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
I’ve flown alone with three kids under six, pregnant with a fourth. I’ve backpacked with a tribe. I’ve done all night bus trips with a toddler and a nursling, solo. I’ve road tripped with 11 kids under 15, tag team with a girlfriend. We’ve bicycled, RV’d, flown, road tripped, camped, walked, bused, trained, ferried… you name it. We’ve traveled alone, just our “little” family, we’ve traveled with grandparents, with friends, with a group of seven other large families to Washington DC for a week, with strangers, and on just about everything but a cruise ship or a packaged tour (we’ll add those this year!)
Over the past 17 years of (fairly intensive) travel, we’ve found our groove, weathered more than a couple of storm and discovered a few “tricks” that might help some other family as they test the waters and travel with their kids
1. Start Early
The earlier you make a habit of traveling, even locally for day trips, the easier it will be for your child to take off on bigger adventures with an intrepid spirit. If your babies get comfortable on the move, your toddlers and teens will take it in stride.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you take what study after study is indicating regarding the detrimental effects of screen time on young children and unplug your kids. The ensuing development of the ability to self entertain, be creative and enjoy the simpler things will pay off in spades when you’re in Cambodia with a stick and a ball as the extent of the “entertainment” for your child. The other big benefit of making screen time a treat instead of the norm is that it works beautifully as a “Hail Mary” diversion when everything is going to hell in a hand basket at a particularly bad moment (on a plane, for example!)
Hannah acted like a complete fool once in a doctor’s office when she was about three. She was all over that room like a wild monkey: refused to sit, wanted to lick every germ covered toy, screamed like a little monster and I was completely freaked out. I could NOT control that kid to save my life. My mentor mom just giggled when I told her the story, completely at a loss as to what I could have done differently.
“Well,” she said, “Had you practiced for the doctor’s office? You can’t expect her to magically know what to do in that situation if you haven’t practiced at home.”
It was a “DUH!” moment. Obviously. So simple. Why didn’t I think of that.
A good 2/3 of what frustrates us as parents traveling with kids can be easily avoided by adhering to the 7 P’s (proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance) and practicing with our kids at home.
Things to practice:
I’m sure you can think of other things… practice them in a stress free, fun environment instead of expecting them to magically know when you’re all under the gun.
4. Pack Less
Seriously. Pack. Less. Rent baby gear when you get there. Buy stuff at resale shops and donate it later. Anything you need for kids you can find anywhere that kids live… which is everywhere. Excess gear and the necessity of hauling it around is the biggest joy-sucker I know of in family travel.
If you have a pack rat, that’s okay, let him carry his own gear. It’s a self teaching moment!
5, Adjust Expectations
You’ve been reading blogs. You have this glossy magazine spread idea of what family travel is going to be like. Perpetual vacation. Everyone smiling. Endless relaxing family time. Non-stop adventure and joyful bonding moments. Deep philosophical conversations about the finer points of art, architecture and religion as you sweep through Europe on a cloud with an epic soundtrack of orchestral music playing in the background. Erm. No. Get a grip.
Traveling with kids is hard work. It’s very worth it, but it’s work. Accept that. You might get to see the L’Ouvre, but you won’t be spending 8 hours in blissful silence with your head bowed at the feet of the masters. You’ll be trying to find a place to have your picnic, scoping out where the toilets are, reminding Jr. fifty times not to stamp his feet so loud that the whole danged Egyptian room echos, and repeating, ad nauseum, the admonition not to touch the Monets, no matter how enraptured he is with the colours and style. You’ll need to take nap time and bed time and dietary patterns into consideration. You won’t be out at Parisian restaurants until the wee hours too often, and you’ll be considerably more focused on locating the city parks than you ever have been in your life.
These aren’t bad things, they’re just different things and the parent who enjoys the journey most is the one who learns to let go of *her* expectations and go with the flow. This takes practice. Be gentle with yourself.
Having just come back from another great trip, I’m reminded again of the richness of Europe and the gifts it keeps on giving to any traveler willing to seek them out. I went to France on assignment for three mid-size, nationally-distributed magazines, and set to work almost immediately. It’s amazing how profoundly engrossing traveling and learning can be, especially when you have the added incentive of a contract for a story that must be delivered. Poking around the countryside and investigating ancient abbeys, ruined castles, and little medieval towns gives me a charge like nothing else. It satisfies my twin desires of adventure and knowledge.
As usual, the interactions with locals carbonated the experience. Sharing a bench—and soon after, a lively conversation—with a local man in half-timbered Rouen or chatting with the lady at the café table next to mine in the pretty little Burgundian city of Beaune added texture to the photos I’d taken. The clusters of pixels in my camera contained beautiful images of churches and historic buildings, but the connections forged with the everyday residents of these places gave depth and perspective to the memories in my own mind—a depth and perspective I hope will be felt by my readers.
It’s the local people—like the kindly town archivist in the German city who helped me make sense of his community’s tragic WWII history—that are the real repositories of history and tradition. Without him, I’d never had known about the moving memorial that sits on a seldom-visited hill just outside the town. It was a powerful, emotional experience to visit the lonely hill—the last resting place of so many of his community who lost their lives while the dueling armies fought it out around them—alone at sunset.
At those times you realize that the pretty stuff is only architecture.
