Homage to Two Wheelin’

Learning to ride

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s just something about being on a bicycle that’s good for the soul. To deconstruct a simple pleasure:

  • You experience more of the world on a bike than from inside a car.
  • Pedaling is just fast enough.
  • It’s hard to be irritated while coasting down a hill.
  • Fighting to make it up a hill is good for your body and your ego.
  • There’s no pollution involved.
  • A bike ride almost always leads to an unexpected adventure.
  • Biking is fun for all ages!

While we aren’t purists, my family enjoys biking around our Austin neighborhood, and we are very lucky to live close to my daughter’s school as well as local services like bakeries, restaurants, libraries, and snow cones. Being out and about in the ‘hood often results in delightful and unexpected encounters with the folks around us.

Biking is also a common activity for us on vacation. Combined with a pre-packed picnic and beautiful scenery (or an urban park), renting bikes can be a pretty cheap thrill. Whether you’ve got babies or teens, a two-wheelin’ experience is one the whole crew will enjoy and remember. Learning to ride a two wheeler is obviously a rite of passage, and it’s fun to see your child evolve from passenger to rock hopper. Here are a few of our biking highlights:

The Sweet Ride: This was our first summer in Crested Butte. Our girl was two, and she loved being toted around in the bike trailer. Snacks, books, stuffed animals and a sweet ride with a good view. Wheeeee! For the chauffeurs, the ride down was, admittedly, more fun than the ride up.

Crested Butte

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Practical Pedaler: Several months later, she took another sweet ride with her Opie in the Netherlands. I’m not sure who enjoyed it more. This is how most Dutch families get from A to B with baby (and groceries and laptops and diaper bag) on board.

Going Dutch

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tag Along: The next summer, we took an awesome trip to Boston, Vermont and Maine. She was big enough to pedal on her own, though she could not be trusted to watch the road…or steer. Our solution in Stowe was to rent a tag along so she could get the satisfaction of (sort of) pulling her own weight while rubbernecking.

IMG_0336

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Improvisation: A year later, when Stella was almost five, we took a family vacation to Rosemary Beach. We’d gotten wind that her younger Dutch cousin had learned to ride without training wheels when her Dad (Jasper’s brother) improvised a device to help her stay upright. If you’ve been to Rosemary Beach or Seaside or Watercolor, you know that the area is impossibly Mayberryesque and, therefore, the perfect place to learn how to ride a bike. It went well here, and after a week of being led around by a broom handle, Stella actually did ride about 20 yards over a grassy area by herself. 

Rosemary Beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going Dutch: All of the progress made in Florida was wiped out with one nasty fall on the mean streets of Dallas and we went right back to training wheels. The next summer, we traveled to Holland where, on the second day, Stella got in touch with her Dutch roots and came pretty darn close to biking alone. Staying upright was easy peezy lemon squeezey, but steering and paying attention were still a work in progress. I should have taken a picture a few seconds later, when Stella was immersed in the pretty Dutch scenery.

Going Dutch

 

 

 

 

 

 

She’s Got It! Within days of being in Holland, Stella had totally mastered her bike, and this time it stuck with her once we got home. Now, there’s no stopping her, though I still have to remind her to pay attention and steer from time to time. As a result, we get to do lots of fun biking together. Here, our Crested Butte route gets a tad more interesting…

Crested Butte biking

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

in no small part because we can (almost) keep up with Stella’s cousins:

Crested Butte

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Staycation: Austin is a great town for biking with kids…particularly if you remember to bring toys and band-aids for blisters. If you forget the band-aids, your kid may become despondent at mile 4.5 of a six-mile loop.

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Footnote on Fietsen: One of our Dutch friends said learning to bike (fietsen) in Holland is a necessary skill, like learning to swim. It’s not something he ever really remembers being “fun” as much as simply part of the daily routine. While I think the Dutch biking culture is completely awesome, I think the loss of that fun factor is kind of sad. Luckily for all of us, Jasper has acquired a slightly less practical perspective on biking.

