Past Into Present: 4 Journeys That Changed Us

An African-American resort town in Michigan, circa 1970; a raucous family road trip from Kansas City, Mo., to New York state; a bittersweet return to Hyderabad, India; and a college student’s self-discovery in Australia: Four New York Times Travel contributors share their memories of trips that still impart a sense of wonder and hope.

At some point, even as I began racking up frequent-flier miles, I came to accept a simple truth: I’d find no sleep as peaceful as I found on Lake Idlewild.

My slumbers in Michigan’s densely wooded, all-black resort started as a kid. Belly full of fried catfish, Jones Homemade Ice Cream and ZotZ penny candy from Lee-John’s Novelty and Soda Bar, I would curl up on a lounge chair by the lake and snooze for hours to the sound of waves gurgling along the shore, the purring of fishing boats motoring by, the crackling of the Detroit Tigers radio broadcast wafting down from the family cottage.

Inevitably, my afternoon dozing would be interrupted by my grandmother’s a cappella. “Lazybones/sleepin’ in the sun/How you spect to get your day’s work done?/ Never get your day’s work done/Sleepin’ in the noonday sun …” An old Southern diddy famously crooned by her favorite baritone, Paul Robeson Jr., “Lazybones” was my grandmother’s signature taunt for me to finish my chores, which invariably included searching the roadside for pretty stones to decorate her never-quite-finished rock garden. Happily barefoot, bucket in hand, I’d stroll along the dusty road outside our cottage, her voice fading in the distance. “Lazy bones/Sleepin’ in the shade/How you spect to get your cornmeal made? … Sleepin’ in that evenin’ shade.”

Idlewild, Michigan. Most people, if they’ve heard of Idlewild at all, are familiar with the vintage celebrity of the place, the black luminaries who once flocked to the northwestern Lower Peninsula for summer jaunts during the early 20th century: W.E.B. DuBois, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Madam C.J. Walker and so on.

But the boldface names in Idlewild’s century-long history have always fascinated me less than, say, how we random kids got to walk around barefoot, in public, for the first time in our lives. Through grassy backwoods. Along muddy shorelines. Across hot concrete roads. I remember how my feet touched the earth in ways forbidden, or frowned upon, back home in Detroit, where “proper” black boys and girls wore shoes, tidy hair and lotion.

The history of black resorts and beaches and how they thrived during Jim Crow is fairly well-told, from Oak Bluffs, Mass., to Atlantic Beach, S.C., to the Inkwell beach in Santa Monica, Calif. But that past seems more relevant to me today, especially during this current pandemic, as ominous forces have Americans waxing philosophically about pushing “reset” buttons, and rediscovering “what’s important in life.”

As a kid, in the late 1960s and early 70s, I witnessed a similar catharsis each summer as black families in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis high-tailed to Idlewild for sanctuary from beleaguered big city lives. From late spring through Labor Day, hundreds of black doctors, lawyers, teachers, corporate executives and their families eagerly shed titles and salutations, at least temporarily, for the down-home pleasures of fishing, hunting, sunbathing and lots of eating and drinking in the so-called Black Eden.

Years later, we still gush about those summers. We romance the era as our introduction to self-love and black pride. We boast about creating something of a miracle deep in those woods, hundreds of miles removed from city life — a black utopian village where even the snootiest, most bourgeois souls among us found themselves letting loose; laughing loud, cussin’ up a storm, licking barbecue off their fingertips. For all its nostalgia, its mythology, as a so-called Chitlin’ Circuit venue for black entertainers during Jim Crow, as a refuge for Negro Motorist Green Book travelers, Idlewild’s racial insulation was perhaps its greatest asset as we learned and perfected the fine art of how to simply, unapologetically, exuberantly, just “be.”

Away from the city, out in nature, we discovered ourselves and each other anew. Who knew my churchgoing grandmother was a beast in Scrabble with a gift for trash-talking? That my mother, a voracious reader, was a natural on roller skates, or that my grandfather enjoyed Winstons and a cold beer now and then?