Other travelers met on the road have become new friends too; I’ll soon be swapping trip highlights over email with the LA filmmaker from the Rhine River Valley village of Bacharach, the Seattle-area photographer from St. Goar, and the US psychology student from Colmar.
As I sit here shaking off jetlag and organizing my hastily-scribbled notes, I smile as I think about the experiences I crammed into my short trip. The research I did and the photos I took will yield excellent material for my article assignments. But more importantly, the experiences are already sowing the seeds of ambition for my next adventure overseas.
“Good writers — travel writers or otherwise — make real and tangible a world that some readers have never inhabited. Just look at the great draw of the bizzaro worlds of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.” What turns travel writing into an ethical question that sets it apart from sci-fi or literary fiction is that travel writers take real cultures and erect them for readers who trust them to be loyal and accurate. But the truth is, most travel writers are only passing through.”
–Alden Jones, “Is ‘Exoticism’ A Dirty Word?” WBUR Cognoscenti, August 30, 2013
“Marrying into a culture is a strange pinnacle of interaction. All of these travelers and travel writers think they’re so “extreme” because they visited this place or that place or ate this or bungee jumped off that, but — in my experience — there is nothing more challenging than truly learning language and culture to the point that you can have a genuine relationship with your mother- and father-in-law. That is some crazy shit . . . trust me.” Thomas Kohnstamm, interview
Oh yes. There is so much wisdom in this quote I can almost feel it coming out of the screen and slap me across the face, Chuck Norris’ style.
In brief: I’m sitting at the table I sit at every day for hours on end, writing, researching and imagining the new worlds that hang before me, stylized into the colors of a world map. My fiancee has left for her training session on the benefits of Chinese tourism to the local hotel industry. I think I’ll have another cup of coffee as soon as I finish this post. I have a bunch of bills to settle, and I know I’ll have to explain myself in a foreign language that sounds increasingly less foreign to my ears. I don’t see any Himalayan peak nor any series of earthen huts with thatched roofs from my window. There is just a solitary row of damp saris and t-shirts flapping in the wind.
Today, there won’t be any exciting hike, nor any backpacker competition to ascertain who stayed on the road for longer and with lesser cash. However, I might end up running at the park, skirting the hungry monkeys in search of food to avoid getting a rabies-infected bite and spend the night at the hospital. Or, I could visit my friend at the Buddhist sanctuary, sit under an outgrown branch”stolen” from the original Bodhi Tree, and sip cardamom tea. I’ll leave the visit to my in-laws for later, during the weekend. Today, I don’t feel like making the drive.
I glance out of the metal bars affixed before my apartment’s door frame, and I see nothing that could resemble “traveling”. At the same time, I feel like I’m as far as possible from any traveling stereotype. Strange, isn’t it?
I’m an avid reader. I’ve long made it a practice to choose books that followed my journeys. It’s a wonderful way to add depth and richness to my own experiences and observations, and to see the world through more eyes, more lives, than just my own.
Last summer I found myself on parade of bumpy bus rides across Vietnam and down the less traveled end of the Mekong River in Laos. With my legs folded on top of crates of fruit as the bus lumbered through the monsoon rutted mud roadways I paged my way, one country at a time, through Nelson Rand’s Conflict: Journeys through war and terror in Southeast Asia. This part of the continent has been, and in some places continues to be, a war ravaged corner of the world. It’s hard for me to imagine, shopping in the riverside markets and climbing through the gorgeous ruins of antiquity, planes flying over head, carpet bombing, families hiding out in the jungle, genocide, death, destruction. And yet, within my lifetime these have been realities in this part of the world. Instead of focusing on the big pictures and the official histories, Rand tells stories, first hand, of the people he’s met and the lives they’ve lived through war and terror, as the title suggests.
There is no shortage of interesting books to pick up on your travels through Southeast Asia, but if you’re looking for a well worn recommendation for a window into the heart of individual experiences across Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma, I heartily recommend this one.
“Movies are used by cultures where they are foreign films in a much more primitive way than in their own; they may be enjoyed as travelogues or as initiations into how others live or in ways we might not even guess. The sophisticated and knowledge able moviegoer is likely to forget how new and how amazing the different worlds up there once seemed to him, and to forget how much a child reacts to, how many elements he is taking in, often for the first time. And even adults who have seen many movies may think a movie is “great” if it introduces them to unfamiliar subject matter; thus many moviegoers react as naïvely as children to “Portrait of Jason” or “The Queen.” They think they’re wonderful. The oldest plots and corniest comedy bits can be full of wonder for a child, just as the freeway traffic in a grade Z melodrama can be magical to a villager who has never seen a car. A child may enjoy even a movie like “Jules and Jim” for its sense of fun, without comprehending it as his parents do, just as we may enjoy an Italian movie as a sex comedy although in Italy it is considered social criticism or political satire.”
–Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Harper’s, February 1969
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Fulford Cave sits in a national forest near Eagle, Colorado. It’s huge! The entrance is an awkwardly-angled pipe, but once you’re past the uncomfortable wiggle down the aluminum ladder, the cave opens up into several enormous rooms, passages and even a waterfall. I climbed and explored for around three hours, and didn’t even reach the halfway mark. Places like this are astonishing for how well hidden they seem. Walking around the forest, you’d never suspect there’s such a cave right under your feet.