Traveling with siblings can be a leveling experience. As the oldest of three girls, I always felt I rightfully earned my seat at the top of our sibling hierarchy. I had navigated the swampy mess of junior high without guidance from a wise, older sibling; I had no one to look up to or learn from as I went from puberty to teenhood to adulthood (and parents don’t count here). I had earned my status. However, in the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel with my sisters and it was those experiences that somehow ushered us into adult friendships and brought us together in a way that leveled the playing field. Don’t get me wrong, we still argue like any siblings do and often revert back to our childhood roles when we’re home for the holidays, but our relationship changed when we traveled together.
The first time I traveled with my middle sister, Emily, she came to visit me during my first Christmas in Malawi while she took a break from her study abroad experience in Cairo, Egypt (the youngest – Abigail – was only a sophomore in high school at this point, so it wasn’t much of an option for her to join us). Emily was only visiting for a week, so I took her on a whirlwind trip through Central Malawi which included a trip to the lake shore, my site and one crazy ass Christmas Eve with some of my PC friends which involved slaughtering a pig, doing our best to set up camp on the beach despite being surrounded by over 100 village children (it’s not a normal thing for white people to show up and camp on the beach), and then somehow getting back by boat. That said, Emily was thrust into the strange world of the Peace Corps Volunteer and she noted afterward that she left not ever wanting to go into Peace Corps (but she eventually did do PC).
You’ll have to ask her how she felt about the experience, but I can say that traveling together changed our relationship. I wrote in my journal after she left:
I miss her like hell. Post Visitor Depression (PVD) I believe. She was only here a week, but it was nice to have her here. It was also surprisingly harmonious. We had one huge argument* that turned into a rather productive conversation. I really feel that our relationship is maturing. I’m trying really hard not to be so critical of her.
The leveling process had begun. Sure, the hierarchy still existed in my mind, but I think this experience opened us up to what our relationship could be.
Morocco and Mali
The next sisterly travel experience was to visit Emily while she was in Peace Corps in Mali (with a stopover in Morocco). At Emily’s request, Abigail and I went separately from my parents’ visit a few months before. We were also joined by Abigail’s long-time friend, Jack. One thing we proved on this trip is that all three of us can travel together…and enjoy it.
The experience in Mali was incredibly disorienting for me. I was utterly dependent on Emily that entire time because I spoke neither of the dominant languages – French and Bambara – and Emily did. Abigail, Jack and I followed Emily around like little ducklings, asking her questions and having her bargain for us and generally just telling us what to do. The complete reliance we had on her shifted something in our relationship. I was no longer the older, wiser sibling who had experienced the world. I had to rely on my younger sister to show me the sites and be my guide through the experience. As the older sibling, there were moments of resistance, but once I gave up to that momentary dependence on her, it freed our relationship. In the end, we had the most amazing three weeks making it really hard to leave.
Chile and Argentina
The last time we traveled together (which I realize now was almost 3 years ago!) was to visit the youngest, Abigail during her study abroad experience in Valparaiso, Chile (and then a side trip to Argentina). Incidentally, this was the same place I studied abroad in the same program. What could have left me feeling even wiser and worldlier, actually did quite the opposite. It had been 8 years since I had been to Chile, so although some of it was familiar, it felt new to me again and Abigail took over as tour guide for us.
Because there is an eight-year age difference between me and Abigail we essentially claim two completely different generations which causes some tensions between us, mostly because of my reactions. To be fair, she was ten when I went to college, so I saw her growth after long absences. It was often a shock for me that she could do grown-up things (like drive or be in college), so there was a lot to overcome when she was our guide through the country.
But, Abigail prevailed. She spoke Spanish fluently, had an amazing relationship with her host family, and went out of her way to give me a proper Chilean birthday celebration when I turned 29 during the visit – complete with hot dogs (Chileans love their hot dogs!) and cake (separately, of course). This experience changed my view of Abigail and what she is capable of.
The View as a Big Sister
Now that we’re adults and I can reflect constructively on my relationship with my sisters, I realize that I’ve always seen my role as the protector. I was critical of Emily because I didn’t want her to go through the unguided challenges I went through growing up without older siblings. I wanted to give her guidance, but it didn’t always come out constructively. With Abigail, I didn’t want to see my cute baby sister grow up. I suppose the hierarchy among siblings is probably harder for the oldest to give up, both out of protection for the siblings and self-protection.
What has been really important about having these traveling experiences with my sisters is that now I view them as peers. Emily is the first person I go to for any advice. Because of Abigail’s social justice perspective she’s gained through community and youth organizing, I go to her for amazing discussions about politics and social justice. I’m sure we would have gotten to this point without traveling together, but I think it gave me a bit more perspective on how seminal it was for our relationship. I don’t know whether it’s affected Emily and Abigail’s relationship, but I know that it has impacted mine with each of them. Because I have traveled with my sisters, I see them as equals in many ways, but I also recognize where they have experience and perspective that I do not. Because of travel, I look up to them, even though I still remain their big sister.
* The token argument while traveling with siblings happens pretty much every time and like most siblings, we get over it quickly once tempers have cooled.