I wish I could say that at this point I am a total pro, that things never go wrong when I travel with my children. Not so. However, I have gained some insight and picked up some tricks that minimize the mishaps and smooth out the wrinkles. Some of them.
Let’s start at the beginning:
- Packing. This is something that I’ve actually gotten pretty good at. And especially when you are going to a developing country where most things are cheap, you can decide not to stress about the perfect pack job and pick up whatever you’ve forgotten. Unless of course the country does not have it…. So, pack a killer first-aid kit*. Pack enough socks and underwear for all in your carry-on that you can survive if your luggage is misplaced for a day. Pack two sets of clothes for the kids for when they [insert disgusting verb of your choice] everywhere and you need to clean up at the airport. Make a list of what’s in each suitcase – you’d be surprised how useful this is. And in terms of having the kids get excited, and feel more involved in the venture, encourage them to pack with you and to choose a couple of items themselves.
- Avoid electronic amusement in general. This serves two purposes. First, it means that they do not need your laptop to be charged in order to be entertained. This is extremely important in places like Ethiopia where, for example, the Gambella region can go a week without regular power. This also means that when an emergency arises, they will be entranced by the electronics and let you get done whatever needs to be done (and if your “emergency” is you cross-eyed with a glass of wine watching Austenland on the plane while your kid watches Tom and Jerry cartoons and eats cookies at 10 p.m., no judgement).
- Get sleep masks and use them. At this point, James is pretty good about putting on his face mask to sleep if he’s sufficiently tired but light, or something, is keeping him awake. It’s a useful skill.
- Avoid needing schedules. For some families, extreme travel really won’t work well because at some point they’ve got a kid that needs their 10:30 and 2:30 naps and they only nap well at home. Do whatever works for your family! But we’ve always been on the go and have deliberately avoided nap schedules and routines, or even mealtime schedules, so that James doesn’t wig out if we miss “lunchtime” or bed comes half and hour late, and Lytle can nap almost anywhere. It’s worked well for us.
- Introduce strange foods early. This may or may not be an option for you, but it might make travel food less intimidating. Didn’t work so well for us, but it sounds nice in theory so there it is.
On the Road, On the Go, or in the Hotel Room
- Sleep and jet lag. Hands down, one of the worst things about traveling with children is the jet lag. Begging your 4-year old to be quiet at 3 a.m. in a hotel room has to be one of Dante’s rings of hell. We had a 14-hour layover in Dubai and James was so wired he wouldn’t sleep until the last couple of hours of it after we strapped a sleeping mask onto him. Upon arrival in Ethiopia, it was who knows what time of night for us and James laid on the duffel bag that I use as my carry-on and refused to budge. So Travis undid the strap and dragged the duffel with him asleep on it through the Visas and Immigration section of the airport. It took a week to kick the jet lag and there was no easy way to do it. My advice? Have a drink. And maybe give them a sip.
- Eating. This is two-pronged. First, what James will and will not eat here has become interesting. He will eat shiro (a sometimes spicy, tomato and onion-based roasted chickpea sauce that, with injeera, is the staple food of Ethiopia) at Sami Grocery around the corner but not in most other places. He will sometimes eat fluffy injeera that is only lightly fermented, never the darker, thinner, more soured injeera. We’ve had some luck turning it into a game. I made up a chart in my notebook of the different restaurants we go to and he tries the shiro at each place and we make “tasting notes” and say whether or not he likes it. Then when we go somewhere I pull out the chart and we all know what to expect. I loosen up on what he eats at mealtimes (he ate four eggs one day), and I’ve had to crack down on minimizing snacks or he doesn’t eat at the table. And I’ve gotten really good at tuning out whining. Second, safety and clean hands and food. James ate a spoonful of pancake batter one morning and I about died. Raw Ethiopian egg. Tap water. Village teff flour probably redolent with mites and fecal matter from the field. He ended up being okay, but I we really just got lucky. Have Cippro on hand and do your best. Nothing else to be done here.
- Behavior out and about. Travel is tricky. Out and about, James starts acting up and I say, “Do you want to go home?” James says ecstatically, “Yes!” Oops. Sometimes we are out and about for Travis’ work stuff and we cannot head home. We toured a honey factory recently and I just smiled and let it go when I saw him climbing around on stacks of honey and wax. Sometimes I don’t care that he’s bored or being a pill and wants to go home, I want to do whatever we’re doing. He spent most of our trip to the National Gallery in Naples on the floor and I just let it go. So don’t bluff. This means less “discipline”’; I’ve had to become very selective about what I will and will not enforce. Withholding cookies and treats has become my go-to tactic. Develop a higher tolerance for poor or wacky behavior out and about – if you are a conscientious parent it’s likely that you are more horrified than anyone else. Especially in developing countries children are adored and given a lot more leeway than you would expect. Explore the power of redirection. On occasion, it’s much more effective to simply ignore James’ behavior and just start a game or go for a walk than it is to try to discipline and address it. And I actually have a lot more fun with him when I loosen up just that little bit.
