27 Nov All aboard! Or all bored? The highs & lows of travelling with kids
It’s funny how things in life are sent to test you and just as you’re plodding along in your humdrum routine the wind can change quite drastically, thankfully for my family it wasn’t anything tragic, no health issues, environmental disasters or sudden deaths… just la crisis a name on the tip of the tongue of everyone in the last few years here in Spain, the mass exodus of expats, the cuts the business closing down and my children always responding to any of my woes, “I’ve got nothing to wear!” with “is it la crisis mama?”
Initially I was heartbroken to have to close my business, quite lost really. You think you’re useless and you’ve failed , but at least I wasn’t alone (theres 25% more of us). I had friends suffering from cancer which really put things clearly into perspective. I just had no job or money and, as we all know, money isn’t everything – is it? I started another little business which wasn’t going anywhere but I was being optimistic and I knew we would cope. That was until my partner also lost his job and we very slightly panicked!!
The main thing of course is always how to pay the rent. My partner had a small redundancy pay and we worked out that we could survive for just a few months here OR in our pre sleep ‘what if we won the lottery?’ ramblings, we could go and spend it all on traveling. With itchy feet over the years, cushioned in our comfortable lives, we had discussed travel with the kids before. We have always embraced change and challenges, so instead of giving our money to those nasty banks, we decided to have a very glorified and long holiday and go and blow it all in South East Asia…and to basically think about our future without a home, work or prospects – hasta mañana!
So it all happened quickly. We packed up house (thankfully didn’t own one as we would’ve lost a lot more), got backpacks, got insurance, booked flights, became excited, a little nervous, vaccinations – what happens if my babies get rabies? The usual. Friends and family thought we were brave, mad, perhaps irresponsible, a bunch of hippies, but most were quite envious of the spontaneity of it all! The children didn’t really have a clue except that they knew we were going to Buddha land which might as well have been Disneyland ….until they got there. Then they just went with the flow. After 14 hour flights with non stop movies and a hotel in Bangkok with a bunk bed and an X box in the room, frankly if they never went back to school again – then so be it.
Both my children were ideal ages to take travelling. My son was seven and so hadn’t got too involved with his school or relationships. If he had been a couple of years older it would’ve been too risky to take him out before the run up to secondary school. Having a three year old in tow meant she didn’t need to be in full time education and wasn’t too small for it to be a health risk or to not be able to enjoy it.
We planned only to go to places we knew we could be relatively safe, so sadly India came off the list, as did Myanmar (although I did do a clandestine trip over the peninsula with the kids on my lap in a leaky boat to renew our visa with a 15 year old local boy in charge. It felt like a scene from Indiana Jones…but that’s another story!). After discovering it was a two day-long boat journey for 8 hour stretches into Laos from Thailand, we decided to spare the other passengers our hyper children! In retrospect I wish we had taken more risks, like crossing the dodgy border to see the Cambodian archipelago of four thousand islands or going to Vietnam and perhaps never crossing the road as we had been warned about thousands of motorbikes hurtling towards us. Perhaps we would’ve taken our daughter in a backpack to Bangkok instead of literally playing Kamikaze with the kids every time we crossed the road there or lugged a Maclaren up stairs over bridges over motorways. In some places, little villages I put my babies on motorbikes – something I raged about when I saw kids on mopeds in Barcelona and we got into cars and buses quite possibly without brakes and with men on yaba yaba and there were many times, without believing in a God, that I prayed and prayed for our safety.
But other than that we had an amazing journey into Thailand, Cambodia , Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia right to the end of our 7th month trip. If I had arrived in Ubud, Bali at the beginning of our trip I would probably have stayed put floating between the paddy fields, the papaya cafes, doing yoga, taking my kids to the green school [do check it out : www.greenschool.org]
When I see my kids screaming and shouting now on the half hour journey from Sitges to Barcelona I am amazed to think my kids did the travelling they did. Never were we in a bus for less than 8 hours. We would charge the iPad, we charged the DVD player. We had books, stickers, colours and paper, we played ‘I-spy’ and ‘what’s on the shopping list’, we sang songs, we slept a little, we rarely had moments when the kids would look out of windows and just chill out, we reminded them of the little Thai children sitting on laps for hours without any stimulation whatsoever. We would philosophise on whether it’s because their kids know nothing else or is it cultural or was it their Buddhist natures and would then beat ourselves up about the fact we had made our children dependent on electric stimulus!!! Once, we did 36 hours non-stop, thankfully with an overnight sleeper train, but to make the next connection that would take us another 10 hrs to the southern islands of Thailand I bribed the kids with dunkin donuts and chocolate milk. Bribes are everything when travelling, it’s the bait and the currency.
I would like to say we did do home education and other than the first day and night in Bangkok that my son discovered an X box (he still says this was best thing about his 8 month trip, yes, so shallow and unappreciative I know) but it was enough that we visited giant statues of Buddhah and golden temples and palaces, that we went along the river and the floating market and I showed them places where mummy used to hang out, when I had lived there some 22 years earlier. We went to a snake farm which they loved and watched venom taken from fangs to make the antidote medicine. We saw the crocodile farm, and the most fun was had whizzing around the hot, humid pulsating city in the back of a tuk-tuk (or those kamikaze road crossings I told you about!), picnics in parks watching iguanas, the futuristic sky train past skyscrapers and of course we went into those huge aircon glass shopping malls that we don’t have in Europe and it was the best of East meets West. We then thought it was a good idea to have a few weeks on an island to get really settled into life and that’s when we started to do a couple hours a day reading, writing and drawing. It didn’t last that long. Instead you build huge sandcastles and decorate them with shells, you play with stray cats (no dogs, terrified of the rabies risk! though I was almost attacked by a monkey once!!).
