What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Ancient Mayan religious rites being performed in a Catholic cathedral… a unique blend of religions that tells stories about a part of the world with a conflicting history.
In 1885, a young lady just 21 years old read an article titled “What Girls are Good For” in a Pittsburg newspaper. Her written response to the paper impressed the editor so much, that he offered her a job as a writer, with the pen name “Nellie Bly”. Nellie went on to prove that women had brains, heart, and courage to do anything that men could, despite what the article had previously reported.
Nellie began traveling to other places as an investigative journalist, broadening her knowledge of cultural, political, and social issues, and giving raw accounts of the groups and tribes she encountered.
She was one of the first female travel writers, and after studying her, I can see that her vagabond spirit propelled her further than other women of her time and geographical location. She had an unprecedented idea to travel the world alone in fewer days than the male character in the book “Around the World in Eighty Days”. Women did not travel without escorts because it was said that they were too delicate, and that they had too many belongings to take with them. But Nellie, unwilling to be held down by anyone’s expectations or rules, boarded a ship alone with the clothes on her back, a few under garments, a coat, and a small bag of toiletries. This puts my “one luggage per family member” rule to shame.
Not only did Nellie complete the trip, despite several setbacks, she did it in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds after her departure. Her arrival home was met with applause by men and women alike, as she accomplished something no one else in her position had done before.
From this point in her life on, Nellie made decisions that rung true to her own convictions and beliefs. She traveled to many more places that American women dared not, and she uncovered and reported a myriad of disgraceful political and social issues that were hidden from the public. In one of her adventures, she posed as an insane person in order to get an inside look of life in an asylum. When she revealed the conditions through her detailed report, a judge granted a huge budget increase to care for the patients there.
When each of us takes a step on a journey, we do it out of conviction or curiosity. When we find our strength to leave familiarity for something more meaningful, we are raw, vulnerable, and unable to use our comforts and belongings as crutches. We see things the way they really are, and we relate to people more honestly and openly. Often we find more than we set out for. In the beginning, Nellie just wrote a letter addressing the fact that women were valuable. In the end, she became one of the first well-known female travel writers, investigative journalists, and advocates for social justice of her time. She shaped herself and her surroundings with each step she took in her journey- just like we do as we travel our own roads.
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.
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.
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.
Our family has a long history of making memories instead of collecting things. We love to give gifts, don’t get me wrong, but most of them are little homemade things, or gifts of self in some capacity. Perhaps most precious are the gifts of time and of memories.
We didn’t get a honeymoon. I had back surgery instead. Long story.
So, we started taking annual honeymoons:
Year One: a road trip to Florida and a three day cruise to the Bahamas.
Year Five: a motorcycle trip through the maritime provinces of Canada.
Year Ten: Hawaii
Year Fifteen: A rainy tent in England, one month into a year long cycle trip around Europe.
Year Twenty: This coming spring (where did the time go?) We’re thinking Paris, just to be cliche.
One year we gave our kids camel rides on the Sahara for Christmas. Ezra got an elephant ride in Thailand for his tenth birthday. Hannah got a visit to Angkor Wat for her sixteenth; we went skiing in New Zealand for her seventeenth.
This coming year I turn 40. To honor that milestone I’m taking a walk with an old friend. We share a birth year, and it’s been her dream to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Something about forty, the nice round hilltop of mid-life, that makes a good place to stop and take a breath, lift our heads and take a look around: at the past, and the path before us into the future. It will be a monumental journey. No husbands. No kids. Just her and me, our boots and our backpacks.
Many tangible gifts have passed through my hands over the years, many of them treasures for a while. The ones that have passed through my heart are the ones I still hold dearest, the ones that I can unpack in the quiet of a dark moment and that bring light to my life in the way no purchased item ever has. Perhaps it makes me an oddity, but I’d always rather make a memory than spend equal money on a “thing.”
How do you mark milestones? Have you used journeys to celebrate and measure out life? Tell me about that.
“Wow, it must be nice to be able to afford to travel so much…”
I understand why people say that. I get that the question behind it stems from the number crunching going on that includes a mortgage payment, car payment, clothing, food, insurance, and luxury items that pad their existence. I know they’re thinking about how that week long trip to Disney with their kids cost them in the neighbourhood of $5000 last year and they’re doing the math on how that could possibly be sustainable, times four weeks to a month, times 12 months to a year, times six years.
