A week ago when my usually surefooted four-year-old swung off the rigging of our catamaran and slammed into the bridgedeck window, my panic spiked as I rummaged through the blood pouring out of her mouth to check her teeth. There were plenty of tears but the teeth were all intact, so I doled out cuddles and an ice pack and took a great photo of her very fat, split lip.
But one week later we are at the dentist with an officially bruised, discoloured front tooth that looks like it will linger until the tooth fairy comes to take it away. My daughter is so far unconcerned, but that tiny grey tooth niggles as a constant reminder to me that I can’t possibly hope to avert every danger, and the less able I am to keep her safe and sound, the more my mother worry simmers.
Given all the things that can go wrong for kids, parents do a remarkable job of keeping a lid on the rising fear and overwhelming anxiety. Still, no one is immune from the anguish and guilt that accompanies a child’s accident or illness, especially when it takes place on a parent-led adventure.
I distinctly remember the first time my baby daughter rolled over by herself, because when she did, she catapulted herself off the mattress in the back of our open camper van and head-butted the bumper bar en route to the ground. At four months of age, she was consoled far more easily than me, and I spent a gut-wrenching night monitoring her breathing and the dilation of her pupils and beating myself up long in the wee hours.
That famous mother’s guilt must surely be felt by dads too, but perhaps men are better at keeping risk and consequence in perspective, aware that ‘helicoptering’ kids shackles their independence and their ability to experiment and explore.
Accidents and illness can, and do, happen anywhere, at any time, so given that life is so unpredictable, how do you rationalise the additional risks associated with taking children travelling abroad? There may be immunisations to consider, airplane travel, malaria medication, the increased likelihood of tummy troubles, colds and flus, exposure to animals that bite and bugs that sting, and a whole bunch of stresses and strains that you can’t hope to anticipate and your kids will have to endure.
It’s something I think about a lot, given that we live what many might consider to be a fairly risky lifestyle. For starters, we live aboard a sailing catamaran in Cairns, Australia, which means we share our ‘backyard’ with saltwater crocodiles and equally harmful marine stingers, and we often sail to remote, unpopulated locations where medical assistance is extremely difficult to access.
On our travels in Australia we spend a lot of time in the bush where snake and spider bites, campfires burns, travel sickness, heat stroke, and the sheer remoteness of where we bed down amplifies the seriousness of any accident or ailment. When travelling aboard, we question the safety of ferry rides and bus trips, agonise over itchy bed bug bites and fret about whether our child is hungry, hot, cold, bored, tired or needs the toilet on a never-ending bus ride.
It’s difficult not to let worry get the best of me, but I try to tap into it because awareness of each concern means I can mitigate the risks. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by all the things that might go wrong (try reading your insurance policy’s fine print!), I attempt to break down the dangers, assess the likelihood of each one occurring and put plans in place to lessen that possibility. Then, I usually find that those risks are much easier to take on board.
The top concerns for me when we travel are illness and injury, so I research each destination on our itinerary in terms of exposure to disease and the side effects of available vaccines and preventative medication, well in advance. While preparing for a recent trip to Burma, I scoured pharmacies across Kuala Lumpur but couldn’t secure the only child-friendly malaria prophylactic recommended by our trusted Australian GP.
Our solution was to focus our travels in areas known to be malaria-free, and when forced briefly off the beaten track to beautiful Ngwe Saung, we searched for and found a breezy beachfront bungalow with rock-solid mosquito netting and relied on long, light-coloured clothing, excellent Australian insect repellent and mossie coils to ward off any bites.
Funnily enough, while we were diligently working to keep mosquitoes at bay, a couple in a room a few hundred metres away spent a night of terror with a deadly cobra that slithered out of the bungalow wall one night and proceeded to explore the room! After hearing that tale we decided not to complain to management about the rat in our ceiling. While we could hear the rat moving, the cobras were elsewhere.
Avoiding things that bite (such as monkeys, dogs and possibly cobras) and sting (stinging trees, marine creatures, insects, the list goes on) requires an acute awareness of where you are going and what preventatives are available. Talk to your child about behaviours that will keep them safe, and if they are too young, keep a good grip on them in areas where you might experience harm. Children never fail to impress me with their intelligence, so arm them with as much advice as they can understand about the new world they are experiencing.
When it comes to choosing safe transportation options (the fast ferry or the slow bus?), we tend to take advice from other travellers we meet, search online forums for other travellers’ experiences, and weigh up recommendations from travel agents and hoteliers too. As a rule, I’ve found that a little extra spent on any bus, boat, train and plane ticket usually buys me a ride on a superior standard of vessel and a more comfortable trip too.
Travel insurance is a top priority for me now that those carefree days of ‘that will never happen to me’ are long behind me. After plenty of misadventures I now know that plenty more lay in wait, and because our adventures take us off the beaten track, I routinely look for a policy offering top medical cover plus evacuation and repatriation not only for the nearest foreign hospital for emergency procedures, but ultimately back home to recuperate in Australia, with my whole family’s emergency travel expenses covered too.
What travellers tend to have in common is an undying curiosity about the unfamiliar and a determination to experience it. It’s the unknown that excites us: the lack of routine, the sensory overload, and our mind’s scramble to make sense of every new smell, taste, sound and experience.
By its very nature, adventure travel means you can never know what will happen, and that’s an enormous part of its appeal too. The challenge for itchy-footed parents is learning to balance risk and consequence: identifying and diminishing the perils as much as possible, and at the end of the day, rationalising everything else in favour of what the experience of travel can do for our minds and souls.