Yes I know taking children overseas is hard work. I’ve wrangled with the miniscule changing tables in airplanes. I’ve dealt with the most horrendous nappies known to mankind at 30,000 feet. I’ve also worried about malaria and sunburn and heat rash and food poisoning. Oh yes and I have dealt with the tantrums from hell while trying not to miss a plane.
Granted, much of the travel we have done with the kiddies has been sort of forced upon us – either to get to my husband’s place of work, or to escape from it before we went insane. But even if our life didn’t involve moving abroad for work, I still think we’d be taking our children to other countries as often as we could afford. Let me tell you why.
First there was Pakistan
When my eldest daughter was nearly three, and the baby not yet seven-months-old, we moved from the UK to Pakistan. We weren’t there very long – just three months, before we were evacuated following the bombing of the Islamabad Mariott hotel in 2008. And those three-months were pretty hellish: the outside heat made it difficult to leave the air-conditioned house between the daytime hours; most of the other expat families were out of the country and preschool was closed. We also didn’t have most of our stuff – the girls’ toys only arrived a few weeks before we left.
But despite everything, despite the heat and the loneliness and the fear and then the massive disruption of having to re-pack everything we’d only just unpacked, I’m still glad we went.
I have lived in many places in the world but until Pakistan I had never lived in a Muslim country. For the first time in my life, the calls to prayers became a backdrop to my daily routine. As did having to think really hard about what I was going to wear every time I left the safety of the diplomatic compound. Oh, and missing pork products too – pizza just isn’t the same without pepperoni or ham. But what I liked about living in Pakistan is that it exposed not just myself and my husband (who worked at the British High Commission), but the children as well, to a completely new culture.
We are a family of atheists, but we live in a predominantly Christian community. The girls’ school here in the UK (where we are currently living, preparing for our next overseas move to South Africa) is not church-run but prides itself on its “Christian-ethos”. There are children from other faiths at the school but they are few and far between and subject to the same Christian-dominated RE lessons, assemblies and general dogma as my own children.
So by living in Pakistan we were at least able to introduce the idea that there are other major faiths in this world, and that it is important to understand not everyone thinks as we do, or as our Christian friends, neighbours and school teachers do. It was also a good way to introduce them to the fact that despite these different faiths, we are all (or at least MOST of us) basically the same. We all like to eat and play and sing. We all love our children and moan about work or school.
Of course the children were a bit young to absorb more than the very basics of this lesson – in fact, the baby was too young to absorb anything at all! But to help reinforce the message we took them on a holiday to Egypt a couple of years ago.
And then there was Egypt
This time they were both old enough to understand why the staff at the hotel we were staying in weren’t eating between dawn and dusk (we were there during Ramadan). We were able to discuss why we saw so few women and when we did, why they were so covered up. We were also taken out into the desert where we met some members of a Bedouin tribe – and were able to talk about why their children probably didn’t go to school. On the same trip, our guide discussed why so many men were called Mohammed, talked about the make-shift mosque used by the local tribes and introduced us to the joys of eating gritty naan bread straight off the fire.
It was certainly a trip the children will never forget. We have travelled a lot with them but mainly it’s been to relatively “familiar” countries (the US, Spain, St Lucia, the Netherlands). To go to somewhere totally different, where people have a different faith and a totally different way of life, was a fantastic learning opportunity for them as well as a lot of fun (there was a large waterpark in the hotel where we were staying!).
The impact of travel in these countries
Now when we talk about Muslims, the girls don’t just think about the women covered from head to toe in black that we sometimes see in one of our neighbouring towns, or the snippets of news from Syria or Nigeria or France that they might overhear on the radio. They also think of our guide in the desert showing them the stars, the colourfully-dressed little girl who tried to get us to ride her camel, and the life-guards who hurried off as soon as the sun started dipping towards the horizon to have their iftar meal.
Yes travelling with small children can be hard work. But as we prepare to take them to yet another completely new culture, where they will learn first-hand about poverty and racism and inequality, but also about how these things can be overcome, I think the effort is worth it.
This post was written as part of a series about travel with children on tinyexpats.com.