My friend recently faced a fresh challenge. With her son’s 4th birthday approaching Jane decided to launch Ben overseas to experience new climes. Feeding Ben’s natural curiosity for different people and places, she’d figured, was a fundamental parental responsibility. Just where to take Ben on holiday was more difficult to fathom.
In this age of kid's clubs, summer camps and ‘time to ourselves’ on spa and golf breaks - the idea of booking a holiday where it's just you and your brood seems to have become so uncool. If we do venture overseas ‘en famille’ it’s oh-so-tempting to book a homely resort that caters to our undeniably frazzled cravings to lounge in a poolside chair, being waited-on, and without ever venturing off the resort grounds. The children, meanwhile, are charmed away by nannies and nurtured in a corner of the resort well out of ear-shot.
No, the sort of family holiday Jane wanted was one where she, her husband and son had each other to themselves; an exotic location where Ben would be immersed into another culture; a chance to talk more, laugh more, see more and take the time to strengthen the bond that connected mother, father and son.
It wasn’t by chance that Jane reached for my phone number asking for advice. Researching a series of guidebooks over the last 16 years - my own sons George, Jack and I have made scores of overseas trips, largely alone, and often to places as virgin to me as they are to him. For us the question of whether to travel had never arisen, only the question of when.
Aged just 6 weeks George joined me transatlantic for the first time. Contemplating the drawn-out flight and change of time zones, admittedly my spirits had slumped. Still my work as a travel writer revolves around travel (a lot of it) and I had entered parenthood knowing that wherever I went in the world next, George would have to come too. Thankfully, as it turned out, those early months were actually the optimum age to travel. Incredibly portable, a virtually free ticket, still on a controllable diet, and the perfect size to stretch out in a car seat, George enlisted himself amongst the jet set by snoozing the entire way.
Some sixteen years on and George and Jack have scaled mountains, soared over rainforests and volcanoes in tiny planes, voyaged in air boats, in kayaks, on the shoulders of cheery guides; they've tried sandboarding, diving, lit a camp-fire with sticks, herded goats, helped dart wild dogs and tracked alligators.
Despite the added hassles and obvious hiccups it’s the laughter and tears, the mistakes and joyful discoveries we share that makes travelling overseas with my sons such an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience - for us both.
First and foremost, children have a wonderful way of opening doors and breaking down cultural barriers. However different our language, our customs or our lifestyle, universally - as parents - we share a common empathy. Inherently undaunted, inquisitive and (for the most part) uninhibited George and Jack lead me into the sort of encounters with strangers I would never have imagined possible.
A few years ago at Negernde airstrip in the depths of the Maasai Mara our bi-plane was delayed. Safari-suit clad clichés distanced themselves from the tribes people and sat impatiently in a lean-to shelter. Instead 6 year old George plonked himself down in the midst of a circle of giggling women and children and got on with the not so onerous task of filling-in time. We sat cross-legged, we played, we grinned gleefully and spontaneously exchanged gifts. I offered one mum a washed-out Gap tee-shirt I’d grown tired of; she insisted on handing me back an intricately carved rhino. George showed a saucer-eyed toddler how his toy car worked, left it in his clutching fingers and was instantly presented with a tiny, beaded bracelet. Unable to reach them with language I felt an insatiable need to touch their hands, their arms, to reach out to them physically. I was overwhelmed by the experience. And eternally thankful to George.
Away from home comforts too, travelling with George and Jack has meant them confronting situations far outside an established norm. Both boys have learned to face predicaments they don’t fully understand, let alone feel in control of (mixing with children who don’t speak his language, for example, or having to trek in areas where there’s no transport) Of course the boy’s subsequent understanding and sense of accomplishment far outweigh any temporary setbacks. In today’s world where success is so often equated with the accumulation of all things material and where success at school is measured by percentages it’s these kind of real-life challenges that present junior travellers with a whole new criteria for achievement.
Venture somewhere exotic, of course, and children like George and Jack profit equally by witnessing the sort of things that otherwise exist only in the pages of a text book.
Back in Kenya at first-dawn (around 5am), a bush-breakfast beckoned; George and Jack were already standing at the door, binoculars in hand. To start with we saw little. A few impala, the occasional dik-dik. All hell broke loose when George spotted Pumbaa in the flesh. It reached a crescendo when Simbaa himself strolled past the jeep (thanks due to Disney’s ‘Lion King’ for baiting their fascination for all things creepy, crawly and cuddly) The task of reeling them in on our game drive was expertly managed by a young Maasai tribesman named Fred. Just two hours into his first bush-drive and my youngest son was already recounting the life cycle of the wildebeest, camouflage techniques and tracking signs.
Scrambling from the jeep and before I could even say ‘kuhari’ (Swahili for bye!) they disappeared with Fred - reemerging hours later with a hand-made bow and arrow and a self-styled toothbrush hewn from a twig.
There’s no doubt the chance to witness Maasai children walking to school barefoot through the plains, the wildebeest gathering for their annual migration, to talk to, to touch and to be touched by the villagers are holiday opportunities unlikely to survive George and Jack into adulthood. Yet they will live with them for a lifetime.