The Crucible of Family Travel

Our family had been traveling for over two months before we met any other families attempting long distance, extended travel. In fact, we hadn't met any other traveling families. Period.

In Chang Mai, the largest city of Northern Thailand we stayed in a moderate guest house with a swimming pool. The first night we met two other families, one from Alberta, Canada and the other from Vancouver, Canada with children ranging in age from four to eleven. (Two other families, one from Amsterdam and another from Japan drifted in during our stay. These two families had substantially younger children and did not seem to be in for so long a haul.)

Like travelers starved to meet someone else who speaks a familiar language we gravitated towards each other and soon began comparing notes. These families, like us, were not on vacation, we were all traveling —it was what we were doing instead of working or going to school or whatever it was we did in our old familiar lives. None us had pre-arranged our travel; there were no guided tours, pre-booked rooms or scheduled activities in our itineraries. We were all making it up as we went along, making decisions each day, having to research and ask and hope we were doing the right thing.

Samantha and Cassidy stand in front of the largest of the many gold-gilt stupas, locations of significant Buddhist objects

1. Money. It is a lot more expensive to travel with a family. There seems to be a mathematical paradox about family travel: If one person can travel at the cost of "x," and two people can travel at the cost of "2x," a family of four travels at the cost of "6x" or even "8x." Cheap transportation multiplied by four or five is no longer cheap. One tends to stay in "moderate" rather than "cheap" guest houses, and avoid street food, upping the ante from our free-wheeling youthful travel.

Both of the families we met said they were not going to be able to travel as long as they'd planned because they were running out of money. And since both had rented out their house for a year, they knew that would mean a different re-entry than they had expected.

2. School: We were all concerned that it is hard to find the time and discipline for formal schooling while on the road. Our students sometimes balked at the idea of schoolwork, seeing the journey as an extended vacation. We were lucky because our Web site entries and journal writing imposed a daily discipline for all of us that the girls usually did not mind. We all kept detailed journals, we studied history, language, geography and culture. Samantha was absolutely stalwart about doing her trigonometry in any bit of down time we had, but she often needed help that we couldn't give her. We searched among fellow travelers for mathematicians, and were usually lucky. We had spelling lessons for Cassidy from her writing, and we had her do money conversions for math. (If Cassidy wants a doll that costs 40 baht, how much is that in dollars?)

3. Health issues are much more serious with children. Trying to get younger ones to wash up, stay clean, watch what they put in their mouths and where they put bare feet is a constant worry. Also, when they get sick, the need to jump to medical attention comes sooner. A five-year-old in one of the Canadian families got diarrhea and became dehydrated very quickly. They got him to the local English-speaking hospital in Chang Mai, which our friends reported was very efficient and cheap. The hospital gave him oral pedialyte (an electrolyte solution for children) for a day. His recovery was sufficient to avoid an IV drip, much to his and his parents' relief. Dehydration can be a huge problem during travel, so it is very important to monitor fluid intake and always have a supply of ORS (oral rehydration salts).

And then of course, there is the conflicting medical advice, particularly when it comes to Malaria. "Don't take Larium whatever you do — the side effects are far worse and more common than the disease (including long-term psychosis and hair loss)." "Take Larium, it's far better than getting the disease (in spite of the side effects), and there isn't anything else that works for the malaria in this area." It's Russian Roulette and every traveler plays it. To make the "wrong" decision for yourself is one thing, but for your kids. . . .? Sometimes there are local alternatives that are not yet available in one's home country, particularly for diseases like malaria, that are not common at home. Stay alert and open to the possibilities.

4. Alone time. Adult time. Teenage time. Kid time. Alone time of any sort. There pretty much isn't any.

We were lucky enough to find accommodation that was safe, and sometimes slipped to the downstairs restaurant for a beer while the children were tucked in. One guest house had a common room with a TV/VCR setup and we felt comfortable reversing the use of the room, leaving the children watching a VCR movie and sipping soda — at 14 we felt Sam was old enough to be alert, and we aren't too far away. Sometimes we had side-by-side but separate rooms because our family was too big to fit in one room. But that isn't much and it wasn't often.

5. Growth. It's astounding. Our children breezed through the most amazing situations with an enviable openness and curiosity. An adult might be nearly paralyzed with worry (as I often was), and they' re doubled over in laughter—making them perfect traveling companions. Of course this isn't always the case, especially with younger ones who seem to pick up on parental worries.

Our girls became more self-sufficient and delighted in finding new friends and developing new skills with which to negotiate the world. They can recount stories of their most glorious adventures to perfect strangers, negotiate in bazaars and hotels, wend their way through hair-raising traffic and learn greetings and songs in every language they encounter.

6. Closeness. These situations, adventures, new friends and arrivals and departures gave our family unit a new history—and a new cohesiveness. We admire each other's strengths, and recognize and tease about each other's weaknesses. The crucible of travel defines us as individuals and as families.

For children going through growth phases on extended travel (and their families), the experience can be trying. Children push to find limits, and the limits during travel are much tighter than they would be in the safe haven of home. Still, parents need to weigh each situation and pick the battles that are worth fighting—they are different from the ones one might pick on familiar and unchanging turf. We found that at the girls proved their good judgement, and there were actually fewer battles (e.g. When Samantha had been particularly astute and decisive, we gave her permission to get the tattoo she had been angling for, so long as she found a safe place to do it. She declined.)

7. Security. A constant worry. Is this really a reputable bus company, or the one that will take your luggage and dump you in a field in the middle of nowhere? Are you on the right train? Are those "Hey baby!" greetings to your young teenage daughter really harmless? Are the pats on the head of your young golden child harmless admiration? Do we need to stand

guard during overnight bus and train rides? Travel is risk, but families seem to take fewer of them (although one Canadian family crossed underground rivers in caves, traveled to the far reaches of the Philippines and stayed for a month, and trekked without batting an eye).

8. Comfort. Security—the other kind. The kind that comes from something familiar. We find that we need to stay some places longer—to deepen friendships, become familiar, comfortable and secure with a place. A week to a month will do.

For our family it may be even more pronounced since we have no home to return to. The feeling of being adrift in an ocean bigger than anything you could imagine needs to be counteracted by islands of the newly familiar.

One corner inside the Grand Palace showing the grounds protected by the Royal Guard and three stupas. Stupas are the dome shapes and are part of a Buddhist shrine.
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