Write down all the people, places, and sites you absolutely MUST see in the time you have. Now cross out two-thirds of them at random. The remaining list is what you’ll actually get around to. EVERYTHING TAKES LONGER WITH KIDS.
2. For fun, as you travel, make a list of everything you considered taking with you on the trip but didn’t, that you then found yourself needing desperately. On this trip, my list included diaper rash cream, a thermometer, and hoodies for the girls.
3. Get ready to hear the following phrases, A LOT: “I’m hungry.” “I need a drink.” “I need to go to the bathroom.” “My tummy hurts/I feel like I’m going to throw up.” “I don’t want to eat that.” And my personal favorite: “I’m tired of walking.” Consider teaching your kids how to say these things in the language of the country you’re visiting, for variation.
4. Your own personal travel misery means nothing now. Your jet lag isn’t over until their jet lag is over. If you think it’s hot and dusty, they think it’s hotter and dustier and they will cry out loud about it. See what I mean?
5. Realize that you’re probably going to end up skewing your itinerary toward the things that are more interesting for kids. Playing at a park in Damascus for an afternoon didn’t make our original travel schedule but it somehow turned into a necessity. I ended up embracing it as a cultural experience for both the girls and me because we got to talk to (read: were mobbed by) a lot of people and the toys there were like nothing you’d find in America. When you do make it to actual historical sites, you’ll find that overall enjoyment is as high as or even higher than without kids, but for different reasons. This time, you’ll have to derive satisfaction out of teaching your kids about the historical sites or speculating on the uses for different areas of the ruins. Spending an hour meditating on the precipice of a Crusader castle’s keep – not so much. Not anymore.
6. As soon as you can, come to terms with the fact that you will no longer be able to enjoy the view from pretty much any form of transport. Instead, you will first give up your window seat to your kid(s) and then spend the rest of the time on the bus/train/taxi/service catering to their needs. These needs may include keeping the sun off of them by adjusting the window curtains, closing the windows if it’s too windy, serving snacks, cleaning up snacks, and acting as a pillow/bed should they choose to sleep.
The good thing is, in the Middle East at least, people will help you. On Saturday I took the girls from Damascus up to Aleppo by myself (Jeremy was already up there for work). We had been staying at a friend’s apartment and when I left, I couldn’t take the keys with me since I wouldn’t have a way of giving them back to him. So in the two hours before we left the apartment, I asked Miriam every 10 minutes if she needed to go to the bathroom. Because we were going to be on a bus for five hours and there would be potties at the bus station but they would be dirty, and her tummy would feel better if she went right now, etc. I tried every tool of reasoning I could think of, but she told me again and again she didn’t have to go.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. Approximately three seconds after I closed the front door of the apartment, thereby locking ourselves out of it, Miriam told me she had to go to the bathroom RIGHT NOW.
Here’s where the small miracle occurred. We went downstairs to exit the building (and honestly, my plan at that point was to have her go outside in some bushes somewhere), and lo and behold, the bowab (doorman/caretaker) was on duty. I hadn’t seen him once the whole time we’d been there, but now, there he was. I asked him in what was possibly a very desperate tone of voice if he knew of a bathroom somewhere nearby. I thought there was a chance that the apartment building had one tucked away in the basement or something. He hesitated for a moment and then motioned for me to follow him.
Do you know where he took us? To his own apartment, so Miriam could go to the bathroom in his own (squat) toilet. If I hadn’t been so frazzled at the moment I think I really could have been very moved. His apartment was quite shabby (it is the way of the bowab) but astonishingly clean. He waited outside while we finished up and then we were on our way.
My favorite part about what he did for us – and as I write it here it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but any parent who’s been in that situation knows that it was – is that he hesitated, and then said yes. It means all that much more to me that he apparently grappled with some initial objection and then decided to extend a few moments of hospitality anyway.
So, yes, traveling with children is fraught with awkwardness, more than you’d expect and certainly more than you’d think to plan for. But it’s very doable and quite fun and there are always nice people around to help you out.