Embracing the Ennui: Retreat, Respite and Relaxation

Written early August 2014, a few days into our summer trip to Marrakech, Morocco.

Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Sometimes there’s nothing to do but sit down, smell the roses and drink tea (Atlas Mountains, 2011).

Here I am. In Morocco.

Here I am, needing to refine my ability to ‘just be’. For someone who spends a lot of time reading about and agreeing with Buddhist teachings on mindfulness, I’m not very good at it.

I’d been in Morocco for less than 24 hours before I began to sense the ennui that sometimes overcomes me here. I had to take a step back and recall some of the aims of my visit – the ‘3 Rs’:

Retreat.

Respite.

Relaxation.

At home I’m constantly busy, something FreeToBeB finds difficult to comprehend (despite it being obvious to me that between being a lone parent to two young children, running a household, engaging in various social and voluntary pursuits, working on creative endeavours, not to mention trying to pursue my many and varied interests, I am invariably burning the candle at both ends). Yet from his point of view, I appear to have better things to do than chat to him via Skype – for when I do find the time, I’m often distracted by the kids, trying to multitask with work on the computer, in the middle of cooking dinner or cutting our conversation short in order to pick FreeToBeP up from school.

In Morocco, the opposite happens to me: freed from most of my usual household duties, my social circle, the school routine and the variety of other things that usually keep me occupied, I find myself at a loose end here. This time, I don’t even have FreeToBeP with me to keep me on my toes.

I should be grateful for the rest.

But it’s all part of the culture shock, and there is a period of adjustment.

I keep thinking of Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. I’m aware of my need for self-actualisation – the top of the pyramid, the pinnacle of human life, the gateway to transcendence – being unseen, unrecognised, unfulfilled. It’s a distinctly cultural issue, as I don’t think the idea of ‘hobbies’ and many concepts of personal development are particularly prevalent here.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Creative Commons License)

And with the more simple way of life in Morocco, oftentimes my own thoughts turn to more basic needs rather than anything of a ‘higher nature’.

Rather than considering what educational activities I can come up with for the kids, I’m thinking about the need to boil water for a wash. Rather than having my hands and mind free to complete other tasks whilst keeping an eye on dinner cooking safely up on the stove and/or in the oven, I’m trying to figure out how to cook a full meal on a single hob over a gas cylinder on the floor whilst keeping intrigued children out of the way.

Up in FreeToBeB’s family home in the Atlas Mountains – without a bathroom or running water – I am quite literally functioning at the base of the pyramid (“Where can I find a private spot to go to the toilet [outdoors] tonight without risking the attention of wild boars?”).

Thus, time passes differently for many people here, especially for those who have grown up in the countryside.

This observation has been confirmed by a Moroccan author whose work I have been reading this week:

“When it’s hot, people go to ground in their homes until dusk, learning to wait, learning to do nothing. They don’t talk about the climate and its hardships. They sit cross-legged on mats, shifting positions, then changing places. They don’t even look at the sky . . . they forget about the hours that drag by. Instead of passing from one person to another, words seem to bump into the walls and crumble away. So no one speaks. There’s nothing to say, nothing to do . . . Life is simple, and simply terrible.”  (Tahar Ben Jelloun, A Palace in the Old Village)

Yes, at least I can sit and read, something I can see as ‘productive relaxation’. Yet reading for pleasure does not seem to be a typical pastime for many people here, which may be directly linked to literacy rates in Morocco or perhaps it is our more secluded lives in the UK that allow us to partake in such pastimes.

Reading forms such a fundamental basis to my own learning and aspirations, that I can’t imagine life without written material to study, digest and philosophise over. I accept that this is my personal way to access my own ideas and dreams, and yet everyone needs something to inspire new ideas and dreams. Don’t they? To what extent do people in more traditional societies – not caught up in the same individualistic society as I am – even embrace their own ideas and dreams? Surely, I’ve thought, my striving for ‘something more’ is a normal, human drive to explore and discover and create? How indeed has the human race got where it is today without that drive?

And then I remember: life up in the Moroccan mountains is pretty much akin to how it must have been for centuries. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a sharp and sometimes grating contrast to my own lifestyle, full of my need for change and contrast, full of options and choices and everything around us telling us to personalise our content – create a unique identity and prove what we’re doing to make our way in the world.

