Sunday, September 25, 2011

Top Ten Things I learned Backpacking through Europe with my Children

Okay… we’re back in Asia after a few weeks of hiking and sailing around Italy, Turkey, and the Greek Isles and here’s a few parental tips I learned from the trials and errors of a fatherhood full of wanderlust. (The following pictures were taken today on a stroll through our local neighborhood market.)
Number Ten: Projectile Vomit is NOT your Chief Concern

As a traveler, I’ve been spit on, cursed out, kicked out of my shoes, beat-up, mugged, robbed, even had my own students burn an American flag in front of me and a gangster put a cigarette out on my face; but that’s nothing compared to the yuckiness of fatherhood.
Xian once left a slug’s trail of raw sewage seeping out of her diaper all the way from a Nordstrom play area across the carpet of ladies footwear into men’s apparel, (I was escorted from the building).
No surprise here: kids are icky.
They poop, throw tantrums, get bloody noses, eat their boogers, eat their friend’s boogers, throw dog poop, and cry, a lot. And the ways for a kid to get sick are endless. I remember once having the most awesome day with Rebekah, we’d gone for a bike ride then ice cream in the park. I carried her on my shoulders all the way home, after a bath and storytime, she looked at me sort of cock-eyed in her nice clean jammies and said, “Dad, I don’t feel well.”
The next moment a massive Exorcist style geyser of vomit was shooting straight into my face, mouth, eyes, ears, hair, down my shirt, into my socks. I smelled it for days.
What could I do?
The point is, parents have a long list of disease-related fears to keep them from traveling with kids: malaria, yellow fever, rabies, meningitis, Dengue, but those are unlikely due to immunizations. When we arrived in Rome the first night, Kinu immediately walked into the bathroom and started washing her face in the bidet. She’d never seen once before, could you blame her? That night she started coughing and the following morning threw-up milk in a café outside the Coliseum. No biggie. She got better after a day slung over my back, and luckily I carried a ziplock of every imaginable over the counter medicine with me from home. It helped… but what helped more is to remember that kids get sick and then they get stronger. It shouldn’t be a deterrent for keeping them from traveling abroad.
Number Nine: Find a Local Punching Bag

Truly, most parents I know are chilled out people. They have to be. They’ve baby proofed their house and boxed up all their possessions. They live like impoverished monks. They give everything to their kids, and they ask for nothing in return.
But ONE thing would be nice.
Every parent should have one person, not an “I told ya so” grandparent, or a “You’re not meeting my needs” mate, not a “You don’t call me anymore” buddy, or a “let me bring this to your attention” neighbor, but rather an inconsequential punching bag, somebody that doesn’t judge or condemn, and that you can absolutely unload on. For me, it’s always been dry-wall in the closet. For those moments at 2 a.m. when the kid is coughing and crying and you’ve been up for 19 straight hours and you’ve just got to slug something.
But who’s got the luxury of a walk-in closet while backpacking through Thailand’s lush jungle. In those moments, don’t be afraid to let strangers know your thoughts. I’ve always been a huge proponent of walking up to a gaggle of native women in a market place while lost in an unknown city or leaning on the counter of a café after almost being run over by a careening tuk-tuk, and even though the people have no idea what I’m saying, unleash a barrage of wild, ranting, raving, lunatic frothing at the mouth screams at whatever just pissed me off.
Just walk in and go, “Rah Rah Rah Rah Rah Rah!”
Believe me, no harm will come. Local patrons will think you are nuts and utterly quaint and give you space and you will absolutely feel immediately better. Take my word for it. Find a punching bag, and get on with your day.
Number Eight: Public Nudity is Nacho Cheese

You know the joke, the greatest elementary school one-liner of all time: What do you call cheese that doesn’t belong to you…? Well, in this case, some things are just ‘not yo’ problem. Take for instance public nudity. Now, really, nobody wants to see saggy adult butt flab or floppy mom pancakes on the nude beach, but when it comes to a naked kid, three words: Just Relax, People!
I’m so sick of uptight people that think the world is going to end if a four year old strips down to her birthday suit and runs through a public fountain or changes bathing suits on the boardwalk. Big Deal! I tell my kids, if people stare, let ‘em. If people have a problem with you, look ‘em in the eyes and tell ‘em to get bent.
I’m all for manners, and my kids have great manners, but there is also something to be said for imparting to your kids to not sweat the small stuff.
Really, let your kids play. Play all day. And if the bathroom is locked, let them pee in the bushes. Who wants the stress of walking your kids around for an hour trying to find a public toilet, which we did ALL THROUGH EUROPE!... or how dare they bare their breasts while changing in the shade. Come on. That’s what travel is about. Get over it, and see what more fun you could be having.
Number Seven: Travel Geek, Means Travel God

As a parent, the more you geek out about something the better. Have fun with it and include your kids. Research the places you are traveling to together. We drew city maps of Rome. Downloaded pictures of the Vatican. Read advisories and charted weather programs through the Adriatic. Made posters and K-W-L graphs to hang on the refrigerator of things in Turkey we wanted to see. We did it right. I showed my kids how to keep a journal and inspired them to carry it always, stopping frequently to jot down ideas, sketch a scene, or write a new foreign word in our personal dictionaries.
Those journals will become treasures one day. Believe in it. Believe in it so much that you welcome your child into your world and watch them have the best time of their lives.
Number Six: If You don’t Understand it, Get Rid of It

This is one of my favorite rules in life. You want to sleep well, let it go. Don’t agonize. I’ve seen so many travelers get so worked up over nothing. The woman in the market didn’t want to haggle so they dropped the trinket and walked away. The waiter in the café took five minutes to bring a menu so the foreigner got up, stormed off, and pledged to spend their money elsewhere. Who needs the hassle? That’s not the kind of example you want to be for your kids.
If you get cheated in a tourist shop? Tip your hat and let it go. Taxi driver drove you ten minutes in the wrong direction? Least you got to see part of the city you wouldn’t have. Think of those stressful situations as teachable moments. Remember your Kipling (another great traveler) ‘If’ you can keep your head while all about is losing theirs… Be cool, and raise even cooler kids.
Number Five: You are a BEAST, and So Is Your Kid!

