Is traveling with kids something to fear, fret over, and throw your old independent spirit out the window for, or does it just require a little tweaking?
Driving into town, I tuned into a program on the radio. The talk show's host introduced the morning's topic: "Are today's children too soft?" I joined the dots to a theme on my mind: travel with children––and continued the debate in my own head. "Hmmm. Maybe." Or rather, maybe there's something about parents these days. Or, …and then I had a moment––maybe people just aren't cut the same way. Blindingly obvious? Well no, not really. Particularly, if you've been stuck into the web sites and the literature for a while.
For despite the cheerful, "Have baby/toddler/children, will travel" banter, you're likely to wind up with the impression that parents are, or ought to be, terrified of traveling. It's not just the endless "Do's and Don'ts" and checklists, but within the preparation advice, are subliminal messages that the world is unfriendly––dangerous even––unprepared for the onslaught of children. Which is clearly, mostly at least, untrue. After all, children live in most places, right?
Matt and Ben Heason in Sudan, © Alan Heason
There are also assumptions about the kind of people parents are. As though, as soon as children hit the scene, parents morph into a bland uniform mold. And that they need a lot of instruction to help them learn to live from scratch. Born again, rather than grown up. Or some such thing.
Take the plethora of Club Med–type packages. Everything all–in and preplanned. In my mind's eye, I can see the parents, conked out by the pool, having handed the kids over to some jolly child–minder. While the appeal is obvious, I imagined that some might look beyond this kind of thing for a life–affirming experience. And what about only rich countries being sold as safe and enjoyable to visit? Or the concept that children need ready–made playmates; and that the best kind to look for, are those you might more easily find next door?
What happened to all those backpackers in their 20 somethings? I couldn't quite see them going into hermetically–sealed package holiday mode; so, and more for personal reassurance rather than anything else, I hunted some down.
I didn't have to look long. There were several. Take Sam and Yael Harris. They traveled before they got hitched, and then, as so often happens, were joined by Uma. Their test run, to see how it would work, was to try 6 weeks in India. I smiled as they continued. (Bingo!) They got to India, and were ecstatic to discover how easy it all was; people coming forward to help, boosting their quality of life no end. And all for 50 dollars a week. Which is why they decided to keep going. Two years later, and having found work along the way to bolster their finances, they found themselves back in India and pregnant. Surely it was time to go home, their parents asked. No thanks, was the response. They'd looked around and noticed rather a lot of children being born in India. There was also the fact that people from elsewhere had started traveling there to get low cost, but state–of–the–art health care. A further two years later, (all fine), they returned "home". By then, they'd decided they'd rather live elsewhere—they'd found the perfect place half way round the world. As Sam said, and I reckon many would agree, for every fear that doesn't materialize, there are hundreds of good things which do. So why the fuss? Beats me.
Back to the media. There's a notion that children have to be surrounded by the familiar; from baby blanket, teddy, to snacks, toys––even shampoo. I asked around, and it looks as though there might be some truth to this. The Masons, for instance, didn't see it coming. They had done so much round Africa travel with their children, that they'd even invented their own (biodegradable) diaper: a roll of cotton wool sandwiched in between layers of muslin, and pinned together in the usual cloth diaper way. But by the time they were ready for safari, their youngest (out of diapers at this point), threw a fit. With all that wilderness about them, he insisted on a toilet. A toilet! But there were no toilets. So, what happened? Bladder got full, and he had to give in. End of story. And that seems to be how it goes with most things. New food, new places. Apart from children with special needs—autism and the like—it seems that kids will follow their parents' lead and adapt.
Continuing with toilet matters….and toilets do matter. There are all sorts of portable potties with custom–made poop bags. Or full toilet seats to place over the regular ones––in different colors to be carted around under one's arm like fashion accessories. Or how about a "Shewee", a funnel–like gadget for girls, so that they too, can do it standing up? I can't help wonder what reception some of these things might have in countries where a tree with a nice view is the thing. And what about electronic breast–pumps or fluorescent day–glo pacifiers? No wonder then, that some refer to being snowed under with luggage.
But then I came across families on Gap Years, carrying all they need on their backs—less than most would take for a week away. They bank on finding all you need wherever you go. For some, it seems, adapting to local ways is part of the experience.
The way entertainment is handled is puzzling for different reasons. When you see how much people are recommended to take, it's easy to conclude that the Huck Finns of this world no longer exist; children have forgotten to do what they're supposed to do best––play. Or that parents no longer like children enough to spend time with them. For instance, it's common to be persuaded to buy a stash of toys, and to dole them out every half hour or so on flights, each enclosed in different wrapping paper to add to the novelty value.
There's also the vocabulary. Take: "child–friendly" or "child–proof". On closer examination, these seem to boil down to looking for nice people and relaxed settings, or rearranging furniture and hiding things to reduce trouble …just as you would do at home. Or how about "nightmare", or "survived"? These tend to be used in the context of those that go and make it back. Sense of humor, or an honest portrayal of how some view travel? It's hard to tell.
Matt Heason explores life and death, © Alan Heason
"Are we nearly there?" I hear you ask. (The answer is yes)…
There is one image, symbol, call it what you will, that really separates parents along clear lines. Proof positive that parents come in all incarnations. It's that car sticker: "Baby on Board!". For each person that won't drive without one, I've stumbled upon others that find the very idea bizarre––even cringe worthy.
For those of the latter breed, this time I'm glad to report that they too are explicitly catered for. Try: "Baby I'm Bored!" (Available on the internet.)
Fawzia Rasheed de Francisco quite likes travelling with her family, especially if someone else handles the logistics. She is the author of The Rough Guide to Travel with Babies and Young Children.
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Family Travel Gear