Twenty years ago, Karen and I went on our first date – tapas and sangria at a chain restaurant in Orlando called Café Tu Tu Tango. I’m assuming she picked the place because I have no recollection of how we ended up there. She wore a wrap skirt and a beige top which only survived the first hour of the evening before a pot sticker, dripping with sauce, went tumbling down her front, staining her sweater and casting serious doubt on her chopstick technique. It was hilarious (even then). We laughed about first impressions, how hard we all try to be some amazing version of ourselves on a first date. It was the perfect blunder to force an authentic conversation.
We talked about a lot of things on that date but the topic we can both still recall is travel. I had done some, she had done a little – we both wanted to do a lot more. This is an easy conversation for a first date, everyone will tell you they love travel. And it’s mostly true. Sort of. It’s like talking about how much you like foreign films – yes, you like them in the abstract but when it comes time to watch something, you’re way more likely to pick the new Will Ferrell movie than to explore the latest trends in Hungarian cinema.
But there was something definitively different about that travel conversation. Maybe we didn’t even realize it at the time but we were, somehow, making a pact. A promise to say ‘yes’ when the other person had a whim or wild hair about doing something exotic and ambitious.
Ten years later we were still together and, by then, we had seen 6 continents and more than 65 countries. Add it all up and we’d spent more than a year of our lives backpacking our way around the world – hostels and tents, bullet trains and Bedouin camps. We’d done the obvious, like France and Italy, but also the roads less taken – Syria, Cambodia, Bolivia, India, and more. Best of all, we truly appreciated the blessing of getting to travel. Every sunset, every beer on the beach, we’d look at each other and say “We’re incredibly lucky people. We will always be grateful we got to do this.”
And so we are.
In 2005, two days shy of boarding a plane for six weeks in Australia and New Zealand, Karen showed me one of those ridiculously expensive, plastic sticks that girls sometimes have to buy at the pharmacy. There was a bright, blue plus sign on it. In a matter of hours, we found an OB, got the blessing to make our trip (minus scuba diving and wine tasting), and set off on what turned out to be our last serious excursion for a while.
During the trip, we tried to get used to the idea that we would soon be a party of 3. We told ourselves that our life wasn’t really going to change. We’d be “us plus” – same program, just with some diapers in the daypack.
That’s what we told ourselves.
10 years ago.
Look, I don’t really feel bad about how naïve we were. You can’t know what you don’t know. And, holy shit, there was a lot we didn’t know. We have spent the last decade becoming a party of 4, navigating all the mundane/predictable ups and downs of raising kids, moving across the country and – frankly – getting older. But somewhere inside we’ve held on to our promise that – one day, eventually, somehow – we would dust off the backpacks and show our offspring the world.
Right now, as I type, our backpacks are stuffed full, sprawled on the living room floor. Tomorrow we board a plane and head for Europe with a six year old and a nine year old and not much of an itinerary. We are giving ourselves a month to make it up as we go – a month to get from London to Naples with nothing fully planned in between. (well, Paris, right? Gotta do Paris.)
It’s invigorating to be traveling again, and we’re excited to show the kids how amazing the wide world can be. But there’s another, more powerful layer to it all. Making this trip is the fulfillment of a decade old promise that we made to each other. And if we can still summon the energy to shake off a 10 year detour and get back to our nomadic roots; then maybe we’re not that old, after all – maybe this is really just the beginning.
I have spent much of my adult life traveling — not rum runners on the beach travel but backpack, third world, swamp-ass, don’t ask what kind of meat is in the goulash, travel. Travel is something Karen and I bonded over on our first date and we vowed that as long as our money and knees held out, we’d see as much of the world as possible. Before the kids came along we managed to pack our way through about 65 countries.
After Z joined the family, we decided drag him to El Salvador and Nicaragua for 3 weeks of family travel time. We learned two important things on that trip: 1) our days as carefree nomads were, for the foreseeable future, over and b) it is, in fact, possible to conceive your 2nd child with your 1st child napping in the same room.
What follows is part of an email I sent home from our trip after Z made friends with some of the local street urchins.
It’s with no small amount of guilt that I shoo away a kid of about 8 who approaches me with a “hello, amigo.” Z doesn’t notice. We’re sitting on the front steps of our hotel, me poring over the map of Granada and him captivated by the horse-drawn carriages that line the central square of this well-preserved Spanish colonial town.
Street kids—whether the pint-sized kitsch hawkers at Angkor Wat, the frequently belligerent Gypsy girls outside the Louvre, or the pack of 9-year-old boys who follow you Pied Piper-style to the bakery in Hue (where you inevitably buy them a loaf of bread)—are a fixture in the life of a traveler. Almost anywhere you go, there’s a predictable culture of children working tourists on the streets.
Emotionally, it’s complicated. Sometimes you want to give them all your money. Sometimes you want to yell at them to leave. Sometimes you want to jump in the middle of them and sing “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” An appropriate response seems impossible.
Even more so once you’re traveling with your own child.
Before I can shoo him away again, the Granadan street kid is playing hide-and-seek with Z, who’s howling with delight at having found someone closer to his size to play with. Every now and again, this grubby 8-year-old pops up from behind a planter and yells, “Estoy aqui!” which sends my 2-year-old screaming and scampering in that direction.
The next morning, as we head for breakfast, Z calls out “Estoy Aqui!” at random intervals—his first words in a foreign language.
At the local waffle house, we’re tearing through the staggering platefuls of food when the first of the street kids appears, throwing us a forlorn “You gonna eat that toast?” look. In fact, we’re not going to eat the toast, so I reach down to the street and hand it off to him. At which point the manager shouts and chases the kid away. It’s a game of cat and mouse that will play out again and again while we sit here, the manager now paying particular attention to my side of the cafe since I’ve proven myself to be an easy mark. Of course, the manager won’t correct or scold me. I’m a paying customer, after all. But he’ll throw me a disapproving look and keep a better eye on my side of the patio. The last thing he needs is for packs of kids to run off his clientele.
And you can’t really blame the guy. The family from Richmond sitting behind us definitely doesn’t want some skinny, unwashed child asking them for a strip of bacon. That isn’t the holiday they signed up for. People get mad when poverty is waved in their face; it’s full of messy feelings of guilt, helplessness, self-doubt and the knowledge that there but for the randomness of the birth lottery go you. And—honestly—who wants to deal with any of that over waffles and coffee?
Z, of course, is dealing with nothing but the conundrum of how to get the chocolate chips out of his pancakes without having to actually eat the pancake.
He isn’t old enough to ask why he has piles of food—most of which he won’t eat—and that little boy gets yelled at for having my toast. He isn’t old enough to wonder aloud why this potential hide-and-seek partner can’t come have breakfast with us. He isn’t aware enough yet to ask all the obvious questions we’ll spend the rest of the meal ignoring. And I’m relieved. Because when he does, I have no idea what I’ll say.