This has got to be the hardest thing in the world for moms. I’ve seen in first hand. Childbirth ruins most mom’s figures. It is the ultimate sacrifice, and it takes years to regain your shape post baby. But that doesn’t mean you give up.
Always remember, lurking inside you is a beast athlete. If that means buying a living room work out tape and kickboxing your way back into the courage of a one-piece, then do it. If it means joining the early morning mom with stroller routine around the block, get it done. Anything to add just that little boost to your life. You deserve it.
AND Dads… that’s your wake-up call too… be supportive!
Plan trips in advance and give yourself time to get back into shape. I calculated how far it was to walk from Trevi Fountain to the Piazza del Popolo and every night we began walking that distance to practice. I loaded the girls down with backpacks and we began carrying them around the living room. They loved it.
Train your kids to be tough.
How many push-ups can they do? How fast can they run to the big tree and back? Show them you are a family that takes the stairs and not the elevator. Explain why. If you’re walking into the grocery store, stop your kid and tell them to hustle over and help that old lady unload her bags. Drop them off at the drive way and tell them to jog the rest of the way home. As a parent, take your time and learn your kid’s limitations, and celebrate their achievements.
This will help you greatly when they are put to the test abroad.
Number Four: Pack the Spartan Way

I cut my teeth on this rule early on in my twenties: If you can’t carry it on your back, you ain’t bringing it. It’s sage advice. Call it the Thoreau Theory, but there’s a joy to loading a backpack correctly, laying out all your objects and having discussions on what you will need and won’t.
Now, let’s not be crazy here. I’m raising girls. And if one of my daughters tells me she needs “NuNu” the white bunny rabbit to sleep, and there isn’t enough room in her bag, well… guess who’s packing around Nunu?
But it’s more the discussion. Talking with your kids about anything revolving “choice” is a great way to spend time.
Number Three: Your Way or The Highway

Tour agencies are demonic. They prey upon the ignorant and the weak. Avoid them like the plague. When you travel to exotic places, the immediate thought is to book a tour and have them take care of everything… but by doing this you’ve just doubled or tripled your cost. Most travel agencies in developing countries steer you toward overpriced hotels and gift shops they have a commission in, and will very blatantly detour your itinerary to drop you off at a random hand-woven carpet factory or tea plantation, usher you inside, and give you the hard sell until you make a purchase.
You have to be firm. Talking to a travel agent is like talking to a barber. Tell them exactly what you want, and make sure they know not to trim a little too much off the ends.
Number Two: Don’t Let Anybody Push You Around

The greatest thing about travel is that it opens doors of understanding and allows new insight into the world. Kids are no different. As a teacher for many years, most of the brightest most imaginative students I’ve ever known were ones that spent considerable time abroad. When kids travel, their eyes are opened to so many new and unique experiences… but that doesn’t mean they have to accept everything. There are a lot of weird things too they might reject.
I’m an American, which means most the people I grew up around get freaked out pretty easy, but that doesn’t mean my kids have to be gun-shy. Sure, cringing at the “Snake-Blood” drinking ceremony in Hong Kong is appropriate, but nudging them to throw a porcelain plate on the floor and scream, “Opa!” in a Santorini café might just be therapeutic later.
Take the good with the bad.
In Korea, strangers always approach my daughters to touch their skin. It’s creepy at first, but if you let down your guard a little, you’ll realize it’s just an old lady that misses her grandkids. In the markets of Bodrum, Turkey, it’s perfectly okay to use your hands to argue, stick fingers up in the air and walk away in a huff.
Back down when needed, but never let anybody scare you away.
And … Number One: Be a Parent, First

This is a tough one for me personally, because when I go to a place, I want to immediately begin absorbing culture and blending into my new environs. There are always waterfalls and lighthouses to scale, midnight candlelight masses to behold, parades to join, ships to stowaway on, and lost trails to follow.
But kid-adventure has its price.
As much raucous frivolity as a passing herd of rowdy soccer fans on a pub crawl might be to join, hooligans are just not child-friendly.
The adjustment is this: Make and follow a kid schedule. Get them involved. Choose large touristy places that have grass parks for leg stretching and sidewalks for chalk scribbling, and make adventures daring but doable. People thought I was nuts for taking my daughters on a Kowloon rickshaw followed by a Star Ferry ride across Hong Kong harbor, especially with a baby stroller, but locals do it all the time. An early morning jaunt through filthy Hollywood’s Grauman Theater or an afternoon stroll into an Indonesian monkey forest can equally be accomplished, if the child’s own discovery is put first.
So Kinu got to hold the binoculars as a reward for climbing the Spanish Steps, and Xian carried the digital camera through the Vatican shooting pictures of funny statues. We stopped to let Rebekah cool her toes in the Tiber when I wanted to dash inside the Parthenon, and fed carrots to the carriage horse when I wanted to catch vespers at St. Maria Maglore.
It’s a trade off, I know.
So stop and take time to sketch and draw and praise how proud you are that your child is showing such bravery, let every shoe re-tying moment be one you share together. Whether at the base of the Acropolis or the top of Taipei’s 101 Building.
Put the kid first, and let the memories you create stand for themselves.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Brian... this is funny post. So much writing. YOu love your daughters too much.