What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
All of Cappadocia! The Fairy Chimneys, the cave hotels, and underground cities made it seem like I was on another planet. It was weirdly beautiful and peaceful.
My friend Clark sent me this poem recently.
It was a timely delivery. My Dad and I have been discussing this very thing: the desire to live multiple lives simultaneously, our deep wish to be in more than one place at a time, the bittersweet frustration of the knowledge that we can do anything we want with this one, beautiful life, but not everything we want. Choices must be made.
And then… I found a paperback copy of Vagabond’s House laying on the end table at my friend Powell’s house, in Kailua, last week. I thumbed through the pages, ran my fingers over the ink drawing on the cover, and savoured the moment. It seemed a serendipity to receive the gift of the poem and find a copy of the book within days of landing back in North America, after 19 months away. Of course it’s just a swing through for a few months, but re-entry and time at home is always a period of rooting down in my soul and reflecting on the layers of life. Blanding’s poetry echoes so many of the conflicts that I find within myself. I thought that today I might share one with you, and perhaps you will find yourself in it, as I did:
by Don Blanding
How very simple life would be
If only there were two of me
A Restless Me to drift and roam
A Quiet Me to stay at home.
A Searching One to find his fill
Of varied skies and newfound thrill
While sane and homely things are done
By the domestic Other One.
And that’s just where the trouble lies;
There is a Restless Me that cries
For chancy risks and changing scene,
For arctic blue and tropic green,
For deserts with their mystic spell,
For lusty fun and raising Hell,
But shackled to that Restless Me
My Other Self rebelliously
Resists the frantic urge to move.
It seeks the old familiar groove
That habits make. It finds content
With hearth and home — dear prisonment,
With candlelight and well-loved books
And treasured loot in dusty nooks,
With puttering and garden things
And dreaming while a cricket sings
And all the while the Restless One
Insists on more exciting fun,
It wants to go with every tide,
No matter where…just for the ride.
Like yowling cats the two selves brawl
Until I have no peace at all.
One eye turns to the forward track,
The other eye looks sadly back.
I’m getting wall-eyed from the strain,
(It’s tough to have an idle brain)
But One says “Stay” and One says “Go”
And One says “Yes,” and One says “No,”
And One Self wants a home and wife
And One Self craves the drifter’s life.
The Restless Fellow always wins
I wish my folks had made me twins.
“A concentrated influx of tourists can be a welcome boon to an economy, or it can be a pestilence. “I have always been proud to be British, but these degenerates are dragging us through the mud,” Michael Birkett, Britain’s vice-consul in Ibiza, said, before quitting his job, in 1998, in disgust at the behavior of his countrymen on the island, which he likened to that in Sodom and Gomorrah. After EasyJet began flying to Prague, signs went up in local bars: “Please, no groups of drunken British men allowed.” In 2008, Latvia’s Interior Minister deemed the “English pigs” who had urinated on a war monument in Riga a “dirty, hoggish people.” The next year — after shopkeepers in Malia staged an anti-British tourist march — the Foreign Office distributed leaflets and coasters in old town and beach bars across Europe, printed with the reminder, ‘Don’t Be a Dick.’”
–Lauren Collins, “The British Invasion,” The New Yorker, April 16, 2012
As the mother of four children and an avid traveler can I rant for a minute about how annoyed I am by the term “family friendly” as it relates to travel?
On the surface, you’d think it was a good thing, wouldn’t you? “Family friendly” should mean welcoming to children, accommodating of the needs of young families and perhaps priced in a way that is considerate to the family budget. By that definition, I’m all in favor of “family friendly.”
The problem is that “family friendly” actually has layers of meaning that are not nearly so lovely. In fact, if someplace is advertising itself, or comes recommended as being “family friendly” it almost guarantees that I won’t be interested in visiting, even though I have four kids.
In my experience, “family friendly” has come to mean, “adult-unfriendly.” It often means you can expect very low standards of civilized behavior, children behaving in socially inappropriate ways, and everyone else expected to smile and take it, no matter what the little darlings dish out. I once had to bodily remove someone else’s child from the middle of my dining table in a “family friendly” restaurant, with my own four children seated, wide-eyed, around it. That’s just not cool.
The other thing “family friendly” has come to mean is dumbed down and pre-chewed. Any real cultural interactions will be so carefully cartoonized and staged that the children are sure to have “fun” but are equally sure not to come away with any real or significant experience or learning. As a mom, and a teacher and a former child who traveled a great deal, I find this highly offensive. The assumption is that kids aren’t intelligent, or interested, or up to the task of digging into the real world or real experiences. Is that true? I know hundreds of intelligent, engaged, interested children who would beg to differ.