I never even knew my grandfather had a sense of humor until he took me fishing in Idlewild when I was 6 or 7. Out on the lake, I reeled in my first catch ever, a tiny bluegill, and I was terrified. When he realized I was afraid to take the flapping fish off the line, he laughed long and hard. “No reason to go jumpin’ out the boat,” he said. “It won’t bite you.” He was skilled, nonchalant, big hands unfazed by the flailing creature. “See, you just gotta come down over his nose, and lay the fins down so it don’t cut you.” A man of few words, he belly-laughed every time he told the story of those outings.

The past and present tended to blur in Idlewild. Even during my childhood, its greenery and pristine lakes distorted the reality of its gradual decline. Like most all-black resorts, Idlewild became a casualty of the Civil Rights movement as each summer it became clear that fewer black vacationers saw the necessity of heading to Idlewild and were choosing instead to integrate “white” resorts.

In those years after its heyday, with many of its cottages dilapidated and businesses abandoned, we kids loved rummaging through Idlewild’s ghostly buildings. We found all sorts of treasures: jewelry, coins, album covers, photographs, books. Along the way, we discovered something more priceless: ourselves.

Ron Stodghill, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, has written numerous stories on black culture for the Travel section.

At a time when travel is beginning to seem like a relic of another era, I find myself looking back — way back — to my earliest travel experiences, the family road trips of my childhood.

Most of these trips, it must be said, were comically bad. There were six of us — my parents, my three brothers and me — so flying was expensive and impractical. And we lived in Kansas City, Mo., so deep in the heartland of America that it would take days of driving to reach anything resembling a mountain or a beach.

Once we drove to a fish hatchery in Missouri near the Arkansas border. My brother Sam decided to liberate our live bait into a reservoir, and our fishing adventure came to an end as quickly as did, presumably, the lives of the newly freed. Another time, we rented a cabin in tiny, rural Mound City, Mo., near a wetland reserve known to welcome spectacular bird migrations. It rained the whole time. The birds never came.

But in 1993, my parents promised us the road trip of our dreams. We would drive northeast, stopping along the way, until we reached Cooperstown, N. Y., home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, before continuing to the East End of Long Island and then to our grandparents’ lake house in New Jersey. It would be more than a month on the road, the six of us maxing the capacity of our first-generation Toyota Previa minivan in a pre-iPad state of extreme togetherness that seems to me today quite brave of my parents, bordering on masochistic.

I remember the cacophony, the unhinged joy, rage and tedium of those hours, motoring down interstates from Kansas City to Indianapolis, Indianapolis to Cleveland, talking, shouting, laughing, fighting, making up games that never reached completion, singing songs real and invented, littering the interior with snack detritus.

A few years later, we would figure out a way to rig up a combo TV/VCR that could be plugged into the car lighter on long trips, allowing us to watch on a constant loop, the made-for-TV biopic “The Temptations,” and “Dirty Work,” a Norm MacDonald vehicle this paper called a “leaden, taste-deprived attempted comedy.”

But on that Cooperstown trip our multimedia options were limited to a handful of CDs and cassette tapes that seeped so deeply into the recesses of my consciousness that they’re still swishing around more than 25 years later — from Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing “Everything’s so stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid” on the 1988 all-ages, postfeminist masterpiece, “Free to Be … a Family,” to “Let’s Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn,” a 1957 Tin Pan Alley novelty ditty on the Rhino Records compilation, “Baseball’s Greatest Hits,” that we would belt out the open windows in our grimiest Brooklyn brogues.

In New York, we took a detour to Niagara Falls and stood enrapt, watching slivers of rainbows glimmer in the frothy abyss as the falls crashed violently onto the rocks — all of us, for once, speechless.

Finally we reached Cooperstown, where we checked in for three nights in a suite at the Otesaga, a grand Edwardian-era, waterfront hotel and resort on Lake Otsego. For two days in a row, we woke up early and headed to the Hall of Fame to walk its hallowed halls of memorabilia — Yogi Berra’s catcher’s mitt, Hank Aaron’s uniform — the browned and beaten trappings of our inherited heroes. All of my grandparents were the children of immigrants, and nothing spoke to their integration like the undying love for the American pastime they passed on to their descendants.

Unlike my brothers, I would have been more likely in those days to recite Madonna lyrics than baseball stats as I lay in bed at night. But we were a baseball family by birthright, and in Cooperstown, the spirit grabbed me.

