Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Traveling the world...with kids
I just returned home from an adventure. We decided our kids were ready to travel. And when you're ready to travel (again) and feel like you've been chomping at the bit for a decade while waiting for a chance to get back out into the world, why start small?
I mean, why go someplace easy?
For our first big adventure with our girls, we decided to take them to Asia. It was meant to be a test. We figured that if they could handle this trip, they could handle just about anything and maybe we'd have more trips in our future.
We started with a few days in and around San Francisco (clearly, San Francisco is not in Asia...but it was a great jumping off point), then flew to Hong Kong where we spent about five days, took a ferry to Macau for a day, and then flew to Vietnam where we spent another four days. All together, the trip was 18 days and our girls, ages 10 and 8, managed the trip like champs.
For just a second, I want to talk about why we decided to travel with our kids, and why we chose Asia for their first big trip. Scott and I both believe it is important for our children to grow up knowing that there is more to the world than the little community in which we live. We believe that in order to understand that most of the world is not like America, our kids should see the world for themselves. We want their view of the world to be not an us-and-them view, but a we-are-all-in-this-together view. I know that it's possible to achieve these goals without travel (neither Scott nor I traveled as kids and we came out okay) but travel seems like the best way to ensure that our kids will end up with the perspective we want them to have.
Also, we recently realized that we've only got 8 years left with our oldest kid before she might be out of the house. That's not much time and we wanted to be intentional about spending focused, concentrated time with both of our kids, creating memories and bonding as a family. To us, travel is the best way to do that.
Most of the people who heard about our trip asked the same thing, "Why Asia?" And some, the more bold of our friends and acquaintances, asked, "Why aren't you going to Europe?"
There were a few reasons. First, a good friend from my childhood lives in Hong Kong. We've wanted to visit her there and haven't had a chance, so this seemed like a great opportunity. But also, Asia is very different from America. If you haven't spent much time there, Asia shocks you. It's crowded and noisy and looks different and smells different and tastes different. The language is impossible for us to understand. The food is completely foreign. The customs are unfamiliar.
And also, Europe? I've not been to more of Europe than London (which I realize doesn't even count in some people's eyes), but my impression is that Europe is relatively comfortable. From my experience traveling, I've found that the times I learned the most about myself and the world were the times I was uncomfortable. And the more uncomfortable I was (both physically and mentally), the more I learned.
While traveling in Asia we felt stupid several times and uncomfortable most of the time. We were laughed at more than once. Not in a judgmental, "You stupid Americans," way, but in a, "How silly that they don't know how to ask for more tea," way.
And that was good. Being laughed at in that way keeps a person humble. It reminds us that the world does not belong to us and that we represent, in fact, but one small bit of humanity.
Philosophy aside, traveling with kids is intimidating. No matter how rewarding it might be, it's a little scary.
Because my kids having tantrums in my house? Where I can send them to their rooms? I can handle that.
My kids having tantrums on a train in the middle of a totally foreign place? Not so easy to handle.
So, here are a few things we learned along the way. Hopefully these are ideas you can use, ideas you will use as you drag your children around the globe.
1. Keep them fed. Duh, right? But it's harder than it sounds. As an adult, you want to get from one place to another and you can fight through an empty stomach, knowing that your next meal is not that far away. We tried this with our kids -- not that we were intentionally trying to stretch them, we were just trying to pack in as many activities and sights and experiences as we could. Brynn (our older one) can handle being a little hungry. Callie, our younger one, cannot. Much like I've heard her father was at 8 years old, Callie falls apart before her stomach even growls. Grunting, groaning, shaking her body, pissed off at the world. And if we let her get to that place where she is falling apart, she won't eat because nothing "sounds good." So once we figured this out, even when it wasn't convenient, we made sure to keep her fed. This meant frequent stops for snacks and it also meant keeping water on hand. Sometimes water was all she needed, but she didn't recognize it. We had to remember to offer it to her regularly.
