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Friday, May 9, 2008

"To Go or Not To Go" Is Not the Question

It's simply a matter of where and when. I'll explain.

I love to travel. I try new foods, walk new terrain, gasp over new vistas.

I do all of the above in new cities so that I can absorb their architecture, history, theater, restaurants, and museums. I do these things also in wide-open spaces so that I can wander new beaches and mountains, kayak new waters, show-shoe on new snow.

I could wax lyrical about so many places I've been, but for now here are the highlights of a few.

I fell in love with London when I went there on a three-week course to study Victorian architecture. There, magnificent, fading edifices such as the Midland Railway Terminus Hotel stand testament to an older, slower pace of life. Juxtaposed with the hustle of honking cabs (always ask the cabbies where to get your fish-and-chips; you will never be disappointed), and the thrill of last-minute theater ticket bargains, London is a walking traveler's dream. You can walk just about anywhere from anywhere if you have some fortitude and time. And if you choose to stay near the British Library, you will be rewarded by people watching, and fascinating peeps into Victorian home renovations, if you give yourself the opportunity for a casual ramble down to the theater district to take in whatever show will delight you. I saw four fabulous (and completely different from one another) productions in three weeks, and had I had more money, I would happily have seen twice that.

Tulum, the blip of a town on the coast of the Yucatan Penninsula in Mexico, home to fantastic Mayan ruins standing sentinel over impossibly clear waters that are the home to teeming rainbows of tropical fish. You can snorkle straight from the beach at points near Tulum, and if you tire of salt sea air (though I don't see how you can), it's a simple matter to turn your back to the ocean and dive into a fresh-water cenote -- a hollow formed in the limestone bedrock of the area -- cool and mysterious as cave-diving but without all the danger.

Florence I adored for its central market. Every morning there, I got my cappucino from the same wonderful 50-something barristo who liked to practice his English on me. By day four, he and I were old friends, and when he learned I was going biking in the Tuscan hills that day, he passed me the most wonderful of sandwiches over the counter as he handed me my morning coffee. "Something for now, and something for later," he said, as his hands eloquently refused payment for the little panini. Fresh bread, with a thick chewy crust, lined with the sheerest pinkest meltingest proscuitto to be had anywhere on that sunny summer morning. I packed the sandwich, and his good wishes for a lovely picnic in the hills, into my bag and rode off with a lilting heart.

New Zealand was all about vistas on a grand scale. Milford Sound, with its mile-high mountains rising over mile-deep waters, slowly awakening in the morning -- a rare vision for a human to witness, as we were two of only a hundred odd people lucky enough to sleep overnight anchored in the middle of the Sound on a boat... Abel Tasman National Park, with its glorious golden sands, green-tinted waters, a sea kayaker's dream... Hiking above Queen Charlotte Sound, looking out across mountains, and down through forests at the glittering water... Hokitika, the tiny town on the South Island's northern coast where a cave of glowworms glittered as brightly as the stars in the Southern sky.

I have been fortunate enough to go many more places than these...Scotland, Kuaui, Greece, Paris, Madrid, Acadia National Park, and Yosemite...yet no matter how many places I go, there are so many more on my list of adventures still to have. These are not places I have gone with lots of money; they are opportunities I have seized because travel to me is more important than brand-name clothes or brand-new cars. Most of these are places I went while still in college or graduate school, countries I visited clutching 2nd class train tickets or holding reservations to simple, faded B&Bs. On our honeymoon to New Zealand, for example, Husband and I stayed two different nights in youth hostels, and none of our hotels cost more than $50 per night. We both preferred to spend our money on a guided glacier hike than on a fancy hotel; after all, we weren't there for the sleeping but for the seeing.

