Aug 11, 2020
Illustrations by Anawat Muangthong.
JUST GO, BE ALERT and do your best, as always,” my mother Tundra used to tell me on the eve of each new journey. It was her way of chasing away bad luck, for my unconventional traveling-and-writing lifestyle gave her both infinite pride and inextinguishable apprehension.
Tundra carried the name of a gelid and featureless Arctic region that inspires adventure, but her chilly name didn’t match the warmth of her heart, nor the fact that she never traveled as much as she had wanted. But, in her later years, my efforts to escape the uninspiring reality of Voghera—my small hometown in Lombardy—had given her new reasons to be curious about life.
Please understand that in Italy’s ever-conservative mindset, writing for a living means committing a heinous career crime. Still, back in 2007, I jumped at the chance to teach languages in a second-tier Chinese city—it was the lucky break I had craved since I was a book-loving child.
Tundra supported my choice because she saw in this unusual child all her untapped desire to explore the world, a dream she gave up soon after getting her first office job, and meeting her colleague Maurizio. Dad was indeed a man of another vision. “When are you going to get a real job—one that’s going to give you a retirement fund?” became his constant, worried refrain. “Why don’t you find a job in Europe, closer to us?”
That wasn’t an option. In 2007, I knelt in a smoky hall at Beijing’s Lama Temple, and asked the Buddha to grant me three wishes: first, a career as an Asia-based travel writer; second, a woman who would have my back along that difficult life path; and third, to make it all happen fast.
It all snowballed from there. To be frank, the fact that I only saw my parents a bunch of times as I kept digging my claws into the geographies of Asia didn’t disturb me too much. I was an utterly determined, maybe outright selfish son, but if I wanted to make a living at writing guidebooks and articles in Asia, I could have never done it from the provincial humdrum of southern Lombardy.
WHEN TUNDRA DIED on March 20, at 68, in that same small town ravaged by COVID-19, the family’s “itinerant travel writer” was still away on business. I lost my mother while I was on my first assignment off of Asian turf, stuck under “lockdown” 3,300 meters up in the Peruvian Andes.
For three days, a crown of snow-capped mountains watched me quiver as on the other side of the world my 71-year-old father seemingly struggled to decide whether to live or to follow his beloved wife up that steep stairway to heaven. He chose the latter, for Tundra was too unique to live without.
We had spoken on the phone during the two weeks before they entered the ward: they had both been misdiagnosed, then had fallen sick, and then been hospitalized together. There were a few brief WhatsApp messages to interrupt the subsequent radio silence, making our distance feel just a tiny bit less abysmal. Mom had seemed positive about recovering, but something smelled foul. Then came my father’s last piece of advice: “Stay far away.” It reconciled perfectly with the reality that had kept us separated for a decade—me traipsing around the planet; them trapped in their Northern Italian routines.
“I admire you, but I am also saddened that your life’s so hard and unpredictable,” Maurizio once told me outside Wat Phumin in Nan, Northern Thailand, hitting me in the chest with a freight train of honesty. He was not accustomed to say it in plain words, but he was proud of me. That was all I needed to hear.
I had started reflecting more on our relationship and what I was missing in June 2018. Simone, the former drummer of my metal-punk band back in Italy, The Nerds, was hit and killed by a car only 10 days into his maiden bicycle tour of Uzbekistan. I was in Laos researching a guidebook.
Simone’s sudden passing made me realize all of my mother’s subtle fears: how many times could I have died on one of my mad, unplanned journeys through far-flung India and Pakistan, breaking the hearts of the two who had helped me become the strong-willed person I had to be to get there in the first place?
It’s a tragicomic irony that I am still here writing, while they are dead, killed by the most exceptional of circumstances. More so, the fact that travel-writing assignments forced me to miss both my friend’s, and my own parents’, burials. Now home in Malaysia, I remain waiting for the moment I can safely return to Italy and mourn them.
I can already imagine it. I’ll kneel again, as I did in Beijing, this time in front of their graves. I don’t know yet about the other two, but the first wish I’ll whisper will be for them to forgive me. My career as an Asia-based travel writer certainly took a lot away from us—but truth be told, to me it’s always been about making them proud.