BY JENNIFER AMES, WITH AN EXCERPT FROM LAURA SUDLER
[Editor’s Note: When Daggett Harvey chronicled a Laura Sudler trip to the Coral Seas in Classic Chicago, readers realized that her adventures were bubbling with knowledge, adventure, and opportunities to meet fascinating citizens of the world on every continent. You felt safe on a Laura and Louis Sudler tour. We remembered hearing from a friend in Antigua, Guatemala, that bandits once entered their bus in the rainforest demanding women’s purses. Laura told them ‘absolutely not!’ and to leave the bus immediately. And off they went sheepishly. Laura Sudler died August 18 and we remember her first with her daughter Jennifer Ames’s tribute and then through Laura’s own words about her early travels in China, which capture her love of the world and how she dug deeply into understanding and appreciating other cultures. As Harvey, her lifelong friend, said, “Who could resist ‘I’m taking another trip. Why haven’t you signed up?’ Boundless energy, courage, hospitality, candor, and most of all, an enormous good heart: I knew her before I had memory, and now some of life is gone.”]
Mom was born in 1939 into one of Chicago’s founding families. She is the second oldest of six children; the Fairbank family lived on the city’s North Side and summered in Lake Geneva. She greatly admired her father who was 6’6” tall and worked in industrial real estate. He died just after my sister, Mary, was born and that was very hard for my mother.
A divorcee in her late 20s with three children and a moped, mom became a real estate broker. (She went on to become one of the top brokers in the city and sold for 30 years.) In the meantime, she met and married my amazing stepfather, Louis Sudler, and they enjoyed 52 years together.
When I was in middle and high school, we had a typical fiery mother-daughter relationship. She was tough with high expectations, and I wanted to be independent. I was not allowed to wear jeans and was told that “only hookers and gypsies had pierced ears.” I was finally allowed to get my ears pierced while mom continued to wear painful clip-ons until one day she snuck off and got her ears pierced too. One of the great joys in my life was coming home from college and becoming friends with my mom.
Mom did not follow in the footsteps of her older sister or brother who each attended an Ivy League college. Instead, mom toured Africa for several months at the age of 19 with the head of the Lincoln Park Zoo and host of the television program Zoo Parade, Marlin Perkins. This experience ignited a passion for educational travel that lasted a lifetime and often involved the unexpected. For example, as children, we spent a Christmas in Moscow, rented an island in the Bahamas, and toured Greece while living out of a VW van.
When I was in my early 30s, mom took me on an extended tour of Asia to help me get my mind off a bad break-up. Our trip included three weeks in India with the Smithsonian. There, she discovered a passion for touring but did not enjoy the other people in the group. So, for the next 25 years, my parents curated their own trips to every corner of the planet (including several more trips to India) and invited friends and family. You knew you were on mom’s A-list if were offered an invitation to travel with them! The adventures they shared were incredible.
What else? Mom loved ice cream, dancing, shopping, matchmaking, befriending strangers, and counting the turtles in North Pond. She wore bright colors and sang out of tune. She especially loved her friends and took her role as the matriarch of our family seriously, even while her mother was still alive. Mom was there for the entire family, always. Mom brought us together to celebrate, travel, learn, and laugh.
On the one hand, mom’s passing marks the end of an era. And on the other, her joie de vivre had a profound impact on the lives of family, friends, and strangers, and her legacy will live on in all of us. Still, we’ll miss her deeply.
I went to an antique show in Navy pier in 1994 and noticed a booth with a Chinese wedding collar and other textiles that were hand made from China. About the same time, I received an invitation to join a trip to Guizhou Province to visit the minority groups.
In 1996, Lou, our daughter Jenny, and I went on a 17-day trip in Guizhou Province. It was a trip of a lifetime!
There are 55 minority groups in China. The Han Chinese pushed them down from just under Mongolia. Over time, they ended up in the subtropical mountainous area in Guilin, Yunnan, Guanxi, and Guizhou Provinces of SW China. The groups that settled there are the Dong, YI, Yao, Shui, Bouyi, Li, Gejia, and Bai. For thousands of years, these migrating peoples have developed rich, cultural traditions that are increasingly being recognized for their extraordinary handicraft textiles and silver jewelry. They helped Chairman Mao on his great walk, which protected them during that Cultural Revolution in China.
We flew from Hong Kong to the capital city, Guiyang. We were met with a guide, loaded into a large van, and our 7-hour trip to the first village began. The road got extremely muddy. So bad that we got out and walked the last mile because we were afraid the van would slip sideways, down the steep hills. Luckily, we were dressed in long pants and waterproof boots. That was our uniform.
This was the most beautiful time to visit Guizhou Province as all the rape seed plants were in full bloom turning the terraced mountains yellow.
We arrived at the Pointed Hat Miao village. The villagers were waiting for us, and gave us our first welcome swig of rice wine and a cigarette. A small band played for us as we arrived. We enjoyed seeing the women who danced for us. We were the first foreigners that have visited this village, and they were fascinated to see what we looked like.
After we toured their small village, we were invited to visit in a home. They kept the animals on the 1st floor and they lived on the 2nd floor in not a lot of space. Their beds were cotton three-inch mattresses with quilts they made they were folded each day. The kitchen had a small stove heated by coal beneath and pots were put on it.