Jasper biking

Quiz and Other Diversions: Because Sometimes the Road is Long

Traveling with a family of any size has its pros and cons, and hitting the road with an only child has its unique quirks. In the pro column, we can list: lower cost, less stuff, fewer opinions, smaller number of needs to be met. The con column pretty much amounts to one thing: singleton’s constant and insatiable need for a playmate. A kid does need social interaction and, oftentimes, parents are the only option.

Now, before you shed a tear for our daughter’s pitiful little lonely only child heart, bear in mind that she is pretty good at entertaining herself, and my husband and I are masters of the diversion. Though I can only pretend to be a puppy for so long without becoming completely catatonic, I happily sing songs, play hide-and-seek, read stories, color and engage in many other kid-centric activities that make it much easier for her to keep plugging along, and much easier for us to stave off whining.

More importantly, we want our daughter to WANT to go on trips with us–from now until we’re too old and decrepit to go anywhere other than the sunroom down the hall. The “family that plays together stays together,” right? That’s a pretty cool thing, and something we try to do while out and about as well as at home.

Quiz Show

While playgrounds are the very best diversion, Quiz is a pretty close second, especially in transit. We “discovered” this guessing game on a recent visit to Sicily, where lines can be long and travel times unpredictable. As you might surmise, Quiz is pretty much like Twenty Questions without the limit. The five-year-old version of it goes something like this:

“I’m thinking of a person {or movie or song or place or flower or animal…}.”

“Is it a friend or family member?”

“Family member.”

“Is it a Coody or Smits?”

“Smits.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Girl.”

“Is it Omi?”

“Yes!”

“Your turn.”

I am not exaggerating when I say Quiz can provide hours of preschooler fun in even the dullest situations, like this car rental line at the Palermo airport. Not a single soul was smiling in this teeming, uncomfortable and interminable place where the toilets were goopy and snack machines empty. No one, that is, except our girl, who was perfectly content running up the ramp in between rounds of Quiz.
Nor was she unhappy five hours later in Milazzo, where another mass of people stood in another interminable line to buy ferry tickets. I’m telling you, Quiz (and pizza) can turn even a stinky sidewalk into a party.
Now, nine hours of flights, car rides, lines and waiting later, you might think that a child would have had it. Not our girl–she kept her spirits up even through the 3.5-hour ferry ride that was supposed to be 1.5 hours. By this point, I will admit that we were all pretty much Quizzed out, and it was The Backpack that saved us (a diversion previously discussed here).
After a “live and learn” kind of 13-hour day, we finally arrived on the worth-the-effort island of Salina at the lovely and amazing Hotel Ravesi, where lines, rental cars, ferry rides and bus trips were quickly washed away by this incredible view.
[QUIZ: What volcano is that in the distance? {Hint: It’s a tasty food as well as the location of an Ingrid Bergman movie Woody Guthrie wrote about in this rather tawdry song put to music and performed by Wilco and Billy Bragg on the fabulous album Mermaid Avenue: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o76IoHCxfxw}]

The Ants Go Hiking

Motivating a kid to hike, bike and sightsee at a pace that is enjoyable for all is a post for another day, but I will say that oldie but goodie “The Ants Go Marching” (and plenty of snack and water breaks) got us all from this view of the Santuario Della Madonna Del Terzito:
to this one
with only a few draggy moments in between. Of course, it might have been the view, as much as the song that kept her motivated.
Or maybe it was the promise of a beach stop afterward. Ah, Italy. Where the place itself is the diversion to top all diversions. We were a trio of lucky, lucky ducks.

Going Dutchlish: Playgrounds

Any vacation with kids is likely to include some time spent on playgrounds. Hence the name “family trip.” Fair is fair, and you can’t really ask a five year old to follow an adult-centric itinerary crammed full of museums, historical landmarks and leisurely lunches. In heavy doses, much of the culture will be lost on them, and their boredom will translate into understandable whining that will, in turn, ruin said adult-centric itinerary.

