuesdays. So we took the opportunity to travel to Basilique du Sacre Heart of Jesus of Paris, Arc de Triomphe, and the Tower Eiffel. It was great to travel with dad, appreciate art with him, and learn the Paris metro system. I’m thankful for the app on my iPod touch that included a city and metro map. It made getting around Paris a cinch. Best dollar I’ve spent in Paris.
Paris Day 3 was all about the Louvre. My mom and dad had visited it ten years ago when they made a similar trip to Mauritius for my aunt’s 50th anniversary. But they arrived at the Louvre in the late afternoon and had to run through the museum. This time, we had a full day to explore the art.
I was much more interested in the sculptures than the paintings. I have never taken an art history class, so I was unable to appreciate the stories with the art. So I enjoyed them at face value, saw the famous ones highlighted in my flyer, and took pictures. Some of the art were massive in size. I can’t imagine how someone could’ve painted them and maintained proportions.
I had heard that I would need three days to fully appreciate the Louvre, or one full day to get through all of it. I was done after five hours, but I went back and revisited some areas I enjoyed. Again, without the history about the art, I don’t think I needed more than the five hours.
I woke up excited the next day because I was heading home. My flight was at 11:20am Paris time, but I got up at 6am to make sure I wasn’t late. We had run into some airport problems flying from Réunion to Paris, so I wanted to be extra-prepared to make it home. It had been a long 16 days away, which I did not take lightly. We had a lot of friends and family come help Jennilyn with the house and kids while I was away.
My parents came along through the metro system to help me with my luggage. I was not able to buy a ticket to the Paris airport at the kiosk. For some reason, my credit card wasn’t accepted, so I took a chance and used the city ticket I had been using the past few days to get to the airport. My mom didn’t think it was a good idea, but I did not want to go back upstairs, and potentially another metro stop, in order to get the right ticket. Frustrated, I just went along and hoped it would all work out, even though I didn’t like using the Metro without paying.
Now, in Portland, you could ride the MAX light rail without ever buying a ticket, but if you get caught by a random check from Tri-Met, you’d be fined. I was hoping for the same system, meaning, no checks along the way.
When I got to the airport, there was an entrance booth that required a valid ticket to continue. My ticket didn’t work and the booths are blocked by automated doors. I saw some people throw their luggage over before wedging through the doors. My suitcases wouldn’t fit over and French people as a whole were skinnier than me. I swallowed my pride and hoped that being an American would afford me some ignorance points when I pressed the assistance button.
No help came. So I eventually had to tailgate a legitimate person going in, shove my luggage through as fast as possible, and get squeezed by the doors as I crammed in. Out of guilt (and spite), I went to a ticket machine and bought an equivalent ticket to be fair and handed it to the gentleman behind me. He must’ve thought I was being nice when I was just trying to pay my debt.
And Back to Portland
The flight home was a time of recollection and watching movies. Thankfully, the trip home was shorter, but I still didn’t sleep much. I finally had a breather and time alone to process the past 16 days.
I also thought about all the friends and family who helped Jennilyn and prayed thanks for them. Tracy, Leah, Tiffany, Jenni’s parents, Mary, and more who helped make it possible for me to go on this trip.
By the time I arrived in Portland, I checked my iPod and it read 6am in Paris again. I welcomed the cool air of the Pacific Northwest.
It’s strange how alien home is when you’ve been away and come back. It was a tremendous opportunity to be able to visit where my dad was born. My relatives were kind, patient, and generous, welcoming us to their homeland. I’ll never be able to thank them enough for all they had done and given to me.
It was humbling to think that this whole family came from one man, who traveled to Mauritius many years ago, started a successful grocery store business—a lineage of people who would be spread across the world—and I am one person who is part of his legacy. I wish I could have met my grandfather and learned his story. But at least from this trip, I know his name: Lam Cham Kee.