Our Americana tour continued to Long Island’s North Fork, where we rented a beach house among the salt marches and wood-shingle homes of sleepy Orient Point. We ate lobster by the ocean and towering ice cream cones that dripped down our knuckles.

Orient’s beaches were rocky, so we traveled to the South Fork to meet my mother’s best friends, a successful lesbian couple with a house in the Hamptons. In their slouchy, expensive chinos, bangle bracelets and short, spiked hairdos, they showed us around town, regaled us with local celebrity gossip, talked progressive politics and world events and laughed at everything, especially themselves. They were like harbingers to me, at 11 years old, of a big, fun, fancy East Coast world I would later go looking for.

Until the Hamptons, my brothers and I had never been to a real sand beach, and the rush of running across the sand to jump headlong into actual ocean waves was a high as potent as any I felt before or since. One night we stayed up late to watch a meteor shower, the six of us lying side by side, watching the lights streak across the sky to the sound of waves beating against the shore. We made a vow to each other never to forget that place or that feeling, and I would think of it sometimes in the ensuing years, after my parents divorced and my brothers and I left home and spread across the globe.

I’m a travel writer by profession, and I’ve seen far more of the world than I ever could have imagined, learned new languages, settled abroad, and made a career out of my appetite for exploring the unknown. Yet in these days of distance, as I isolate in locked-down Berlin, my mind returns to that road trip, to the people I’ve loved the longest and that feeling we had together. There’s a 1927 poem by Rilke that helps me to summon it and gives me, in these strange times, something like comfort:

Do you remember still the falling stars …

each time we looked above we were

astounded by the swiftness of their daring play

while in our hearts we felt safe and secure

watching these brilliant bodies disintegrate

knowing somehow we had survived their fall.

Charly Wilder is a Berlin-based writer, who writes frequently for Travel.

We called my grandmother Hya. As with most memorable nicknames, there’s a story behind it: Hya was the sobriquet that stuck after my siblings and I tested out various permutations of Hyderabad, the city she lived in, and a place I thought of as home.

I’ve grown up in five countries on three continents, but if “home” were defined as a sanctuary that comforts you while you take it completely for granted, my grandmother’s palm-shaded villa in Hyderabad is that place for me.

Until recent weeks, my work as a travel writer has meant that I spend more time on long-haul flights than I do in my New York City apartment. But my frequent visits to see Hya were restorative, marked by the mundane: sleeping off jet lag, battling mosquitoes, making pilgrimages to tailors, eating my favorite khatti daal and shami kebabs, and accompanying Hya on tombola outings to Nizam Club and Secunderabad Club.

Two years ago, the homecoming was different. When my family landed in Hyderabad during the waning monsoon weeks of 2018, my siblings and I were forced to confront a question none of us had ever fathomed: Could there be a Hyderabad without Hya?

The formidable Hya had managed to defer a three-month cancer prognosis in 2015 for three more laughter-filled, philanthropy-driven, tombola-playing years, but the disease inevitably triumphed. Gathered here to mourn her, we found ourselves stumbling into an implausible alternate reality in which Hya wasn’t around to make sure we had fresh towels, toothpaste and dosas being ladled on the stove.

“I have an idea,” I announced to my brother. I’ve graduated from sidekick to co-conspirator in recent decades, but it still thrills me to get his green light on my schemes. “Why don’t we make Mom and Dad give us a tour?”

My parents had raised us in a household brimming with love and stories: my father’s lyrical memories of growing up around disintegrating deoris, or estates, in Hyderabad’s old city; my mom’s misadventures driving at the far-from-legal age of 13. Like most insufferable children, we could scarcely be bothered to pay attention. But growing older is like swinging on an eternal pendulum: hurtling between the lament of youthful errors on one extreme, and earnest promises of doing better on the other — but rarely pausing to simply try things differently. This, I thought, was a start.

“Don’t be silly,” Mom said when I brought it up. “We have too much to do.” And indeed, it seemed frivolous to go sightseeing at a time like this. There were tears to be cried, prayers to be prayed, belongings to be sorted.

But I didn’t relent. All five of us have our own relationships with Hyderabad, but we hadn’t converged at the same time in nearly two decades. Now that our main tie to the city had unraveled, I couldn’t imagine another occasion that would bring us together like this again. I needed desperately to memorize every detail from every family anecdote I’d ignored growing up. If death has any virtue, it’s the ability to make you appreciate life. And what better way to celebrate Hya than to see the city through the prism of family history?