In my experience, it is advisable to toss in a playground at least twice a day on a city visit, and you should be prepared to stop again if you pass one along the way. In addition to being a very useful bone to throw at a child weary of sightseeing (we all like to have a say in how our day goes), playgrounds can give them an immersion course in the language, people and culture of your vacation spot. Whether they’re in a different state or a different country, playgrounds can say as much about a place as any public space. Are they graffiti- and litter-ridden? Modern or old-fashioned? Common or few and far between? Filled with locals or tourists?

As an added bonus, playgrounds are great places for adults to people watch, contemplate what we’ve seen so far, and give our ears a short break from the repetitive refrain, “Can I have some ice cream?”

Holland is a very kid-friendly country, and there are big, beautiful parks in most cities, as well as tiny ones tucked into most neighborhoods. As much as my daughter loves playing on them, I love seeing the variety of playgrounds that range from uber-modern to downright antiquated. Just as Dutch culture is ever-so-slightly different from American ways, the playgrounds are not wholly dissimilar, but somehow clearly not American. Here is a sampling of playgrounds we enjoyed in Holland.

Amsterdam’s Vondelpark

I love the Vondelpark more than any other park I’ve ever visited. When I lived in Amsterdam years and years (and years) ago, I spent some part of every day there–walking to the city center from our cold, bare bones room in a bank building on the Overtoomsesluis, going for a jog, soaking up some warmth like all of these Amsterdammers on a rare sunny day:

It’s a lovely park, and quintessentially Dutch: filled with art and cafes, manageable on foot or bike, well-maintained, and lush with beautifully planned green spaces. Its playgrounds are just as wonderful, and we visited three of them on a recent visit to see old friends.

This cool playground merges old and new Dutch design. Aldo Van Eyck designed the play circles on either side of the towers in 1968, and Carve recently added the climbing structure.

Carve also designed this awesome treehouse in the middle of Vondelpark and my daughter, husband and I all enjoyed climbing through it. If you want to know more about the treehouse or the playground mentioned above, visit this terrific blog: http://playgrounddesigns.blogspot.nl/2011/08/vondelpark-playscape-aldo-van-eyck-and.html

Proving that fun doesn’t necessarily have to be modern or high-tech, this old school playground at the Groot Melkhuis cafe provided seriously low-tech playground equipment. Stella had to try each and every one, including this pedal-powered merry-go-round. As an aside, the very Euro father in the photo was wearing an ascot and expensive shoes. I should have taken a photo of him helping the kids pedal so they could get some momentum going.

Speltuin de Leemkuil

Opened in 1946, this sweet playground in Nijmegen is more proof that low-tech can be more fun. There are numerous climbing structures and other equipment tucked into a pretty wooded area near the German border and, in true Dutch fashion, there’s a cafe where parents can have a cup of coffee while the kids run wild.
The one negative about taking your only child to a playground in a country where all the kids speak her second language is that she’ll want to share every single experience with you. All 184 of them. Here she comes now, looking for a see-saw partner.
These slides look awesome, but lacked slippery-ness at the bottom, which apparently meant you had to crawl the last five or six feet.
This water feature was loads of fun. Five minutes after witnessing a two year old getting completely soaked, I saw her run up to her mother who was drinking coffee with a friend at the cafe. It was clear the mother had no clue how the child could have gotten so soaked. Hilarious.
I wanted to take a spin on this hamster wheel myself.

Neighborhood Parks

So many playgrounds, so little time. From 5×5 fenced squares containing a lone swing to vast grassy areas with jeu de boules courts and an array of climbing equipment, playgrounds in our home base of Nijmegen were everywhere.

Stella loved this weird playground full of airplane-shaped jungle gyms, in part because she learned to ride a bike here!

Perhaps no playground is better than the one you get to go to with your cousin.

