When I told people we were planning to take our three children (11, 9, 6) to Argentina for two weeks, the responses ranged from, “Wow! That’s amazing!” to “You must be out of your mind!” Funny enough, what I have realized is that traveling with children is amazing AND you have to be somewhat out of your mind to do it. Both can coexist and, in fact, have to coexist in order for the adventures to work.
Hear me out.
If anyone tells you that their children always behave while traveling, without whining or fighting, they are lying…or repressing memories…or their children are robots…or they were drunk the whole time. Kids don’t have a travel switch where suddenly they leave all of the normal kid stuff at home. Kids whine. Siblings fight. In fact, take them out of their comfort zone of home and you are basically asking for trouble. This is where being slightly out of your mind actually comes in handy: When you decide to travel with kids, you are, by default, accepting the fact that some moments, some hours, some days, may be chaotic and stressful. This takes a certain level of crazy or just plain old realism. When expectations of perfection are too high, travel with children runs the risk of being truly unpleasant (actually, expectations of perfection while traveling at all can lead to any travel being unpleasant, even without children).
I think it is necessary to point out that I do 100% lose my shit at my kids when we travel, just like I lose it at home. I also do not have a magical travel switch (except in the mountains where I become my most calm, grounded self…that feels a lot like a magic switch, but that is another story for another blog) nor am I a robot nor am I drunk when I travel (I mean, it is possible that when I poke my finger after this trip to Argentina that wine will come out instead of blood, but hey, it’s part of the culture, right?).
For the purpose of this blog post, I will fill you in on the most challenging day of our Argentinian adventure, followed by some of the most unexpected, beautiful, incredible moments that will long outlast the challenging ones when we think back on our trip. Actually, the challenging moments tend to become the ones we laugh most about down the road. Granted, some take longer to laugh about than others, but inevitably we find the funny.
Let’s take Day 3 of our Argentina trip for example. My eldest had a cold and we had to fly from Buenos Aires to Iguazu. About an hour into the flight, he got nauseous and leaned over our other son to vomit (literally leaned over his head, but we managed to get him a bag just in time). The man sitting behind us gave us his bags and napkins to help. I recognized the moment of gratitude for a stranger who could have ignored the situation. Now, vomit on airplanes is a regular occurrence in our family (usually it is me, but again, another story). This time was different because Jonah stopped responding to us and was in and out of consciousness. Okay…then we got scared. We had been talking to a pediatric allergist from Los Angeles at the airport, so I went to find him in his seat and asked for help. He came over and helped us get Jonah some ice from the flight attendant and explained what was likely happening to Jonah. After a few minutes, Jonah was doing better and was speaking coherently again. As if that was not enough, this man – who was on vacation with his wife and three grown daughters – gave me his cell phone number and said we should call him in Iguazu if we needed anything. I took another moment of gratitude for a stranger going out of his way to help us.
Oh, wait…you thought that was the crazy part of Day 3? Ha. With Jonah not feeling well and my daughter having major constipation issues (SOMEONE has to get backed up while traveling), Elliott (my 9 year old) and I went on the tour of the Brazil side of Iguazu Falls on our own, while my husband stayed back at the hotel with the other two. (Interesting fact: In Argentina you do not need permission from one parent if the other is taking a child out of the country. So, off to Brazil we went.) Jonah, Orly, and Benji (my husband) were disappointed to miss what would be one of the most beautiful excursions of the trip. Guess what?? The next day, Elliott and I were both having terrible tummy troubles and WE missed the second day of the falls on the Argentinian side. Bummer. Definitely not in our plans.
Moving on: when we returned to the hotel from Brazil (three hours later than we had thought), Benji was stressed, Jonah was feeling much better, and Orly was a disaster. She was in terrible pain and could not even leave the hotel room. We had prepaid the five-course Christmas Eve dinner, but there was clearly no way that was going to happen. The hotel offered to bring our dinner to our room (one course at a time), which we decided was better than splitting up for more of the day. The woman at the front desk then spent over an hour making calls, trying to find an open farmacia in town for us on Christmas Eve.