“I don’t know if we’ll ever be back here together,” I said. “Show us your Hyderabad.”

It sounded like a good idea in theory, but Hyderabad’s notorious traffic tempered our ambitions. My father, the family historian, plotted out a dream itinerary, and with the aid of Google Maps, we calibrated a manageable daylong route.

Having grown up amid Hyderabad’s once-glorious estates, Dad has long decried the desecration of the city’s historic architecture. Heartbreak was etched across his face when we visited the site of his family’s centuries-old graveyard in Nampally, where ornately carved marble tombs are choked by haphazardly erected houses and a furniture shop.

“Look, that’s all that’s left,” he said, gesturing toward the mausoleum of a saint, with intricate arches now mostly obscured by shoddy brickwork.

Our luck improved at the 19th-century British Residency, now a part of Osmania Women’s College. Both my mother and Hya had studied here, and behind the graceful Palladian-style building, Mom sought out the cannon that was a constant fixture of her tales from her university days. “My friends and I would sit there and have lunch,” she remembered. Childhood roles reversed, we directed Mom to perch atop it for a picture.

In an era before cable TV arrived in India, trips to the 1930s Moazzamjahi Market for ice cream in the shadow of its granite clock tower were the highlight of my week. Now we climbed up to the roof to get a closer look, and my father pointed out where his pediatrician’s office had been across the street — just as he probably had many times before, when I was too fixated on creamy mango scoops to notice.

We crossed the Musi River to the Old City, and in the Moghulpura neighborhood, we knocked on the door of the home that now stands at my father’s birthplace. There’s no trace of the original house that once spanned the entire block, but the current residents let us poke around inside anyway. When Dad gestured toward a wall that once had beautiful woodwork, the owner nodded in recognition. It was there until just a few decades ago, she remembered, before termites plundered the delicate moldings.

I inherited my obsession with reading from my father, and yet somehow he’d never taken me to the Asafia Library, his childhood haven where his own father pored over the rare Urdu, Persian and Arabic manuscripts. Perhaps I’d simply never been interested?

Later, at the Chowk ki Masjid mosque, as my father read aloud the Urdu script from a consecration plaque by the minbar, my mother, sister and I were shooed out by an ornery attendant. “No ladies allowed!” he said. Ironic, since it had been built in 1817 by a woman, my great-great-great-great-grandmother Syeda Vazirunnisa Begum.

The mosque isn’t far from the 19th-century Chowmahalla Palace, where I’ve passed the portraits hung on the walls countless times — only now I had Dad to point out the portrait of Hyderabad’s second nizam, my ancestor Nizam Ali Khan.

Finally, as the sun started to dip, we climbed up the claustrophobic stairwell of the Charminar, a landmark whose four tawny minarets could be the city’s insignia, to take in the gilded view of the old city. After a lifetime of drive-bys en route to bangle-shopping in nearby Lad Bazaar, this was our first-ever family picture at the top.

Housebound in New York these past few weeks, my mind has wandered to that picture often. Grappling with Hya’s loss compelled me to gaze upon an intimately familiar place through a completely new lens. Now, grappling with another kind of loss — of a world that once felt so accessible and is now suddenly out of grasp — I find myself contemplating past trips I’ve taken for granted, and future travels I assumed would always be in the cards.

When the time comes to cautiously emerge into a post-Covid world, I hope I’ll marvel at each airport, each flight and each destination, new or old, with the sense of wonder I felt on that drizzly day in Hyderabad.

Sarah Khan is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.

“Proposed place of study.” I examined the study abroad application on my desk closely, rolling the words around in my mouth. Proposed place of study. I asked myself the question that heartsick young people everywhere ask themselves: What’s the farthest place I can get to from here?

The answer, it turned out, was Australia.

I was a 19-year-old college kid, and I knew next to nothing about the world. It was sophomore year; the only international travel I’d done was summer visits to my grandfather in Canada. I was twitchy with unhappiness: my parents’ marriage was about to end, my relationship with my boyfriend was imploding, and I couldn’t fix either one of them.