The women spun the thread and wove the material to make their clothes out of cotton and flax. Everything was handmade and dyed. They dyed the cloth in indigo blue after it was decorated with wax to make the designs. The indigo came from plants boiled in water and is now a dying art.
When it dried, it was hammered to make it shine and bluer. After they did waxing dying of their skirts, they pleated them. They do it all by hand and it takes hours.
We spent the night at one of the primitive hotels and the next day visited the Stone Village of the Bouyei Minority “Four-Seal” Miaos. This was a much bigger village. Everyone came out to see us, and they did several dances. It is in this village we saw the older women spinning threads of flax and cotton, then weaving cloth to make their clothes. They made the clothes and then batiked them before dyeing them like the other village. The young women do the batiking. Batiking is a method of putting fine designs using fine tipped brushes with the wax.
We moved on to another village, The “Long Horn” Miaos. There we danced with them, they sang to us, and we sang to them. They showed us how they put the horn into their hair. We did not see how they made those huge black yarn wigs.
We were up early to drive two-and-a-half hours to a courtship festival called Little Flower Fair. Our van had a military escort with sirens going the whole time. It turned out we were their honored guests!
The area where the festival takes place is a flat circular platform where we were to stand. It is surrounded by mountains. We could see the girls coming through the mountains from their villages: they wore very bright yellow and bright orange cotton wigs on and their capes were yellow, black, and orange.
At one point Lou tripped and it seemed like all 57,000 people gasped. When he got his balance, they all giggled! Our favorite sign of the festival said: “Welcome to invest and to Exploit.” It was a fun day!
There was lively music. The first group that played had wonderful pheasant feather headdresses. They played flute like horns. The women danced. After a long day, we returned to our hotel and ate and went to bed, exhausted!
The next day after a breakfast of watery porridge, we left for the village of the YI minority. They had horses and had horse races for us. The women danced, and it was at this village we saw two women with bound feet, a custom that was forbidden fifty years earlier.
In almost all of these villages, the people sang songs to us and we sang songs to them. “Old McDonald” was our favorite song because they could recognize the animal sounds!
We were always greeted with rice wine at the villages, the girls always danced, and the men played the long horns called “Lashing flutes.” At one village, we had bamboo poles that we had to jump thru, and in another one, I played a Badminton game and won!
The girls wear empty baby carriers as an advertisement for them! They have very nice clothes that they made themselves. The headdresses and necklaces are made out of nickel silver and are quite fragile. This demonstrates their skills and potentials as wives. There are distinctive regional differences in style, technique, and materials which are identifiable by townships or even villages.
We would stop in a town where our guide asked if they could cook lunch for us. They indeed cooked for us a wonderful and healthy stir-fried vegetable meal. It was cooked with rapeseed oil which is canola oil! I lost around 15 pounds on each of my trips! When we ate, crowds would gather at stare at us. They had never seen people that looked like us, and we are very tall to them.
I forgot to mention that we would go to the beginning of the town and walk thru it. We would see dyed baby chicks, people getting cupped, people with bound small feet, teeth pulling, and lots of children. It was good fun!
In one town, our son, Zack, decided to get a Chinese haircut. He went to the outside barber and they began to cut his hair. The crowds gathered! There must have been over 60 people watching him get his hair cut. Much to his surprise the hair cut cost 20 cents.
The Long horn Miao were lots of fun. They danced for you, and they got us dancing, too. We played games and sang a lot of songs to everyone. They made the paper and tasseled hangings for us.
One of the highlights of our visit to Guizhou was the traditional young person’s spring courting gathering called Sisters’ Meal Festival. A few days earlier the girls in the Shedong area flock to the hillsides to collect wildflowers and berries to dye the glutinous rice known as Sister’s rice.
They chat and their search for marriage partners commences. Everyone circles round in this teenager ritual, with young men more recently in western fashions with name tags of the suit’s maker label on their sleeve. Towards evening the newly formed couples break away and sing together.
The girls give their Sister’s rice to the boys who get an indication of the girl’s feelings by the symbols within: a pair of red chopsticks means she will accept his hand in marriage; one red chopstick, his love may not be returned; a garlic or red chili, the boy must look elsewhere; pine needles indicate the boy should present silks and colorful threads, and she will wait for him.
Each girl prepares her rice with symbol inside, and then wraps it in a handkerchief. Young people from several villages gather together, the girls beautifully dressed in their embroidered costumes, some decorated with elaborate silver ornamentation.
Or so it was.… Today China has become a Disney fiasco with hordes of camera toting tourists, and all the intimacy has gone. They now charge to see the flute performances, which happen every hour or so.
I did go back with my third group several years later and did not recognize any of the places we had been to. Everything was torn down and white tile buildings with large metal garage doors stood in their places! It is very sad. You no longer have the wonderful stir-fried meals cooked in the small villages, but instead you eat in a huge dining room full of Chinese eating awful Chinese food!
The newspapers have articles in them saying that the young ladies do not want to learn from their grandmothers and mothers how to make the textiles. They said it is a thing of the past! Very sad indeed.
As you can imagine we were very lucky to have seen his part of China, which unavoidably joining the modern world.
For those who traveled with the Sudlers or heard Laurie speak about their travels, our curiosity and yearning for adventure were met with abundance of knowledge and her commitment to inclusion. To have seen the world with Laura Sudler was a gift of wise hospitality.