Toddlers do not easily fit through airport security. They appreciate spicy food about as much as your great-aunt from North Dakota does. They may be afraid of bugs, prone to carsickness, afflicted by heat rash, easily bored. Plus, they’re heavy.
They are, in short, exactly the wrong thing to bring on a trip to India, which is where I am at the moment with my 2-year-old daughter Ezrah.
That makes them exactly the right thing to bring.
I hereby propose a little kid as the must-have travel accessory for the postmodern traveler – something totally extreme, way more bad-ass than hitching a ride in the back of an open truck in a snowstorm, or spending the night sleeping on the luggage rack of a third-class train.
What is this doing on a blog about cities? Thinking about cities is ultimately thinking about place, and how we experience the places that surround us. And the fact is that we usually experience them in a very limited manner, floating about in a bubble of geography and money. Travel of the low-budget, self-consciously “think global” kind is supposed to be a way to break us out of that.
Maybe it is. But more often it seems that budget travel has become just another brand of packaged tourist experience, one heavy on cheap international cuisine and rustic-but-not-uncomfortable accommodation. One that looks and tastes eerily familiar the world over. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not weeping for some mythic golden age of “real” travel. The point is rather that I no longer expect grand revelations and personal growth when I throw some malaria pills in my backpack and head off somewhere with a lower GDP than the USA. I expect something kind of like this:
Look at me. Look at the guy with the huge bag of rocks on his head. I mean, come on.
That’s why it’s been so surprising that when I brought my daughter to India, grand revelations are exactly what I found.
We make lots of friends
It’s easy to make friends when you travel. Most backpackers come home with a bunch of photos like this:
You know the routine. You smile. They smile. You smile some more while they take pictures of you with your camera. Somewhere, a chorus of angels starts humming “we are the world.” These encounters are always sweet, but they always leave me feeling like they accentuate difference rather than commonality.
Ezrah inspires a lot of these superficial encounters. She’s the most exotic thing around, and everyone wants to tickle, hug, and take pictures of the foreign baby. But what’s been refreshing is how the universal simplicity of entertaining a toddler has helped turn some of these encounters into something more human than what I normally get out of sharing biscuits and small talk about how many brothers I have. The best way I can describe it is that Ezrah plays the role of a conversation piece for people whose lives are so different that we’d have little to talk about even if we did speak the same language. Our difference ceases to be the basis of our interaction. We’re hanging out because hanging out with a kid is fun.
Why does this matter? After all, at the end of the day we still all go home to our vastly different lives. In the meantime, however, I’ve found it makes me far more conscious of the extent to which I usually see the people around me as scenery. It forces me to confront the superficial way in which I usually move through the world.
It rekindles my empathy
One of the weird things about backpacker culture is that it comes with a sort of antagonism to the host country. Not getting ripped off is a sign of your bona fides, so people who will spend $5 on a beer will then turn around and argue “on principle” over 20 cents with an auto-rickshaw driver who makes $100 a month. (I’ve never heard a good explanation of what exactly that “principle” is, but there’s broad consensus that it exists.) Plus, you kind of want to suffer – occasionally – so you’ll have enough of those tales of narrow escapes and temporary discomfort to hang with the cool kids at the hostel bar. The result is that the hassle and stress becomes a badge to be earned, not a reminder of the inequality that should be at least sometimes weighing on your conscience.
Let me tell you: you have not suffered til you’ve suffered with a toddler. There is no misery like that which can be generated by a small, hungry, hot, tired person, especially when you’re hungry, hot, tired, and helpless to make her feel better. The extra responsibility for Ezrah’s suffering is a constant reminder that whatever discomfort she and I experience is self-imposed and temporary. I have never so much appreciated my usual standard of living, as compared to the daily experience of the hundreds of millions of people who are raising their children amid all of India’s challenges. I have spent this trip thinking things like, what if I had to beg for Ezrah’s food? What if I had to bathe her in this nasty water? Drive the family around on a scooter? And then I give the poor auto driver his extra 10 rupees for God’s sake. On principle.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not posting this to say I’ve found some “right” or “authentic” way to travel. I’m not playing the “who travels best” game. I know I’m still fantastically cushioned from what it would actually be like to be responsible for a child in lower-income India. To be honest, at this point we’ve pretty much pulled the plug on our days of backpacker hostels and second-class trains. Sufficiently enlightened, we’ve declared enough with the suffering.
But I am left with realizations that came from hitting the road with Ezrah — a nice “get over yourself’ experience for someone who had no idea how much she still had to learn about the world. If it is indeed true that the real journey is within, then journeying with Ezrah has taken me vastly, vastly farther than I’d ever gone before.