The notion of traveling with brothers and sisters can conjure up long-suppressed images of childhood horror -- the bickering and teasing, the frequent "rest" stops, the cramped confines of too-small station wagons on too-long journeys. Sibling rivalry invariably flared into internecine warfare, whether heading over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house, or to a vacation in the mountains or at the beach.
Parents were the most obvious casualties of this strife. In an effort to retain sanity, they felt compelled to choose between bribing their little bundles of joy ("If you're quiet, we might stop at Howard Johnson's for an ice cream") or, alternatively, threatening them with close encounters of the corporal kind.
But the experience also left its mark on the children. Indeed, a major advantage of reaching adulthood is the opportunity to escape from the rolling playpen that is the American family on the move. Getting to take trips and vacations with friends, schoolmates, hitchhikers, lovers, pets, spouses -- in short, anyone other than a blood relative -- changed the whole travel experience completely.
As the oldest of six children, I well understand the trauma of sibling travel. I have vivid recollections of our family's weekly jaunt out Route 2 to visit grandparents in central Massachusetts, of annual trips from Boston to St. Louis to visit the maternal homestead, and the occasional vacation journeys to places like Florida, or to the northern reaches of New England.
Napoleon's troops retreating from Moscow had a more pleasant journey than did the Waite brood in transit.
It is perhaps understandable, then, that I reacted skeptically when my middle brother, Matthew, suggested we travel together on vacation last year. By sheer coincidence, both of us were scheduled to be in New Zealand at the same time -- he on business, I to visit a country at the top of my "must see" list.
The proposition seemed dubious, in part because I didn't really know this brother, four years my junior, all that well. Indeed, after leaving the family nest, one quickly discovers how little one knows of brothers and sisters, despite having lived under the same roof with them for the better part of two decades. What I did know of Matt was not encouraging -- he had majored in chemistry at Rensselaer (I had studied history at Wisconsin); he seemed terminally addicted to polyester and wore a plastic pen holder in his shirt pocket; he preferred brunets to blonds; and he once declared to a startled family gathering that downhill skiing was "his life." For all I knew, he and I were probably on the opposite sides of all the great issues of the day -- he undoubtedly even thought lite beer tasted great, when we all know it's less filling.
On the other hand, what do you say when somebody offers to hook up with you 12,000 miles from home? Brother or no brother, you say yes.
We met in Auckland and set out by car to see the land of the Kiwi. What we discovered was the common ground between us -- a shared enjoyment of hiking and trekking, an appreciation of alpine meadows, hot springs, geysers and the other natural wonders of New Zealand, as well as a mutual interest in a whole host of other things, from architecture to sheep ranching. We even got tired of seeing sheep (there are 71 million in New Zealand) on every hill, dale and menu at about the same time. For once in our lives the two of us had an opportunity to converse one-on-one -- and to listen. The week spent together has changed forever the way we see each other. It has also changed our perceptions of the family we grew up in -- we came to understand the strange parallax view that can develop when there are years between you and you occupy different positions in the litter.
Just a few weeks ago I returned from a second journey, this time with my youngest brother, Tom. We visited Greece and Egypt, sharing railroad compartments, rented autos, adjacent seats on assorted aircraft and even, at one point, doubling up on a camel. Although Tom is eight years my junior, we had already grown closer in adulthood, to the point where some of my friends saw him as a shorter, younger (and maybe thinner and smarter) version of me. But traveling with a sibling can bring new insights into an old relationship.
Originally I had planned to make this particular trip with a woman friend, but circumstances, or perhaps good judgment, prevented her from joining us. It is probably just as well. There is a comfort factor between siblings that even married couples can't match. When you're with a brother or sister, even one you might not know very well, you're still less likely to worry about whether they're having the proverbial "good time." Travel can make or break a budding relationship -- but you know a brother will still be a brother when the trip is over, no matter how maddening things might get along the way.
And things did occasionally get maddening, especially in Egypt. Low points included the loss of our passports by a hotel in Cairo and our failure to make the Cairo airport connection that would have allowed us to return home on a nonstop flight to the States. But the most telling experience came at the Cairo railway station.
Travel in Egypt is notoriously demanding in summer and early autumn. Daytime temperatures are rarely below 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the sun looms overhead like some Steven Spielberg creation. This of course did not stop two Americans in search of the perfect tan. We spent much of one day lounging around the hotel's pool, my balding pate doing a credible imitation of a photovoltaic cell. We then set off for the railway station to take the Wagon Lits car overnight to Luxor.
It is difficult to describe the Cairo station -- the dust, heat and noise combine in a unique manner that makes you yearn for the worst the New York subway system has to offer. Twenty minutes in this hellhole, coupled with what proved to be a mild case of sunstroke, put me down for the count. I became horizontal on platform number four -- a place where you want to stay vertical as long as possible. It was on my way to getting horizontal that we discovered that the hotel had failed to return our passports. Our train -- the only train -- was about to leave, and we were without a traveler's best friend after Lomotil, his documentation.
As I flopped to the concrete I muttered, in my best older brother style, what were meant to be directions. They came out as gibberish; I was about as articulate as baked custard. For the next few hours, Tom took charge, making the phone calls that ultimately retrieved our passports, watching that I wasn't trampled on the platform, and eventually getting us on board the Luxor Express.
Much later that evening, after I'd recovered and we'd made our way down to the club car for a nightcap, I did the most difficult thing an older brother can do -- I thanked him for his help.
And then he did the most difficult thing you can ask a younger brother to do -- he said, "Don't mention it."
Earlier in the vacation, while in Greece, we had one other experience that brought everything regarding sibling travel into perspective. Tom and I had decided to drive from Athens to Delphi, a three-hour proposition. I was behind the wheel, and we were trying to make good time to keep to a tight schedule. Suddenly, a toll booth popped up on National Highway No. 1.
As we eased up to the booth, my brother started fumbling with his wallet, searching for the required 40 dracma. Impatient, and noticing a line of cars building behind us, I reached over and grabbed a 100-drachma note out of his billfold.
Before I knew what hit me, I felt the impact of Tom's fist against my rib cage. My right hand immediately found its way to his arm and chest, in a kind of fire-on-warning response, part of the doctrine of mutual assured destruction that is established early on between older and younger brothers. The man taking the toll stared on in disbelief as I recited a short sermon on the dubious wisdom of striking a person driving an automobile, delivered, I'm sure, with all of the grace of a Larry Holmes after his final title fight.
We drove on, sullen and silent. But then, around a bend, we saw a restaurant with a blue tile roof, looking for all the world like the Greek equivalent of a Howard Johnson's. Although it was not yet lunch time, we stopped. Soothed by ice cream and orange soda, we made peace. And then we laughed. So little had changed -- our passage into adulthood may have allowed us into the front seat, but, as brothers, we would always have a back seat mentality.
It was then that I realized that no matter how well siblings get to know each other -- and for all of the value that traveling together as adults provides -- in a very real sense there will always be something about the relationship that will keep us permanently on the road to grandmother's house.