Since I speak more Spanish than my husband, I was designated the one to take a taxi to downtown Iguazu to find the farmacia (knowing nothing about Iguazu, I was hopeful I would make it back alive, but I admit I had some concerns). What a lovely experience it was! I sat in the front seat with my taxi driver, George, and we chatted in Spanish the entire drive. He told me about his family, his English studies, and what he hoped to do with a career in tourism. We got to the 24-hour pharmacy and I asked him to please wait for me because I had no clue how to get a taxi there. Not only did he wait for me, he got out of the taxi to help me in the pharmacy. Not knowing the Spanish word for “enema” (I guess that never came up before in my studies or travels), I was trying to describe what I needed and in some combination of Spanish and sign language (if you are getting some very strange images of what that might have looked like, you are probably correct). George jumped in and helped me get what I needed before buying diapers for his 23-day-old baby. A few minutes later we were heading back to the hotel (turns out the Spanish word for “enema” is “enema” in case you ever need to know…and if you plan on traveling to a Spanish speaking country with small children, it is VERY likely that you will need to know. So, you’re welcome).
I will skip the details, but problem solved. When I returned to the room, my husband was drinking a bottle of red wine. He had ordered a glass, but they brought a bottle. Nice. I called and asked for a glass of Sauvignon Blanc to be delivered with the next course (I’m not a red drinker, which is kind of a shame in Argentina). A while later, a knock on the door and two people were there, one with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and the other with a bottle of Champaigne. I told them that I only ordered a glass of wine, but they said, “De la casa!” and left both bottles. On the house? Awesome! Maybe thirty minutes later, another knock on the door and another bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. I explained that they had already brought the wine and he said, “De la casa!” Four bottles of wine on the house? I had never felt so seen. To top it off, I also had to learn the word “toilet plunger in Spanish” (destapador de inodoro…again, you’re welcome) and I am 100% sure that the maintenance man did not believe me for one second that the problem was caused by the six year old sleeping girl in the bed. At that point, I started laughing and now, thinking about it, it still makes me laugh out loud.
I tell you this story as an example of a day that strayed far…very far… from our plans, but we did not let it ruin our trip. As a matter of fact, the day ended with a lot of laughs, a VERY happy six-year-old girl, some new and useful Spanish vocabulary, and a story that we will be sure to tell for years to come. I wish I could say that was the only intestinal distress of the trip, but it wasn’t. For your reference, take note that the Jewish Museum in Buenos Aires has both soap AND toilet paper. Laugh now…you will see what I mean when you are there.
Expecting and accepting that plans will sometimes fail or necessitate change at the last minute will help you roll with the punches while you are traveling with children. I promise.
BUT, I did say at the beginning that with the chaos also comes the amazing part of traveling with children. Despite the arguing, the whining, the tummy troubles, the bee stings, the vomit, the bloody noses, the sinus infections, the rashes (yes, all on this trip and yes, this is LITERALLY every time we travel), the positives still outweighed the negatives and the kids greatly exceeded our expectations of how they would do on this travel experiment (let’s face it…that’s what it was).
Have you ever walked down a sidewalk with your child, wishing they would just hurry up, but they cannot go any faster because they have to stop and watch every ant or count every crack? What used to make me crazy became wildly useful on our hikes and excursions, as the children spotted insects, birds, and animals, that even the guides sometimes missed. Elliott noticed a trail of ants walking, each carrying a leaf on its back. Jonah spotted our first capybara (first of about 60!) that was off in the distance, blending in with its surroundings. They wanted to know about every bird, every flower, every body of water. They asked intelligent questions and showed such interest in learning about a new place.
We had opportunities to try to many new things, both food and experiences. At home, sometimes I fail to get them to eat anything but grilled cheese or noodles (Jonah is actually an adventurous eater, which I am mentioning because he would be really angry if I didn’t). In Argentina, they were brave and adventurous. Elliott, who often lets his anxiety get the best of him, declared he would not hike in the jungle in Iguazu nor go on the wet boat in the falls. When it came time to make the final decision, he said, “Let’s do it!” He hiked, taught the guides everything he knew about spiders and plants, and then we got soaked going under part of the Iguazu Falls! He was laughing and excited and less nervous than me, actually. I almost cried with pride because he worked through the fear. The kids pushed themselves on a challenging two hour hike in the mountains in Bariloche to one of the most beautiful viewpoints on the planet. They were hot and tired, but they did it. We paddle-boarded on a lake in Bariloche. It was beautiful and about 7 degrees Celsius. I don’t know off the top of my head how cold that is in Fahrenheit, but it was really cold. I felt brave just letting the water wash over my feet on the paddleboard, but used my core muscles like never before to stay upright. The kids, each on their own paddle board (Orly was with a guide, but she taught her how to paddle on her own), stayed upright the whole time, and then JUMPED OFF A DOCK INTO THE FREEZING COLD WATER! Why?? Because they are insane. No, because it was an adventure and they were all in. I worried I would regret not jumping in, but I still feel quite confident in my decision.