There have always been trailblazers, explorers and inventors in the world who help push the human species into new territories. Yet for most of human history, these have been but a few faces upon backbones of larger communities. These days, in so-called ‘developed’ countries, we are encouraged not to make our way as a community but as individuals, thinking about how best to progress life for I, Me, Myself.

And not forgetting Maslow’s hierarchy, we are lucky in the UK that most of us don’t have to worry about those bottom two layers, but can take it for granted that we have 3 meals a day and a doctor’s surgery, free at the point of service, just up the road. This isn’t true in places such as Morocco, where as many as 1 in 4 people have a hand-to-mouth existence and cannot afford basic medical care. What time or motivation is there for self-actualisation when your number one concern is ensuring you have a few coins in your hand at the end of the day in order to procure an evening meal?

And, whilst we have seemingly unlimited choice in what we choose for our intellectual and creative pursuits in Western nations, that’s not to say that those in less eclectic cultures can’t pursue valuable and valid personal projects. Who am I to say that a mountain woman making blankets or rugs is merely doing it for survival and following tradition? Yes, it is a tradition – but perhaps it is also her passion and her creative outlet that allows her to reach her own sense of self-actualisation? Who am I to say she isn’t creating her own individual style? Who am I to say that my own ideas of living a creative and fulfilled life have universal meaning across cultures? Of course they don’t.

And perhaps this is why, like a fish out of water, I struggle to adapt my ideals to my reality here. One has to work with what is at hand, and if the country you are in has different things at hand than the country you are used to, your ideas of how to work and what to work on may have to change.

The silly thing is that I feel I should be better equipped and better educated to deal with these differences than I seem to be. I’ve attended so many academic courses, meditated and prayed my way through so many spiritual traditions, owned and read so many books, that on the one hand I feel I “should know better” and on the other hand I’m not quite sure what to do with everything that crowds my restless mind. I have the unsettling feeling that I’m always missing the point.

Conversely, FreeToBeB spent about seven years in formal education as a child, being taught in a language that he had to pick up as he went along. The only books I’ve seen in his possession are bilingual dictionaries and other language-learning materials that actually seem quite surplus to his requirements as a polyglot who can speak seven languages to differing extents, self-taught through interactions with other speakers of those languages.

Occasionally the phrase “At the mosque they said . . .” will emerge from his mouth, but even this he says with detachment: he repeats what he’s heard but admits he doesn’t know enough about the subject at hand to either verify or deny the claims. And it doesn’t bother him that he doesn’t know. He shrugs and lets the subject go. He doesn’t understand why I’m always asking “Why?”, like an eternal child.

My point? FreeToBeB seems untroubled by the ever-changing thoughts and questions and the pervading restlessness that punctuates my own mental life. Yes, he sometimes feels fed up, but not in the desperate manner in which I do, whereby I feel selfish for sitting still and doing nothing when world peace has not yet been achieved (note to self: don’t hate – meditate!).

However, it’s now our fourth day here and I think I may well be settling into ‘relax’ mode at last. We were intending to attend a family wedding in Beni Mellal today (the marriage of one of FreeToBeB’s many nieces), but last night I felt ill and tired and worried, so I bailed out.

So much for an adventure! I’m afraid this bout of ‘travel blogging’ doesn’t involve a great deal of your typical traveller stories, much more concerned am I about taking the time to sit still for a while and look after my pregnant body.

Anyway, I couldn’t fathom if the nausea, dizziness and headache I was suffering were a psychosomatic response to heightened emotions (having allowed an issue with FreeToBeB to degenerate into an argument), whether the heat or some dodgy food was having its effect, or if I should be wracking my brains to recall the symptoms of pre-eclampsia. Whatever it was, it was enough to put me off a journey which would entail the generous use of Rescue Remedy in order to calm myself about the dubious road safety record in this country.

Yet I awoke today feeling just a little lethargic and checked myself to see if I was annoyed that I hadn’t committed to honouring the wedding and gone anyway. No, it’s fine; I’m not going to regret this missed opportunity on my deathbed.

We’d all had a late night and didn’t awaken properly until 2pm. We started the day slowly, still eating breakfast at 4pm, treating myself to a favourite yoghurt of cream and cereal which would be way too much of a guilty pleasure at home, where I adhere as much as possible to a vegan diet. I balance it out here knowing that my asthma (exacerbated by dairy products) is usually at bay in the dry heat where I don’t have my damp flat to contend with.

