Travelling safely with the children
We were aware throughout our whole trip that the children needed to be watched more carefully than at home – simple things, like traffic driving on the right (wrong) side of the road, and especially looking after their health, were all concerns. However, we were also careful to make sure that we didn’t become overprotective, and spoil the trip for us or them. So in the end, the rules we used for travelling with the children were pretty much the same as we’d used ourselves ten years ago. Things like eating where the locals eat, being aware of things being stolen from our rooms and making sure that if we were in a situation we were uncomfortable in, we’d get out of it!
After a year we felt the rules had worked. We’d only been in one situation we thought of as “dangerous” and that was when some youths threw a glass bottle at somebody in a fairground in Vietnam – exactly the same kind of thing that could happen at home!
For Canada, the States and Australia we took Emily’s car seat, but then left that at a charity shop in New Zealand. It really isn’t the kind of thing you can carry around Asia, and it wasn’t necessary anyway once we’d stopped using a hire car.
For our first aid kit, we’d packed one of the normal mini-travel kits, which we ended up using more than we expected – mainly for plasters for minor cuts and bruises. The one time we’d have needed the advanced bits of the kit was when Emily badly sprained her ankle in New Zealand, but then it turned out that the hostel owner was a vet, and had all the sprain bandages we’d need. It meant Emily flying from Auckland to Singapore with a plaster on her leg, but compared to what could have happened, we still felt lucky!
So, our result on the safety front? One doctor’s visit for coughing too much, and 2 hospital visits when Emily sprained her ankle. We’d have probably ended up at the doctor’s more if we’d stayed in England for the year!
Educating the children while travelling
As we prepared for the trip, the words of Charlotte’s head teacher were with us – “Oh, don’t worry too much about schoolwork. Charlotte will learn so much on your trip anyway“. (I’d guess not every head teacher has the same attitude). She did recommend that we taught Charlotte the Maths curriculum that she was missing, because she would need that when she returned back into Year 4. Emily wasn’t a concern for us, because she was 3 when we left, so she was only missing nursery school.
For Charlotte we packed our bags with a laptop, loaded with educational software to help her with her Maths lessons. Although we used a range of different programs, we quickly came to rely on RM Maths, which is a programme designed to support the teaching of the English maths curriculum, and works its way through the whole teaching programme, testing understanding as it goes. For nine months Charlotte used it everyday, or as often as travel would allow, and it tracked her progress right through the Year 3 curriculum her school mates were learning at home. By the time we got to February, it was halfway through the Year 4 work, and Charlotte was finding it increasingly frustrating to be constantly challenged by it. As it had seemed to cover everything that Charlotte needed, we stopped using it for a while, and carried on with some non-computer learning for a while, revising times tables and some Maths problem solving.
This relaxed attitude to Charlotte’s schooling was made possible by two things. Firstly, because we were not living in England for the year of travel, we didn’t have to satisfy anybody in the education system that we were delivering a full curriculum for Charlotte. (It seems odd, doesn’t it, that to take Charlotte out of school for a month’s holiday would be impossible, but for a year it’s okay!) The other thing is that we felt confident that Charlotte was learning so much through the travel itself, and that the conversations and discussions we had, and the questions we asked her during the trip, will have filled her full of information for use later in her school time. We’ll have to wait and see whether this turns out to be true, but today we feel confident that it is.
For Emily, things were different – she was 3 when we left, so didn’t go to school, and only missed a year of nursery school. But she has spent time using the RM Maths software too, and has learnt to recognize the numbers and do some basic addition. For her there’s no worry about her education, except perhaps reaction to spending six hours a day, 5 days a week in the same classroom! After a year without a pattern, we expected it to be a challenge to get her to wear a school uniform or even shoes every day! In the end, it turned out to be an easy return home and to school – after all, children like routine and patterns, and returning to that was a relief for them.
But what do you feed them on?
One of the first questions that people asked us about the trip was “What will they eat?” And, in all honesty, we didn’t really know the answer, other than at home they seemed to have a varied appetite, especially Charlotte, who enjoyed Indian, Chinese as much as fast food and home cooking. And as we started our trip, it seemed that everything was going to be okay.
Throughout Canada, they ate heartily and healthily, which wasn’t a surprise as being in hostels meant we did most of our own cooking, and so they got meals similar to food they’d eat at home (maybe a bit more pasta than usual, but you can’t turn out complex meals when you’re in a hostel kitchen with 20 others cooking too).
