THE RAIN CAME in a steady downpour outside of our guest house on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. I sat on the verandah, drinking a glass of sweetened jasmine iced tea and listening to one of the local men strumming a song on an acoustic guitar. Nearby, my two-year-old son played in the rain.
We were staying in the small town of Bukit Lawang, just outside of the Gunung Leuser National Park. It had been an exceptionally hot day, and the rain was a welcome respite. My son was standing under one of the rain gutters, letting the water fall on his head like an outdoor shower. He was soaked from head to toe, and delighting in every minute of it, oblivious to his surroundings. My husband, five-year-old daughter, and I laughed as we watched him.
Sumatra was our last stop on a three-week trip across Indonesia in September 2015. We had already spent the first two weeks of our vacation playing on the beach in Bali, experiencing the cultural attractions of Yogyakarta, and getting a taste of the metropolitan life in Jakarta. For my kids, the trip was an adventure into a culture that was different from the American life they were growing up with. For me, it was a lesson in what it means to be a traveler.
Seeing the world through fresh eyes
I always considered myself a traveler, having grown up with parents who would often take us on overseas family trips. And I am certainly no novice when it comes to traveling around Indonesia. I’d spent part of my childhood there — and visited often. But when I traveled through Indonesia with my kids and experienced the country through their eyes, I suddenly gained a new perspective on travel.
Having kids changes most of us. More importantly, kids change the way one does things. When it comes to travel, this means slowing down. With kids, packing as many activities into one day is a sure-fire way of welcoming an end of the day meltdown. In my solo travel days, I often hated going at a slow pace, fearing that I would miss out on something exciting. But as a mother, I am learning that going slow doesn’t necessarily mean missing anything.
During our stay in Sumatra, we opted for a half-day guided hike through the national park to observe the monkeys and orangutans in the forest. While our kids did marvel at seeing the big animals, especially the orangutans, it was the bugs and critters that fascinated my daughter the most. From time to time during our hike, she would stoop down to observe a line of ants on a log, or a particularly funny looking beetle. The frequent stops sometimes annoyed me, but the delight on her face was the same as that of my son’s when he was playing in the rain.
Something else struck me while I was on that trip. Being in Indonesia with my kids changed the way I interacted with others. In the past, when I traveled solo, I often worried about unwanted attention or harassment for being a woman traveling on her own. At times, I was hesitant to seem too friendly to others, for fear that it might lead to an uncomfortable situation. Even when I began traveling with my husband, we often traveled in a bubble of our own company, rarely connecting with others except in passing conversations.
Kids aren’t just open to the world — they get other people to open up, too
With my kids, I noticed that people seemed to drop their guards, and that opened us up to more meaningful connections with them. My kids brought with them no preconceived ideas of how people are. They simply interacted with others based on that moment. And as a result, people interacted with them. They played with them, and offered jokes to make them laugh or smile. During our hike, our guides took turns carrying our daughter when she got tired, and they shared with her treats and snacks when it looked like she was getting hungry. She loved the attention, and they enjoyed being able to share their knowledge of the forest with a younger generation. I had worried about my kids being a burden on the hike, but instead, they were what made the hike worthwhile.
After we finished our hike, the rain started to fall. As soon as it started, my son rushed out to play in the water. I instinctively made a move to prevent him from going out in the rain, but then decided against it, choosing instead to watch him play. His laughter and excitement reminded me how important it is to live in the moment when you travel — perhaps always.
Engaging with the world
Throughout that trip, and especially in Sumatra, I watched my kids openly interact with their surroundings, taking in the new experiences and embracing them. And, the world around us opened itself to them, allowing us to appreciate the small moments that come with travel, like playing in the rain or observing bugs.
I often find myself going through life in a state of half-awareness, my brain preoccupied with the latest worries of the day, instead of focusing on the moment. Even in travel, sometimes it’s difficult for me to be truly present. In my kids, I saw the opposite of what I was. I saw mindfulness, engagement, and pure joy. An ability to experience life as it is. In all my years of travel, it took being with my kids to help me find what it means to travel.