Family Vacations, Summer 1998
Why would anyone lug a two-year-old and a five-year-old through 21 time zones on a so-called vacation? The answer is simple: surf. And reason number two: Neither set of grandparents was too keen on baby-sitting for a month.
"Those poor children, being pulled all over the planet so daddy can get his fix of azure, South Pacific barrels."
Well, yes, that pretty much sums it up. Where my boys and travel are involved, I've always reconciled my oceanic needs with the promise that we'll all expand a bit when we get outside our bubble. My wife, more a snorkeler than a tube rider, has long since acquiesced, since surf safaris often lead to radiant tropical locales.
As it turns out, traveling with our children to unlikely far-off places has become a defining parental joy. Low-latitude environs bring out our familial essence. Strip away the microwave popcorn and petrochemical garb required to survive our winters. Strip away Wal-Mart, Walt Disney, and walls in general. Strip away all of the stuff in our lives (surfboards and snorkels excluded, of course).
The result is a more pure, less fettered focus on one another. We listen better — empathy waxes. A key emancipating aspect of these sojourns is the realization that we all possess a "chameleon" gene, one that enables us to be far more adaptable than our daily routines would suggest. Eating corned beef hash cooked in coconut milk and wrapped in taro leaves — instead of frozen waffles. Hearing my two-year-old enunciate multisyllabic Spanish or Fijian words like they're his. In pursuit of the perfect wave, we're able to shape our boys, and ourselves, and add high-tenacity glue to la familia.
We arrived in Tonga late at night and were led to our palm-thatched fale by kerosene lantern. Hunkered under our mozzie nets, we read bedtime stories under the flickering lamplight. Instead of "this is not my beautiful house" pronouncements, the boys buzzed with as much giddy energy as they do on the first night of a campout.
Living with a Tongan family gave our guys perspective hard to replicate in our Norman Rockwell lives. "Engineering" a sliding board off one of the beached fishing boats, hiding inside banyan trees, and juggling papayas showed them that there's bliss beyond Hot Wheels. We watched our son, Clyde, etch fresh grooves in his brain while skin-diving the crystalline low-tide reefs — there was a snorkel-muffled shriek of excitement as a school of humuhumuapuapu went swimming by.
A colleague later commented, "Guess taking your boys on a trip like that is cheaper than private schools?"
I haven't run the numbers, but clearly we opt for schooling our kids in the lagoons of the wider world.
In Australia we ate bitter berries with an Aboriginal man in his eucalyptus forest. He later blew tunes for us on his didgeridoo. Transfixed, the boys listened closely to his primal words of respect for the "mother," the earth — transparent faces drinking in an ancient message. With all parental effort, we could never have taught this lesson as well as he did.
In Fiji, our boys learned of coconuts and sea snakes. Not even television's Bill Nye (The Science Guy) could replace the sensory experience they encountered. Boating out to a blue reef off a tiny island, an insightful Kiwi surfer supported my choice of travel partners. "You've got to expose them to things while their minds are supple." Indeed we must.
Illustration by Greg Clarke