Labeling something “family friendly” screams, out of control kids, parents who can’t be bothered to actually train their kids to interact with the real world in a meaningful way, crappy kids menus instead of decent, nutritious food, and plastic counterfeit experiences in place of real world interactions. And we wonder why kids are so often bored, badly behaved, fat, and uninterested with crappy attitudes and temper tantrums on the side? We’re selling them so far short, why would they be otherwise?
Do I appreciate family pricing, changing tables for babies and a little extra grace when my little ones are struggling at the end of a long day, of course. We all do. But that’s not what “family friendly” is really about, and I’d rather not waste my kids childhoods on drivel, thank you. Is it more work to help kids learn to develop culturally and socially appropriate behavior so that they can hack it in the real world and non-family-friendly experiences? You bet it is, but what are we doing as parents, if not preparing our kids (as soon as possible) to navigate the real world? Why would we relegate them to an artificially contrived version of the world, painted in bright colours and cartoon figures and populated with touch screens and chicken nuggets? Because it’s easier for me as the Mom? Hmmm.
Here’s something I’ve learned: the world is infinitely “family friendly.” There are families everywhere, in every culture and children around the world are lovingly, gently, grafted into their parents’, family’s and community’s lives as naturally as can be, as they demonstrate their ability. Around the world our kids have been welcomed with open arms into the very finest “family friendly” establishments, run by real families, without one ounce of contrived child-life nonsense whitewashed on top. If you’re diving in and traveling with your kids, I encourage you to bravely reach beyond the “family friendly” marketing and take your kids out into the real world, to have real experiences, instead of settling for a sanitized, watered down version.
“You are still young, free… Do yourself a favor. Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late.”
–Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake: A Novel (2003)
While traveling, have you been robbed, hurt, or suffered a loss? Did the experience make you want to return home defeated or were you able to push through it and keep moving forward?
In western civilization, we are often taught that the best way to recover from traumatic experiences is to hire a doctor and take medication. We sulk inside, in a room, away from natural light and air, we allow fear and depression to creep in, and we immobilize our senses. When we move away from our basic primal instincts, trauma becomes locked up inside, and we are unable to work through it. But if we experience trauma or something that triggers past trauma while on the road, how do we make sure that it doesn’t hinder us from continuing our journey?
I studied trauma release before relocating to Cozumel, Mexico, with my 2 small children, and hoped with desperation that I could slow down and heal there. As I began to study how animals worked through traumatic events, such as being chased by a predator or being wounded, I discovered that if their healing process is interrupted, they can remain stuck in the emotional distress of that event for the duration of their lives, just as a lot of humans do.
To illustrate, as a colorful bird flew through the sky, it flew too low, striking a window. The bird was stunned, but when left un-touched, he felt the warmth of the sun, breathed the air as it gently wisped over his body, and moved through his own trauma. He was temporarily immobilized, but once his senses kicked in, and he shook off the hit, the bird began to be reoriented with his environment. He felt his pain, moved through it, took a few moments, and flew off.
Another bird hit a window while flying a little too low, and he was picked up by a person. As the well-meaning person held the bird, he petted him, held his wings down, and tried to keep the bird still as he re-gained consciousness. Being restrained even after he woke up, the bird was unable to move through his traumatic experience. The bird was never allowed to use its senses and instincts to work through his trauma, so he never did.
In my studies, I discovered that the best thing a person can do when healing from trauma- whether the instance was one time or recurring, an injury, a loss, or a robbery- is to be outside, feeling natural light and air, soaking in nature’s colors and sounds. We need the freedom to stare at a vast ocean or an open sky, to listen to our surroundings, to bury our hands and feet in the earth, to note the sensations we feels, and to re-awaken our senses, while the mind, body, and soul reunite in harmony. Being alone indoors, medicated, or restricted in any way from using our natural senses can hinder us from moving forward. Shrinking back in fear or defeat may also discourage us from traveling further, and no vagabond wants that!
Traveling to an unfamiliar country can re-awaken deeper emotions and senses that we didn’t realize were inactive. We are exposed to sights, sounds, and feelings that can be triggers for negative instances that occurred during our childhoods or even during our travels. But if we allow ourselves to feel and respond to our senses, living and breathing in nature’s healing forces, then each experience can awaken us, heal us, and prepare us for new phases in our journey.