We went searching for lizards and strange-looking beetles. We offered to paint the hotel owners’ old weatherboard signs and watch how they cook, you collect flowers and swing on hammocks, you swim and snorkel….and sometimes you find other kids, play games (check out toca boca) on the iPad and watch TV just like back at home. My partner taught my son his multiplications by singing them to him in the sea. So home education didn’t last long, besides we didn’t have a home! Instead we had rafting trips, elephant rides, trips to the zoo, geckos in our hut, 758 turns around a mountain in a van without doors where we held on for dear life and papa vomited all the way. We went on a bamboo train which was just a reed platform on a track at 30 miles an hour. We went to a circus run by orphans, we saw Ankor wat at sunset and monkeys everywhere, we swam in waterfalls and hot thermal spas, we lit candles on lotus flowers and made wishes as we watched them float on the river for the festival of Loy Krathong, we saw paper lanterns light the sky at new year and my daughter said it was like the movie Tangled, we saw giants for Balinese new year called the ‘ogo ogos’ where we then had to stay indoors for 24 hours in the dark and in silence!! So the spirits wouldn’t come and haunt us. We made flower offerings, helped pick rice in the paddy and occasionally hung out with monks.
My daughter learnt to swim and they both learnt words in Thai and Malay. One day for Chinese New Year in Malaysia my daughter sat on a stage in front of a huge crowd with a 10ft python wrapped around her! Of course everyone loved the kids, they attracted a lot of attention, they were so kind and we would often find my little girl surrounded by giggling teenagers taking photos of her and stroking her ‘blonde’ hair!
In the north of Thailand after two months away we decided to live in an apartment, with a pool and some home comforts, we met a great family from Chile and spoke Castellano and really settled in. We could’ve stayed that way a while. We never moved around desperate to see places, we always took our time without too much of a time limit or any pressure to move on, we wanted to feel part of the culture and it would have been exhausting for the kids. We did, however, make plans to meet friends for Christmas and New Year and sometimes journeys like the one to Laos were cancelled because we decided they were far too complicated or off-the-beaten track.
I cannot say I didn’t get bored. At times it felt like we were just bobbing along – no focus, no mission, no agenda. It becomes over indulgent and feels lazy and unjustified. Our lives stuck in limbo. There’s only so many tropical beaches one can take and it became a little disheartening every time we didn’t find the ‘perfect hut on the perfect beach with the perfect sunset’ !! It wasn’t about finding ourselves like backpacking was in our teens. It was just travelling aimlessly around and at some point without an aim, that needs to come to an end. Also, I think more than that, it was I who was in limbo, having lost my sense of purpose with my work and having unspent energy and not knowing what I was really going to do if I returned back to reality.
Sometimes I wish we could’ve found a way to set up a business or work from there. We didn’t even look into it much because we didn’t have any investment, but having seen many a laptop on a tropical beach working for a company in Geneva I thought ‘damn it!’ If only my man was in IT! In retrospect maybe we should have worked for an NGO or stayed somewhere we liked for longer like Pai in North Thailand or Bali where we had some great friends and totally fell in love, I suppose we could have always taught English and Spanish (Oooh I can feel another trip coming on already!!). Financially we were on a tight budget. It wasn’t as cheap as we thought initially but we never wanted to slum it with the kids so without work it wouldn’t have been possible and I must not regret anything now!
The best business tip I’ve learnt from travelling is that the world needs more budget-friendly family hostels and hotel rooms. They don’t exist and if they do have a family room it’s in a posh hotel, which was not in our budget range. They were expensive and for luxe holidays. I was surprised at the lack of family facilities. We would often be given a manky mattress for a floor or have to have separate rooms, even huts on the beach…but now four to a double bed is how we roll and the cheeky monkeys still come into my bed at night!
Once near the end of our journey and as a big thank you to our children for being dragged around the world by us, we splashed out on a five star hotel on Sentosa – a manmade island in Singapore, a glorified cruiseliner-esque entertainment complex (Yes hideous but hey! 6 months without Egyptian cotton sheets and a breakfast buffet to die for did it for me) with Universal studios and the biggest aquarium in the world, it was an amazing surprise for the kids, when I ask, it’s still my sons best part from his trip plus the X box!
I cried in the aquarium watching the gracefulness of the Manta rays swimming around us and went ballistic when my son said he was bored. He wanted to go back to see Shrek but kids are so fickle and that’s the balance you have got to find whilst travelling with them – find the best of both worlds. What they are accustomed to mixed with the new experiences. I hope he wouldn’t choose Shrek over elephants but he’s allowed to as, no matter what you show them, the countries, other people’s cultures, poor or sick people living on the streets, at this age they are not conscientious of that kind of empathy. Having said that, I’ll never forget the time in Cambodia that my 3 year-old daughter took off her crocs and put them on a baby’s feet who was living in the streets or the look on the face of a toddler when my son left spongebob square pants on his shoulder.
At the end of our trip we decided to have another adventure and stay in London for just a little while, which lasted another year…but thats another epic story. We had been nomadic, living from suitcases, sharing beds for two years before we finally arrived back on to home ground in Barcelona.
I think the greatest thing we have learnt and that we have instilled in our children and that will always be our motto is: Wherever we are, if we are together as a family, then we are home.