The lasers flash and dance on the pyramids of Giza as we sit in the cool February evening air. A deep and rich voice tells of all the history that the pyramids have seen. Although the "sound and light show" is admittedly a little cheesy, I can't help myself. I am bursting with excitement. I can't believe I am here! I contemplate all the rulers and their imperial courts, wave after wave of invading armies and of stories and treasures hidden for thousands of years beneath the sand. I remember how a college history professor explained that the pyramids are so old that they were considered ancient wonders when Antony and Cleopatra visited them. For a moment I am lost in my own world until I am brought back by an all too familiar smell wafting up from where my five month old daughter is sitting, accompanied by a frantic tap from my wife.
"Harper's just made a mess in her pants and it's everywhere!"
A plastic lawn chair in absolute darkness is not the ideal place to change a foul overflowing diaper, but parenting, like travel, requires frequent improvisation and we somehow manage to change the diaper on our laps using just the light from my cell phone.
As you might have guessed from the title, my wife and I travelled with our daughter Harper to twenty-four countries in the first twenty-four months of her life. We didn't start out with the goal of taking her to twenty-four countries in her first two years, we just started travelling and it took off. We did not take a year off from work for a worldwide sojourn and we are not the hard core backpacking types. I am a lawyer and my wife is a speech language pathologist. I am employed full time, we have a house, a dog, and an oak kitchen table that we bought at an unfinished wood store with the money from our wedding and stained ourselves. In short, we are regular people. Although we are American expatriates living in the Middle East, which makes travelling easier, travel with our baby still requires a lot of work and investment on our part. It will require the same from you but it is worth it and you should consider giving it a try. Here are the countries Harper traveled to during her first twenty-four months:
Why travel with a baby? What's the point? She will not remember any of the trips and it is just added wear and tear on everyone in the family. Why make the effort? Travel with your young child is enriching for your child because it immerses him or her in a world of experiences. It is great for you because it provides opportunities for interacting with and better understanding another culture that you just don't have when you only travel with the grownups.
Travelling with your child is like contributing to a 401K of experiences. Experiences shape who your child is and who he or she will become. Experiences are treasures that she will carry with her for the rest of her life even when the trip is long past.
The world is a giant classroom and your child is excited to study the subjects being taught. Whether or not Harper remembers any place we've been misses the point. You talk to your child from the moment she is born not because she will understand you but because you are helping to teach her language. You read to your child even before he really knows what you are reading because it develops curiosity and recognition of pictures and speech and hopefully a love of reading. You take your child to the theater not because you expect him to be able to give you a report afterwards on the themes and nuances of the show but because the theater represents a whole new world of adventures and experiences - the person taking the tickets, the tall winding staircase leading to the mezzanine, all the people in their fancy clothes, the lights and the music, the food at intermission, the wide range of emotions portrayed onstage - all of those things are an experience that enriches his life. It doesn't matter whether he remembers the story.
A trip provides a wealth of new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and adventures for your little one. How do you explain beach sand and seashells and waves and light sparkling on turquoise water and the feel of the sun, sand, and salt on your skin to someone who has never been to the beach? To really understand the beach you have to visit the beach. No amount of education can make up for a deficit of experiences.
Reading about an elephant is one thing but seeing an elephant is completely different. Harper has ridden on an elephant in Thailand and watched wild elephants in Sri Lanka. In the Maldives I held her in my arms and we swam around the reef looking at the fish and the occasional reef shark.
"That's right! That is a Nemo. Do you see any other fish?"
"There! More Meno!"
"Right Harper!" Whoa! Look at the shark!" Do you see that big fish! That's called a shark and he lives here too. Do you see the coral? It looks like a rock but it is a living thing that grows and changes like you."
"That's right sweetie!"
I wasn't sure if she absorbed any of it but that night at bed time, while I was reading her a story, the book we were reading had a picture of a coral reef and she pointed to it and shouted "corgal!" Three months later we were at the Dead Sea in Jordan. As we walked down to the shore to float in the water Harper remembered the Maldives. "Meno?" she asked.
"No, there aren't any fish in this water. It is too salty. In fact it is so salty that we can float in the water without even trying. We will bob up and down like a cork!"
After our trip, when we were going through our pictures, Harper saw a photo of the Dead Sea and said, "No Meno. Too salty." She remembered.