During our leisurely breakfast, I sat daydreaming about lush, green forests and clear, flowing streams of water. I’m yearning for the greenery of England and the seaside of my hometown. But here I am, in Abouab, Marrakech: I know I will exit the front door here to a view of dust and litter and ill-kept streets full of trip hazards. Am I looking on the negative side? No, I’m just looking; saying it as I see it. Here I am.

Despite the daydreams, I actually feel like they’ve come of a desire to ‘retreat and relax’. Let’s just sit here and observe my thoughts.

I’m glad I didn’t rush around purchasing fancy clothes and gifts in order to attend a wedding. Instead, I’m reading a book by a fellow ‘mum blogger’, a read I chanced upon whilst browsing the Kindle store for free downloads to keep me occupied (yes, always that need to be ‘occupied’!). [For those who may be interested, the book is Trees As Tall As Mountains by Rachel Devenish Ford].

This book is balancing. As this fellow mother talks of the joys and pains of parenting her 3 young children and her need to remember to connect to the divine in times of difficulty, it’s a good reminder to myself. Having exchanged some angry words with FreeToBeB last night, I feel I can live today in more grace.

Spontaneous smiles of love and contentment are blooming on my face as I watch FreeToBeZ playing exuberantly, a simple pleasure as I sip sweet, smooth coffee that tastes nothing like the bitter beverage I’m used to at home. The electric fan stirs the skirt of my dress around my ankles as it attempts to penetrate the stifling summer heat and, focusing on this gentle sensation, it’s enough to remind me: here I am; I am alive; what a wonderful world.

So, here I am: overcoming an inner battle of ‘shoulds’. I’m in another country, I ‘should’ be exploring, I ‘should’ go somewhere new. If I’m craving the sea, perhaps we ‘should’ hop on the coach to Agadir? I’ve never been there and have always wanted to see what it’s like. But at the moment it intuitively feels as likely a trip as saying “Ah, New Zealand – I’ve never been there.”

No, here I am trying to embrace the ennui and instead think of it in terms of those 3 R words: this is my retreat, my respite, my relaxation.

Last night I managed to find a place of peace as I prayed and visualised the amazing lifestyle of my dreams. It seemed all the more attainable thanks to being in a country that still relies so much on community and extended family, and due to the aforementioned book being based in an intentional community.

I saw myself amongst a group of people building together, cooking together, cleaning together, helping each other. Between us there were many children, playing as a pack outdoors, laughter streaming after them as they chased through meadows of tall, sun-browned grass . . .

What a cliché! All I need now are some John Lennon specs and flowers in my hair.

But the combination of my knowledge of the more communal, traditional Imazighen life here in Morocco and the impression made on me by an article a dear friend shared with me just before my trip (I Miss the Village) has watered a seed that has rested in my mind for a long time.

I notice that many of the challenges I experience stem from being an isolated single mother, which I keenly feel is not a natural, human state of being. And how ironic that within this isolation I never get the chance to rest and retreat, so consumed am I by being solely responsible for so many things, not least the two little people who depend on me 24/7.

I needed to get away to reflect on what I really want and need in my life. Our times in Morocco are such a contrast to our life in the UK that I can more easily see the pros and cons of both places and wonder how and where I can carve out an existence for my family that embodies the pros of both.

I always come to the conclusion that a commune in a warm climate is my ideal home.

Retreating into myself as FreeToBeP is cared for by my parents back in England and FreeToBeZ is entertained by her father across the room, I can sense my genuine needs, pick out the life ideals that may be desirable but not altogether attainable and/or necessary, and really sort all the wheat from the chaff.

I’m sitting still here, happily observing the mundane yet mighty moments of everyday life.

How can I be anything but appreciative as FreeToBeB cooks and serves me food and I temporarily escape from it being my own daily duty?

How can I be anything but appreciative as I soak up my daughter’s smiles? Such food for the soul. As I bask in them, I nourish myself in a way that I often neglect to do.

I’ve spent the past few hours thinking “Here I am – nowhere else but here”, reminding myself to be truly present in the moment, cherishing the little moments that make life a life lived.

FreeToBeZ just took both FreeToBeB and I in her tiny hands and led us to the shower room, wishing to play with water and wanting us both to witness her splashes. After performing the necessary ablutions to ensure her cleanliness, FreeToBeB blocked up the plughole with a plastic bag so she could sit in the water and enjoy a ‘bath’.

