Interview: Travelling with a child
By Matt Preston
Have you ever wondered what it’s really like to travel with a child?
Meet Francesca and her daughter Katie. They’re just completed an impressive itinerary and have much to say on the ups and downs of travelling with children.
What moment gave you the travel buzz?
Katies’ father and I took her backpacking and camping round Western Europe for eight months when she was nine months old. It was after we returned to England that I realised I wanted to travel much more extensively. I waited until I thought Katie was old enough to cope and appreciate it before I mentioned the idea of a long trip to her. Thankfully Katie also shared the same desire which meant I didn’t have to wait till she grew up and left home before I could set off!
How did you create your itinerary?
Katie loves nature and animals and I am a real history buff so we tried to choose countries that would interest us both. We chose to kick off our trip in Turkey as we had been there before and loved it, so it seemed a good place to start; somewhere that we were already familiar with and liked, where we could explore and travel round more extensively to ease ourselves into long term backpacking.
After Turkey we knew we wanted to visit Israel because of its’ colourful history so I worked out an overland route from Turkey to Israel picking out good places to stop at and explore along the way.
I had read a lot of other travellers accounts of their time in South East Asia and that strongly influenced which countries we went to in that region and we both love the USA so it was a pretty forgone conclusion that it would form a major stopping point on our itinerary.
How much of the itinerary was decided by your daughter?
I tried to involve Katie every step of the way, but I remember very clearly her telling me at the time that she couldn’t decide on which countries to visit, but she would choose what she wanted to do in each country once we arrived there.
We did a two day boat trip along the Mekong River which was Katies’ idea, it was hard work at times. The first day we had to sit on benches with two planks of wood forming the seat for eight hours, on the second day we were transferred to a smaller boat with shorter benches and only one plank of wood to sit on for another eight hours. Thankfully the scenery we passed and the children who ran down to the banks to greet us as we passed helped ease the strain, it was only when we arrived at Luang Prabang, our final destination, and were sitting at dinner in a very strange position because of our achy bottoms and painful backs that we wondered what on earth we’d signed up for!
It was very important to include Katie in itinerary planning so she felt like she had input and could choose things that would entertain her too. Thanks to Katie we did things I hadn’t envisioned and had the time of my life doing!
What are the advantages and disadvantages of travelling with an 8 year old child?
Both are numerous so I shall try to be selective.
Katie had just turned seven when we set off and though she was old enough to appreciate the countries we went to, the rough and tumble life of a backpacker began to takes its’ toll after about nine months. It was at that point that we slowed right down and began to travel much slower. It meant striking off some of the countries on our list which was sad, but as any parent knows, when kids are involved the ability to be flexible is vital, which is exactly why I chose not to buy a round the world ticket.
The memories of the kindness of strangers because I was travelling with a child will stay with me forever, as will the memories of the experiences and the interactions that we had which were only because I had a child with me, which made my travel experience unique over travellers without children, have changed my outlook forever.
It’s so easy to become disillusioned and cynical when travelling, but when viewed through the eyes of a child everything seems fresh and exciting.
The advantages, the shared adventure Katie and I had, the strengthened bond we have now and the respect for each other far outweigh any disadvantages.
What were your most memorable experiences while travelling?
The two day boat trip along the Mekong that I mentioned earlier springs to mind, as does being stranded on mud flats in Borneo and having to wade to shore while avoiding snakes and sinking into the mud. Thankfully the snakes were harmless and more scared of us than we were of them, though none of this bothered Katie who was carried, giggling, to shore by the boatman.
I loved the Maya Bay boat trip we did in Phi Phi where we got to see the beach where ‘The Beach’ was filmed and we saw monkeys drinking out of pop bottles and taking bananas out of peoples’ hands, we also visited an island that I can only describe as paradise.
What lessons have you learned from your journey?
I have learned that children are capable of amazing things if they are given the space and opportunity, that a lack of shared language doesn’t have to hamper forming friendships as I saw Katie playing with other children, and learning to make herself understood without a shared language, as we travelled. I’ve learned that people are basically all the same, with the same fears and desires; it’s the differences in cultures and how we are all brought up and what we are exposed to that sets everyone apart from everyone else.
I am also much less obsessed in material possessions now and less interested in how others perceive me.
What were your experiences of homeschooling while travelling?
They were fantastic and varied! Katie learned all about Hinduism in Bali where she went to a Hindu offering workshop. We talked about the history of the Roman Empire and the legacy they left behind in the British Isles as we walked down an old Roman road by the ruins of an arch in Damascus, Syria. We found out about geology in a mine in Zacatecas, Mexico and the production of tea and coffee in the Bolaven Plateau, Laos. We went to a rubber plantation in Cambodia where we saw the entire process of rubber production from the trees in the fields to large bales ready to be shipped.
For more traditional learning we used workbooks and the internet. It was hard work and it took discipline when there was a beach or a new adventure beckoning!
You’re back in England now. How have you both adjusted back to “normal” life after such a long trip?
We were both worried about how we would readjust. Katies’ biggest fear was if she had forgotten how to make friends when she returned to school, in the end there was no need to worry as she slipped effortlessly back into a routine and made friends on her first day.
I am feeling more settled than I have ever been and I am looking forward to the future, to more travelling and dreams fulfilled. We are currently planning our next adventure with another single mum and her daughter.
What advice do you have for people thinking of travelling with a child?
It’s really quite simple. Stop thinking and in the inspired words of Nike, Just Do It!
It has brought Katie and I together in a way that is hard to describe eloquently in words alone; we have a respect and admiration for one another from watching each other deal with the highs and lows, the trials and tribulations, we encountered along the way.
Katie will grow up and leave home faster than I care to imagine, but we will always have the bond and the shared memories that this trip has left us with.
And lastly, how does travelling make you and Katie feel personally?
Alive, invigorated, excited, exhausted, happy!