When Harper was ten months old we took a trip to Norway and Denmark. It was early July and everything around us was bursting with life. Flowers were everywhere and it seemed that at every corner someone was selling fruits and berries. When Harper popped that first raspberry into her mouth I could tell she was hooked. She gummed the berry down and shot her chubby little hand up for another and then another and another. She had the same reaction to Strawberries. When we ordered fresh grilled Salmon Harper had some too. To our surprise, she also liked the Salmon egg caviar. In Copenhagen, Denmark and Tallinn, Estonia she tasted Daddy's beer. She first learned to drink out of a straw from a coconut in Thailand. She loves Middle Eastern food and her favorites are black olives, hummus and chicken shwarmas.
In Munich the apple strudel covered with Bavarian cream was a big hit but at breakfast she preferred the liverwurst. In Turkey she enjoyed garlic yogurt called Jazik, grilled meats, and apple tea. It may be that she is just a good eater, but I have a hunch that Harper likes so many foods because she has been eating them since she was an infant. She eats what is available and that changes depending on where we are. Travel has taught her flexibility.
Speaking of flexibility, we have learned that nap time waits for no one. If we are on the go and it is time for a nap it will happen wherever we are. On trips, I often carry Harper in a backpack. If she is tired she puts her head on my shoulder and falls asleep. I have felt her little head on my shoulder all over the world from the Valley of the Kings in Egypt to Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok, to the top of the fortress walls in Kotor, Montenegro, to the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey. I can't count how many train chairs have become baby cots or the times that Harper has slept in her stroller while Mom and Dad explored.
When you travel with a young child you see less but experience more. The first time we visited Istanbul, Harper was nineteen months old. In Topkapi Palace we were speechless at the beauty and elaborate elegance of the Harem. We were in awe at the jewel collection. But Harper was most impressed by the tulips that were blooming everywhere. We had to stop and smell as many flowers as we could. One Sunday afternoon instead of rushing to see another sight we found a spot in a park to relax and give Harper some down time. Sitting in the park, Istanbul presented us with tulips, cool spring weather, brilliant blue skies, and Turks of all ages enjoying time with their families. It was not the image that I initially expected of Turkey and but for Harper we would not have slowed down long enough to experience it.
Travelling with an Ambassador
Travelling with a baby is like travelling with your own personal tiny ambassador. When you travel with a baby it is impossible to go unnoticed. Don't even try. A baby is an attention magnet forcing you to interact with everyone. Travelling with a baby is a great way to instantly immerse yourself in a local culture. I can't remember all of the people we have met on our adventures with Harper due to the impossible baby cuteness.
In the Grand Palace in Bangkok it was like being in front of a press corp. I spent more time talking to people about Harper, taking pictures with them, having them talk to her, helping her wave at them, talking about their children and generally interacting than I did looking at the sights. One friend Harper met at the palace walked beside her carrying an umbrella over her head so that she would not be too hot.
In Munich, at one of the Christmas markets, the reception I received from a local woman was a bit different:
You f#&%ing a$&%*le! Are you a f*&@ing moron! Did you not notice it's cold outside? Why isn't your baby wearing a hat?! Why doesn't she have on any shoes?! What's wrong with you?! She is going to freeze to death!
I'm just guessing at the elderly woman's actual words because I don't speak German, but I don't think I'm too far off. They say that much communication is non-verbal and I got the message loud and clear. It was no use trying to tell the woman that I had spent the entire day fighting with Harper, carefully putting her hat on her head so that it would cover her ears only to have her yank it off and putting her shoes on just in time for her to kick them off again and throw them on the ground. I just nodded and smiled, amazed at how our baby had given us a firsthand glimpse of the legendary Bavarian mother care ethic I had read about. I received the same reaction, albeit more reserved, from a Turkish mother in Istanbul who was convinced Harper's little green sandals were completely inadequate for the chilly wind that confronted us as we waited for a tram. The mother was only placated after she had taken my sweater and tied it around my waste so that it covered Harper's feet that were sticking out of the backpack.
People of all ages and all walks of life will notice your baby. In Montenegro, there was a young attractive Russian woman staying at our hotel who seemed to be at the hotel pool all day every day in a skimpy bikini but was mysteriously never at the hotel in the evenings. When she saw me swimming in the pool with Harper one afternoon, she showed genuine concern and lectured my wife that the pool was much too cold for Harper. In Saudi Arabia, a group of young men in their early twenties stopped by our table one night at dinner and admired Harper and then wondered out loud to us whether it was too cold for her to be outside. I laughed to myself when I thought about whether a group of twenty-something year old guys at home would even notice a baby let alone pay so much attention and concern.
A baby requires that you become an extrovert, even if only temporarily. Expect to talk to everyone you meet. A typical trip with Harper involves some version of the following:
"He's beautiful, what's his name?"
"Thank you. She's actually a girl. She just doesn't have any hair."
