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I understand now why people thought I was bonkers when I said I was off backpacking round south east Asia with my toddler. But despite all the warnings, I’m glad I had the guts, or is that lack of foresight, to just go for it.
We swam under waterfalls, rode elephants, kayaked through mangroves and shopped till we dropped at colourful night markets.
We travelled on aeroplanes, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, battered old buses, ferries, long boats, short boats, trains, motorbikes and taxis. To say it was amazing is an understatement. To say it wasn’t completely and utterly shattering would be a downright lie.
But I’ve been there and got the t-shirt so I can tell you what it’s really like. It might give the nay-sayers some ammunition, but it will hopefully give you more to just go for it.
1. It’s claustrophobic. This was a surprise to me, though in hindsight it should have been obvious. I’m a single mum so I’m used to being permanently attached to my son, or so I thought. In reality what I thought was permanently attached was not. Permanently attached is staying in a small room, sharing a bed, shower and every meal. It is never taking your eyes off your son and rarely letting him more than 2 metres away from you (apart from on the beaches, thank God for the beaches). Being that closely attached to your offspring is a weird and (occasionally) wonderful thing. But often it just made me want to scream.
2. It’s exhausting. Travelling is physically exhausting at the best of times – early buses, night trains and heavy bags. With a toddler there’s an extra person to look out for, an extra person to wake up and get ready ON TIME so you don’t miss your next connection and of course an extra load of ‘stuff’ to carry. And don’t think you’re ever off duty, those long distance buses where back in the day you used to day dream, that’s gone. Now you need to entertain your little one, pointing out anything and everything that will keep him distracted from trying to throw himself out of the window.
3. It’s lonely. Life at home is pretty lonely as a single mum so I’ve got used to my own company in the evenings. But travelling with a little one means you can’t so easily hang out in the bars and restaurants (don’t get me wrong I’m all for it theory, but after my son has climbed on all the tables and smashed a few glasses you start to get the impression you aren’t so welcome anymore). Luckily for me my little one took ages to get to sleep most nights so I had his company till the wee hours 😉 What’s more there are no other adults to share your experiences with, no co-travellers or a partner to laugh about that day’s experiences. In some ways this makes the travels pass in a blur and returning home it just feels like another thing no-one understands about you since you’ve become a single mum.
4. It’s fun. Come on, it’s south east Asia after all. We did some amazing things and saw beautiful places – jungles, beaches, rivers, waterfalls, islands, sea caves, markets, monkeys, tropical flowers and fishes – and even when we weren’t doing anything particularly special it was fun hanging out with my son without the pressures of home to drag me down. Hearing him giggle as the shower ‘tickled’ him or listening to him retelling his story, with actions, of how the fishes in the waterfall were biting him, always brought a smile to my face. In those moments I knew we were making some unforgettable memories.
5. You see a new side to the cultures you encounter. So many people stopped me to chat because I had my son with me. You instantly have a shared experience when you meet other mums and people want to talk. I’ve travelled lots before, but not with children so this gave me a new insight to the local cultures we were in.
6. It gives you head space. A big reason for me taking this trip was to get away from all the crap at home. The day in day out stuff – like washing – as well as the bigger issues – like relationship failures. This trip got me away from both. I genuinely had no time to stress about things back home. And what’s more I was so far removed, it all seemed (almost) irrelevant.
7. Your bad parenting gets exaggerated. I described in another blog post how single parenting is like extreme parenting and it exaggerates your natural parenting style. Well, lone travel with a toddler is like extreme single parenting and it just exaggerates your bad bits! Walking the steps to our room at the top floor of the guest house as my son did everything in his power to delay the process, and the sweat was dripping off my forehead, often pushed me to the edge. In moments like that my patience was almost none existent and I became the mum I never wanted to be. The one who berates their kid for being, well, a kid. Or when it took (literally) hours to get him to sleep as he threw his teddy behind the bed for the fiftieth time and screamed blue murder till I retrieved it, or pretended to be stuck down the side of the bed. I’ve never snapped at my son as much as I have on this trip. I like to think that means I don’t usually snap, but when it feels like he’s doing everything in his power to make things more challenging and I have no way of distancing myself it becomes a battle of the wills that I’m destined to fail. On one very desperate evening I cried as he jumped up and down on the bed switching on the light for the hundredth time as the clock struck midnight. The exhaustion and feeling of being trapped (I couldn’t even go downstairs to hide in the loo for fear he’d try and electrocute himself on the dodgy wiring) was all too much. It wasn’t one of our better moments, but it’s the reality of lone parenting travelling. On the positive side this has shown me my limits, and given me a chance to try and work on them.
8. It keeps your mind on the moment. Backpacking often does this and children can also encourage you to be ‘mindful’. Combining the two does wonders for the soul. You can’t but focus on the here and now. You’re miles from home and need to keep you wits about you. You’re experiencing new cultures and as your little one absorbs all the new sights and sounds there is nothing for it but to live in the moment. You slow it down and once you do, you see the wonder in everything. Seeing the joy that new places bring to such young eyes. He points out all the things you miss, like the bird tweeting in the distance when you wake up in the morning to the sun streaming through your window. And you take the time to point out what his small eyes have not yet noticed, like the big tropical butterfly that’s landed on his shoe. It’s a wonderful way to live.
9. It’s (sometimes) terrifying. Everything is on you. If you get lost wandering in the forest who will notice? Or fall on the rocks as you clamber to the next beach? What about when you trip and hurt yourself (I’ve got bruises to prove it), no one can help you up, but you have to do it. There’s a little person a long way from home who is relying on you.
10. It’s bonding supreme. How could it not be? We have both seen the best and worst of each other and every second in between. I’ve got to know my son so much better. He’s come on leaps and bounds with his language, his understanding and even his ability to look after himself (he’s very cautious around motorbikes and tuk tuks now!). There have been no excuses to not be ‘doing stuff’ together. If the clothes need washing, my son is in the bathroom helping. It’s intense, but I’ve had the privilege to see him grow in so many ways every single day as he takes in all the new sights, sounds and smells around him. The other day I watched him telling a snail to be careful as it slid along the edge of a step, there was genuine concern in his voice. It’s little moments like that which catch your heart and make it all worthwhile. And, at the end of the day, if you can survive this, you can survive anything.
If you’re into travel, with toddlers or not, then this website has lots of great stories and advice for the independent traveller: www.backpackerstravelmagazine.com