2. Build in downtime. During our first couple of days in Hong Kong, we had a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time. We were staying in an apartment in a great location in the middle of Hong Kong, but it wasn't a place we wanted to hang out during the day. It was small and a bit cramped (as are most places in Hong Kong), it smelled a little mildewy, and it was a little warm. Between not having an ideal place to come back to for a rest and not wanting to sleep during the day for fear of never adjusting to the time difference, plus wanting to see as much as possible in a short amount of time, we may have worked too hard. Callie fell asleep at dinner the first three nights. Head on the table, carried out of restaurants. Meals she normally would have loved she totally missed out on.
Looking back, what could we have done differently during those first few days? We could have found a place for the kids to chill. Some kind of park or open space (not easy to find in Hong Kong, but I'm certain if we looked hard enough we could have found it) would have been a great place for the kids to let their brains rest while their bodies played. That brings me to #3.
3. Find other kids to play with. Our kids are 8 and 10. They're not toddlers. They don't need a LOT of playtime. But they need some. And, frankly, Scott and I are not ideal play companions. During this trip it occurred to me that playtime is to kids what sitting back and drinking a beer (or a glass of wine) is to adults. It helps us unwind, helps us chill out, helps us relax so that we are prepared for the next big thing.
We were lucky that in San Francisco we stayed with friends who have three kids. All three are younger than my kids, but I don't think it mattered. They had a ball playing together and their playtime each evening was enough to unwind the kids for another full day the next day. During the second part of our time in Hong Kong we stayed with friends who have two year old twins. Again, much younger than my kids and, again, it didn't matter. My kids engaged with them and through play were able to chill. In Vietnam we were hoping to have kids around for our kids to play with during the second half of our stay there. That didn't work out as planned, but the girls played really well with each other during the afternoon when we had nothing else to do. In a hot, sweaty, difficult situation, their opportunity to play together is what kept all of us sane.
4. Have realistic expectations. Traveling with kids is not the same as traveling with adults. We didn't see and do everything with our kids that we might have seen and done had it been just the two of us. For instance, in Macau we planned to spend our first afternoon/evening seeing the Las Vegas-ish side of Macau. Exploring the hotels and arcades and wandering past the expensive restaurants. The next day, before catching an evening ferry to the airport, we planned to wander the old side of Macau which was colonized by the Portuguese. Unfortunately, it was raining. And it rained all day long. Scott had a whole walking tour planned for us, with cool facts about everything we were going to see. He had a list of food we wanted to try. If we'd been there alone, we probably would have sucked it up and done the walk in the rain. But with kids? Forget it. We tried sitting in a coffee shop, waiting for the rain to die down. We tried wandering through the Wynn, hoping that eventually the rain would stop. The rain never stopped, so we cut our losses and headed back to the ferry terminal to try to catch an earlier ferry to the airport. At least there we knew the kids could sit back and read or write in their journals and rest. Of course the sun came out as soon as we got on the ferry.
As it turned out, there was a problem at the ferry terminal with our Vietnamese visas, so the extra time came in handy. But even if things had gone smoothly, downtime in the airport would have been better than going with our original plans.
5. Guide them in their learning. Both of my kids were asked by their teachers to keep journals of their trip. You want to know what those journals looked like at first? "I just got on the plane. Now the plane is in the air. The flight attendant brought us drinks. We watched a movie." Yeah, pretty much a play-by-play of everything we did. I encouraged them to choose one thing that they noticed that day to write about. A smell? A sound? A sight? This worked for Brynn. At 10 years old, she's learned how to write essays and can write well from a prompt. Callie still needed extra guidance, though, and by the time we got to Vietnam, she was done writing. She wanted nothing to do with it. At that point, I actually had to write for her. We would talk about what she wanted to say and then she'd dictate to me. And I had to be flexible enough to be okay with that. We never did get through the second half of our time in Vietnam, but at least now she has experience journaling and I hope that next time will be easier.
