Not too long ago, I saw my daughter’s eyes shine, wide as saucers, watching the rockets fire underneath the latest space launch on a live internet stream. My six-year-old wants to be an astronaut – so much so that she has already earmarked engineering as her career, since the majority of astronauts, she’s researched, started out as engineers.
I explained to her the dream behind the mission, as we followed the launch’s trajectory on screen, burning an arc through the stratosphere: to get that little bit closer to bringing everyday people up into space, and perhaps even one day to the Moon or Mars as visitors. Suddenly, the idea didn’t seem all that pie-in-the-sky; seeing the real thing happening before us made it all feel immediate and possible.
That is rather the same as traveling with a child. You may have seen it all before (although really, who has seen it all?) but every small, strange detail of a new land or a new experience is a sensory hit for your child, and it does make the world feel so immediate – and their dreams so possible.
When you have a child, biology seems to rewire you. Your child’s dreams become your dreams, and making them come true becomes a burning desire. The wonder of it is, an adventurer tends to beget an adventurer: it only takes a few fond travel tales of your own travels to light the fire in your offspring. Then, your burning desire meets their burgeoning spirit of exploration, and next thing you know, you’re booking air tickets with a glint in your eye.
Where to go? Well, there is a destination for every dream. Our family dreams of one day getting to Alabama in the United States to book my daughter in for six days of Space Camp, to get all Moonraker on the Multi-Axis Trainer and complete simulated missions to the International Space Station.
From there, it would be a skip and a jump over to Houston to take the NASA Tram Tour through the Johnson Space Center, to check out the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility where astronauts have trained for decades, or the colossus that is Saturn V, residing at Rocket Park. Of course, there’s always the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, too, to perhaps witness a live launch, or enjoy the Astronaut Training Experience there.
Before I was a travel writer, I was, of course, a child. Particularly, I was a child whose favorite spot was in a tiny, cavelike space under the stairs, poring over stacks of National Geographic, drinking in those incredible photographs of elephants swaying through jungles, cheetahs peering through the savannah grasses, and gigantic polar bears lazily stretching across the ice. The photojournalists behind those shots seemed like the ultimate adventurers to me, crisscrossing the globe to hide amongst the veldts and rainforests and wildernesses of the world to capture its wildest residents. Now, it is my daughter’s turn to wondrously turn the pages of not only our dusty National Geographics but the photos from my own adventurous forays through the years – and she wants in.
We have already earmarked one of my very favorite places in the world as our next (post-COVID) Ultimate Adventure: the Elephant Conservation Center nestled in the farflung Xayaboury province of Laos. So many “elephant camps” in South East Asia are more interested in the almighty dollar than in the animals themselves, so it’s essential to choose a genuinely ethical experience – both for the animals, and for your child’s education. This place, run and motivated by vets, welcomes female tame and working elephants particularly. You see, elephants have a long gestation period – up to 22 months – which means working elephants (still used widely in agriculture and forestry here, rightly or wrongly) are seldom allowed to take maternity leave.
The Elephant Conservation Center provides a kind of “paid holiday” for the elephants’ bonded mahouts, to hang out at the camp while their elephant is given jungles to stomp through, nutritious food to feed their baby, and vet care through the process. Result: a raised birth rate in elephants in the region, working within the existing local community rather than against it.
As for the visitors who come to stay amongst it all and whose dollars pay for it all, there is the unmatchable experience of helping care for the tame elephants and baby elephants, plus socializing and learning from the mahouts in camp about everyday life in Laos as you share a meal or a game of pétanque. Whether or not your child chooses a career in conservation, experiences like these can certainly help inspire a life-long passion for wildlife and nature.
Needless to say, we are counting the days.
I’m astounded by the amount a six-year-old knows about ancient Egypt. Playgrounds are teeming with mini Indiana Joneses, obsessed with archaeology that is a part of the school syllabus nice and early. Our dreams and plans are filled with the pyramids of Giza – of course – and also the temples of Angkor Wat and surrounds in Cambodia.
A recent viewing of the Dora the Explorer movie has added an Incan flavor to my daughter’s role plays, so let’s accordingly add Machu Picchu and Sacsayhuaman in Peru (with the latter, just outside Cusco, being quite amazing and much easier to access). If you have a little transport nut in the family – and really, who doesn’t? – then the Inca Rail luxury train up to Machu Picchu is the stuff dreams on top of dreams are made of.
Honestly, a simple conversation with a child unlocks a world of adventures, both invented and real – but likewise, if there is anything I have happily learned through my travels, and that now my daughter is learning for herself, it is that the world can at least match anything she can dream up.
Think real dragons (central Australia), floating cloud islands (China’s Zhangjiajie National Forest Park), rainbow hills (the Seven Colored Earths in Mauritius). The only limit to their aspirations is your imagination – and travel is just the thing to bring those dreams to life.
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