And now that I have children, I fantasize about introducing them to the wonder that is stepping outside one's comfort zone. We have done that on a small scale, taking Son to Hawaii when he was 18 months old, still portable in a hiking backpack. And while we had to forgo sea kayaking on that trip, we did hike along Waimea Canyon and snorkel with sea turtles. To bob rhythmically in the waves above a shallow reef, feeling the current from a 200-pound turtle propel her way past your body, listening to the scraping crunch of turtles grazing on the reef's produce is nothing short of magnificent. While it might be even better with a snorkeling buddy -- the one currently land-locked keeping an eye on the toddler so you can have your turn with the turtles -- the fact remains that short of telepathy, talking about the experience while it is occurring simply won't happen underwater. And so individual diving in the name of a family vacation is a more-than-worthwhile trade-off.

But now, with two children, I find myself more hesitant. Do we risk a 6-hour flight anywhere? Especially since six hours of flying time means a 9-10 hour travel day, what with getting to the airport early, parking, security, reclaiming luggage, and so on. And so we plan travels to more local destinations -- the fabulous sand dunes in Saugatuck, a mere three-hour car drive away, where we can recline and swim and hike and dig, and still come back to the comforts of a big bag full of home's toys which are so easy to schlepp on a car trip.

And yet, even with my hesitations over airport delays, a fractious toddler in a cramped airplane seat, the fears that my children do not yet have restaurant manners suitable to unknown restaurants that may not be as child-friendly as I'd hoped, the stomach-cramping urgency of not speaking the language when the preschooler needs "the potty NOW, Mama!" -- even with all of these doubts, I find myself hankering for another serious trip. I want to expose my children to difference, to wonder, to accents, and languages, and "funny" foods, and art that will make their eyes open wide. I want them to walk on cool trails that nonetheless smell of the heavy heat of sunshine on evergreens. I want them to practice with snorkels in the bathtub so that they don't choke on their own delight when a wrasse brushes past their ankles.

It may simply be just a summer or two too early for this in our family. Perhaps having everyone potty trained, everyone more-or-less verbal, everyone sleeping through the night is a prerequisite for such travels. And certainly such travels will require a different sort of planning. Less "new hotel every other night" as we car-tour a country and more "plant ourselves in this suite with a mini-kitchen and have day adventures." It will cost more, with the extra tickets, extra food, slowed-down pace.

But, oh, won't it be worth it, if my children grow up with a treasure-trove of memories and a legacy of embracing what is new?

And so, the only question now is: when to go? At what ages will they be ready to embark on the first smaller versions of this? What are your parameters for deciding when, how, and where to travel with your children?


MultiplesMommy said...

Oh, I so applaud you! I, too, love to travel, and wish I could do more of it. I will take an exotic vacation over a fancy car or new furniture any day. But I have to admit--you have a much better attitude than I do about youth hostels and such. I admit it, I've become something of a travel snob. I did the hostel thing in college, but now I want luxury when we travel. I think it's because we tend to spend more time at the hotel now than we did when it was just the 2 of us and the hotel was just a place to sleep. But your post was a really great reminder that that's not what travel and exploration is all about. I, too, wish we could take our kids places, tho' I think the "sleeping easily in new places" business is really the key--sleep deprived children equal cranky families, which is no fun on vacation. I would love to hear suggestions from others as to good "exotic" locals to take little ones. How bad is jet leg in a preschooler? How much will they really get out of new cultures?? My kids are pretty good on planes; I'm more concerned with how hard it will be once we get there, and will it be a lot of money spent (5 plane tix!!) for a trip they won't even remember?!? Who has answers?

mom2tot said...

No real answers here but I have taken my son to Mexico twice already (1 year and 18 months) and he has done very well and still remembers last time. He is 2 now.
(Maybe I have planted those memories talking about it, who knows)

The point is, go ahead and travel, my first advise pack light, there is not too many things you can't find at your destinations, I used to be the ones who pack even food (just in case) but realized that my son rather eat the local than his normal pre-packed food.
Second advise, take it slowly and don’t stress over silly things, if your kids rather nap instead of going to a plan activity, let them, you can always go some other time, plan general activities but don’t over do it and if something gets out of schedule don’t worry about it either.

