Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Who would choose a toy over travel?

I’m surrounded with the chaos of pre-Christmas. The balance of the list for Santa from my two boys, ages 8 and 10, that somewhat resembles my means and values.

This means I’m taking them to Nicaragua for three weeks instead of having a traditional Christmas.

But, since I’m a sucker, it also means I spent last night crawling around Target and REI in hopes that some of our travel necessities will suffice as fairly-bizarre stocking stuffers. I mean, I know they won’t be stoked about the bottles of hand-sanitizer, but I’m going to be glad for the tiny antiseptic bottles when we get on our first chicken bus and wolf down a hot papusa, a sort of stuffed mini-pancake, on our first day of travel. And, doesn’t everyone want mosquito repellent and sunscreen from Santa? At least the collapsible fishing poles will be a big hit on Lake Nicaragua.

The biggest question I get is …. How? How do you do it? How do you travel to developing countries with two children without going broke and/ or losing your mind?

Now, I’m the first to say I’ve often lost my mind during our travels. However, there are a few pearls of wisdom I’ve learned along the miles that I’m happy to share.

1.)    Pack Light. I know, it doesn’t sound particularly enlightening (pun intended). But, it truly is. The three of us travel with one rolling duffle bag that we share. It’s got bulky, beefy wheels and my youngest son, Roam, can spin it around with his thin arms and easily hand it to someone to haul to the top of a bus. I decided years ago that I would end up carrying all of the bags at some point anyway. And, instead of carrying three medium-sized messes, I decided we could all easily fold into one big behemoth. Additionally, we each have a small backpack for personal belongings. And, although I still end up carrying everything for everyone on a sporadic basis, the point is that by sharing a duffle – I can.

2.)    Ditch technology. The battle starts at home. Everyone wants to bring a screen. A game for the long flight. An e-book for reading. A phone. A computer. If we honestly traveled with the requested amount of technology, we would need 16 extra plugs and an emergency portable power generator. Simply put – no one is allowed to bring a screen. Myself included. We bring those old-fashioned, heavy, paper books and leave them at hostels along the way.   I read to the boys at night under the folds of a heavy mosquito net, and we all share our stories together. For games, I bring cards. For this trip, I’m also bringing a few “spoons” (to play spoons) and Banana-grams. And, I’ll bring my phone, but turn off the wi-fi and data. We’ll only use my phone for the flight down and back – otherwise, a public computer in a hostel will work for an email or two, and I’m happy to escape from the constant Pavlovian- fear conditioning of my phone – for all of our sakes.  

3.)    Backpackers Love Kids. It’s true. The way to save money is to stay in backpacker’s hostels around the world. You can stay in hammocks, tents, dorm-beds, or private rooms. These are places with an eco-ethic and a myriad of interesting characters trying to make their way around on the world on rice and beer for a year. Backpacker hostels are often filled with culture, great food, curious conversation, and appealing (but a little nontraditional) activities for kids. Like catching the frogs from the campsite and trying to sell them to guests. Now, these hostels don’t advertise “family-friendly,” but, I’ve found a quick email or conversation can steer you in the right direction. In fact, these places seem to attract people who are open to the world. And, the more open and tolerant an individual is – it seems they accept all kinds. Black, white, gay, straight, senior citizen and 2nd grade alike. These places have “private rooms” with a shared bath where I can pile our circus in for a few days for a few dollars. Because, if you are doing it well – you aren’t spending too much time in a hotel, anyway.

4.)    Teach them skills. I’ve got friends in Montana who walk their children to their classroom desks even though their children are in fifth grade. Needless to say, I’m not one of these parents. Excluding special exceptions, I believe my kids need to have skills to navigate some tricky life-situations when mom isn’t around. And, travel brings on those tricky situations. My boys want to know how the man without legs is scooting around Bangkok on a skateboard when there aren’t any handicapped ramps in the sidewalks. They want to know why the Irish man at the backpacker hostel says that he has never met a nice American before he met them. They want to know why a boy younger than them is selling gum in the aisles of the bus and why he isn’t in school. And, honestly, this is why we travel. To try to answer these questions, or at least see the question. To get a new perspective on the world through the eyes of another.  And, I also tell them about the real dangers in the world. How to get back to me if you get lost in a crowded market. How to learn to trust someone who seems genuine but may have ulterior motives. How to look after each other’s back when we are moving through an unfamiliar area. How to move in this world.

5.)    The best activities aren’t paid for. I always have us live with a local family and volunteer in a school for a bit while we are traveling. The boys moan about how “weird” I am, but, long after we’ve returned home, they remember the name of the Thai boy who swam with them through the jellyfish on the Andaman Sea. They don’t really remember the exorbitantly expensive dinner we ate in a sterile Bangkok mall, but they do remember bathing orphaned elephants in a jungle river. They remember the people. And, frankly, so do I. Those connections with communities are what differentiate lightweight tours from authentic travel.

6.)    What we can’t live without.  I give them each an adapted money belt that hangs on a cord around their necks that has some money, a business card from our hostel, several emergency phone numbers, and phrases written in the local language. They aren’t allowed to leave the hostel/ tent/ homestay without it.  We create a trip journal for each adventure and we all take turns writing, drawing, and collecting scraps inside the pages.  And, I always travel with an emergency bag of chocolate, beef jerky and tins of tuna for when the food simply gets “too creepy.”

All right. Enough procrastination. Those stockings won’t fill themselves.

The other night, we were eating dinner and playing “Table Topics,” a conversational game to ask everyone at the table a single question printed on a card. The card Zane drew said, “Would you rather receive a coveted toy for Christmas or go on an adventure with your family?” Roam laughed. “That’s such a stupid question, Mom,” he said. “Who would choose a toy over travel?”

I guess I’m off the hook.