“One challenge for a foreign correspondent is to figure out how much of yourself to include: If the story is too self-centered, it becomes a tourist’s diary. These days, the general trend is to reduce the writer’s presence, often to the point of invisibility. This is the standard approach of newspapers, and it’s described as a way of maintaining focus and impartiality. But it can make the subject feel even more distant and foreign. When I wrote about people, I wanted to describe the ways we interacted, the things we shared and the things that separated us. Chinese sometimes responded to me in certain ways because I was a waiguoren, and it seemed important to let the reader know this. Mostly, though, I wanted to convey how things actually felt — the experience of living in a Beijing hutong, or driving on Chinese roads, or moving to a small town in rural Colorado. The joy of nonfiction is searching for a balance between storytelling and reporting, finding a way to be both loquacious and observant.”
–Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (2013)
It seems almost impossible to believe that I’ve been traveling with kids for nearly twenty years. From newborn babies to teens with one foot out the door. From local weekend getaways, to two week trips, to packing kids along on corporate “work” trips, to long-term slow travel over a number of years.
Last week I shared 5 tips for traveling with kids; this week I’d like to share five more:
1. Slow Down
Please, for the love of your children, slow down. Toddlers do not like to be dragged through three museums in one day and sleep in a different hotel bed every night. They get cranky. (Heck, I get cranky!) If all you have is two weeks, then see two cities in Europe, not six and four countries. Plan a really fun train ride between them.
Don’t take off on a one year “round the world” with a plan for 20 countries and five continents. Just don’t. Be where you are. Spend enough time to really see. Look through your children’s eyes. Find parks to be as much a cultural experience as museum halls. Spend many days, to weeks, to months even in one place. Give your kids time to adjust, to absorb, to enjoy. Kids can’t turn that on at the flip of a switch. They enjoy when they are safe and secure feeling, when their world is ordered well, when they are well rested, when they sense that you’re settled in your soul, when all of their needs are met and they’re not being pushed too much. It’s hard to attend to all of that when you’re rushing.
2. Apply Strategy
My Dad is famous for saying, when we come up against a brick wall, “Well, we’ll just have to apply strategy to the situation.” When traveling with kids, applying strategy means outsmarting the system and working around the margins.
When our kids were tiny this meant road tripping the 12 hours to Canada overnight instead of during the day when it was harder on them. We never booked a flight that would interfere with nap time (the other fliers would not have appreciated our presence).
Even now with teens who are incredibly travel savvy we order our days with our family routines in mind: Meal times remain consistent, we rarely push for an early morning start, mornings are for work and school, afternoons are for touring and adventures. Ezra really needs to be in bed by 8:30 or by day three he’s less capable of being cool under pressure. Hannah needs a little daily personal space (little wonder!) Gabe needs time to get his feet under him in the morning. Elisha needs plenty of fair warning to be prepared and ready to roll. Ezra appreciates having tomorrow’s plan laid out (in detail) the night before so that he knows what to expect.
Know your kids, know style and respect your family patterns. Apply strategy to the situation.
3. Ziploc Bags
Pack them. Someone is going to vomit. Someone else is going to pee their pants. There will be a banana peel when there is no trash can in site. It’s going to rain frogs on the day you have to walk and you’ll be able to put the things you need to stay dry in them.
These are non-optional. Ziploc bags. Trust me.
4. Pack a Secret Weapon
What’s a secret weapon? A bag of tricks you deploy just moments before you kid completely loses it. It’s a boredom buster, a “five more minutes” burner, a sanity saver, and a gift to your fellow travelers (in silence!) Pack a little stash of quiet diversions to get you through a pinch and keep the kids happy. It doesn’t have to be big, it shouldn’t be expensive, and each item should be chosen with your child’s particular bent in mind.
What’s been in mine over the years:
Among other things
5. Try Again
If at first you don’t succeed, if you have the family vacation from hell, if the last road trip was an epic failure, try, try again. Assess the damage. Take stock. Go at it from a different angle. Try again.
There’s a learning curve to family travel and there’s no “recipe” for guaranteed success. You have to work with the circus you’ve got and make the best of the good, the bad and the ugly. Perhaps one type of travel won’t be a good fit for you, but another will. Maybe you can’t camp with your crew without it turning into a horror story, fine, no problem, so rent a holiday home instead. Keep trying. Find what works. Go with that.
Bonus: Do it your way
We do it our way. You should do it your way. You’ll find what works for your family and that’s a good thing. Don’t let anyone else tell you different. It’s all well and good to read “Tips for Traveling With Kids” but if they don’t work for you, that’s not a failure on your part, or ours, just a difference. Do what works. Cut yourself (and others) some slack. Make it fun.
