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Going the Distance

Mark Stephenson takes a light-hearted look at long-distance travel with children.

Travel-hardened: Mark’s daughter Gina has been around the world a few times.

Travel-hardened: Mark’s daughter Gina has been around the world a few times.

A journey to the other side of the world with your little treasures in tow adds new meaning to the phrase ‘long haul flight’. Having family in the UK has given me the incentive to brave all sorts of transport options with my daughter at various ages.

Going on a long trip with your kids can be hard work but it can also bring unexpected joys and surprising revelations – about them, about other people, and about yourself.

My first experience of travelling any distance alone with Gina was a holiday in the Marlborough Sounds. We took the ferry across the Cook Strait on an average day. That’s right, it was cold, windy and we cut through a rollicking sea.

Gina was four months old, and though I was a hands-on dad from the outset, I admit to feeling some trepidation. I was adept at the continuous feeding, holding, joggling and nappy changing, but I was a first time dad – how adequate would I feel if she cried all the way?

As it turned out, she was a delight. All the older people smiled and cooed at her, and the young ones sat as far away as possible.

Young-ish women smile at you when you have a baby with you. It may be sympathy, or perhaps it arouses some other warm and fuzzy feelings.

The dad’s badge of honour – left shoulder stained with slimy white vomit, as if a large seagull had deposited its load onto you – is well known. Some women may find it off-putting, however. There is a general benevolence towards you when you are seen caring for a baby but it may not be the right time for ‘picking up chicks’.

One experienced older man watched me coping with feeding and burping (the baby) on our rolling voyage. He smiled and nodded encouragement. Then he leaned forward and said, ‘It gets worse, you know.’

At the time, I didn’t understand. Even now I think it was unnecessarily pessimistic, even cynical.

A long trip with a toddler is, I admit, a completely different kettle of aphids. At that age humans make noise wilfully and are mobile, even agile. The possibilities for disaster are legion.

Boarding the plane to Europe one day with my blue-eyed, articulate little girl of two and a half, her wavy blond hair shone in the late afternoon sun like a halo. Though not a saint, she looked like an angel.

We were fortunate to be flying Japan Airlines. Though said to be a respect-based culture, the Japanese are tolerant of little children, and their politeness is legendary. As it turned out, this was just as well.

Suffice to say, Gina’s angelic nature was somewhat less apparent ten hours into the journey. Was it the puffy, chocolate covered face and hair? Or the frothy mucus bubbling from the nostrils? Perhaps the sticky hands banging on the backrest (and possibly head) of the person in front…?

Well, we had ‘dinner’, followed by grapes for desert, and then most people settled down for a snooze. I was beginning to doze off myself.

Gina, however, had other ideas. Finding a spare grape on the floor, she roamed the cabin looking for a suitable receptacle.
I thought I had better follow. A few rows down was a Japanese lady who had contrived to lie across two seats, on her back. She was sleeping peacefully with her mouth open. Before I could react, Gina popped the hairy morsel neatly into the obvious place. Perhaps she thought the lady was hungry.

The Japanese lady woke up. Her face became a most unusual colour. Fortunately, she sat up, which was wise, and coughed. Out came the grape, now a shiny green colour. I apologised profusely and bowed, what else can you do?

She, however, merely smiled at Gina and said, ‘That OK’. Then she calmly lay back down and closed her eyes. We beat a hasty retreat. I thought it best to prevent Gina retrieving the grape.

Any travels with children in the five to ten age group can be summed up in one pithy phrase: Are we there yet? Or in a single word: entertainment. It is the age, however, when a child is excited by new experiences and a voyage presents an opportunity for something very special – an adventure.

I can still remember my own first plane ride: the thrust of acceleration, then the thrill of lifting into the air and the ground floating away below you. I was an adult, however. Imagine the buzz for a seven year old.

‘WHOA! WOO-HOO!’ Gina cried out at the top of her register as we took off on the first leg of our journey to Auckland. She was oblivious of all the old farts around her buried in their newspapers and generally bored with their own lives. What a gift to experience things afresh, albeit vicariously, through your own child.

‘Four more take-offs to go’, I told her.

‘Cool’.

We were delayed in Auckland, (No! We are not even nearly there yet), the delay capital of the world. I’ve flown both ways round the globe, several times. Auckland is the only place I have ever been delayed. (Try Frankfurt—and then they rip up your luggage, too—ed).

Twenty hours this time. I was dismayed. I cursed my luck. All that extra entertainment required. How wrong could I be?

Gina loved the unplanned detour to a hotel. She loved the room, the fresh towels, the light switch activated by a card (let me do it, Dad), the buffet dinner (you can have as many plates as you like, Dad). She especially loved the wake up call at three a.m. to go back to the airport! (Can we do this next time? It’s really fun!) I nearly laughed.

I was humbled. What a joy to be traveling with someone who saw novelty and excitement, even in the setbacks. I felt privileged to have such a companion.

Waiting in queues at Los Angeles airport for two of three hours was trying. The entertainment did run a bit thin. I read stories to her, and dozens of other travelers, some of whom enjoyed the snippets of Harry Potter. At times we sat on our bags and pulled out the maths homework set by her teacher before we left. Gina loved all the attention, naturally, but it would have been a lot harder with three of four.

Two years later, Gina was at a different stage. Though the voyage was not quite such an adventure, she was much more involved in the preparation. She chose books, magazines, she took her padlocked diary, hair bobbles, and just the right kind of hairbrush, MP3 player, and of course she needed an outfit for every leg of the journey.

She was so smart in pink and mauve, with her Power Puff Girls suitcase on wheels. She knew she was a princess, but this was only confirmed on arrival at Dubai for our stopover.

‘Mr and Miss Stephenson?’

‘Er, yes.’

‘This way, sir.’

I expected to be bundled into a sardine-can minibus and sit sweating for hours in forty degree heat. Wrong again.

‘Your vehicle is right there, sir.’

‘Where?’

‘That black car, sir.’

That black car was an air-con limo with leather seats and drink holders built in. I wanted to ask if our host was sure it was intended for us, but he was so efficient I didn’t dare.

The hotel was third rate in Dubai, but the best I have ever stayed at. Gina was in heaven. You could, and did, have anything you wanted for breakfast – just suggest it, they cook it for you.

‘More hot chocolate?’, the waiter said, pushing Gina’s seat under her, ‘certainly, Madam.’

Perhaps such unaccustomed attention would sit uneasily for myself, but to see Gina’s delight was something special, it gave a lightness to the trip which was for her alone.

Traveling with a child is not always easy but, for me, it has been more rewarding than traveling with most adults I know. After all, the value of travel is not merely to go from A to B, but to see something of the world and to learn about yourself.

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