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We heard the otherworldly keening of the humpback whales’ song before we saw them backflipping out of the water—giant, immensely powerful, mesmerizing animals that could have sunk us with one slap of a dorsal fin. A local fisher on the tiny French Polynesian island of Mo’orea had offered to take us out in the boat to snorkel with them, and so we went out, onto the Pacific.
We were far from shore. The sea was deep and dark and there were huge beasts below us. I could not contain my fear as we jumped in, and I gulped to catch my breath, taking a mouthful of water as I did. I clung to my three-year-old son who was straining to start swimming, to get to the whales. Sputtering, crying my eyes out, I realized I just couldn’t do it. It was too deep, the whales were too big, and he was too small.
We were back in the boat 30 seconds later, cold and in shock. My fear had torpedoed the experience of a lifetime.
We weren’t the usual tourists to Mo’orea, which is favored by honeymooners rather than shoestring-budget backpackers like my husband and I, kid in tow. Traveling with kids is challenging at the best of times, and our around-the-world trip was not as Instagram-friendly as the millennial digital nomads would have you believe. I’m a writer, so I had the luxury of being able to work from anywhere in the world. But I still had to find a way to juggle deadlines, time zones, and caring for a three-year-old: crawling around hostel room floors playing Lego, asking if someone needs to pee, answering questions like “Mummy, what would Buddha say to the dinosaurs?” and, inevitably, navigating the tantrums that accompany constant change.
While we had the perks of travel and the joy of experiencing all those new things, we also had to develop a new attitude toward risk assessment as we learned to balance fun with safety.
Travel is inherently risky. The subtext of conversations with parents and good friends was often: “Do you guys really know what you’re getting yourself into? What if it isn’t safe?” Those thoughts were rattling around my brain a lot of the time too. As parents, from the moment our babies arrive, we panic about every little thing. Could they fall off? What’s in that? WHAT IF HE DIES!
“Why did they cook the baby ducks?”
Learning to quiet that internal alarm allowed us to do the kinds of things that would be unheard-of in our well-regulated, rule-driven, risk-averse lifestyle back home. We drove in New Delhi without seat belts, rode in open-top trucks and hopped onto buses with bullet holes in the windows in Thailand. Every time we stepped out of our norms, however anxious we might have felt, it was exhilarating and perversely refreshing to have something new to worry about—like when we watched a family of six perched on one motorbike, babe in arms included.
We traveled to 11 different countries, spending the first six months in Asia, followed by four months in the Antipodes and South Pacific. The kid started off saying “rounda-de-word,” and by the end, he was accosting strangers and articulately reeling off our itinerary. We tried to make informed decisions about where we were going, but there were times when we exposed our son to things we would have preferred not to. Traveling on a budget means that accommodations were often dirty, noisy, or in a sketchy part of town. The kid only noticed there was problem if we seemed stressed or angry about it, so when we found ourselves in a bad situation, we tried to make it seem fun.
At a backpackers’ hostel in Busan, South Korea, we headed to breakfast one morning and found a Korean man passed out in the blazing sun of the roof terrace, lying in a pool of vomit. He wouldn’t wake up, so my partner put him in the recovery position and doused him with water to try to rouse him. Far from traumatized, our kid giggled to himself all day, saying: “And then Daddy threw water at him!”
Kids can feel unsteady and act up when the normal parameters of life are removed. They need a lot of reassurance and explanation, and they need to know what’s going on and why. In Hong Kong, he saw baby Peking ducks hanging in the window of a restaurant. When I was tucking him into bed that night, he said, eyes brimming with tears, “Why did they cook the baby ducks?” He was inconsolable for a while, but it got us talking about food and animals. It was a hard lesson to learn when you’re only three.
India was so different from home that it felt like entering another realm. We slept on the floor in ashrams, traveled for hours and hours on ancient trains, marveled as the kid wolfed down dal and idli and dosa, and took in the backwaters of Kerala, temples in Tamil Nadu, colonial architecture in Pondicherry, the Himalayan mountains, and Tibetan monasteries in McLeod Ganj. My 33-year-old brain could barely process it, but the kid took it all in stride. He quickly realized that we regularly “changed room” and was remarkably enthusiastic even when we arrived at distinctly dodgy place.
He learned to play with anything: A spoon could be his new best friend; a cereal packet would become a train.
The hours spent on those trains in India or holed up in airports waiting for connecting flights were some of the most fruitful opportunities for devising games and playing. When you’re traveling alone as an adult, that time is spent checking phones or reading. But the need to keep a child occupied and happy in an often stressful situation motivated us to interact with him more meaningfully, asking him about the people around us and talking about what we were experiencing together. We didn’t stick him in front of a screen to pacify him. In fact, he didn’t watch any TV for nearly a year.
The only toys he had were a pencil case of Lego and a stuffed cat and an owl puppet. He learned to play with anything: A spoon could be his new best friend; a cereal packet would become a train. I’m not sure whether he knew the difference between the beaches we found in Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and French Polynesia—it was all just a giant sandpit to him, with beautiful water to boot.
After the abortive attempt to snorkel with whales, we tried again in Mo’orea, splashing out $10 to hire a canoe that paddled out to the sharks. They were curious, but wary of us. They swam close by, tails sweeping side to side, pilot fish clinging to their bellies, black fin tips peeking just above the surface of the water. I turned to my son and adjusted his life jacket and snorkel mask, and we sank into the water, bobbing together, arms entwined. And then we both pushed under the bright, clear blue water, marveling at the four- and five-foot sharks skirting around us.