Okay, so a jump house is not a playground. This was the kid entertainment at a festival in front of our favorite cafe. As the children had the bounce house experience of a lifetime, all of us parents stood around, sipping wine, wringing hands and wondering aloud whether it was too dangerous. What is that word for the shirking of responsibility in a group? The bystander effect or something like that? Whatever that word is, we were all engaged in it.

The Tradition

There is something to be said for tradition when it comes to the family trip. As a child, most of my family’s summer vacations were spent either in New Braunfels, Texas or at the Coca Cola Camp on Lake Bruin in Louisiana.

Typically, we’d go with five or six other families to New Braunfels for the Fourth of July. We always stayed in a little area called The Other Place, an oval cul-de-sac of houses and condos surrounding a grassy median with playground equipment, picnic tables and barbecues. We’d float the river in inner tubes, cook out, play horseshoes, watch fireworks and the Wimbledon finals, nearly drown at the Schlitterbahn water slide and generally run barefoot and wild with hordes of other kids while our parents played tennis and drank wine coolers. It was great.

Coca Cola Camp was very similar, only we’d join my Dad’s four sisters and their families in a giant screened-in house for a week of family fun. Shout out to the Coodys! My Uncle Robert worked for Coke, and through some generous arrangement completely unbeknownst and beside the point to me, my sisters and I got to spend several glorious days with our aunts, uncles, 11 cousins and miscellaneous tagalongs. We’d hang out on the dock, waiting with fear and excitement for Uncle Robert to hurl us into the lake. We also fished for gar, made cheese dip, helped ourselves to an endless supply of Cokes and played Monopoly into the wee hours while our parents drank beer. It was great.

Being European and all, Jasper’s family trips were a little different from ours. Ski holidays in the Austrian Alps and “camping” vacations on the French Riviera were a far cry from La-Tex lakes and rivers, but my sense is their trips had many of the same components ours did. Really, white trash really isn’t so far removed from Euro trash, but that’s a post for a different day.

My little family is very lucky to have a generous friend who lets us use his condo in Crested Butte, Colorado, so our tradition happens to be in the most beautiful mountain town in the world. Seriously, I challenge you to find one that’s any lovelier. The first time we went to CB, it was summertime and Stella was two years old. We recently got back from our fourth winter trip, and I still love the whole package…Jasper’s infectious enthusiasm for skiing, spending hours in front of the fire, soaking in pristine landscapes and clean air, making memories with friends, and doing things that are slightly out of my comfort zone. There’s nothing like 12 degree temps and an accidental encounter with a scary slope to make you feel alive!

Most of all, though, it’s a thrill to watch Stella enjoy the mountains. I don’t know if it’s possible to feel nostalgic for the moment you are in, but the slightly tweaked deja vu sensation you feel watching your child experience the same thing year after year triggers something like it.

If you go to Crested Butte four years in a row…

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The Quickie: Car Camping With Your Faves

Not every family vacation can be to Paris, or even Mexico. But there’s plenty of fun to be had on trips far less grand and much closer to home, including the classic family camping trip. Though I didn’t grow up camping, my own little family was destined to seek the thrill of sleeping under the stars and eating cold beans straight from a can. My husband and I met in a youth hostel, but pitched a tent regularly once we started traveling together. It was cheap and efficient…and what 22-year-old girl wouldn’t want to sleep in a tent on Kangaroo Island with this guy?

Even if you’ve never been camping, if you have kids you probably know they love the idea of it. Pitch a tent anywhere from the living room to the backyard and it’s an instant party. And while I was lucky enough to get hooked on camping in Australia, any nearby state park will do for starting a family tradition. We took our first family camping trip last spring when our daughter was four, along with our fun friends, who also happen to be the parents of our daughter’s best friend. While it doesn’t boast koalas or 50 foot waterfalls, Tyler State Park does have beautiful pine trees, lovely hiking and biking trails and a small but picturesque lake. As an extra selling point, it’s an easy 1.5 hour drive straight up the interstate from our house.

If you go camping with two four-year-old girls and a one-year-old boy:

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*Many, many thanks to Jessie and James Greene for the majority of these photos!