America, though, dealt a body blow to all of our diets. As we were mainly staying in motels, and because we were on a budget, we were looking at cheaper places to eat. As you can imagine, in the US that means fast, fried food. We staggered between McDonalds, Taco Bell, and the occasional Denny’s (the American answer to Little Chef!) and pizza restaurant. For a while, every time we attempted to find something different, it ended up costing us more than we could afford.
Salvation came in the form of a Chinese fast food chain called Panda Express. For $3 we got to fill a plate full of Chinese food of our choice, and enjoy a meal not entirely soaked in fat.
The included motel breakfasts didn’t help all the time either. Sometimes we’d get a healthy option – like cereals or yoghourt, but too often it turned out that the inclusive breakfast was actually just coffee and donuts in reception.
By the time we arrived in San Francisco, after 3 weeks in the States, we all (yes, children too) were fed up of fast food, and we wanted something else. What a relief to find normal, affordable food in SF! Although we went over our budget a few times, we did at least get decent lunches and evening meals.
(Our advice for the States? Get yourself a cool box and fill it with fruit and milk, so that you can at least have healthy snacks on the road, and cereals for breakfast. Even children will tire of doughnuts every morning for a week! Oh, and if you go to Disney, get yourself a motel near the main gate, so that you can leave the park for lunch, because the options in the park are abysmal and expensive)
Fiji was a godsend after the States – we got great home cooking, and the girls both got their appetites back, and enjoyed the Indian food too – even if the main dishes were too spicy, they would always tuck into the rice, nan bread and poppadums.
So onto Australia and New Zealand, with full stomachs ready to be filled even more with barbecues (who could resist the cheap meat in the Oz supermarkets), good cereals (why, in England, do they only sell muesli that is made from waste from woodworking factories, compared to the joy-in-a-box produced by down-under muesli makers?), and fresh fruit and veggies. After 4 months, we were all starting to shed the McFat we’d accumulated in the States, and feeling good.
Finally, we made it to Asia. The tale was different for the two children. Charlotte enjoyed Asian food, and ate virtually anything put in front of her, unless it had too many chillies in. Emily, on the other hand, went into her shell (literally) by insisting on eating fried eggs at virtually every meal time. Every day we’d try and tease her onto something else, but in the end the eggs won out. But we decided not to worry about it – after all, we decided that her body would decide what’s good for her. So we added a Vitamin tablet to her daily diet, and let her eat eggs.
Fortunately after a few weeks, boredom set in, and after experimenting with boiled eggs, and scrambled eggs, she supplemented her diet with prawns and the occasional pancake or piece of fish. At least in Asia, food is cheap and always available, so Emily never went without a meal, and every street stall we came across could fry an egg or two – once we’d learnt the phrase in the right language!
The other magic thing we found in Asia was Milo (a kind of hipper Ovaltine), ready mixed with UHT milk in a carton. Both girls loved it, it was available almost anywhere, and it seemed to make a pretty useful diet supplement for Charlotte and especially Emily.
So, in the end it was not Asia that caused us food problems, but the States. We learnt that food problems are problems only if you let them be. In most countries we found something similar – in Thailand they sold Dutch Lady Chocolate Milk, and then in Laos we found they sold Ovaltine – ready mixed in a carton. Although it seemed a bit weird buying Ovaltine in Asia – maybe it’s a generational thing, but Ovaltine goes with the 1950’s to me – it worked a treat. I’ve got no idea what the total carton-count would be, but often the girls would get through two cartons each a day – a pint – so there’s no worry about calcium deficiency!
So what did we learn about food and drink? Perhaps most importantly we found out that the children were very flexible with what they ate, and when they weren’t there was always something available locally that they would eat. And we also found that there was always something available that they enjoyed drinking, no matter where we were.
Getting about with the children
As we set out on our trip, we didn’t really comprehend the huge distances we would soon be travelling overland. The long flights were the easy bit – in fact, the children soon got disappointed if we took a short flight, because they didn’t have enough time to watch the films, use the new colouring books etc. But once we were on the grand, getting about took all kinds of different forms.
For our first few weeks in Canada we relied on public transport, which was both easy and cheap, although we did discover that some bus drivers were awkward about ‘too much luggage’ – ie backpacks. But generally things were fine. When it came time to head to the Rockies, we hired a car, because it was the cheapest way to get all of us around – trains in Canada are really expensive, and when you multiply the bus fares by 4, you end up hiring a car! That worked well, as we didn’t have to take all of our luggage into every hostel, and we could carry stocks of food too. We did the same on arrival in the States, hiring a car from Hertz, who turned out to be cheapest. Car hire set us back about £7 a day, plus another £5 for insurance, and fuel cost peanuts (in the States, we were paying about £1.20 a gallon)
Driving in both Canada and the States, we tried to limit our days to no more than 4 hours driving, but a few times that turned out to be impossible, and we had 12 hour driving days a couple of times (when you’re in the middle of the Nevada desert, there isn’t another option!). The girls adjusted amazingly well to be confined to the back seat, and within a month had stopped asking “When are we there?” every hour or so.
