The joys of travel
The pandemic brought travel to a halt. With flights grounded, restaurants shuttered, and popular tourist sites morphed into ghost towns, globetrotting and exploration became distant concepts. Reminiscing my travels with my young son, I am reminded of the joys of travel and how it shapes us as humans, even from an early age.
Three years ago, we packed our lives into two backpacks to travel the world with our 2-year-old. Who would've thought that in 2021, this would be impossible? Yet, here I am in Melbourne, having spent months under some of the strictest restrictions this pandemic has seen. Our defence against the pandemic not only includes state and border closures, but for several months, we weren't allowed beyond a 5 km radius from our homes.
And it is against this backdrop that we welcomed another son into our lives. Born just as the pandemic had reared its ugly head, my youngest has spent the majority of his young life within the confines of our home. His initiation in life remains a stark contrast to his older brother's, something that often gives me cause for reflection.
My oldest, Zain, was a seasoned traveller even before he'd turned one and I had similar, lofty ambitions for my second. However, I can't foresee a return to the easy, carefree days of travel anytime soon. So, I mourn the opportunity to cultivate a passion for exploration early in his life.
Remembering our travels with our oldest offers a fascinating study of the inherently social nature of humans and their unending thirst for knowledge. I've learnt that just like adults, even the youngest children can derive the joys of travel.
Travel allows you to connect with people
What I loved most about travelling with Zain, was witnessing how easily children bond with others. In Bhutan, I watched in awe, and admittedly, a hefty amount of trepidation, as a teenaged girl led Zain to a large slide. She gently guided him up steps that seemed impossibly vast for his 2-year-old legs, and then promptly wrapped her arms around him to tumble down the slope at breakneck speed, both of them erupting into fits of giggles.
In Rio, a group of kids from the nearby favela descended upon Zain when they noticed him playing by himself on the beach. They raced each other up and down dunes and frolicked in the waves.
A waitress in a tiny restaurant in an obscure street in Bangkok whisked a disgruntled baby Zain away, fussing. She patiently sang him songs so we could finish our meal in peace.
None of these instances held much common ground between the parties — no shared language or backgrounds. These are examples of how people connect with each other and how barriers in age, language, class and creed are largely unnecessary social constructs.
Travel broadens your views and deepens your understanding of the world
Walking through a shantytown in Soweto, South Africa, we were besieged by local children, running after us, clamouring for hugs and high fives. Their smiles and enthusiasm were inescapable, and Zain made some quick friends. It didn't matter that they didn't speak each other's languages or had no knowledge of each other's likes or dislikes. It felt completely natural.
Watching Zain interact with other children across the world, I've learnt that a child's play transcends all barriers. What didn't escape him though, were that many of his new friends were bare feet. Perplexed, he asked, "Mama, oder shoes koi?" (Mama, where are their shoes?) It was Zain's first lesson on the inequalities that exist in this world.
Throughout his travels, he's made some acute observations about language and culture. Even as a toddler he'd picked up on how the Spanish and Italian languages contained similar sounding words. He's remarked upon the similarities between scenes from grotty, bustling streets of Latin America with those of Dhaka. He's learnt early on that there are differences in people's appearances and behaviours based on where they originate from. Exposure to such differences is what makes us more accepting and tolerant of each other.
Travel introduces you to new cultures and cuisines
Exposing Zain to new cultures and places has been a fantastic way to fuel his sense of curiosity. It has fostered an appreciation of waterfalls in South America, lions in Africa, pasta making in Italy, and tourist landmarks like the Eiffel Tower.
By three, Zain had developed a fascination for globes and maps. The tangibility of travel has helped solidify his knowledge of geography and history and has allowed him to appreciate the nuances of cultural differences, however simplistic they may have been through his young eyes.
Similarly, it has taught him to be an adventurous eater. Since we'd be on the road for months, we had little choice but to embrace eating as the locals did.
Zain has feasted on vegetable momos from hole-in-the wall eateries at bus stations; shared charred grilled liver with other travellers in a shack in Soweto. He's lunched on buttery escargots in Paris and grown fond of empanadas in Buenos Aires. He's sought out acai ice cream from the little carts plying the streets of Rio and pined for jilapi from the tea stalls of Dhaka. He's learnt early on that there is fun and adventure to be had from trying a variety of foods.
Travel allows you to experience the kindness of strangers
Throughout our journeys, we've learnt that people in general are friendly and kind. We have so many stories of having complete strangers drive us to the airport so we wouldn't miss our flight or share their meals or offer up their homes. Zain too witnessed people's generosity early on. Like our kind South African host who had dug out her old teddy so Zain wouldn't feel lonely in a strange, new place. Or the boisterous shopkeeper in Swaziland, busy feeding her own child, who didn't think twice about offering the snack to a hungry and crabby Zain.
Travel can help instil faith in humanity.
Travel Builds Your Resilience and Flexibility
Nothing makes you grow and learn as much as being out of your comfort zone. I watched in awe as Zain braved his fear of dogs on Easter Island, where strays, often prone to aggression, are common. After the first few instances of having large dogs attacking his food, he learnt to raise his hand and firmly say 'NO' when they approached.
When we were bumped off a transit flight in Heathrow, en route to meeting up with the grandparents, he adapted, though not without tears. But it allowed him the opportunity to learn that plans change and we need to patiently work out how to fix the situation so we can get back on track.
Travel creates unique opportunities for resilience and self-development. It forces us to think on our feet and fend for ourselves.
Travel affords you the opportunity to pause and reflect
Travel allows you to escape your everyday life. It gives you the time and space to reflect. Zain and I found ourselves in Borough Market in London. We'd just grabbed lunch and were sitting at a table that overlooked the stalls. As Zain ate, I gave into my favourite travel pastime — people watching.
My musings were interrupted by Zain's careful observations of the hustle and bustle of the market. He wondered if the children at the table across from us went to school or were tourists like us. He thought about what we would've been having for lunch instead if we were back home.
He spoke of his grandparents and asked if they'd seen the Big Ben. What a revelation it was when I realised that contemplation and philosophising isn't solely the domain of wiser, busier adults. Travel gives us a chance to observe and think about the new environment. It allows us to discover and engage in new interests.
As we slowly carve a path out of the pandemic, I hope that one day we can return to our days of travelling the globe and exploring new cultures, gaining new experiences, so that one day, other children, like my youngest, can also learn about the weird and wonderful world out there.
Photo Courtesy: Samai Haider
Samai Haider is an economist by profession and a writer by passion. She is the author of Tilmund's Travel Tales, a picture book that aims to instil wanderlust amongst young children. Read about the fables of her foibles at: http://samaihaider.com