It’s So Fly Flying With Kids

It may be an understatement to say flying has never been my greatest joy. At one point in my life I even sought therapy, which is kind of funny since my husband is from another continent AND an anxiety researcher. For the most part, I’ve always flown despite my fear, but my travels were tainted by a lack of anticipatory excitement as well as return flight dread that set in pretty much the moment the outbound flight touched down.

You may well ask what “anticipatory excitement” is. Basically, it’s planning a trip based on the assumption that you will not arrive alive at your intended destination. Try taking a honeymoon without making a single hotel reservation and you’ll get a taste of my very special kind of crazy–a crazy you do not want your daughter to inherit.

Luckily, my daughter is a very happy little traveler so far. She looks forward to every trip and gets a little out of sorts if my husband or I get to fly somewhere without her. But even excited children can prove difficult to keep happy and comfortable when trapped in a cramped and stagnant tube where the crabby, hungry, bored and often sick masses are pressed together in an annoying heap of humanity.

Each age has its own challenges, which means we parents must remain vigilant; juking and jiving through childhood to keep our offspring, fellow passengers, and ourselves sane and law-abiding while en route.

I hope my experiences are enlightening to a few of you, but I should disclose up front that the following observations are completely anecdotal and have no basis in scientific evidence. So pay attention.

Baby’s First Year


As seen in the photo above, infancy is THE time to fly with children. Tickets are free, and you get those adorable little bassinet things in the bulkhead seat. No one wants to sit next to you, which means you can spread out, leisurely watch movies and drink free beer to your heart’s content while your nine-month-old snoozes her way across the Atlantic.

Seriously, on this flight to Holland, we took a late afternoon flight, fed her when the seat belt sign went off, tucked her in within an hour and a half of take-off, and had to wake her up when it was time to land. Since babies sleep so much anyway, there was very little adjustment with the seven hour time difference so jet lag was no problem at all. Awesome.

One to Two Years Old

My daughter is almost two in this photo. She’s sitting on a beautiful beach in the south of France doing her best Hervé Villechaize impression of “Da plane! Da plane!” Cute, right? Don’t let her fool you. I think she’s excited about a plane flying overhead because she’s gleefully remembering the hell she put us through on the flight over, and plotting her shenanigans for the return home.

In her entire childhood to date, the frustration I felt trying to get her to sleep on those two flights was matched only by the post-diaper, pre-poop-in-the-potty days. She slept for about three hours on the outbound flight, and not a single wink on the return. Ten hours is a long time to entertain a toddler who is not yet interested in television and incapable of sitting quietly. A really long time. The only positive thing I can say about traveling with a child this age is the ticket is free. The good news is, when you look back on the trip, you’ll mostly remember the fun time you had, and the whole flight fiasco will be a funny story you tell parents of toddlers.

Two to Three Years Old

Kids this age are beginning to be rational beings. They can be reasoned with, bribed, tricked and otherwise manipulated. Snacks, new toys (like creepy baby dolls), snacks, explorations of the tiny bathroom, snacks…these are the parent’s friend in flight. While we did not fly overseas with our daughter at this age, we took several trips in the three-four hour range. She was excited about going somewhere in general, and enjoyed the novelty of all the goings-on within the plane.

This is a tricky age for some, depending on when potty training occurs. Our daughter was in the midst of potty training on this flight, but I took the easy way out and put her in a diaper rather than going to the grosser-by-the minute toilet fifteen times. It worked for us, but I’m sure some would criticize. To them I would say: my five year old daughter hasn’t wet her pants in more than two years. Except for that week or two a few months back when she became transfixed by things like soccer and Legos. So there.

Three to Four Years Old

The most obvious thing you need in order to have an enjoyable family trip is excited (or at least resigned) kids. Our daughter gets super jazzed about going pretty much anywhere when I tell her it’s time to get her backpack ready to go. It’s small enough that it can’t get too heavy, but large enough that she can cram in the stuffed animals, books and art supplies that are most important to her at that moment. As an added bonus, I’ve never heard her complain about not having a particular prized possession.

