The idea of travelling with a toddler before we had Camila aroused the same wholesome feelings of a united happy family as seen in a cereal commercial.
The idea of travelling with toddler now that we have one, had become as alluring as the thought of masturbating with sandpaper or poking my eyes with a freshly cut jalapeno pepper.
However it had also become for me a test, a must do to prove to myself and Fintan that it can be done. And enjoyed. And it doesn’t have to wait until the toddler turns 15 narrowing down our world discovery to all-inclusive resorts holidays until then.
So, in the spirit of celebrating Fintan’s and my birthday, as well as our reunion after three months of having been apart, I booked ourselves in for a daring three weeks trip to Colombia, the country that we were both very eager to discover and that our impromptu settlement in Ecuador stalled.
Like in the good old Supertramp days, my planning only involved booking flights in and out of Colombia and the first night accommodation, leaving all the rest to adventure.
Once we got to Bogota’, reality hit us like a double espresso on an empty stomach. It wasn’t going to be travelling and discovering as we knew it…
Bogota’, for what we experienced in the first couple of days of vagrancy with the thank-god-we-brought-it stroller, is a cool gritty old city, with history and graffiti melting together under your eyes. Museums, plazas, connoisseurs coffee shops, markets, funicular, cobbled streets, skate parks, theatre, designer shops, fine dining. But what was in there for Camila? And what was going to be in there for her in all the other cities/towns I was determined to take us to?
Camila is 20 months old, full-on toddler stage. It’s the critical age of discovery. Toddlers are no longer as young to be able to be carried around like immobile dolls and not old enough to be able to attend museums or take part in structured activities with their goldfish like attention span. Nope. All toddlers want to do is walk and run with their newly discovered fierce independence, poke their fingers in every hole and over any surface and are still obsessed with licking and tasting everything. And they can’t quite talk yet, which makes their frustration of not being able to be understood escalate to screams and cries often hard to tame.
I remember sitting in a cafe’ a couple of days after arriving in Bogota’ staring at Fintan who had been fighting up until then to keep Camila on the pavement, while she was running off refusing to have her hand held, and it was a battle between dodging the traffic or the walls which, at Camila’s height, are either drenched in dog or human piss.
In this cafe’ she wanted all the sugar bags she could see and threw fits if I wouldn’t allow her to dip her hand in my cappuccino. There have been a lot of don’t do this and don’t do that and no’s being shouted at her in that cafe’. Polite smiles and eye-rollings gratuitously distributed to spectators of such unsolicited toddler-drama, to show them our embarrassed consideration.
I read his mind when I said to Fintan in a deflated tone “Fin, we have 19 more days of this…”
Toddlers are adaptable and everything is exciting to them but to make travelling somewhat relaxing and enjoyable for the parents too, a secure environment, in nature where they can be let free to roam and explore is what we needed. The beach.
We were quite far from the perfect beach to beach-bum at and a series of bad judgements, lack of a travel guide and scarce/poor internet connection made us stumble upon a few non toddler friendly places before we found a corner of toddler paradise on Playa Blanca, Isla Baru’ just outside of Cartagena.
I thought the art of travelling was like riding a bike: once learnt you’ll never forget. But I felt so rusty throughout the trip. In my bartering skills, my gem-restaurant finding talent and generally my flirting with new environments. “Biba, you’ve lost your edge” said Fintan to me once, when I was a bit panicky about working out what to do next, cussing at the slow internet connection that was holding up my search and review-perving on our next destination.
I never found myself in that situation before. I have always been the ambassador for last minute decisions and promoter of no-planning etiquette in travelling.
Just get there and work it out. Feel the place, decide where to stay and if to stay. Ditch the plan, make one on the spot. That is the excitement of traveling. And most importantly, try to get lost. I love getting lost in new cities. You are never really lost. If you got there, you can always find a way back. If you don’t find a way back, find a way forward. Never go back the way you came from.
But this time I felt the pressure in making the right choice because I was caring for a little special person and didn’t want the trip to become stressful for her by ending up spending too much time on the road trying to nail the perfect spot. The responsibility for Camila and her well being didn’t leave room for the lighthearted carefree attitude and dictated a more organised approach.
With a baby, also, you have less time because their eating/sleeping needs matter. You can’t just walk endlessly in the quest of finding the hidden-gem restaurant. Or the quirky hotel, or the groovy place to sit, chill and people watch. You just settle for the easiest solution. You’ll often end up resorting to the ‘fuck-it’ approach and related sacrifices to the wallet as well as spontaneity that it implies.
There have been loads of fuck-its on this trip. “Fuck it let’s just grab a taxi”, “fuck it let’s just eat here”, “fuck it let’s just stay in this faux-luxurious overpriced hotel because she just shat her pants and I am digesting my stomach and we are lugging around way more luggage than we really should have brought”.
That’s when I realised that this whole travelling with toddler was a complete new business. As much as I wanted it to be, it’s not just normal traveling but with a baby thrown in. It’s entirely a new experience. I hadn’t lost my edge after all, I just had to rediscover a new approach.
In hindsight, all that happened in between Bogota’ and that white sandy beach was the learning curve we had to go through to fully understand our cherub and her needs on the road. I asked Fintan if he had any advice for people who were considering roadtripping with a toddler. His answer was: “yeah, don’t bring the toddler” (*sarcasm alert).
Although, judging by this picture, he quite enjoyed being the Daddy-on-the-go-with-stroller in Colombia…
So here are my tips for those of you who want to start ’em early discovering the world by roadtripping:
- Stay put: slow down! It’s unsettling to wake up in a different room every day for a little one. Do fewer stops and spend longer in each place.
- Plan a bit more: caring for a little one is energy and focus consuming. No wonder one makes poor decisions on the spot when tired! Plan ahead on where you want to be and what you want to do to make your life on the road easier and stress free.
- Nature wins: finding a place in nature is the best option for an energetic mini person. Whether a beach, a farm, a forest avoid the stress of a city for little one and for yourself!
- Allow more budget: travelling with toddler is definitely a more expensive experience due to all the comforts that you will end up indulging in as opposed to when you were a backpacker.
- Bring a stroller: a toddler gets restless quicker when carried in a baby carrier and they get heavy when you cover long distances. Pushing him around in a stroller will entertain him, give him a place to comfortably fall asleep plus you can stash all your shopping under it!
- Pack light: a child gets dirty very easily especially on the go. You’ll have multiple trips to the launderette anyway so you might as well pack fewer clothes for you and your baby and wash them more often.
- Don’t over dwell on everything having to be entertaining/educational for them: children are adaptable and everything is amazing to them, even the chewing gum stuck on a public toilet wall can be a learning experience!
- Remember to tell hotels you are travelling with baby: not everyone likes children. Some hotels might refuse you so if you are booking ahead, save yourself a headache and announce that in advance (we got refused twice on this trip.We tried the she’s not a toddler, she’s a midget card but didn’t work)
I believe exposing children to travelling is the best gift you can donate them. They might not remember much at such young age but I am sure a sign is etched in their personality for all the experiences they are presented with.