Before Brynn went back to school on Monday, I asked her, "When your teacher asks you what you learned, what are you going to say?" Her answer? "Ummmm, I learned about rice." Seriously? We just spent how many thousands of dollars and how much time and you learned about rice? I know she learned more than that and I know Brynn's teacher. I know that he wants his students to think critically and expects a lot out of them. That answer wasn't going to cut it. So I stopped her and reminded her that her answer didn't have to be so literal. Her answer needed to be something she couldn't learn from watching a movie or reading a book. It needed to be something that required her being in a new place. That helped move her in the right direction. Then she was coming up with answers like, "I learned that Asia is really different from America," and, "there is a lot more of the world that I want to see." Those were answers we could work with and expand on.
When I think back to my first experiences being in new and different places, I'm not sure that I could have done much better than Brynn, and I was a young adult. I know that the answers are inside her, that she internalized all she saw, but it's hard to make sense out of it. It takes maturity and experience to put into words what you see and feel and learn when you travel.
6. Pack lighter than you think is reasonable. We tried to pack light, but we could have done better. We each had a backpack and nothing else which seemed pretty good when we left the house, but the girls' packs were too heavy for them (especially for Callie -- Brynn did well). Our trip included some significant changes in weather that made packing difficult. We went from the Bay Area (which Scott says is the coldest place he's ever been) to the Mekong Delta (which was in the high nineties and humid while we were there). I don't mind carrying a heavy pack, and neither does Scott, but next time we'll make sure the girls' packs are as light as possible to make transiting from one place to another even easier.
7. Don't avoid the hard stuff. For me, the hardest part of the trip was the two days we spent in the Mekong Delta. It was hot. Like 99 degrees plus super humid. It was a long (3 1/2 hour) bus ride getting out there. Brynn left a backpack in the bathroom of a bus station and we had to go through a pretty drawn out process with the police to get it back while our bus was about to pull out of the parking lot. The place where we were staying was supposed to be a "homestay" but turned out to be more of a guest house. There was no air conditioning and no shower. We were dirty, sweaty, and stinky. It was hard and sometimes it was frustrating. I almost suggested that we cut it short and run back to the comfort of our air conditioned hotel in Saigon.
But I didn't.
And you know what? The kids didn't think it was hard. Or at least they didn't say so. They had fun. They played. They learned. They met a sweet woman from Japan and a great couple from the Netherlands who were staying at the guest house with us. The girls engaged with these strangers from other parts of the world and caught glimpses of cultures that they'd never seen before. They smiled and laughed and answered questions and were really great representatives of America. They made us proud.
Old Vietnamese women grabbed Callie's arms and smacked her behind and pointed at her and smiled toothless grins. (We can't figure out why, but old women and animals all love Callie.) Kids waved at us and yelled, "Hello!" through huge smiles. The girls chased minnows in the muddy water outside our cabin. They adjusted well to the heat and humidity.
As adults, the hard stuff is what makes us physically uncomfortable and makes us nervous because we don't know what to expect. But not for the kids. They took it all in stride and pushed us to be cheerful (or at least pretend to be cheerful) despite our discomfort. For kids, the hard stuff is walking through museums, reading guidebooks, being forced to sit at a table for long stretches of time. For them that isn't fun. Playing in the mud is fun. Meeting new people is fun.
That last part of the trip, the hardest part, reminded me of why I believe in traveling to challenging places. Sometimes it doesn't feel great. It isn't relaxing or luxurious or simple. You don't return home feeling recharged or revived or ready to take on the world. As I get older I see myself wanting to go someplace simple, someplace where I don't feel so challenged. I want to go lie on a beach or sit in a nice restaurant and drink wine. And we will. We need balance. But the stuff that's hard for Scott and me is great for the kids and so I have to remind myself not to avoid it but rather to seek it out and be intentional about including it in our travel plans.
I'll probably write a few more posts about our trip, but I'll do it over on our family blog. If you're interested in following along, feel free to check up on The Friendly Home on Facebook or follow me on Twitter. I'll publicize any other travel posts there. Also, we finally joined the Instagram family while we traveled. You can see all of our pics on Scott's Instagram page, here.
Have you traveled with kids? What would you add? I'm sure there's more to know!