As seen above, that whole backpack thing will be completely forgotten when your four year old discovers she has her very own television and access to literally hours of movies and shows. When it comes to lengthy flights, I’m all for ignoring the rules. If that means Peter Pan, followed by The Incredibles, followed by chicken strips, followed by Sponge Bob Squarepants, so be it. Judge if you will. My kid looks forward to 10-12 flights, and it’s the boob tube that makes that possible.

Five Years Old

Five years old is really not so different from four in terms of making it through a long-haul flight. Snacks, books, movies and games got us through most of our most recent vacation. My daughter didn’t sleep nearly enough on either leg of our last trip. It’s tough to try and squeeze in any healthy amount of rest between the coughs, conversation, meals, turbulence, toilet flushes and bangs on the seat. Still, she was a trooper on the plane, but five minutes after landing…just long enough for everyone to move into the aisle and block our path to the bathroom…my poor little peanut hurled all over a poor teenager’s cute carry-on bag.

I’m not sure who I felt sorrier for, but as you’ll see in this photo taken about 30 minutes after “the incident,” my girl was pretty darn pitiful.

A note on jet lag: kids this age are very resilient. Our entire family had an afternoon nap upon arrival and slept like babies the first night. On nights two and three, we had a party from about 1:30 to 3:30 a.m. and then got right on track.

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Resorting to a Resort

I’ve never really been a “resort person,” preferring to stay where real people live and do their thing. You get a stronger taste of a culture and atmosphere that way, and it’s fun to be reminded that the world is full of food, music, experiences and people you’ve never encountered. Stepping out of ordinary life for a while makes going back home that much more enjoyable.

I do, however, understand the appeal of an all inclusive kind of place if your main vacation goal is simply to get away from everyday drudgeries and relax. There’s nothing like a gnarly pile of dishes or standing in a long line for mass transit to remind you of the real world, and there’s something to be said for whiling away the hours, sunning yourself with a glass of wine and page-turner in hand.

It was in that spirit that we decided to go to Mexico for a four-day weekend when our daughter was two. You can read more about that “controversial” decision here, but we were primarily after some gadget-free family togetherness somewhere we’d never been. Since we didn’t have enough time to travel far or decipher the logistics of an unfamiliar place, we decided to keep it simple by staying at a resort. I did a little research and chose the Yucatan resort closest to Tulum, thinking we’d be able to slip into the real world easily if we tired of all the free food, swim-up bars and bachelorette parties.

As it turned out, the decision to stay in an all-inclusive place was good and bad. It served its purpose as an easy getaway with a toddler, and we spent a lot of time enjoying each other without everyday responsibilities and distractions. But we definitely missed out on having an authentic experience, and when we eventually go back to Mexico, I don’t think we’ll do it the same way, especially now that our daughter is older.

If you resort to a Mexico resort vacation with a two year old:

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Puffers in Paris: The Association Game

Puffers in Love

Every vacation has its own “thing” that unintentionally becomes a memorable part of the whole experience. It can be a song, catchphrase, food, recurring pitfall…anything that just sticks with you.

For example, on my post-college Clark W. Griswold tour through Europe, friends nicknamed me “Jill of Many Things” because of the accumulation of souvenirs, bath towels, books etc. that dangled inefficiently from my backpack. My friend Tom, who couldn’t resist drooling over the cookies, tartlets and pastries found on every European corner, will always be “Dessert Man” to me. And I still get nostalgic for youthful misadventures when I hear Sting’s “Fields of Gold” because its ubiquitous play on Euro radio became the soundtrack to our lives that summer.

