Oh, The Places We Won’t Go
By Swati Apte
“We’re all going on a summer holiday, doing things we’ve always wanted to.
Fun and laughter on a summer holiday, no more worries for me and you… for a week or two.”
So goes the Cliff Richards song, evoking a sense of cheer and rejuvenation, a perfect combination of relaxation and exciting adventures.
Clearly, Cliff Richards has never been on vacation with children.
Much like Cliff, I have (or should I say, had?) a buoyant attitude towards travel. I’ve hitchhiked on trucks to Kutch, walked up to the Nepal border, backpacked in Europe. No plan, just a destination. I have slept in tents for days, ridden on the backs of filthy camels, lived on dry oats for a week. Discomfort simply reinforces my sense of myself as an adventurer.
This ‘swashbuckling wanderer’ is such a big part of how I see myself, that when my children arrived, I simply assumed they would tag along happily. Before my daughter was one, we had strapped her to our chests and taken her on three trips, two abroad. She let us drag her through overnight flights and across time zones, bearing the travel as calmly as a baby possibly could. My husband and I convinced ourselves that her clinginess and cries were just a declaration of her thirst for adventure. (Don’t judge me. Loss of perspective due to sleep deprivation is a medically recognized condition in new parents.)
Then my son came along two years later, and we took him to Italy. To put it more accurately, I traveled – alone — with both my children, one 24 months, the other 7 months, to Italy. When I narrate tales of my scariest travel experiences, that trip is right up there with being mugged in East London. Our stroller was lost on our first flight. I cannot recall going to the bathroom once without having to perch both babies on top of the sink. And my son started screaming at take-off on the ‘to’ flight and did not stop until we were back in our own home. We spent a week on the coast of Amalfi. I have no recollection of the sea.
Yet, I learned nothing. My body ached for simpler soujourns, but I stoutly refused to succumb to the ‘hotel room by the paddle pool’ model of vacationing. Each time a mommy-friend fretted over even a short car ride, I secretly, superiorly patted myself on the back for retaining my unfazed and intrepid attitude to life, for teaching my children about new cultures, broadening their world views, moulding them into open-minded, curious, global citizens of tomorrow.
I would have stared you down had you pointed out that a 4-year-old’s world view is limited to her Dr. Seuss Oh, The Places You Will Go! Instead, I dragged my daughter through a frenetic souk in Marakesh, dodging crowds of shoppers and porters who swung heavy loads dangerously close to her head. I wanted her to see a stall where crabs were cooked in hot cauldrons, see the ironsmiths and leather tanners. She stood in the middle of the market, eyes streaming from the sensory onslaught, as I delivered a sermon on how she was at the centre of ancient trade routes. My little girl looked up at me, wrinkled her nose and said, “This smells like India.”
Then there was the time I hauled my children up 14,000 feet in the Himalayas. We braved disapproving grandparents and altitude sickness and trekked for days along raging rivers and steep mountain roads. I pointed out Everest and the borders of Nepal and China. I was convinced I was giving the was the best lesson in geography. Back at home, I held my breath as my 4-year-old was asked about his trip. Would he be most impressed by the glaciers? The interesting flowers? The shepherding family with whom we spent a night? “We went very, very far,” he told his grandmother, “to sleep in tents, to not take a bath, and to pee outside.”
To their credit, my children are real troopers. They tag along with me to the middle of oceans or the top of mountains, happy for the most part. They bear with mornings at museums and days at historic forts. Like their father, they are patient about their mum’s need to prove a point. While Husband wholeheartedly agrees our children need a world view built on dusty train and bus travel, he pleads to use his own days off as down time and negotiates for comfort on family trips. So, we stay in nicer places. We eat in restaurants that serve familiar food. We sit by a pool, sip lemonade and read books. The experiences are different enough that our kids have begun asking, “Is our next trip a mommy holiday or a baba one?”
“We went very, very far,” he told his grandmother, “to sleep in tents, to not take a bath and to pee outside.”
We subject our children to experiences we believe are enriching. We compel them to play an instrument, to learn a language, to take up a sport, but it defines us, not them. We believe what they are interested in, what they are able to do, who they become is a comment on who we are. But it’s not, not really. Our children are themselves, and maybe the best thing we can do for them is offer them a blank space in which they can define who they want to be, allow them to spin their own globe and put a finger down — even if it lands on a nearby place with bubble bath-sized tubs and amusement parks.
Dragging my children across the world may not make them stronger or better human beings. Or, for that matter, even better able to read a map. (I found my 8-year-old son looking for Beijing in Europe the other day.) So this year, our family is taking calmer trips to do simpler things like laying on a beach somewhere within driving distance of home. I tell myself that being subjected to the boring and mundane will build character. For me, if not my children. Meanwhile, I know Husband is delighted with this transition to more traditional holiday travel. He hopes fervently this is the first step toward me growing old with grace. But if he thinks I am going to embrace the family-sized SUV or the Jello-for-dessert without a fight, he can take a hike.
Or maybe I will, by myself, to the top of a mountain.