So I decided to go swimming in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

Learning how to scuba dive was more important than communing with the dead British writers I’d been reading all year. I wanted magic: immersion in a world outside myself. I wanted to learn how to breathe underwater.

So I cooked up a schedule of classes in Australian literature, handed it to my thesis adviser, and, on a February evening the following year, left the New York winter and flew to Sydney, landing in sweltering 100-degree heat on the other side of the globe. When I went by the housing office to inquire about accommodations, the girl at the counter looked at my passport and then at me.

“You’re from Queens??!” she exclaimed. “Like in ‘Coming to America’!” I stared at her blankly, then exploded in laughter. That an Eddie Murphy comedy could make my hometown exciting and exotic to someone in Australia was the punchline to a wonderful joke that I was only just beginning to understand.

It is strange, after 20 years of perpetual motion, to find myself, along with everyone else, suddenly stilled. It is sadder still to be looking back on this particular faded snapshot and feel that the expansiveness I had the privilege of experiencing may never again return. Those months on another continent opened my eyes to the world, and to what was possible in life. I was a person who’d always lived in my head and in books. In the planning of that first trip abroad, I learned how to make the thing I wanted to happen happen. I write this in recognition of the opportunities lost, or at the very least postponed, for countless nascent adventurers grounded in our midst.

I can trace so much of what I love in my life now to that trip, because it was the first time that I was really and truly left to my own devices. Everyone I knew and trusted was a day behind and a crackling phone line away. If I had a problem, I was forced to solve it. When I realized that my white male professors had the unfortunate tendency to assign reading that fetishized Southeast Asia and its women, I ditched the study part of being abroad. I got a job at The Sydney Morning Herald and learned how to be a journalist instead.

And I learned how to give myself over to possibility. Here I was, in a new, beautiful, sun-spackled city. My journalist mentors saw my restlessness and knew what to do with it, sending me far and wide to explore that city. The country’s obsession with swimming was something I could get behind. When a hunky Swedish guy offered to take me to the beach on his motorcycle, I accepted. (Sorry, Mom — I know, I know, motorcycles are dangerous.) And when an intriguing girl in painting class invited me home for dinner with her family, I went. We’re still friends today.

Eventually, I worked enough to earn passage up the coast to Cairns, the jumping-off point to the most famous coral reef in the world. I remember the moment I first sank into a pool with a scuba tank and made myself take a breath underwater. My body tensed, resisted. Not once had it ever been fully submerged and told to breathe in at the same time. It took deliberate thought, a conscious wrestling with primal, instinctive fear. That first inhale through the scuba regulator in my mouth was deafening to my ears. It opened the portal to the undersea universe.

I spent two weeks on the reef, learning how to manage myself safely in the water. Eight of us travelers from all points on the globe had come together to live on a boat with our captain and our divemaster. We logged dives twice a day and wrote cryptic messages to each other underwater. We saw eagle rays, pufferfish, nurse sharks, massive mountain ranges of thriving coral. We learned to be gentle with the reef and the fishes, and with each other. By the end we were no longer strangers.

That generous opening up and the subsequent collapsing of foreign to familiar is hard to square with my current home confinement in California. Our family’s April calendar was once filled with trips crisscrossing the country. No longer. My world is now bounded by my house, populated only by my husband and two young children. The physical reality of our lives has shrunk to a degree that was unfathomable just a few weeks ago.

Lately, though, I’ve been noticing that it has begun to open us up, bit by bit, to other possibilities. We, too, are forced to rely on ourselves to solve problems in this unfamiliar new reality. We carve out space in our home for work, school and fun. We smooth frictions that come from close quarters. Swim practice happens on Zoom, on dry land; class happens through the computer; happy hour happens through the phone. We use our imagination to interact with the world.

The other day, my 9-year-old son made a funny little stop-motion film starring his Legos. In it, a lone scuba diver swims into the frame, the ocean varying shades of aquamarine in the background. The diver pauses to enjoy the view, but doesn’t see the menace swimming up from behind: It’s a … giant T-rex skeleton! The diver turns, and the two look at each other face to face, for one long, agonizing moment.

What comes next? We don’t know. We have to keep our eyes open to find out.

Bonnie Tsui is the author of the just-published “Why We Swim” (Algonquin Books).

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