Some parents say that travelling with kids is not worthwhile. “They won’t remember it,” these people say. “It’s a waste of money. It’s better to wait until they’re older.” Is that true?
That image above is my very first passport photo.
Though I grew up in Australia, my parents are American and we’d travel to visit family every few years. Somehow my parents managed to travel with not two, not four, but six kids!
My grandma lived in Mazatlan and we’d stay at her house for weeks… or a month… or longer? I can’t remember the timeframes: when you’re a kid all experiences seem infinite, which is why joy is so delightful and misery so unbearably excruciating. Is this gonna be forever?
I remember the oppressive heat that slammed us straight off the plane and the mango tree that towered over Grandma’s house, dropping sweet fruit the size of my head. I remember playing barefoot in the street with Spanish-speaking children, who had dark hair, olive skin, and brown eyes that took in our fair complexions with wide-eyed curiosity.
In the dark chasm of my ribcage lives a jolting memory of getting bitten in the face by Grandma’s German Shepherd, named Killer, and seeing blood dripping down my face and onto my shirt. I was hysterical—not because of pain but because all the adults looked so uncharacteristically terrified. This was serious. We were in 1984 Mexico.
I can still hear their whispered conversations: “Should we worry about rabies?… Might get infected… Could’ve bit her eye and blinded her!… She was patting him while he was eating, that’s why… Mom should get that stupid dog put down!”
Is this gonna be forever?
A friendly doctor down the street taught me the words “butterfly stitches” and made me all better, and to keep the dirty tap water out of my wound, Mum bathed me in a bucket (I was tiny enough to fit in a bucket).
A few years later, because Dad’s writing career hit its peak in the 80’s, we flew to Bali. I was six.
On that flight I saw an Indonesian stewardess who had the most beautiful face I’d ever seen. No other face has ever stunned me like hers did. My scalp still holds the tingly pain of Balinese hands working strands of my golden hair into tight plaits with her rough and fast fingers.
My feet haven’t forgotten the rotten produce squelching between my toes as we walked barefoot throughout Balinese markets. (Dad didn’t agree with the concept of shoes and only wore them when legally required to do so. Shoes represented two evils: authority and conformity.)
(Tongues are also great devices for shirking authority and conformity, I discovered.)
In the movie reel of my memory, all of these experiences somehow crescendo into a perfect moment that happened one night in an open-air thatched roof restaurant. A warm, energy-charged breeze bent palms and whipped our hair. All I remember from that night is the breeze, the stars, the tranquility of being with my family, and the taste of my dish: chicken satay. No other dish has ever stunned me like that one did.
We stopped travelling in 1988 when the recession hit Australia—and my dad’s writing career. I had exactly eight years to take in all that I would ever take in from travelling as a child.
* * *
I’m writing this on a plane that’s heading to Indonesia, and afterwards I’m going to Borneo and India. Travel is a huge part of my life now, and I fund it through my freelance work as a writer and designer.
It’s been 28 years since I’ve been to Bali. Things are a lot different now, obviously, and not just in Bali. My hair has turned brown, my dad passed away from cancer, and I wear shoes for hygiene reasons (because I don’t particularly enjoy having scum-blackened soles).
But there is one thing that remains exactly the same…
In the cells that make up my adult body lives the wild, electric excitement of going to a destination that is foreign and frightening, exhilarating and brand new. It is a passion for adventure, a curiosity for the new, an openness to the unknown that is intrinsic to me.
Everywhere I go in this world, I carry with me the heightened sensory memories of all previous travels, like that perfect Balinese evening when the feeling of joy seemed it would stretch out forever. I collect these impressions and hold them inside me as a tiny, precious fire that lives in my solar plexus.
I’ve grown up. My dad has died. A lot of things have changed. But the fire will never go out.
It is my essence.
A lot of people think that you shouldn’t take kids travelling. It’s a waste of money, these people say. Kids won’t remember it, won’t process it. Experiences will go unappreciated…