Moroccan bath

This is what I meant in Paltry Packing when I stated that kids are generally easy to entertain without all the toys and gadgets, providing you are present and patient. Rather than the rushed, pre-bedtime, functional ‘bathtime’ of home, I sat gazing adoringly at FreeToBeZ as she giggled each time she tipped a jug of cool water over herself. She doesn’t need Agadir.

Really: if some folks travel all the way to India to sit in a monastery on silent retreat, why can’t I have my own retreat in Morocco, a place where I have already enjoyed a significant amount of exploring?

Why must I be ‘doing’ when I could purely be ‘being’?

Perhaps, here, I can teach myself to relax. Surely that would be a worthwhile occupation? I may even (guiltily, self-consciously, apologetically) ask FreeToBeB for a shoulder massage later.

Quite apart from making my children aware of different traditions and lifestyles across the world, what better thing to teach them than effective self-care?

For there is no better springboard towards caring for and understanding others than to care for and understand one’s own self first.

10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips

New Eyes

If to be mind-altering something must change one’s mood and behaviour, then I hope the following post will live up to its title.

I would like to share some ways of doing and thinking that may allow your family more freedom, fun and flexibility as you journey to new horizons. My focus is on adopting an open and relaxed mental attitude to ensure you truly embrace the adventure of travelling with your children.

There are plenty of resources out there sharing information about practical matters such as documentation, transportation and sights to see, but little about actually nurturing yourself and your family to make the most of the travel experience.

If you travel with a genuinely positive and relaxed attitude, any obstacles and challenges can be experienced with a level of grace and acceptance that may be much harder to accomplish if you pressure yourself to stick to a predetermined plan shaped around ideals that work well at home but may not adapt so well to the spirit of travel.

This list has no particular hierarchy and can certainly be added to, but herein are 10 pieces of advice for anyone hoping or planning to take a family trip anywhere in the world (yes, even Skegness). Some of them may go against conventional parenting advice but I would like to suggest that your best ally as you travel is the ability to think outside the box . . .

 

1) Prepare Your Self

Body and mind are as important as bags and money (or, indeed, bags of money) when it comes to anticipating a trip with children.

I tend to get the packing and paperwork sorted well in advance of travelling – not because I’m super organised, but because I’m super excited! This gives me a bit of space and time to ensure I’m well-rested before embarking on our journey (or at least as well-rested as a restless single mother to two young children can be).

I can’t emphasise enough how useful it is to ensure you have some well-sharpened relaxation tools in your metaphorical toolbox before you go, whether that be a well-tuned meditation practice or merely the awareness of a need to take some time out and have a drink.

I’ve heard many stories of family holidays being the absolute opposite of the relaxing and bonding experience that was hoped for, and I’ve wondered how many of these families have well-established mental anchors when the stress levels start to rise. My own anchor isn’t always heavy enough to keep me from allowing the anxieties to get the better of me at times, but I generally avoid being too buffeted by the ocean of emotion when I remember the many relaxation techniques at my disposal.

If all else fails – keep quiet and just breathe!

Before I embark on my journey, I also take some time to reflect on what I’m hoping to get out of the trip, yet also how I can be mindful and accepting of whatever comes our way.

Whilst the logistics and practical concerns of travelling as a family take precedent, we make ourselves better able to deal with any strains or unforeseen events if we are mentally prepared to accept that:
a) we can never be 100% prepared; and
b) in choosing to go beyond our usual environments and comfort zones with our little ones, poo happens (sometimes quite literally).

2) The Group Mind

Travel as a group.

Taking your own community of friends or extended family with you is a big bonus. Though perhaps not the norm, it is a set-up I would recommend whenever it is possible. I suggest that you and your travel companions speak in advance about what might be expected of each other, the details of which may be dictated by whether or not they also have children with them.

The old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” seems somehow all the more appropriate when you’re in strange new places and in need of that extra support when the kids go hyper just as you’re queuing at passport control or involved in some other such non-negotiable event.

Sharing your trip with others also serves as a home base for everyone. You don’t have to agree on what to do each day and you may separate to pursue different outings or activities, yet it is comforting to know you will be seeing a familiar face for dinner or evening drinks.