Food? Well, turns out the Orly LOVES trout, which is plentiful in Argentina. Elliott is a total empanada man and enjoys a good shared cup of mate. Jonah tasted lamb, octopus, and everything else put in front of him. Not surprising, we all love dulce de leche, the abundance of chocolate in Bariloche, and Benji and I still love wine.
Another beautiful part of the trip was the kids seeing acts of kindness from strangers: The woman next to Orly on the flight from Panama to Buenos Aires who laid Orly’s legs across her lap to help her sleep more comfortably; the woman working the front desk in Iguazu who spent over an hour on Christmas Eve trying to find us an open farmacia; the restaurant employee in Calafate who gave scraps to the stray dogs on the street (I am surprised we did not end up coming home with a dozen rescue dogs); the guide who went to her home to bring us coconut oil for Jonah’s extremely dry face; the taxi driver who helped me in the farmacia; the man who bought them chocolate because the samples were all gone. Regardless of a language barrier or cultural differences, it was so important for our children to see that we are all connected in such basic human ways.
There were late nights, early mornings, card games, pool days, frogs jumping out of the toilet, airplanes, tango, wrong turns, broken water glasses, thunderstorms, stray dogs, glaciers, horseflies, laughter, yelling, crying, wetsuits, long car rides, boat rides, capybaras, the casa rosada, caiman, exotic birds, sunsets, walking on marshes, fishing, an abundance of meat, adventure, and other countless memories that will last forever. For that, I am endlessly grateful.
Well, folks, to those of you who have made it this far in this very long blog post (which was actually started as the shorter option to giving a day-by-day breakdown of the trip), the post and my life and our trip has come full circle. I wrote most of this post while flying from Bariloche back to Buenos Aires for the final day of our trip. My plan was to pull out my laptop on the flight home tonight from Buenos Aires back to Chicago and tell you about the magnificent evening we had sharing Shabbat dinner with a Jewish family from Buenos Aires who offered to host us. It is important to us that our children feel connected to the Jewish community around the world as we are such a small population. This was the pinnacle of our trip…the evening I had most looked forward to…the perfect way to end our two week adventure. It took months for the travel agency to locate and confirm a family that could host us and they found the perfect family with three boys, ages 9-14. Orly had mentioned earlier her tummy was hurting, but we assumed it was from getting up early, flying, and not having enough water today. Nope. About thirty minutes before getting picked up to go to Shabbat dinner, she started vomiting…and kept vomiting. There was no way we could take a sick child to someone’s home, especially with their three children, and remember, we also have to put her on a 12 hour flight at 1am (don’t even get me started on that).
So, to those who thought that I had found some magical way to let everything roll and laugh it all off, please know that while my husband and boys are at Shabbat dinner, I am in the hotel room, lying in bed next to my sick daughter while she sleeps, and I am crying. I am crying because we are missing this special night. I am crying because I am terrified to put her on an airplane. I am crying because while the challenges do lead to funny stories eventually (definitely not there yet with this one), it would certainly be nice to have a trip without SO MUCH VOMIT.
Would I take back the last two weeks? Not in a heartbeat. Would it be nice to have one family vacation that was slightly less eventful? You bet. Next year, will we plan a family vacation, fully aware that we are out of our minds to even consider doing it again? Yup. We will do it again and again because the world is there for us to see and we are going to see it (but next time, we will pack our own toilet paper).
Now, wish me luck on our flight home.
Update: the flight was very long, but we made it home relatively unscathed…and ready for our next adventure!