Of all the places we have travelled, of all the trips that we have taken, and of all the adventures we’ve had with our children over the years. THIS is my favourite photo.
It’s not a particularly “good” photo. Our daughter is blurry. The light is too dark. The girl in the background is rubbing her eyes. And you can’t even see the soccer ball. But to me, this candid picture sums up so many important things about how we travel, why we travel, our parenting philosophy and our own personal values and beliefs. It reminds me of our personal growth, the way we pushed our comfort zones and limits, the way we redefined “normal” for our little family unit. And most importantly, it captures a moment in time that is pregnant with possibility, a window into a future that was yet to come.
This photo was taken in 2002 in the heart of a Malaysian National Park called Taman Negara. This was our first real stop, after acclimatizing to the 15 hour time change in Kuala Lumpur, on what amounted to our first BIG trip with children. We had saved and saved in order to take them on a 2 month backpacking adventure, and by the time they were 5 and 7 years of age, we were finally ready to take the plunge.
We were SO ready for this trip, having put our travelling on hold for so many years. And the kids were SO green… so innocent and so unexposed to the ways of the world. And so, this photo, from the first stop on our trip, represents a moment in time that was FULL of possibility! That feeling of novelty and of difference, tinged with a good perspective-jarring, reality-checking dose of culture shock, are what lie behind the pixels of this photo for me.
Taman Negara Park covered 4,343 square kilometres, and as such, was a vast tract of land, protecting a wide swath of tropical rainforest that is over 130 million years old. It was ancient. It was massive. It was so tantalizingly unfamiliar.
We had come to Taman Negara to go to a research station’s canopy walkway, a great series of catwalks and suspension bridges that went from tree to tree, high above the forest floor, to see firsthand what life was like high in the upper reaches of a rainforest. In our time there, we romped across those suspended, plank covered ladders in the sky, we explored the rainforest, scampering along its trails, we went to hides to try to spot elusive animals (tough to do successfully with young, active kids on hand!) and we took plenty of boat rides on lots of little excursions up and down the Tembeling River and along its little tributaries.
In this photo we were staying in what was then, a well off-the-beaten track place called Nusa Camp that was only accessible by travelling upstream in a rustic canoe with an affixed motor. The boat was so heavy and crude, and yet it went up each set of rapids with ease until we were finally at Nusa Camp.
Starting our backpacking adventure at Taman Negara turned out to be a fantastic way to begin our trip because it was so very, very different from anything that our children had seen or experienced before! The kids were five and seven years of age at the time, and because having children imposed some rather tight financial restrictions on us as young parents, the lean years prior to this trip had been restricted to simple camping trips or visiting friends and family in Canada to satisfy our inner travel bugs.
For us, this trip was a very big deal. And I’d be kidding myself if I said we weren’t a little nervous! Friends and family thought we were brave & a bit nuts (at best) and careless & reckless (at worst). But as we came to realize during this trip and others that followed over the next decade and a half, we really had nothing to fear. Things work out. Lessons are learned. You meet great people. The world becomes more fascinating. And the fabric of who we are weaves itself more richly in the process.
This picture captures so many firsts for our little family unit. It was our first time in a rainforest, and the wildlife was incredible. The noise of the cicadas at night set off siren calls that were louder than any city fire truck: we had no idea that nighttime in the jungle was so noisy! We saw our first banana tree and came to love the tiny fingerling bananas of tropical Asia, trying them here for the first time. We wrestled our shoelaces away from our first big rainforest bird: an audacious hornbill that the Nusa Camp staff had named ChiChi. The kids delighted in the resident porcupine that waddled around camp each day. The backs of our fingers broke out in beads of sweat from humidity unlike anything we had ever experienced before! We ate our first sticky rice and devoured our first meals out of bamboo canes, roasted on the coals of the camp fire. So many firsts….
Nusa Camp, tucked safely beneath the understory, was so dark because the plant growth was so intense and easily blocked out the harsh sunlight above. We were shocked by the way that the soil was not mucky or damp despite the torrential rains that came, almost like clockwork as they do near the equator, around noon each day. We stayed in a cabin that was perched on stilts over the sandy jungle floor in the densely forested floodplain of the river. The pathway outside the door, lined ever so quaintly with little stones brought up from the rivers’ edge, was a great place for the kids to find geckos and they chased and chased them. Just at the brink of nightfall each day, the spider monkeys descended into a gigantic tree at the centre of the camp and we delighted in watching them screech and play, tearing through the tree tops, racing up and down the trunks, and somersaulting over each other on the ground… and each evening, the children acted like spider monkeys in their play! So many firsts….
Nestled deep in the rainforest, the camp was run by an extended Muslim family and we learned to speak to them with smiles and gestures as they knew no English, and we could speak only polite greetings and count to 10 in their language. And yet, the children had no trouble playing with each other. They dug roads and tunnels in the sand together for the little matchbox cars. They made leaf boats and leaf and stick houses for little plastic dinosaurs and the cicada exoskeletons they found. They played happily and innocently, with much laughter. Despite not being able to speak each others’ languages, the children spoke non-verbally with tremendous ease. And of course, they all spoke the universal language of soccer!
Travelling with children opens doors into the day to day life of the world. When you travel with young children, people are far more welcoming and accepting, and as a result, you get to participate in intimate moments that you might otherwise never even know existed. We were lucky to be in the camp during Ramadan, and with our children playing each day with the local kids at camp, paving the way for our family’s acceptance, we were invited to experience some of the traditions surrounding this most important religious celebration of the year for the muslim people of the camp during the time of Hari Ryah, giving us tremendous insight into a culture about which we knew so little at the time. Another, very lucky “first.”
This photo has our daughter, right in there, rough-housing and playing soccer with two children of the camp, Allo and Hidayat, in the dirt clearing, barefoot. Not a care in the world. Simply living in the moment. Our son, feeling a little timid and shy, holds dad’s hand on the edges of the clearing, taking it all in, summoning the courage to join in, his body language radiating cautious curiosity. Dad is there, silently giving him strength and courage with his presence, and the gentle clasp of his hand, on the edge of the action. Or perhaps dad is holding himself back, being a soccer fiend at that time in his life, probably desperately wanting to play.
One of the reasons we’d chosen to come to this area of the world was to encounter difference, and as such, it was really important to us that our children see and experience the ways in which other people (and other cultures) live with less: less material goods, less wealth, less scheduled activity, less education, and less “opportunity.” Our lives in North America are so very, very comfortable. To me, this photo represents the way in which, in our first week of backpacking with the kids, we had achieved our main goal: we had hoped that by travelling in southeast Asia with our children to off-the-beaten path places, they would see, first-hand, and live the “making do with less” principle.
We took a chance. We risked. We did it.
This photo sits in the main hallway of our home in Canada as a reminder to our family of so many things. I have to believe that what it represents to me is woven into the fabric of who our children truly are as young adults. Despite the travels we did before having kids, this… THIS moment… is the beginning of it all.
This is IT.
This is the foundation of all the travel adventures and family times to come.
Snapshots is a regular feature, running every Tuesday on my blog when we are not away on our adventures. Each snapshot revisits some of my favourite photographs and memories of our years spent discovering the unique places of the world and the hidden recesses of our innermost selves.