The night I announced that I was moving to a rural village in India to volunteer at an orphanage, emotions ran high in my household. I was 22 years old and my passport had nary an international stamp (unless you count cross-border shopping missions to Buffalo, NY when the Canadian dollar was at par).
Shortly thereafter, I boarded a Kuwait Airways flight in the wrong direction (#seatsale). I was placed in the center of a row where the men to both my left and right were chain smoking. After pleading with a flight attendant, I eventually switched seats and ended up next to another older man — who immediately became protective of me when he realized I was alone.
I spent the first leg of the trip defending how my father could have let me travel solo. I spent the second leg of the trip pretending to be asleep.
I finally arrived in India, but I had no clue what I was doing.
Armed with my Lonely Planet guide, I spent two sleepless and panicky days fumbling my way around high speed buses, marriage proposals, and accommodations that were no longer operating. India has the second highest population in the world — currently at 1.3 billion — and the amount of people that can fit into a square foot was alarming to a small town girl.
The highlight (rock bottom?) of these first few days was getting locked in a hotel room by a few lobby attendants with a terrible sense of humor and a padlock. After banging on the door incessantly and calling the front desk for close to an hour, I was finally liberated.
When I found my way to the village that would become my home, I thought I’d reached heaven’s gate. Quiet, peaceful, and welcoming. I was greeted by fellow volunteers and little children with perfect-teeth smiles who, as a sign of affection, gently rubbed the hair on my arms and traced their fingers down my cheeks.
I’d always known I wanted children, but my love for them grew on this trip. I knew I’d be back one day – with my own children in tow – to show them what an impact such an organization can have on the lives of kids (and what an impact the experience had had on their mother).
I credit this first real adventure with shaping my personality. It launched me into a decade of world travel. I’ve since had adventures living on a kibbutz in Israel, volunteering for the United Nations in Southeast Asia, touring New Zealand in a campervan, and delivering software training sessions to municipal government workers in South America.
Traveling the world indisputably helped me discover who I am. I was a rebellious teenager, possibly bound for several wrong paths if I hadn’t found the freedom I yearned for through travel. I was given the opportunity to become independent, overcome adversity, problem-solve, explore and honor different cultures, and develop executive skills that would prove to be helpful in my career down the road.
Twenty-ish years later, I’m the mother of two remarkable kids.
One of my parenting goals is to teach them of the joy, wonder, and learnings associated with travel — preferably before they hit the rebellious teenager phase.
At six, my daughter is the eldest, and she’s first on my list: young, impressionable, and already showing undeniable signs of feistiness. Travel for our family until now has been calm, structured, and safe. Relaxing and fun, for sure, but not necessarily “adventurous”.
During my backpacking days, shared accommodations, dodgy food, and skimping on A/C were commonplace. I’m a bit more discerning now that I have small kids and, as such, I’ve had to adapt my style of travel.
But I wanted our next trip to be different. To start on a plan where family travel was more of a reflection of my younger uninhibited days. Essentially, to make it all about me. But for them.
Our recent family trip to Costa Rica offered an opportunity to put my plan into action.
We chose the Guanacaste region on the pacific side of the country for its biodiversity, tropical forests, and sublime beaches. I had had my heart set on long hikes in the jungle and a ziplining tour. The kids were keen to see all the animals and creepy crawly things they’d been reading about in their National Geographic Kids magazines.
I wanted to show them that travel could be rough and tumble, and not all about beaches and unlimited ice cream.
Getting to our hotel involved a couple hours of travel along a bumpy road with several road blocks due to construction. “Are we there yet?!” was met with an honest, “Uh…we actually have no idea.”
We mimicked the patience of our bus driver, who seemed to be used to such lengthy delays, and calmed agitated travelers with frequent reminders of Costa Rica’s tourism motto: Pura Vida!
Pure life was right.
When the stress of international travel started to wear off, and pura vida started to sink in, we were all able to adjust to life in a lower gear.
We live in a major city and our lives are incredibly fast-paced. I love that the kids were experiencing a culture that was slower and undoubtedly calmer. Traveling through small villages and seeing children their age in community centers and schools showed our kids a different (yet equally happy and fulfilling) way of life.
We all wanted to connect with locals on our trip. So, we prepared by learning some Spanish basics beforehand. Being able to converse in another language was exciting and empowering. The kids study in both English and French at home, and seeing the benefit of learning additional languages was motivating for them.
I would argue that travel expands the minds of children in ways beyond what a classroom is able to offer. Skipping school for a week was worth it, because it meant that the kids were able to see it all: capuchin monkeys, black spined lizards, emus, puffer fish, and an impressive variety of birds. The interesting characteristics of plants also drew their attention. Most fascinating was the Mimosa Pudica, which shrinks back its leaves when touched (“pudica” means “bashful” in Spanish).
One animal they were dismayed at missing out on was the elusive sloth. I understood their disappointment, but also felt it was a good dose of reality: animals aren’t available to us at whim. The forest isn’t a zoo.
My kids have a science kit at home where they’re able to mimic volcanic eruptions in our kitchen. It’s nothing compared to the real thing.
The anticipation of seeing a real volcano led to a good deal of trepidation beforehand, but sheer captivation upon discovering the Rincon de La Vieja and Santa Monica volcanos.
As a bonus, we were able to cover ourselves in (reputed) anti-aging warm volcanic mud, and experience the soothing waters of a thermal hot spring heated by these magnificent rocks. Prompted by her dad, our daughter walked to the hot springs covered head to toe in mud exclaiming, “I feel so young!”
In Guanacaste, and throughout Costa Rica, conservation is a top priority. The importance of preservation is often reiterated by tour guides and our hotel’s Explorer’s Club staff, who offered a daily supervised program for kids from around the world based on science, nature, and exploration.
In other words: the planet isn’t ours to keep — we merely borrow it from the next generation.
It was important to me to strike a balance between “family time” and “kids club time.” Although we knew the staff were knowledgeable and the program was exceptionally well-run, we wanted the opportunity to grow as a family — learning and discovering together.
I did hesitate slightly in my decision to bring my daughter with me on a full-day expedition. But the tranquillo vibe was overwhelming, and it’s a decision I’ll never regret.
The confidence my daughter gained as she swam with fish under a waterfall, snorkeled in the ocean as the sun set, and bathed in thermal waters heated by a volcano was palpable.
But seeing her zipline through the air, 900 feet above a canyon, made me wonder if I’d need therapy when we got back home.
Her reaction at the end of the journey calmed me completely: resounding joy. The guides called her super chica and she felt like a hero. It was as if she’d found her element as a budding adventurer. A mini world traveler in the making.
And for her mama, the rewarding feeling of unspeakable pride and the excitement of knowing we are now one step closer to making our way back to that orphanage in India.
Traveling with kids is inevitably different than it was in my wilder days, but somehow just as fulfilling. It’s as if I’m seeing the world not only through my own eyes, but through theirs too.