Sarah Barrell: How a trip with the children can set you free
Sunday 20 March 2011
Travel with children: it's something I used to believe was an oxymoron. Parents who strapped their newborns to their backs and travelled overland across Africa were not to be trusted. The same suspicion was raised by those who went on a two-week holiday to Thailand with their toddler.
Apart from the fear factor (bugs, bites and boiling nights) my main concern was that travelling with a small child wouldn't be fun. In fact, it would be so lacking in fun as to remove the reason to travel in the first place. A reason that speaks of escapism but whispers a need, for the travel addict at least, to briefly deny their reality ... or step into someone else's for awhile.
You can't do that with a baby. They are sent to us, if nothing else, to daily remind us of our dutiful reality, and challenge it at every turn. I have just interviewed a well-known explorer who has been completely floored by the early years with his children. And this is a man who fought his way solo through the Amazon, and thrived in the desert for months with nought but a camel for company.
Faced with the challenges of raising a newborn? "Well, it's just a waking nightmare," he says. "There's all the drudgery and horror of an expedition but none of the control. It's really quite the leveller." For many inveterate travellers I know, small children are (deep breath) quite dull. They are an anti-expedition, one that goes nowhere except the same stretches of park and pavement and, in the dead of night, the recesses of your sleep-deprived soul. And what's found there is none too edifying.
So why on earth would this be something to take on the road with you? When I finally ventured out into the world with my daughter, it was to the sort of resort I hadn't been to since I myself was a child. Inevitably, this wasn't the answer. Sure, there was the lure of the kid's club but this involved handing over my wee one, and all the associated guilt; something we deal with most working days of the year. Hardly a welcome break from the norm.
It's true that the better children's clubs release the kids into the outdoors to hunt for seashells or learn to snorkel. This does a good job of sugar-coating the compromise, but does it satiate an adult's wanderlust or encourage the urge to roam in a child? Not really: and it might be enough to make you think the world has closed its doors to you. Of course it hasn't. They say hindsight would be a great thing but foresight, for those suffering from new-parent claustrophobia, would be an even rarer gift.
I just needed to wait a bit. I've recently had the liberating experience of taking my first "proper" trip with my daughter, to the Arctic. Admittedly this was the Swedish Arctic where the icy wilderness has been chivvied into relative obedience by hardy Laplanders. Here was enough civility to make travels with an under five do-able but also plenty to give this itchy-footed parent a fix of big skies and seemingly endless horizon.
And what was the best part? Staying up late hoping to see the Northern Lights? Riding a lightening-quick sledge pulled by 12 powerful huskies? Tracking reindeer through a snow-silent forest? No ... it was feeling united with my daughter in these exotic quests. And this new terrain, I think, is one I am keen to keep exploring.
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