Sorry for the long post I hope it helps.

LceeL said...

Travel as much as you can, with as many as you can. My sons are well traveled and I believe they are better people for it. That said, I may have waited longer than I should have to start with them. The youngest was 7 on the first trip. I won't make the same mistake in my next life.

Fawn said...

Oh MommyTime, let's go travelling together just the two of us! I've been to a couple of the places you mention and loved them, but the way you recall them is almost as good as going.

We've been surprised at how well Jade adjusts to travel, but I wonder if we'll feel so free when we have two toddlers. At least with one child, you can trade off between parents and each gets a break once in a while.

I must say, after our absolutely delightful trip to Mexico in November, I still have a hankerin' for an adult-only trip sometime...

Momo Fali said...

I am so jealous of all the places you've been! Wow.

Our only stumbling block in relation to traveling is money. Were it not for that, we'd be globetrotters!

Lisa said...

We have done a lot of traveling in the past two years, by car or airplane. None of it has been for family vacation, but for moving, reunions or weddings, but the vacation is the easy part. I think it is the travel you really want to know about.

Here are my observations:

Driving someplace (even 5 straight days of driving 8+ hours a day) is doable with toddlers. The trick for us was to have lots of CDs that the kids enjoy, as well as a parent in the passanger seat who never tires of reading the same 5 - 10 books over and over and over.

If you fly, anywhere, it will be a VERY long day. Every time we flew we were delayed and did nothing else all day but travel. If you choose to fly, skip the stroller...they wont want to stay in it anyway. And please check your carseats. They don't really fit in the airplane seats really well, and when your flight is inevitably delayed and you have 10 minutes to get from terminal F to terminal A to make your connector, you do not want to be hauling two heavy, bulky and awkward car seats.

Let them each bring a backpack of toys and books...keeps them busy and they like to have their own luggage. Bring an extra change of clothes (for the kids, and you), since daughter, who never gets leaky diapers, has twice now, on an airplane, done so. And btw...just because she is potty-trained at home, does not mean she will use the scary airplane potty. We had to use diapers for our recent plane trip. She wasn't to thrilled about that either, but eventually the diapers won out over the airplane potty. Make friends with the grandparental types in the airport waiting area. They love to talk to the kids which keeps the kids entertained (not running around the terminal screaming). And even if they do run around the terminal, those grandparental types will smile indulgently and make you feel better.

Finally, two toddlers with two adults in an airport is doable. Two toddlers with one adult in an airport is hell!!!!

Lisa said...

Oh, and one more thing. For airplane travel, dress your kids in the nicest looking comfortable clothes they have. It is amazing to me how naughty my children can be when they are dressed up and still manage to get a smile and a "How cute!" out of strangers, rather than the reproving look they deserve.

Mrs F with 4 said...

I'd say, just take a breath (preferably a VERY deep one), and just do it!

We moved to Canada from the UK when number 1 child was 15 months old, and have added a new child at the rate of one every 20 months or so (and thank you for asking, four is just plenty).. I've been back and forth across the Atlantic at least twice a year since (economy, I hasten to add), as well as other long trips, both by road and air.

Jetlag isn't so much of a problem, I've found, for preschoolers, as it is for us I would say, if you can, take a night flight for the longest art of the trip and (I hate to say it, but....) use Benadryl, or Medised, or whatever will just 'help' get them off to sleep. and then a longer nap than usual the next day at naptime, and normal bedtime. It usually takes mine just a day to get over it. Coming back is another story! Flying east is easier than west on their little body clocks.

The backbacks for each is a great idea and works well for us, plus a change of clothes and a favourite cuddly.