A journey is made of milestones. It has to. Without milestones, we would not be able to ponder our experiences, to stop and wonder about what we have accomplished during all this while.
One of the most shiny accomplishments of my 6 years stint on the road – on many roads, in many countries, with a particular deviancy for the shores of Southeast Asia – is to have become a published writer. And I would like to make it clear: I’m writing this post after I asked Rolf Potts whether or not he found such a display of self-promotion appropriate for Vagabonding. The answer was positive. Moreover, as my book’s not traditionally about the art of travel, he thought best to let me talk about it, instead of wait for a traditional review.
My debut novel titled Nazi Goreng has been published by Monsoon books from Singapore in mid October, and is slowly appearing online and distributed in bookstores across Southeast Asia, the USA, Australia and the UK. It’s a great accomplishment that makes the many hours spent honing the writing craft well worth. More than anything, it constitutes the greatest milestone of my past six years. And please consider: I’m not new to conquering experiences that few can boost to have under their belts. For example, hitchhiking from Singapore to Italy was one. Well, writing a book can be a similar process. It takes daily dedication to get you somewhere closer to reach your goal, your milestone that is. Chiseling a manuscript is a bit like hitching a ride: you never know what’s coming up next, nor when you will reach your destination.
Nazi Goreng talks about Malaysia in a way you never read before: it’s a fictional transposition of the racial tensions that one can only find in a country made up by different ethnic groups, where prayers are spelt to the sky in three languages, followed by wafts of sandalwood-scented smoke. It’s a dark assemblage of truths and fictional accounts based on my perplexing discovery of kuasa melayu (Malay power), a neo-Nazi group made up of brown skinned people. And most importantly, it’s a novel that doesn’t talk about the British or Japanese occupation of the country, a theme too often coupled with Malayan-based historical fiction. On the contrary, this book is the result of years of real-life observations, friendships, time spent scouring the dark halls of local underground music venues, trying to decipher the different habits and ways of thinking of three of the most diverse races of greater Asia who, somehow, had come to share the same turf. And I care to precise, mine are modern day observations. They are a patchwork of the fantastic and terrible experience that living in a country like Malaysia can be. It’s the apex of a personal trip to the inside of a particular Asian society, sung to the best of my mongrel minstrel’s abilities. It’s a way to keep myself sane after being on the road, on and off motion, for six long years.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, and if you are keen, some more information can be found here. What I would like to communicate is really quite simple: I believe that we must use travel to open up our minds in creative ways. We must elaborate on what we have seen, smelt, touched, experienced, otherwise the sense is lost. We must find that unique angle which is ours, and ours only, and just functions as an extension of our own selves. I believe that it is only in such a case that a voyage be well worth setting a milestone. It serves to remember a particular turning point, and grow to a different level.
Truth be told, I don’t even know if I am a ‘traveler’ anymore. I feel more like I had dug up a hole in a tropical island, and had slowly covered myself under a mound of sand. But it is from the security of this new shelter, buried deep into the secrecy of another culture who seems less foreign every passing day, that I have chiseled my milestone. If you are interested in admiring its fine carvings, and see how much passion I reversed into the craft, please click here. And if you like what you see, consider giving some peanuts to the monkey, for it might keep the typewriter well oiled and always functional.
“Herodotus — who lived 2,500 years ago and left us his “History” — was the first reporter. He is the father, master and forerunner of a genre –reportage. Where does reportage come from? It has three sources, of which travel is the first. Not in the sense of a tourist trip or outing to get some rest. But travel as a hard, painstaking expedition of discovery that requires a decent preparation, careful planning and research in order to collect material out of talks, documents and your own observations on the spot. That’s just one of the methods Herodotus used to get to know the world. For years he would travel to the farthest corners of the world as the Greeks knew it. He went to Egypt and Libya, Persia and Babylon, the Black Sea and the Scythians of the north. In his times, the Earth was imagined to be a flat circle in the shape of a plate encircled by a great stream of water by the name of Oceanus. And it was Herodotus’ ambition to get to know that entire flat circle. Herodotus, however, besides being the first reporter, was also the first globalist. Fully aware how many cultures there were on Earth, he was eager to get to know all of them. Why? The way he put it, you can learn your own culture best only by familiarizing yourself with others. For your culture will best reveal its depth, value and sense only when you find its mirror reflection in other cultures, as they shed the best and most penetrating light on your own. …Thus Herodotus tried by means of his reportage to consolidate the most important message of Greek ethics: restraint, a sense of proportion and moderation.”
–Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Herodotus and the Art of Noticing,” Lettre Ulysses Award Keynote Speech, October 4, 2003