Of course that math is faulty. There’s a big difference between lifestyle travel and vacation. But there’s something else:
Long term travel is about a priority shift more than it is budgeting.
Long ago we realized that we could afford a “normal life” with a house, two cars, music lessons for the kids and the usual trappings. Or, we could afford to travel slowly for as long as we liked, but we could not afford to do both. Either in time, or money. Of the two, time is the more precious currency to us.
And so, we chose to travel.
Which means that we chose to give up the lovely three bedroom house, with an office and purpose built school room on 2 acres, surrounded by state forest. We sold most of our “things.” We sold our cars. I traded my lovely down comforter for a sleeping bag, my kitchen with all the appliances for two gas burners in Thailand, my fancy wash-and-dry-in-one-go machine for a bucket or a river.
We’ve chosen to invest both currencies: time and money in collecting memories and dreams instead of knickknacks and a closet full of shoes. That’s why we started traveling and that’s what keeps us traveling. We’ve traded comfort for a long string of, “Remember when….”
My Dad is famous for saying that life is like a coin, you can spend it any way you want, but you can only spend it once. We’re spending it on collecting memories and relationships, not tangible things. Does that make us minimalists? Absolutely not! We’re maximalists to the max! We’re just filling up the inside instead!
I sat on the porch in the Australian late afternoon sun, shadows stretching long across the grass, cockatoos screaming through the bush canopy, sipping my tea, knitting. My mind wandered as the guys discussed the merits of following our instinct and road tripping right straight up through the red heart of Australia instead of the well traveled coastal route. There was a lull in the conversation.
“My Dad make that walking stick?” I changed the subject, pointing to a stick, with a sad face carved into the hand grip, sticking out of an oriental pot next to the front door of the mud brick house.
Robert nodded. He’s a man of few words.
I smiled. My mother’s stained glass hangs in their big round window. There’s a photograph of my Dad and Robert hanging by the front door. In it they are young men wearing jalabas, standing under an umbrella with posed, stone faces, in front of a violent orange tent somewhere in North Africa.
“You see that number plate on the wall,” Jesse pointed out, the first morning at breakfast, “That’s off the bug we were driving in Africa when we picked up your parents.”
And so, I find myself as far away from my Canadian home as I could possibly be, and yet surrounded by my family. That’s a special kind of traveler’s magic. At every turn this weekend I’ve been reminded how the smallest act of kindness, the impulse of a moment can change the history of the world, or the path of a family, for generations.
Robert and Jesse picked up my parents, hitchhiking, in North Africa forty-some years ago. The rest, as they say, is a well-storied history. Last night Robert played his guitar and sang in his lilting Australian voice along with a fiddle played by the granddaughter of his long-time adventuring buddy.
I guess they’re right; the folks who say picking up hitchhikers is so dangerous. If you’re not careful, you might just change your world, the path of your life, the people you call friends and chosen family. You might end up weaving generations together on opposite sides of the planet in ways that enrich the lives of a stranger’s grandchildren. Dangerous business, this.
Recently I was asked by a magazine to look at possibilities for a travel article. Specifically about some Western European locale that featured prominently in World War II, but hadn’t been covered too widely. Turns out it was not an easy task. While scouring my map of Western Europe looking for places that hadn’t been done a thousand times already, the thought entered my mind, “has it all been done before?” Just as when I’m playing my guitar and writing a tune, I wonder if every possible permutation of chords has already been explored.
The more I stared at the map, my eyes raking over familiar place names, the more I began to despair at the thought of “it all having been done.” Later that day, while talking to a friend, she mentioned in an off-hand way how her grandpa, who’d recently died, and was given a deeply moving military burial. “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was really nice. Actually, I had no idea he’d been in the military.”
“Neither did I”, she said. “He only mentioned it a couple times that I recall, and I was a kid, so I didn’t really care.” Evidently she found out while talking to his friends and other relatives at the funeral. She proceeded to tell me the harrowing and sometimes grisly story about her granddad’s exploits in World War Two, where as a young man he fought bravely in France and Germany, and was awarded medals for valor.