The most essential things though? Relaxed attitude and big smiles (through exploding molars, if necessary!) I've found most people in most places love children (yes, especially nicely dressed ones), and that in general, the children rise to the occasion. Oh, and always carry snacks and water - nothing makes mine grumpier faster than a dip in blood sugar. We do try and stay somewhere with, if not a full kitchen, at least a fridge and a kettle though.

The children might not remember everything, but with the aid of pictures (I make each of mine a little scrapbook when we get back), they'll love to talk about each trip forever. Scrapbooks? Now I sound like Martha Stewart. oops.

I'm yearning to follow in the very adventurous footsteps of friends who have taken their children out of school for a year, and are sailing around the world in their own boat. Wouldn't that just be amazing? It will have to wait until No 4 is about 7 though, I think - there are adventures, and then there are Adventures!

Just go for it!

foolery said...

From a different vantage point:

We can't afford to travel but are lucky enough to have family who live at the beach. We drive 550 miles downstate to southern California twice a year, and our girls have each made the trips from the time they were babies. We don't do kid music, we don't do DVDs. They each pack a backpack and stay entertained very well. Stop often, lots of healthy snacks (and a few VERBOTEN snacks so they feel special). We spend lots of time playing a kid version of 20 questions and I Spy.

The trip down is made at night, staying at a motel. Until they got used to the idea of a strange bed, Chas slept with one kid and I with another. Now they're totally comfortable in motels.

Baby steps! How about Quebec for some cultural immersion not far from home?

Eager to hear where you're going,


Fawn said...

Oooh, what an educational comment thread! I'm lovin' the tips. And Foolery reminded me that I meant to invite you to the Yukon! Not too many weird dishes and languages (though they do exist) but there's lots to see and do! ;)

SherE1 said...

As a child through my young adult years, I don't recall traveling much. It wasn't until my husband and I got married that I actually experienced real TRAVELING - as in getting in a plane and going to a destination for purposes other than visiting family, staying in hotel rooms, etc. (Although no where as exotic as the places you've been *jealous* hehe!) By this time, our kids (from previous relationships) were 3 and 6. We've since added a (now) 4 YO and and 11 MO to the family and it hasn't slowed us down at all. In fact, my sister got married last summer in Maui so we all went - including my son who was 2 MO at the time. AND... he was that annoying, crying baby on the plane that some people can't stand (OH WELL!). So... we just do trips where we can DRIVE to for now. You never know how your kids will handle the traveling until you try. Then you just make adjustments accordingly! I say, go for it! And you and your children will have a wonderful time, no doubt!

OHmommy said...


Go as often as you can.

My kids at 6 and 4 have four countries under their belt. The more they travel, the better they become at it. An airplane is just another mode of transportation to them, much like a car.

Just do it. You have nothing to loose.

Obviously, I am a little bias toward travel. I feel it is in my blood. I, like you, want to swallow it whole and soak my bones in culture/city. By the time I finished graduate school I had already visited 26 countries.

But I say, just do it! Show them the world.

Sandy C. said...

First, so jealous of all your travels. Second, do it when and if you can. We've been traveling with our daughter (although not overseas) since she was about 1 month old. She's now a fantastic traveler because of it. If we could afford it, we would go more. I used to stress out for weeks about plane rides with our child. Especially flying coast to coast (6-7 hours), and in the end, I don't even remember them much. I thinks its wonderful you have such a passion for exploring new adventures. I'm sure your children will be happy to share it you.

MommyTime said...

Wow, there are so many great suggestions here that I think I need to print out this comments section!

Lisa, the "best dressed" idea is genius, and one I'd never have thought of. Thanks for the great details, too.

Foolery, you are a saint for doing such a long trip without DVDs. I know, I know, OUR parents did it, but I can't imagine trying it myself.

Mrs F, good tips on the time change.

I know there are lots of ideas here that I just need to absorb, so I'll have to read through them all more slowly. But thanks for such wonderful input -- and for the encouragement. I can't wait to plan our next trip.


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