We’re sneaking up on our fifth anniversary of full time travel with our kids. When we left on our bicycle trip around Europe and N. Africa they were five through eleven years old. They are now ten through sixteen, and as comfortable in the livestock market in Tona Toroja as they are in a department store in the USA.
We travel specifically for the education and development of our children; we want them to grow up in the real world and become citizens of it in a way that transcends borders. There are so many things they learn in a classroom without walls, here are three of the most important:
1. People Are People
You can preach tolerance and multi-culturalism in a classroom until you’re blue in the face, but it’s so much easier to just take your kids to a park in every country you pass through, have as many guests in for dinner as you can lay hands on, and accept every offer of food or shelter from strangers as you go. Before long the kids stop seeing skin color, stop worrying about what kind of food hits the table, and get over stressing out about the language barrier. Pretty soon they’ll take off to play with the Indonesian kids and carry a soccer ball so that they can always draw in kids to play with.
I remember, when I was young, hearing my Dad say that it was good for my brother and I to have the experience of being, “The only white people within a couple hundred miles.” What he meant by that was that it’s a very good thing to experience life as a minority, perhaps to even be discriminated against a little bit. It builds compassion in a way little else can. It helps a developing person to see the commonalities, instead of the differences: We’re all doing our best to keep a roof over head, feed and clothe our families, celebrate the beautiful things in life, and leave the world a better place for our children.
It’s hard to hold on to an “us vs. them” mentality when you’ve eaten a meal with “them,” and count “them” among your friends. One of the primary benefits to liberal travel with children is that this lesson is absorbed organically, you won’t have to say a word to teach it.
2. Live Generously
We are not rich people, but on a world scale, we are fabulously, ridiculously, filthy-stinking rich. Just the ability to make American dollars as we travel and spend them in places that they go much further is a huge lottery win on the international economic scale.
We have dear friends who live in huts with dirt floors and metal roofs rusted through with holes. Others who support families of seven on less than $5,000 USD a year; some far less.
There is a lot of talk in traveling circles about how to give, and where to give, or more specifically, where NOT to give, so as not to exacerbate the problems. Careful consideration must be given to that balance.
In our experience, it is always better to live generously. When a need is presented, we try to find a way to give into it to fill it in a way that empowers instead of enables. We hope that our children will recognize their extreme privilege on the grander scale and do the same. We see glimmers of it, in their willingness to share the little they carry in their packs with kids who have far less. Their willingness to stretch a buck or do with less so that we can give more to someone else. And sometimes, they’ve seen us get taken advantage of too. But there’s a lesson, even in that: the “takers” are in the vast minority, and living generously is worth the risk.
We have so much, how can we not give?
3. Tread Lightly
The invention of plastic was simultaneously a boon and the bane of human existence. Trash is strewn from horizon to horizon across Tunisia. Barefoot children pick through heaps of plastic detritus in the margins of virtually every paradise. Plastic grocery bags are caught, like limp jelly fish on the coral of dying reefs in even the “best” of the world’s dive destinations. Jakarta is a fetid cesspool. Walking out in Beijing puts your lungs at risk. We can talk “green” all we want, but these are realities, and realities that are hard to remedy in places where money, education and resources are lacking.
It’s easy to look at the global problem and throw up our hands. We talk about that, in various arenas, with our children on a regular basis. But the answer lies in our own two hands. Understanding that every choice we make has consequences for the planet, and every piece of plastic anything that we buy will end up in a landfill somewhere eventually.
It’s not just about the three R’s, reduce, reuse, recycle, although those are important. We have to learn, as a race, to “need” less. To be happy without consuming more “stuff” and to tread lightly on the planet. One of the easiest ways to “teach” this is simply to travel. To allow kids to see the consequences of our over consumption first hand, and to connect the dots between the first world usage and the prices paid for that in other parts of the world. With global eyes, perhaps the next generation will do better.
What are you learning from your travels?