February 23, 2001
Rarotonga, Cook Islands
It’s nearly time to go home. On some level, we’re all relieved. (Slightly.) After four months without serious incident, snafu, or illness, there’s little need to push luck anymore. Not to mention, one tires of reading guidebooks’ travel warnings, disease descriptions, and local etiquette suggestions.
Back home, we either know all that stuff or live happily oblivious to it. Speaking of oblivious, that’s certainly been one of the dividends of travelling with a child. He who turns four the day after we get home frets not that his countless scrapes could invite infection. He cares less that the mosquitoes who love his tender flesh could carry dengue. He hardly notices when planes are delayed, mountain roads get slippery, or a hurricane catapults coconuts at the hut in the middle of the night.
The lesson here is obvious. But when travelling, one can’t learn it enough times; there’s still this terrible temptation to try control the fates. Children don’t. And yet they can sense your tension as easily as your smile. Thus with a kid along, you pursue the only sensible response to getting stuck in an airport: You break out the Legos, hop on the floor, and start constructing spaceships (that are always on time and never break down). Pity the people who pace, paw at their face, and spit demands at flight attendants. Their spaceship may never come in.
So we have adopted “No worries” as a travel mantra—the NZ version of “No problem.” The youngster says it the most convincingly. And when you look at the situation through his eyes, you realize he’s probably right. Even if he’s not, what good does worrying do, anyway?
He also deserves credit for taking us to most friends we’ve made. Early in the trip, he learned to introduce himself, and did so at least a hundred times in dozens of places. If a game of any kind was in progress, he’s say, “Can I play too?” The answer was always affirmative—which proved to be a bit startling when he took to playing soccer with a gang of pubescent, cig-smoking teens. But they didn’t seem to mind. And his confidence continually reminded us that if you don’t reach out, you miss out. Yet with him as our family ambassador, we hardly needed to.
It was he who made acquaintance with the bloke who took Kirk fishing the next day. He made first contact with the family who later hosted us in Auckland. He quickly befriended our Canadian neighbors in Rarotonga, which led to hours of front-porch socializing. And he started the sandcastle with the Danes who were so much fun that we rewrote our itinerary to enjoy a few more days with them. In that case, their boy and ours played happily together for hours on end—allowing all of us parents to hang out and have fun too. The boys spoke different languages, so they created their own or relied on the language of laughter.
And that has happened with families who speak German, Dutch, Maori, and more. It’s happened with kids whose parents were covered in tattoos, long hair, and religious garb. If you wonder whether we’re all really the same deep down, just look to the children. They don’t know that the DNA that differentiates people is less than two-tenths of one percent. But they act like they do. They also know how to adapt—and learn—much faster than we stubborn oldsters.
The things the young man has picked up would make a long, long list. It would include that, although he can’t swim, he can snorkel (without fins, even) for a half-hour in waters way over his head. He knows no laws, but understands that you stand still when going through Customs and Immigration. He can’t read a map, but he tries—and he knows where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going next.
That’s home. There, it’s just a short walk down the hall to the room where all his old toys await—and leisurely beach strolls in search of the perfect shell will fade into reminiscence like high tide back to the sea. There, the kitchen and pantry will get restuffed and ready to feed us—since walking to the village for a fresh peach and scone is no longer an option. There, daycare and preschool can again lend necessary support—but they’ll also remove the chance to nap together every afternoon. Still, away we go. To that place that, on the beachball globe, is the same place we started.
It seems silly now, though, to call it “home.” Because home is hardly a specific state or structure. Nor is it where you lay your head. It’s wherever you and your loved ones are, especially if you’re healthy, happy, and at one with the world around you. As the boy exclaims after we finish doing something fun, “Can we do that again someday?!” The answer, as usual, is yes. Yes. Someday, yes.