"A girl!? Why no earings?"
"We just decided not to pierce her ears." Maybe she can decide to do it later if she wants."
"What's her name?"
"Harper." Lot's of brow furrowing and confusion.
"No, Harper." Like a Harp." More brow furrowing and confused looks by the other person as he or she stares at me blankly. "You know, a person who plays a Harp." I start strumming my imaginary Harp, showing what I mean all the while knowing that the person most likely has no idea what I am talking about. The name is never really understood but we eventually move on and start talking about our families and how special it is to have children.
In the Middle East or other Muslim countries the conversation usually starts with the above then moves on to:
"How old is she?"
"Masha'Allah." This means "God has willed it." It is recognition of a blessing from God. I have grown to really appreciate and cherish when people tell me masha'Allah. I love that even though we may have different beliefs and cultural backgrounds, we both recognize that a child is a divine miracle.
"Only one baby!?"
"Yes. Just one for now."
"You will have many more insha'Allah." Insha'Allah means "God willing" and follows any statement about planned future action.
During our first trip to the gold souk in our local town in Saudi Arabia, the shopkeepers dressed Harper up with heaps of gold chains so that she looked like a baby sized Mr. T. We had lots of laughs with them and they even joked that they would trade us Harper for her weight in gold. It was one of the first places I ever heard masha'Allah.
In Egypt, five month old Harper was a hit on our Nile cruise boat. We met a large Indian family and they were always excited to see her.
"Harpo!! How are you?!!" This would be followed by repetitive air kisses and a gestured request to hold her.
"She's great. She wants to see you!" We would give her to them and they would walk around the boat, smiling and cooing at her, showing her off to the other passengers. It was so much fun to watch another family's excitement over our baby. In Beirut the immigration officials played peekaboo with Harper. In Cappadocia, Turkey she posed with soldiers for pictures. In Sri Lanka Harper met Buddhist monks. In Jordan she babbled with a Franciscan monk on Mount Nebo.
Outside of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia we attended the annual Janadiryah cultural festival. We estimated that there were at least 80,000 people in attendance and we saw only four other Westerners the whole night. It was entirely a Saudi event. Everywhere we went people were kind and hospitable and as evening approached we sat down for an Arabic style "khabsa" meal on the ground. As we ate, Harper toddled over to a group of women who were completely covered in the abaya, hijab and niqab and hopped into one woman's lap before we could stop her. We were embarrassed and apologized but the women were thrilled and pulled out their Blackberries and started taking pictures. They took turns holding Harper in their laps and giving her sweets.
It made me think that the world would be a better place if people had the chance to meet and hold one another's children. Children are a great cultural leveler. People all over the world have children and we all feel the same way about them. Our children are the most valuable things we have and sharing the thing that is closest to your heart with someone else breaks down walls. Before I traveled I saw the world in "us" and "them" categories. Now that I have begun to travel with Harper I see everyone I meet as someone's baby. And the more I do that the more the "us" category gets bigger and the "them" category gets smaller.
Travelling with a young child is exhilarating and exhausting and it is worth the effort. Even if you only travel within your city, county or state your life will be enriched by travelling with your baby. Travel creates adventures and experiences that will last a lifetime. For you, travel will give you a new perspective and make you reevaluate your definition of wealth and what is most important in your life. For your child, travel will help him understand that he is part of a bigger world and that the things that connect us are greater than the things that divide us.
Janadriya Festival - Riyadh
Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka
Whoa! Horses! Tallinn, Estonia
Meeting a new friend - Istanbul
Comparing toy ducks in Krakow
Stopping to smell the flowers at Topkapi
Meeting new friends in Lebanon
Not too sure about the Dead Sea
Celebrating her 2nd birthday in Kuwait
Asleep in Egypt
Riding Jambo the elephant in Thailand
Mesmerized by the store windows in Munich
Meeting new friends at the Hoffbrau House in Munich
Meeting a new friend on a train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Daddy/Daughter outfits in Munich
Flight attendants in Bahrain
Harper saw this woman across the square in Tallinn. She recognizes women in Abayas and she ran across the square to meet the woman and her daughter
Harper and Sarah on our first trip to the gold souk in Saudi Arabia
A Turkish soldier in Cappadocia
An Indian friend in Egypt
Thrilled that the beaches in Montengro have pebbles (above)
Checking out the Sebilj Fountain in old Sarajevo
Excited about berries in Finland (below)
Exploring the rug souk in Saudi Arabia
First time in the snow in Lake Tahoe - not happy
A flower from a friend at Dambulla cave temple in Sri Lanka. Notice the people in the back looking on and smiling