3) Be Spontaneous

Whilst preparation is the key to making a smooth getaway and in ensuring you have everything you need for the duration of your stay, spontaneity is a good trait to practice during your actual holiday.

I generally have some idea of things that I’d “quite like to do” in a particular location, yet I do my best to avoid setting in stone what will happen when. Keeping a loose agenda takes the pressure off and, if you do have a day where it feels better to stay close to your accommodation for easy rest or if the kids seems a little off-colour, this can result in a fresh burst of energy the following day when – feeling rejuvenated – you may end up packing lots of activities into a single day.

Be dictated by the needs and feelings of your family rather than by a schedule.

4) I Repeat – Forget the Schedule!

I once spoke to a family whom had hosted another family in their Mediterranean home during the summer. Just envisage those balmy summertime evenings following siesta time, families gathered around for late evening meals and socialising…

Well, they were rather bemused when the visiting family told them that their children would be going to bed as per their usual early evening bedtime – and that the visitors also expected the hosts to impose the same bedtime on their own child!

Even if you don’t intend to tell a host family what to do with their own children (perish the thought!), I would also encourage you not to tell yourself that you must adhere to what is actually an arbitrary, culturally-prescribed set of expectations. What works on a school night is not necessarily the best rule for other nights. The sense of time passing and the sense of what is necessary to get done changes from country to country and culture to culture. And, as they say, when in Rome…

Many would argue that adherence to as close a routine as you have at home is desirable. Whilst this is true, particularly for young children, with regards to keeping things familiar and consistent (e.g. retaining the same comforting bedtime routine, whatever time bedtime actually falls), being too focused on this can be a stress in itself – especially if there have been delays during the course of the day (be it problems with transport or the need to accept some countries’ more ‘mañana’ attitude).

Here we must make the distinction between a ‘routine’ and a ‘schedule’.

If you’ve passed the usual 7pm wind-down time and everyone is still waiting on an evening meal, you’ll do yourself no favours by worrying about it. You all need to eat and you’ll all get to bed eventually. As long as you respond to (and, ideally, premeditate) your children’s needs for food, drink, toilet stops and sleep/rest throughout the day, kids themselves are incredibly adaptable and accepting beings who, depending on their age, aren’t that conscious of the actual time. As long as they’re with a loved and trusted caregiver who doesn’t berate them for behaviour that results from any tiredness, they can feel ‘at home’ in themselves.

By all means resume your scheduling when you return home, but embrace the spirit of adventure whilst you’re away – take a risk and see what happens!

Eat when you feel like eating, sleep when you feel like sleeping, and build your usual little rituals and routines around that. If all hell breaks loose and the kids start pushing for tighter boundaries on their time, rein it in again. But you could be pleasantly surprised by the opportunities it gives you and how liberating it feels to fall into natural rhythms.

5) Must have a GSOH

I find that remembering one’s sense of humour is most useful when around the inevitable grumpy old men you will cross on your travels (I can count at least three) who will invariably find a reason to audibly complain about your children, even when your little sweethearts are actually being on their best behaviour. Some people just aren’t child-friendly. Don’t take this personally.

I vividly recall standing in the queue for passport control when returning to the UK and both kids were tired and in need of a trip to the toilets. They were complaining very noisily. A couple in front of me did much staring and tut-tut-ing before the woman loudly announced to the queue “This is why I’m glad I never had children!”.

I actually felt quite sorry for her. Reflecting on this, I could just as easily have felt sorry for myself. Thankfully, I was quite seasoned at travelling with the kids by then and was able to shrug it off and even snigger about it when an airport official then let us jump the long queue precisely because I did have children.

I’ve also employed humour to get me out of many an argumentative situation with FreeToBeB. We don’t have the luxury of living together full-time in order to create a stable basis for our relationship before we’re travelling around Morocco together and dealing with the usual family travel gripes. It can make our time together as a family fairly intense.

Mid-disagreement I will remember to think about how ridiculous our concerns are in the great scheme of things, and I will break into a smile and laugh (if you want a reminder of how ultimately insignificant all our worries are, check out this link ). My giggles aren’t always met with a matching reaction, but at least my own tension is released, which means there is no animosity left for the other party to feed on other than whatever they still choose to dwell on.

I’ve also employed the method of making fun of our previous fallings-out to lighten the mood and remind us that we always make up in the end, so better to make it sooner than later.

