by Ginger Carlson
People often speak of how we ought to learn to look at life through the eyes of a child. That is, until they discover that you are doing it while traveling around the world with one.
"Is that safe?" they say.
"Oh, oh, I couldn't do th-that."
"Surely you've fully vaccinated him?"
We didn't plan it this way. It wasn't our intent to fly around the world three and half times with a child under the age of three. Still, we found ourselves trekking in the hills of Nepal, guided by a young Tibetan man who found refuge in our son's spongy toy giraffe. On a train trip across China, without a word of Mandarin, Cantonese, or Chinese, we were offered sips of tea and insight into a culture we hardly knew in exchange for time to ooh and aah over our child's simple coos. In a small village in Turkey, we wandered cobbled streets, and a weathered couple appeared to offer a small hand-knitted cat, sized just right for my son's plump hand. In each instance, we all spoke a universal language: baby. As a result, it is not just our passports that have become full; our hearts have swelled in the process.
Learning to travel is a lifelong skill. For anyone who has ever walked on a plane with a young child, and then gathered up the looks of dread from nearby passengers as they sum up what their flight will be like, it is easy to surmise that children have a reputation as being ones who cannot travel well. But when children learn to do it early, navigating airports, meeting new people, learning new customs, they become at ease with their world. For us, traveling is no longer a stress inducing risk. It is the journey too that is joyful, not just the destination. And even though I can teach my son how to steer through the customs and immigration, it is he who teaches me about trust, openness and knowing each person we meet as a friend.
My sister and her kids, quite appropriately, recently gifted my son a globe, the kind that obnoxiously details each location as you touch the attached pen to it. He quickly memorized most of it, being able to pick out countries and capitals on maps and other globes around our town. Initially, we gave little credence to this memorization of arbitrary words and boundaries he couldn't possibly grasp at the early age of three. Then one day, as my husband and I stood in our kitchen discussing the world, speaking words like 'Syria', 'Saudi Arabia', and, oh yes, 'Iraq', we soon heard the globe at work. Our son had overheard our conversation, knew we must be talking about places, and then found them and learned the entire Middle East.
His interest in this area of the world sparked a fascinating quest for him. We spent days at the library blocking ourselves between aisles, piled high with books, looking at Iraqi boys clutching notebooks as they head off to school and young girls with open smiles. It was then that we realized that for him, at this age, these "arbitrary words" as we had called them, were really a source of connection for him. Because he is so young, because he doesn't understand the boundaries we spoke of, he also does not have the preconceived notions that a line is enough to separate people from one another. That we are not different from each other just because of something we like to call "borders".
I recently saw a bumper sticker that read, "War: How Americans Learn Geography." Certainly travel is a much better way to connect the dots between us and the world by which we are surrounded. Children who travel learn geography because they know it's a place, a place where children live, a place where babies are nursed by their mommies too, a place where people offer their smiles, a place they have actually visited or might like to go someday. For our little globetrotter, these 'arbitrary words' have become Possibilities, with a capital P.
As I reflect on these travels with our son and those that question them, I'm reminded of the movie The Truman Show. Truman Burbank, our hero, is taught from a very young age to fear the water. It's what keeps him in his sheltered isle, not venturing out, not connecting with his world. I can't help but think that we are somehow trained not to travel, to not go beyond our boundaries, to fear what is lurking beyond the water. Because you only fear the unknown. They don't call it the catching the "travel bug" for nothing. Once that fear has been shattered by really knowing the unknown, you ARE infected: with understanding, with tolerance, with patience, with peace (and sometimes a few other things along the way).
As I sat down on a trail to nurse my baby in the small hill station of Mussoorie, India, I was passed by an old woman whose deep wrinkles were reluctant to display her features. At the moment my son peeked his head out from under my shirt to investigate the noise, she realized I was not alone. The sun came out for her at that moment and a vast open smile gave way to a few missing teeth and years of kisses. She blew us one and my son seemed to try to catch it. He must have. Because even to this day, that kiss (and many others like it) seem indelibly printed on all of our hearts as we continue to learn to view our world through new, younger, more innocent eyes.
Ginger Carlson is a freelance writer, owner of homeacademy.com, and full time mom. She makes her home in Eugene, Oregon when she is not traveling with her family.