“I didn’t know this stuff till recently,” she said, a tone of amazement in her voice. “And I never saw the medals or knew about them till they were taken out of a drawer and put in his coffin with him. He had lots of them. He was always so quiet; he kept all of that stuff inside.”
Reflecting on the conversation, I realized that, yes, there are still great stories to be told about amazing lives; stories that often go unknown until that life is extinguished. It’s just a matter of asking; of seeking. Every location holds its own stories too, just like people. I recall the many times I have found that a flower-blanketed field was the scene of an epic medieval battle that decided the fate of nations, or that a pile of stones in the countryside was once a soaring abbey that witnessed a coronation of a great king beneath its vaulted ceilings.
And that is our job as travel writers, and as people fortunate enough to be able to tell these stories: We need to seek, we need to ask. Because there are stories worth telling, and they hide in the most unlikely of places, like a quiet valley, a broken-down complex of haunted stones, and a kind old man’s heart.
“You really have to want to do this, don’t you, Dear?”
Ann’s words have echoed in my mind as her sweet, octogenarian face has pleasantly haunted my afternoon walks. We wandered slowly through the natural bridge outside of Waitomo, NZ, with her and her husband, Ross. I quietly got the kids’ attention and encouraged them to walk more slowly behind him, and not press forward as he did his aged best to step over tree roots and up the rocky stairs to the high meadow where we laughed together about the crazy idea of standing in the presence of 3 million year old oysters. Tony gave him a leg up over the fences. He laughed, good-naturedly, when the boys leapt out from behind blackberry bushes with a roar, as he had undoubtedly done forty years before I took my first breath.
Ann was hand washing for the two of them in a little tub out the back of her camper van, using water that Ross was bringing, one bucket at a time from the bridge. He’d lower the bucket the twenty or so feet to the surface with a long rope and then haul it up, mostly full, hand over hand before delivering it to his white haired wife. By the time she was done rinsing he was there to help her wring out his trousers, one on each end, twisting hard, and hang the clothes from a line he’s strung under the awning.
She commiserated with me over hand washing for six, producing meals for an army on two burners in a three foot square space, and the difficulties of adventuring with children. She’d raised a tribe too, in her day, and they’d camped the length and breadth of their island home. Perhaps she’s a premonition of myself.
You have to really want to do this.
I’ve been thinking about that statement, and the layers of meaning it embodies.
Truth be told, living this way is a lot of work. Staying home is far and away easier. But the best things in life are always the things that require the most from us, that we have to work our rear-ends off to achieve. The things we are proudest of mean so much to us because they’ve cost us the most.
Marriage is like that.
Raising kids is like that.
Traveling is like that.
All three together is the perfect storm of all that and two bags of chips.
There was so much encouragement in Ann’s face as we talked and washed and shared “mama” stories. The older I get the more I appreciate the stories of old women. I think because I’m just beginning to understand the many-layered thing that a woman’s life is, stretched thin over the better part of a century. Perhaps it’s because I can see myself in their eyes more clearly than I could at twenty, or thirty.
You have to really want to do this.
So many people give up. They give up on the thing they really, really want to do. There are so many reasons: It gets too hard. It costs too much. It hurts too badly. It isn’t what we signed up for. Someone else fails us. We fail ourselves. It’s inconvenient. It’s easier to stay home, in some capacity. We feel that we don’t deserve it, aren’t “worth” it. It’s a fight.
I’ve been thinking lots about the things I really want to do. The big things and the small things. The hard things and the harder things. The things that seem mundane, like staying married until I’m in my eighties, raising kids who are productive citizens and learning to write. The things that seem like pipe dreams too: seeing Antarctica, changing the world, and successfully handing my parents’ legacy to my grandkids. I really, really want to do these things.
For tonight, the things I really want to do included cooking 3 kilos of meat, enough potatoes, cheesy cauliflower & salad for an army, making a double batch of ginger cookies in a 16″ square camper oven and two gas burners, and making my husband laugh until he was squirming to get away from me, which is an accomplishment. I want to sit and sip my tea, munch my still warm ginger treat and thank the gods that be for friends who love me enough to mail me the exact type of tea that keeps me from killing the children who I want so desperately to strangle sometimes when we all are living in 126 square feet. And I’m willing to live in 126 square feet of rolling space because I really, really want, quite desperately, to make their childhood epic and not to miss a moment of it.
What do you really want to do?