It’s no different with family trips, and there are many things we will always associate with our recent trip to Paris. For one, our daughter hummed the Pink Panther theme over and over and over. And over and over and over. Also, I’m pretty sure we’ll always think of Paris if “Puss in Boots” is mentioned because of the repetitive “Le Chat Potté” Metro ads that became the object of an almost daily “I Spy…” game. On that 1993 trip to Europe with friends, the Metro hard sell was focused on Bridget Fonda’s “The Assassin,” a Hollywood remake of a 1990 French movie called “La Femme Nikita.” If I was a Parisian movie buff, I would at least call that redundant, and may even go as far as cheeky.

We will also forever link Paris with the puffer jacket. I like puffer jackets as much as the next person, but when I say puffers were prevalent in Paris, it’s an understatement. As you’ll see in this silly little photo album, puffers abounded in all shapes and sizes, and my husband and I had fun pretending to be Bill Cunningham. Only these photos will never run in the New York Times, or have any kind of impact. Other than that, we felt very much like Bill Cunningham.

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Bad Parents Risk Toddler’s Life for Beach Vacation

Until recently, I’d lived most of my life in Texas but never been to Mexico. Given the proximity, that’s no easy trick. Most people I know rave about Cuerna Vaca, tell tales of their college semester in Oaxaca, or at least vaguely remember crossing the border into Matamoros during a debaucherous Padre Island spring break. But not me. A few years ago, we decided it was time to break that seal, and planned a trip to the Yucatan. Not long after booking our trip, swine flu broke out and we faced a dilemma about whether or not to follow through on our plans. The essay below details our unpopular decision to take our daughter to Tulum, and the ramifications of that choice. For a hint on how things turn out, see the photo of our family in fear below.

In case it entices you to read…this essay has NEVER BEEN SEEN IN PRINT BEFORE (meaning it got turned down by several magazines). I’m curious to know whether others would have made the same decision. If you’d like to see a slideshow of our trip, take a look at Resorting to a Resort.

Destination Danger Zone
Passports, bathing suits and sunscreen? Check.

Facemask, flu medication and bulletproof vest? Check.

We were packing for our family trip to Mexico, despite the double whammy pummeling the country’s tourist industry: swine flu and drug-related violence. After all, my husband and I reasoned, the flu had reached pandemic proportions and could be contracted almost anywhere in the world; the violence referenced in the U.S. government’s travel advisory seemed far-removed from the quiet Yucatan beach town we were planning to visit.

Some friends and family disagreed, believing the potential risks were too great. In their minds, the slim chance of catching and dying from a brand new killer virus or getting kidnapped by drug lords far outweighed beautiful sea views, ancient ruins and no cell phone service on the list of pros and cons. Some even suggested we were being frivolous with our daughter’s health and safety for a few days on the beach, and encouraged us to cancel our trip in favor of a backyard staycation.

Though I was intensely irritated by the criticism, it did cause me to consider our motives and decision-making process. My daughter was only two, and many toddlers manage to become productive human adults without a preschool field trip to the Caribbean. Did we really need to hit the Yucatan playa at this particular time in our lives, and at this particular juncture in world history? Upon reflection, I concluded that, in fact, now was the perfect time for this particular vacation, and I was largely unconcerned that current events unfolding in Mexico would impact the health and safety of my family.

When swine flu first brought Mexico to a screeching halt, we were prepared to cancel our plans if the global cataclysm predicted on the evening news came to fruition. But in early May, Mexico lowered the flu alert and the U.S. government followed suit, lifting its recommendation to avoid nonessential travel to the country on May 15.

At about the same time, swine flu was hitting our hometown, and a large area school district shut down for two weeks because of a few affected students. There is still great debate over whether that move was prudent or hysterical, but it bolstered my own decision. If swine flu was a deal breaker, I wondered, why weren’t people fleeing our city? Heck, given its northward trajectory, maybe we’d actually be safer from the flu in Mexico.

The threat of violence was of even less concern. Living in Texas, I am well aware of drug-related problems in Mexican border towns, and would think at least twice before going on holiday to Juarez. But we were going to Tulum, a touristy town 90 miles south of Cancun. I had read nothing that led me to believe it would be any more dangerous than my own urban neighborhood, where a woman was recently carjacked with her children onboard.