By the time that we arrived in Australia then, the girls were accustomed to long driving journeys, which was a relief, because in Australia long-distance driving takes on a whole new meaning. We hired a camper van, which cost us £22 a day, and sometimes we’d spend 10 hours on the road. In all, in Oz we drove 12,000 kilometres, but the girls found it easier than travelling in the car. They sat in the back, sitting by the table, so that they could draw, play and generally amuse themselves for the whole trip. Having the camper van also meant that we could stop for meals whenever and wherever we wanted, as we always had our kitchen with us. The major problem with a camper van is that if you need to buy a pint of milk, and the shop’s not in walking distance, you have to pack up the whole van, take down the awning etc, just to drive off to get it (we soon became better planners as a result!).
After two months in the camper van we met up with the girls grandparents, and switched to a hire car, staying in campsite cabins. By this time, we were only covering short distances, and it was much, much easier for us all.
In New Zealand it was another hire car, again because it was cheaper than the bus (£8 a day), and less limiting. Overall hire cars were surprisingly cheap, although we found that if you were booking over the Internet you would get a cheaper price by booking a month in advance. If you were looking for a last minute deal, it was normally better to go to a local rental place in town, and avoid the big brand names.
Once in Asia we were back onto public transport. Buses were okay for short hops between nearby cities, but for the long haul we much preferred trains. In Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam the trains are cheap, with excellent sleepers, and going to sleep on a train was a big adventure for the girls. We’d arrive at the station early, find our berths and sort out our luggage, and then as soon as the train was off, we’d head off to the dining car for dinner. By the time we got back, the beds would be made up with clean linen, and we’d all settle down for a good night’s sleep. In Vietnam, we had a four-berth compartment to ourselves, so we could lock the door and shut out all the noise of people moving through the train.
Where there are no trains in Asia, it’s back to buses – ‘local’ buses with no air-conditioning, cramped conditions and cheap fares, or ‘VIP’ buses, with air-con, reclining seats and slightly more expensive (but still cheap by Asian standards). In most places children paid the same price as adults, unless you had them on your lap (in 38-degree heat, no thanks!). Asian bus trips with the children were probably better because they’d got used to long hours of sitting in the first half of our trip. Some trips, like the 5-hour public bus in Laos, were uncomfortable and hot, and they were incredibly tolerant. And the 16-hour epic journey to Cambodia by bus was the worst journey of our whole trip, and they stayed patient throughout it In fact, they remained patient and passive after most of the adults had completely lost it.
That trip, plus some others, was an important lesson. In Thailand, all kinds of bus trips are organised specifically for backpackers, but many of them have a ‘catch’ or three – from dropping you off in the most out-of-the-way places (so that they can sell you an expensive taxi ride to where you really wanted to be), to driving really slowly (so that they can put you into their over-priced hotel, and its too late to wander the town looking for better). And they often us grotty old buses rather than the nicer ones which the locals use. They do offer convenience, because they’ll pick you up from your guest-house, but often its better to wander down to the local express bus station and deal direct with the bus companies.
The other thing we found in Asia was low-cost flights. In the last couple of years, new operators have sprung up all over Asia, offering no-frills flights all over the region. With fares from £4, for an hour’s flight, it can be a great way to get around, if you don’t mind missing the scenery in between. With Air Asia we flew from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur for £15, from KL to Sabah (Borneo) for £60, and from KL to Khota Bharu (the far north-east coast) for £10. And we also took a flew flights with regular airlines where the overland journey would have been punishing – like Luang Prabang in Laos to Chiang Mai in Thailand – $69 on Thai Airways, saving a 2 day bot trip; and Hanoi to Bangkok for $160, saving a 48-hour bus trip across three countries.
What did we learn about getting around with the children? Firstly, that the ‘budget’ option is often the less obvious one – like hiring a car – because you multiply all the normal fares by 4. Secondly, that trains are much better than buses or cars, because you can get up and wander around, the children get tables to play on, and sleeping on a train is a whole new adventure. And thirdly, that sometimes its worth just paying for an hours flight to avoid 48 hours of overland hell – something we never did when we travelled without the children.