THE BLOG
09/29/2015 10:53 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Taking the Long View On International Travel With Kids

Kelsey Heeringa

I traveled to Europe as a 2-year-old and again as a teenager. What remains from these trips are faint memories, and photos of places I can no longer name. I grew into an adult who scoffed at the idea of international travel with children, chalking it up to a waste of money, time, and expectations on those undeveloped minds. That is, until I had a child of my own, and he had a passport.

We moved to Tanzania when Finn was four. From the start, he was shy and cautious among the foreign smells and colors, and the thronging humanity we began to call home. We calmly crammed ourselves onto city buses and ferries. We all started learning a new language. Kids are legendary for their adaptability, and Finn learned most things quicker than we did. And yet, he still looked to us for every decision and Swahili phrase asked of him. He was never eager, but did seem to feel safe enough to follow our lead, even when we had no idea what we were doing. Slowly, his expectations about the unknown started to shift.

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Living and traveling abroad isn't easy, and Finn didn't always like it. Adapting to expectations is hard work when daily life is so unpredictable. Yet as everyone around us lived their version of normal life, Finn's idea of normal was still being shaped. He didn't give a second glance to someone transporting couches or egg towers on the back of a bicycle. He was nonplussed that our toilet on a moving train was a hole in the floor. He remained too timid to talk to doting strangers on a bus, but he called the Tanzanian who drove his carpool Uncle Chiba. He hunted octopus in Zanzibar but declined to play with the children in the sandy streets. He forgot what McDonalds was, but took it in stride when a Kenyan family arrived to a party with a live goat in the back of a taxi. (He then witnessed the basics of butchering and enjoyed eating stomach and intestine.) Life was a dance of uncomfortable situations, and adjusting.

When Finn was 5, we took a holiday from Tanzania and visited Southeast Asia. Bali introduced us to a holiday called Galungan, the triumph of good over evil, which was celebrated every 210 days. We dressed up and went to temple, because everyone did. Men and women wore skirts, so we did the same. The air was filled with incense and sweet flowers, and whole families zipped past us, six on one buzzing motorcycle. We walked under the colorful homemade arches that lined the streets to the nearest temple, where the statues of dog-like animals appeared to burst at their concrete seams with offerings. Tiny piles of rice sat on squares of shiny green palm leaves; miniature woven baskets held daily flowers of every color. The people were poor, but sure knew how to celebrate and be grateful.

Instead of hiding behind us, Finn took the lead into the temple's courtyard. I held my breath, waiting for him to look back and panic. Instead, he plopped down in the sand, head and palms to the ground, bowing to the main shrine. My partner and I watched and I wondered if he was Hindu in a past life. He followed the lead of the Balinese around him, in a routine of bows, flower and incense offerings, water sprinklings. It ended with a woman sticking rice onto his forehead.

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Living in Africa had slowly made my son more culturally adventurous. Smiling with that rice on his face, I sadly thought how likely it was that small Finn would forget this entire experience. But more importantly, I was convinced that it was important anyways. By the time we arrived in Bali it felt natural to expand the walls of our hearts to include another new tradition, culture, people, language, and religion. This time, unlike our first arrival in Tanzania, it was effortless. Finn gracefully relived this process a week later in Laos, flipping off his shoes in the doorways of an endless stream of Buddhist temples, and paying his 5-year-old respects to monks in Thailand.

After struggling with the new and the scary, Africa had paved the way to everywhere.
In the past few years Finn has developed relationships and role models with people of every skin color and economic level, from numerous nationalities, and at the minimum has met someone from every major world religion. He sees how hard people must work to survive in a developing nation and hears various languages spoken on a daily basis. He once told me he feels lucky he never had polio. He once told me the people with money should take better care of those that don't.

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So here is the confession, from the girl who once thought traveling with kids was a foolish use of resources: I was wrong. I had to stop looking through an adult lens, where I rely on an actual memory to give experiences weight. Traveling with children, especially young ones, we spend a lot of money on plane tickets and they remember almost nothing specific, in the long run. The good news is that during developmental years, remembering is not the point.

From where I sit, it seems that many of the conflicts in our world are rooted in a fear of the unknown, and a lack of understanding and solidarity for people that are different. Travel can change this, and especially for a child. Finn's perspectives are built from opportunities to put acceptance into practice, one strange, new experience at a time. It is forging in him the respect and acceptance that I think our world needs most.

This, I hope, will be the triumph of good over evil indeed.