Even the advisory on the US Department of State web site gave me some comfort about traveling to Mexico. Though it goes into greater detail about particular regions of the country, the following paragraph sums up the general situation:

While millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year (including tens of thousands who cross the land border every day for study, tourism or business), violence in the country has increased. It is imperative that travelers understand the risks of travel to Mexico, how best to avoid dangerous situations, and who to contact if one becomes a crime victim. Common-sense precautions such as visiting only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours, and avoiding areas where prostitution and drug dealing might occur, can help ensure that travel to Mexico is safe and enjoyable.”

I find this to be excellent advice, and wholeheartedly commit to following it – in any locale I may find myself. Common sense, in general, is a useful tool to employ when making decisions. For example, I would use common sense if contemplating a family vacation to any of the following destinations currently saddled with government-issued advisories:

  • Honduras (unstable political and security situation)
  • China (unsavory swine flu quarantine measures)
  • Gabon (dead president/pending elections/risk of violent uprising)
  • Argentina (swine flu outbreak)
  • “Hurricane Season” (bad weather could result in an unpleasant vacation…or worse)

My carefully considered reaction regarding travel to these other scarlet A-lerted destinations is a mixed bag. At the risk of sounding provincial, I admit I have never researched China or Gabon as a potential vacation spot, though perhaps I will do so in the future. I know many families who have traveled to Honduras, but concede it may be best to wait out the coup before towing your toddler to Tegucigalpa. Similarly, I will do everything within my power to avoid vacationing in the midst of a hurricane.

Argentina is a different story. If we are to be discouraged from traveling to a country simply because flu season is upon it, we should all pack our bags now. On Aug. 24, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reported that swine flu could cause 90,000 US deaths this fall. If avoidance is the key to survival, maybe the answer is emigration to a country with no confirmed swine flu deaths. Bermuda, for example, may be a prime location to expatriate – if not for the unfortunate problem of “Hurricane Season.”

And so, selfishly, irresponsibly and with great excitement we flew to Mexico in June, straight into the epicenter of danger and disease – Cancun International Airport. After enduring a cursory cough check and lengthy customs line, we emerged into the sunny sea air and shuttled ourselves down the Yucatan Peninsula, through Playa del Carmen and into Tulum. As we marveled at the amazingly blue Caribbean, we managed not to worry about the drug deals and shoot outs that may or may not have been taking place along a different stretch of highway in some other part of the world.

For the next five cell phone- and e-mail-free days, we splashed in the surf, built sand castles and gave our daughter hours of pool time to reinforce her recently acquired swimming skills. We ate together, played together, left routine behind together and immersed ourselves in the culture together. Toddlers, perhaps more than anyone, can appreciate an impressive pile of blocks, and with her first glimpse of the Mayan ruins our awestruck daughter said, “Look, Mommy, somebody build that.”

There is a fine line between parenting responsibly and parenting fearfully. Unfortunately, we are so often bombarded by frightening news and information that we over predict the real threat of a situation and fail to make rational decisions. I am not suggesting it’s wise to wander through parenthood wearing a Pollyanna pantsuit, but neither should unfounded fears cause knee-jerk decisions that make life less rewarding.

In the end, my daughter’s fall out of bed was the worst thing that happened on our family vacation to Mexico. Of all the things that might have gone wrong, I’m afraid it was the one thing I had not even considered.

Other Posts

Paris With a Five Year Old

Resorting to a Resort

Puffers in Paris: The Association Game

Pins in Our Map

My husband and I are both fortunate to have work situations that give us more vacation time than the average American. At times, we also have the flexibility to work from somewhere other than a traditional office. Those two factors, along with Jasper’s Dutchness, have given us the opportunity to take our work and our daughter on the road. As a result, our five year old has been living the life of Riley the past few years. This map shows where we’ve traveled for big and small adventures, and the places I’ll be writing about in this blog. Our travels amount to more than some, and far less than others. Here’s hoping we can drop many more pins in our map!