October 26, 2016
A good friend of mine named Mary Kay Park asked me to write a pair of blogs for a radio station/website she manages in Los Angeles. I had told her about our previous trip and this one as well. She found this fascinating, if not crazy. Since we also both served on the National Board of the American Camp Association, she knew about my passion about summer camp.
With this in mind, here are the topics that she asked me to write about:
The following blog is my attempt to answer the first topic about travel. I hope you enjoy it.
“The Greatest Gift of Travel is Resilience”
My wife and I have twice embarked on trips that have seemed almost insane: two 6-month trips with our four children. The first trip was 5 years ago when our twin sons were 14 and our daughters were 13 and 10. We are on the second trip now. These journeys have been low budget, high excitement affairs that will eventually take us to roughly 30 countries and 6 continents. When my friend Mary Kay Park heard about these trips, she asked me to write a blog for her online radio site.
She, however, did not make the assignment easy.
What she asked me seems simple, but is not: “what is the greatest gift of travel?”
When I think about the gifts of travel, so many ideas come to mind. My mind first goes to the unusual experiences we have had: interacting with tigers, observing gorillas in their jungle habitat or hunting with an indigenous Tanzanian tribe. We spent two hours with a great-grandmother in Vietnam who shared the story of her life and even proudly showed us the funeral blanket that her family had woven for her in preparation for her death and in celebration of her long and wonderful life.
I believe that almost nothing important happens in a minute, but everything of worth happens in moments. These moments and others like them have adorned our lives like pieces of art on a wall.
But none of these moments are the greatest gift of travel.
Perhaps the greatest gift is the discovery and appreciation of beauty, both natural and man-made. I asked our four children about their favorites visual memories. Several mentioned a sunrise at the Himalayas and an evening at the cliffs of the Cape of Good Hope. They also raved about the architecture of Barcelona in general and the Sagrada Familia in particular. They described the vastness of the Serengeti and the starkness of a glacier. The Summer Palace made a big impression, as did the gardens of the Alhambra. Personally, I love art and have some of my finest memories in the great museums.
While these visual memories provide me joy, I realize that they are not the greatest gift of travel either.
A third thought came to mind. Our family travels have helped us bond as a familial unit. When we travel, we do so in a highly spartan manner. We are unplugged, without phones, GPS or the internet except for the end of each day to check emails. We travel with backpacks and stay in hostels. For example, the six of us are currently all staying in a 220 square foot room in Tokyo in 3 beds. Being unplugged and uncomfortable creates opportunities for shared experiences and authentic conversation.
Susie and I like to say that by traveling, our family goes far so that we can become close. Our family is our greatest source of joy, so the opportunity to share, suffer, grow and explore together is precious to us.
But I realized that there is an even greater gift of travel.
After much thought, I have determined that the greatest gift is the resourcefulness and resilience that it fosters in our children. As much as Susie and I love our time with our children, our ultimate goal is to prepare them to be successful without us. We want them to be capable, caring and contributing adults.
As a child, my parents had a mantra whenever I would encounter a challenge: “the solution to your problem is in this room.” Sometimes the solution was a simple physical one. Perhaps I would need to loosen a screw and end up using a dime when no screwdriver was available. But the more profound lesson was that my previous experiences and my disposition would enable me to access answers that were not immediately available. The solution to a challenge might require critical thinking, creativity, asking for help or accepting an outcome that was not my personal preference.
This belief that I was both resourceful and resilient provided me with a personal narrative that helped transform problems into opportunities. With this narrative, I have found life to be an adventure and not a burden. I married a woman who shares this approach to life.
We both want this for our children.
To do this, we have tried to allow them to make mistakes and solve their own problems. But this is not easy. As a parent, it is difficult to watch your children struggle and experience discomfort if we can alleviate it, even when we know that doing so will help them grow. We love them and we want them to be happy.
Helping children become more resilient and resourceful is one of the reasons that we love being summer camp directors. Children who attend our camp will experience great joy, but they also experience much more. Underneath the surface of the fun, something important is happening. They are learning ways to resolve conflict, overcome failure (few people learn to waterski on their first try) and develop self control. For our own children, we have sent them to other camps as well as our own, so that they will have the true away-from-home experience and learn that they can learn to rely on themselves.
If I could give one single gift to a child, it would be the belief that they can not only survive, but also thrive in difficult situations. We cannot protect our children from challenges or difficulties. OK, perhaps we can protect them while they are children. But we certainly cannot protect them from the challenges they will experience as adults. They will encounter difficult relationships, failures, lost jobs and lost loved ones.
So if we cannot prevent them from facing these challenges, we must prepare them to face them.
As I mention above, our travel style in unusual. The kids call it adventure travel rather than holiday travel. We eat street food and make our selections by pointing. Often, we have no idea what we are eating. Our epicurean experiences have included exotic vegetables, a fruit that smelled like rotting meat, dozens of creatures from the sea and “delicacies” that I will spare the details of. [Note: I believe the word “delicacy” translates into “stuff only local people would ever eat”.]
We walk and take public transportation, including a “sleeper bus” in China with 5-foot bunks and no bathroom.
We do not use tour guides and sometimes have to improvise our travel plans. We strive to live like the locals in the countries we visit.
On a few occasions, we became separated from each other and needed to keep our heads to reconnect. One such occasion was in Versailles and another in Hong Kong. We had discussed the possibility of separation and had a plan if it happened. When it did, everyone remained calm and executed the plan.
These uncomfortable accommodations, odd edibles, difficult transportations and challenging moments all made them stronger, more confident and more capable. And, like camp, the overall experience is so fun and rewarding that the challenges are essentially hidden and are easier to absorb.
Susie and I share the philosophy that our job is to make ourselves obsolete. We want to be loved, but we do not want to be needed when they are grown. Next fall, our three oldest will go to college. Susie and I will miss them terribly. But we know that they will be OK. In fact, we know more than that, we know that they will thrive.
That is truly a great gift.