Emotions are often heightened for couples during travelling, so I imagine these techniques could work for anyone – including with our children, whose own moods can only be calmed if we ourselves are calm.

6) Blue Sky Thinking

Turn holiday time into adventure time!

For some, the words ‘family holiday’ may conjure up images of all-inclusive excursions to busy holiday resorts.

I’ve never taken a package holiday with my kids (unless a night in Legoland counts), although I can certainly see the appeal in the apparent ease of this. Yet I’m not satisfied with run-of-the-mill ‘family entertainment’ (i.e. I tend to find it downright cringe-worthy) and tend to think there are so many more activities ‘out there’ that can open their minds, hearts and souls to all that is beautiful and diverse and possible in this world.

Some people may feel less able to think creatively when they have children to consider and perhaps assume more ‘outside the box’ activities just aren’t possible for families. This makes a good excuse for taking the easier option.

However, the easier option is rarely the one that develops us as individuals, and I heartily recommend going outside one’s comfort zone when it comes to planning a family break.

There are many other ways to ‘do’ family travel which allow us to introduce our children to new and exciting aspects of life which may not otherwise be easily available to them. Whatever your interests or ambitions, there will be someone out there catering to families or at least making provisions for adults who will be accompanied by children. And if there isn’t? Well, there’s that niche business idea you’ve always been after!

Volunteer programmes such as WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) offer families the chance to work and learn whilst experiencing different countries and cultures.

CouchSurfing is also a popular way to go out and experience the world. You are accommodated for the price of a gift or favour to the host (which itself isn’t obligatory but certainly good social etiquette) and you also benefit from experiencing the destination from the point of view of a local, including the added bonus that you might have a free walking, talking guidebook. CouchSurfing is great for people genuinely interested in cultural exchange, including language exchange. You may feel more comfortable staying with another family who are familiar with the ways of children, yet there are many couchsurfers without children who are more than willing to host entire families.

Backpacking is also an option. I successfully spent 5 days backpacking and CouchSurfing around Andalusia with a 25kg rucksack, FreeToBeP (then 5 years old) carrying his small backpack, FreeToBeZ (then 15 months old) on me in a front-carrying sling, as I hobbled along on an injured foot (brave or crazy? You decide!).

Yes, it was hard work. Yes, it was extremely satisfying and life-affirming.

I have even heard of families successfully being able to take their children on meditation retreats, with lovely tales of their offspring tuning in and peace-ing out amidst the calmness of the community. I’m yet to test this theory on my own kids and think this is the point at which I would really be pushing my comfort zone – given the way all hell has a tendency to break loose when I instigate our nightly bedtime routine (which often includes meditation), I’m not sure I’m quite ready to let them loose amidst a group of Buddhists. That said, we could be a good test for other attendees’ true level of enlightenment and Zen-ness 😉

7) Luggage That Fits Into The Kitchen Sink

I will be covering the topic of packing lightly in much more detail in a couple of weeks’ time.

However, many of us have a tendency to over-pack, and this can be an additional and unnecessary burden in an already challenging situation. There are also many lessons in doing the exact opposite and taking as little as you can get away with.

I try to pare things back by thinking about what I really need for survival and comfort, and about what I can do at my destination. Perhaps there are things you can purchase at your destination instead of lugging it around in your luggage? Maybe you could do a little washing every couple of days instead of packing more changes of clothes? This also does away with the mammoth laundry task when you return home.

Travelling has also truly alerted me to how much we have in this country compared to many places in the world and how bizarre some of our ‘necessities’ are. That’s consumer society for you!

It was very humbling (and somewhat embarrassing) to realise that I often take more personal possessions in a single suitcase than many Amazigh women have in their entire homes. FreeToBeP takes more toys in a couple of pencil cases than a whole family of young boys may own in the Atlas Mountains.

Yet every place has its pros and cons. In the mountains, nature is their playground. FreeToBeP can forget all about Lego for an entire day when he has tree-climbing, rock-scrambling, bug-hunting friends to explore with, with the required trees, rocks and bugs right on the doorstep. In urban landscapes, we make up for that lack of natural freedom by filling rooms full of toys.

The boys in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco
The boys in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco

I’ve found that the less you take, the more you are forced to really take in and take on what is around you. Ergo, you go from a sight-seeing tourist to an all-seeing traveller.

8) Be a Cheapskate

Don’t be afraid to do things on the cheap if you need to. Having a low budget does not prevent you from travelling – but it does make you more resourceful.