- Entertainment on the go. Kids may have favorite games, but it’s impressive how much a new toy or activity trumps most anything. I make it a habit to collect and retain random things all the time so I can pull something new out of my bag at a moment’s notice. This includes food snacks for desperate moments. Whining and hungry during our 7-hour layover in Addis? Why yes, I happen to have a roll with jam and butter that I yoinked from our previous flight. What, you’re bored while I try to catch up on paying bills? Here, look, it’s the flight pack from Turkish Airlines complete with toothbrush, tiny toothpaste and sleep mask! You’ve read all these books already? But you haven’t read them to Mr. Airline-Sickness-Bag-Hand-Puppet! You want to leave before Dada’s meeting is done? But wait, I have this empty baby food jar and it needs to be filled with rocks that are all white! When they will self-entertain with whatever you hand them, be grateful. And when they won’t and they need you right there looking for white rocks, then dammit, enjoy rock hunting. It’s more fun than you would think. Our newest game that only involves white paper and colored pencils? Making “Jamie” currency for his imaginary country of Tiger Canada.
- Take candy from strangers. Okay, don’t actually do that (unless you’re in Italy, and the candy is chocolate). And don’t encourage your kids to do that. But feel free to make friends out and about. I find that places are less intimidating to James when he starts to see the people around him as potential friends rather than “others.” And more importantly, he behaves better with other people. Parents, you all know how it is. The babysitter or a grandparent get the good behavior while you get the tantrums and the boundary-pushing. It’s the nature of parenthood – you are their safe space to explore and test out themselves and the world. So rather than curse this truth, use it to your advantage. We have a bajaj driver, Sofi, that we call for longer bajaj rides. He and James are good friends at this point. In Gambella while visiting shea nut butter cooperatives, James and Oman, the translator, became good walking buddies. And at the Eco-Hub in Gambella James bonded with Sharifu while helping spread dirt around for new garden beds. More importantly, he was happily entertained for half an hour while I got some good Lytle time in. People will love your children if you let them, and they in turn will love the chance to show off and behave well.
- Be gracious and say thank you. Ask for help. I know, as Americans many of us believe you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But sometimes it takes a village. Most people here in Ethiopia offer help before you even ask when they see you struggle with a bag and a child, or with two children. I had a guy in the bathroom lift James up for me so James could wash his hands; he got totally splashed on his suit but genuinely seemed pleased to be of service. I had a bajaj driver just hop out and cross the street with me, James, Lytle and the three bags I was carrying. On our most recent flight a flight attendant brought James a sandwich before the flight had finished loading after I asked if there was anything to eat. Don’t be afraid to accept help or to ask for help or “special treatment” at airports, or anywhere. Then be gracious and say thank you.
Here’s the deal. Travel is a microcosm of humanity. It shows you the best and the worst in other people and cultures. It brings out the best and the worst in you and your family. So plan for the worst. Make lists. If you’re not already “Type-A” consider becoming Type-A for the week before a trip. Consider possible weird scenarios and how to deal with them. Make copies of everything. Put any random number you think you will need in your cell phone or on a piece of paper. Then, once on the go, loosen up, let it go, and enjoy the ride. It’s the best.
*My first-aid list for anyone who is planning a trip soon!
- Band-aids, tons and in various sizes
- witch hazel and tons of alcohol pads
- cotton swabs and cotton balls
- gauze pads of two or three sizes
- medical tape
- small scissors
- calamine lotion
- garlic-mullein oil for ear infections
- homeopathic teething tablets (just in case for Lytle)
- arnica gel
- Nose Freida
- saline nasal spray
- anti-malarial pills for all
- Cippro for all
- infant Tylenol
- extra oral syringes
- bars of hotel soaps
- extra hand sanitizer bottles
- hippy cut salve
- Neosporin in case the hippy stuff doesn’t work
- two different thermometers
And I kept one thermometer, the anti-malarials, the Nose Freida and saline spray, and some alcohol pads and band-aids with me in the carry-on.