Family Travel: Kids and the List

A year ago today the four of us were returning from Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Lilli had just turned one and Tillio was about to turn eight. It was a low-budget, low-key jaunt to a pretty commonplace destination, but it was a great, great trip. We got off the ferry to the cheerful, semi-grimy tourist hustle that you’d expect from a bargain beach destination, the air smelling archetypally of salt, diesel, and sweet marine rot. We hadn’t changed money yet, we hadn’t accustomed to the heat, we didn’t know how best to get to our lodging at the other side of the island, and we were loaded down with a baby, a stroller, a pack-n-play, but I felt light as a feather. Mark sat with the kids by a curb next to a woman selling mangoes while I got to dart across the street to assess the combio situation and the lay of the land. There I was, dashing around someplace fun and new, and there was my family; we were together. It was the first time I’d left the country since having kids. I felt so happy. I felt like I was coming home.

When Mark and I met, we both fancied ourselves traveler-types. The desire to go was something we shared. And as a couple, we took a couple extended trips—to Thailand, to Guatemala and Honduras. In Tela, Honduras, there was a young hippie family staying at our hotel—a couple and their infant. They didn’t seem to do much besides hang laundry and fuss over the baby, and Mark and I noticed this, commented on it, but as years passed and we planned a life together I’m sure we thought—assumed—that we’d continue to travel, and meaningfully, once we had kids. We’d go to Costa Rica, we said, getting ready to be responsible: You can drink the water there.

Having kids. Traveling. I recently came across an old journal that I kept in Nepal. My thoughts were starting to turn homeward, and I had written a list of goals for myself. I’m too embarrassed to write them all here, but there was a lot of verbiage about the places I still wanted to go, about yoga, about establishing some kind of professional skill set that would lead me out of the service industry, about writing. And kids. Plural. Mid-list. Just the one word for that entry, no elaboration.

I had no fucking idea.

I know there are families who travel widely, kids in tow. I read about them on the internet. I get their twitter feeds. I know some of them personally, including a single mom who packed up her two little ones to Ecuador, hosteling it and giving the lie to my notion that it’s always money that’s the determining factor. Yes, these things are possible. But for us, they’ve been harder than we imagined. So much less time, such a different relationship to money and to work, two sets of grandparents we have to fly to see. And Tillio was such a tough nut, at the beginning there.

But he outgrew that. He’s actually a great traveler, and while we haven’t been abroad, he’s gotten around this country quite a bit. And traveling anywhere with a kid is more like Traveling. A few years ago, Mark went to Italy with his dad and brother, and  Tillio and I took our first trip alone for pleasure, not to visit family. We went to New York, and we flew into Islip, which I’d never done. I remember that airport as being bathed in light and sky and quiet. It seemed impossibly far from the city, and, in fact, it would be something like two and a half more hours and three more kinds of transportation before we got to Brooklyn. Standing outside the airport, a clutch of print-outs in hand, I was trying to figure out whether to take the bus or the shuttle when I met a dad doing the same with his three kids. We paired up as seamlessly as if we were the backpackers thrown together in a songthaew, comparing notes, presenting ourselves as a family to get the better fare from the shuttle, watching each other’s bags and kids when it made things easier.

That was another great, great trip. It was the first time Tillio saw the sea, the first time I went to Coney Island. We visited some of our best and oldest friends. On the Staten Island ferry we passed the Statue of Liberty and more types of boats than we could count.

That same summer he and I went to Seattle, and as a side trip, Valeria and I took three kids to San Juan Island. We arrived at the ferry station just as the rain stopped, and the kids and I explored tidal pools while Valeria propped her feet on our luggage and read the paper in the waiting room. We got off the ferry and made our way to a hostel I had found online. Again, I was so giddily happy as we walked out of town, each kid pulling his or her own bag toward the unknown, an adventure.

It was the feeling of being my old self with my son. There were chickens in the yard of the hostel. There were men in the communal kitchen who shared their beer with Valeria and me. Tillio and I slept in a cabin formed from a little boat, and I stayed up half the night writing. The next day, we got up and went out to watch whales. And that evening we left. It was just one night, but it’s burned into my mind as indelibly as my first night in Thailand was, and I’ve vowed to bring the whole family back for a longer stay.

This would be a great year to do it, when I’m going to Seattle anyway for CURRENCY (July 31!). But the book tour is taking so many of my limited days off, and Mark’s time is going to be pressed with me gone so much, and there are the grandparents to visit, and the cost of airfares for four. The San Juans might have to stay on the list for awhile longer, just like Costa Rica will, just like Italy all together, and France to see Valeria and Valen, and Thailand, which has caught Tillio’s interest because of all the talk about the book.

I try to keep the grand hopes for family travel alive without falling into despondency over the difference between the hopes and the reality. I try to recognize the dream when I live it—a couple hours here, a week there, the sun parting clouds over the Puget Sound. Or, for that matter, over Lake Michigan, the drama and calm and magical hazy glow of which can be found just a mile due east from our home. I try. There’s so much to want to do.