Most of the things we think we ‘need’ as families are actually things we’ve just become used to and dependent upon as adults in a highly commercialised, consumerist society, whereas children are naturally quite adaptable in new and different situations.

Indeed, as with the examples above about packing, this can help to highlight different cultural and societal norms that your children may not experience if you partake in a holiday resort experience in a country where the typical activities and living standards of a resort are not the embodied experience of the families who actually live in that country.

Depending on the age of your children, you may all be comfortable sharing a double room (or even one bed) for your travels. I once booked a single room for myself and the two kids in Spain with camping mats as our second bed; the hotel owners actually provided a second single mattress for the floor at a cost of 6 Euros (their standard charge per child), which still ensured the single room remained cheaper than the double, and much cheaper than a family-sized room.

Provided you are capable of doing a quick risk assessment upon entering a hostel room, there is nothing wrong with booking a low budget room for your family and doing your own safety-proofing where necessary and possible. Ultimately, you – and no amount of health and safety legislation – bears the responsibility for keeping your children safe. If anything, taking the cheaper and apparently less ‘child friendly’ option can make us all the more attentive and responsive as parents (by which I mean being more present for them opposed to wrapping them in cotton wool).

As with all things, trust your intuition.

That said, I’ve stayed in some really grotty places that I would never recommend to anyone. It has made me really aware of what I’m prepared to compromise and what I’m prepared to pay for. And, also, how clean my home actually is despite housework not being one of my strong points (for I’ve never entered my own home wondering what that awful smell is only to discover a decomposing toad lying under my bed, maggots and all. That’ll serve me right for staying in the cheapest place in town).

Again, I would heartily recommend options such as CouchSurfing to families on a budget. One of our big joys as a CouchSurfing family is hosting and meeting other families in our own home. I also know of families who have arranged home swaps via CouchSurfing for the purpose of taking a cheap holiday.

If cheap equals simple, I like to think simple is the blank canvas required for further blue sky thinking. A room without a TV and a hostel without family entertainment will force you to spend more time bonding as a family and to get out exploring as much as possible.

I know that my truly budget travels have been the times that have resulted in the greatest challenges yet also the greatest learning.

9) Slow Down

Going at a child’s pace may be something we’re happy to do on a leisurely wander up to the local shops, but compile an itinerary for a journey (particularly by public transport) and we suddenly see a list of strict deadlines which we will make our children adhere to.

Provided you factor it in before you’re due to make your trip, it is possible to take your time. The journey to your destination need not be one fraught with panicking parents and cranky kids as everyone gets hurridly ferried between connections.

If need be, book a pre-flight hotel stay. When booking in advance, I’ve been able to book a well-equipped, en suite family room complete with king size bed for as little as £18 a night at Gatwick, with kids eating for free in the morning.

I find this extra expense a good investment for a payback of reduced stress levels, well-rested children and an extra day of travelling adventure. I will often do this even if my flight isn’t particularly early, as the peace of mind experienced from knowing I’m already ‘at’ the airport when I wake up in the morning is invaluable.

I actually find it much easier when I’m away somewhere to factor in all the dawdling, fussing, staring and general messing about time that young children must do. At home I’m much more likely to be preoccupied by a to do list or the need to be somewhere at a specific time, yet the nature of taking holidays should enable us to stop clock watching, be more mindful of the present moment, and ungrudgingly take things at the pace of the slowest members of the group.

Yes: slow down, lest all the speed just blurs the scenery.

10) Through The Eyes of a Child . . .

. . . is an amazing way to view the world!

Taking this view allows us a greater understanding of children’s needs as young travellers, yet also allows one to be the most open, non-judgemental person possible in a new environment.

Zen Buddhists (yes, them again) talk of seeing the world afresh in every moment, and this is all the more apt as travellers – to leave behind our own cultural conditioning and experience a place for what it is rather than what we feel it ought to be. And, in meeting them in empathy, truly allowing our children to do the same.

 

Please feel free to feedback in the comments below. Do these tips have the capability to alter your mind? Which of them resonated for you and which didn’t? Do you already have success in utilising some of these things?

Keep following Free To Be for my top tips on travelling as a single parent, travelling with a baby and travelling whilst pregnant.

Next week: The Quiet Zone: Travelling with a High Spirited Child