Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On traveling with kids and generally

This post was written during our first week here in Morocco, while we were living in the old city.

Atticus and I took a walk today after supper. Originally, we went outside to play soccer, with the $1.50 soccer ball we got from Carrefour, as we have two or three times every day since we got it. But this time, thankfully, Atticus acceded to my prodding that we go explore the old city together. So we followed the bouncing soccer ball down the often steep and always twisting streets of old city Fez. We haven't strayed much from the path that takes us to and from Plaz BatHa, where we catch the bus into the new city, so I was somewhat excited to explore (although the after dinner energy lows and the distinct possibility that we would get thoroughly lost dampened that somewhat). So, with occasional stops to play soccer with whatever kids happened to be around, and another stop to pick up a wheelless toy car in an abandoned lot (how any bit of space goes unused here is beyond me) we went fairly deep into the city and then, neither of us wishing to push our luck, retraced our steps back out. It was a special time for me as a dad, following my son's exuberant leadership through a landscape completely unfamiliar to me or him, as the hot evening sun slowly let go of its last footholds between the high walls of the houses lining the streets.

Now, I am, by no means, an experienced traveler, although, that term, is, of course, relative. I wonder how much of the earth's surface has been seen by the person who was seen the most. I would wager it is a rather low percentage. But still, I know lots of people who have travelled more than me. I like traveling fine, but I also like not traveling just fine too. I'm a fairly complacent person, in bad and hopefully good ways. I'm also not that experienced at traveling with kids, although here, there are less people I know that have made a very large number of big trips with small kids (my number one exception, of course, is Bridget and her family, cheers to you, along with Sarah Familia, further cheers).

Nevertheless, I feel like I have learned some things. One of the first things I learned is the line that "you can only find yourself traveling" or "those who don't travel only read a few pages of the book or play a few notes on the piano" (or whatever the quote is) is not really true, or at least, not really true on any meaningful level. I've seen a large enough number of people who become only more entrenched in the racism or jingoism through travel, because they feel that their prejudice or feelings of cultural superiority is now justified by their supposedly thorough experience in another country, to know that travel is by no means a cure for ignorance or intolerance. Emerson (who was the first credible person I read to question the value of travel) talks about how if you never learn how to make yourself a whole person at home, you can never hope to become a whole person in someone else's home.

And I have, stubbornly, also given up on the idea that there are two kinds of travel, authentic and inauthentic. I used to think that authentic travel meant no one holding your hand, no air conditioned bus, living among poor people and eating street food. And that, while inauthentic travel was only worthwhile as entertainment, authentic travel was sure to make you a better person.

The problem starts with how to define "authentic." Defining authentic as getting as close to living like a poor person as possible is tempting, but inherently flawed. Why is the life of a poor person any more authentic than the life of a rich person? Does someone living in the rich parts of LA have a less authentically American experience than someone living in rural Oklahoma, or wherever? Of course, the other, bigger problem, that trying to identify an authentic experience for certain places or people is, no matter how idealistically pursued, to reduce that place or people to a stereotype that will never hold up to deeper inspection

Still, I see worth in travel. There is something about having that moment with Atticus hundreds of miles away from anything familiar that lends it extra meaning. I see worth in it for me, even as a hopelessly privileged American. I see worth in it for my kids, even though they wont remember it. And I especially see worth in it as a parent.

The main worth in travel that I see is in forcing myself out of a zone of comfort. When I get into a routine in a comfortable place, I can start convincing myself that there is no other real way that I could live. If I don't make time for yoga, or if I don't have some solid socializing time with people I like, or if my kid doesn't stick to some sort of fixed routine, then my day will simply not go well. When we can have a good day in a place that eliminates the possibility of checking so many things off my list, then it serves to bring into question the value of that list in the first place. It's about learning that happiness comes from within, and not from having certain stuff or doing certain things.

Of course, getting outside your zone of comfort is totally possible to do without traveling anywhere. Almost anyplace you live will be full of people very different from yourself in any myriad number of ways. Even all Mormon, all white Morgan, Utah is really full of diversity and opportunity to move outside places of comfort and security in healthy ways.

Travel does help me out by putting me in places where people are perfectly happy not having some of the stuff you consider essential, but I have to be careful not to fall into the trap of believing that I am helping out people simply by being among them, as if my understanding of what their life is like is, in itself, beneficial to them. There are any number of meaningful ways to help people, but increasing my understanding of them is not one if I don't do anything about it, as I so often do. It's so often all taking and no giving.

Still, I'm grateful for my opportunity to be here, to be anywhere that I am not familiar with. And I'm grateful to be doing so with my kids, as small as they are. Sure, Atticus might not remember the evening he was perfectly happy playing with a broken car on a street that was dirty enough that residents of the city told me to stop letting him play there. But I'll remember it. And I'll remember that for all my concerns about letting him play there (although I'll take authentically dirty to chemically cleansed almost any day), I was perfectly happy too.

So, what do you see as the value in travel, if any at all? Is there anything beneficial in travel itself besides the basic pleasure we get of seeing new things and having new experiences? I'd love to hear your thoughts, whether you've traveled a lot or not, as this is something on my mind a lot.

1 comment:

  1. Really thoughtful, and thought-provoking post. Don't be so sure Atticus won't remember this stuff. I have been surprised at the things my kids remember. Obviously, I agree that there is worth in travel. There are other ways to do it, but travel is one of the best ways (in my opinion) of discovering the "other" - of showing your kids (or yourself) that there is more out there than just you and your culture, and your "normal" is completely irrelevant and changeable in the grand scheme of things.

    I also agree with your dissection of the word "authentic." That word really gets to me because you hear its antonym tossed around a lot when people talk about the UAE.