Archive for Traveling with Kids


Family Activities: Family Reunions

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Are family reunions good activities for kids? Based on my experience, I say, Yes! Go for it!

Last weekend I took two children, ages 5 and 7, to a large family reunion. By myself. Meaning their parents weren’t along because of a schedule conflict. It was just grandma—me—in charge.

Why did I take them? Because I think there are subtle, powerful benefits when kids know about their roots, their heritage. They learn that they are part of a long, unique, amazing story. They experience the host of people to whom they have birthright connections. They get family information that becomes part of their conscious identity, their personal narrative. They have a history-platform to stand on in the world.

So, the weekend event was a reunion of descendants of their great-great-great-grandparents, six generations ago. Wow! (That would be my great-grandparents.)

About 80 cousins—first, second, third, and fourth—and aunts and uncles and spouses were there, only a fraction of the number of possible relatives on that side of the family, according to a book that lists them all. The oldest attendee was 91: beautiful, blond great-great Aunt Anne.

We traveled to this family reunion via a five-hour car ride to beautiful Paso Robles, CA. I’d checked out 20+ children’s books from the library and stocked up on drawing paper and markers. (No digital games for this trip: we were going back to the past.) The kids rode in car seats in the back; Cousin Yvonne was driver; I supervised from the passenger side.

Trip highlights began early, when we exited Los Angeles over the famous I-5 Grapevine pass into the San Joaquin valley. There’s lots of history just in that section of the drive. Cousin Yvonne talked about wagon trains going over the pass, and the zigzag of the old routes, long before modern highways.

Then we sped past miles and miles of flat agricultural land on a road lined with huge electrical pylons.

Finally we made the Paso Robles hotel: Rose and Calvin loved our room. For just a bit I allowed jumping on the fluffy queen-sized hotel bed—not long enough to damage the mattress, but enough to satisfy the need of a 5-year-old boy to expend a little energy and feel ‘whee!’

Then over the next two days, there were family presentations in a large conference room. I was blown away/ delighted/ relieved/ and grateful by how cooperative the kids were. For hours, Calvin quietly drew pictures and drove his miniature big-wheel along the carpet.

A five-year-old's entertainment during a long meeting

A five-year-old's entertainment during a long meeting

Rose, already a voracious reader, tuned out the presenters’ voices and read Junie B. Jones books. The promise of time in the hotel pool made the meetings bearable.

Then there was the adventure of driving into the country to see the house and farm their great-great grandfather built. It’s now transformed into an expensive B & B, surrounded by vineyards. But it’s where a devout Mennonite family with ten children lived and worked through about six decades of the 20th century.

The house great-great grandfather built

The house great-great grandfather built

And there was a stop at the tiny graveyard where ancestors are buried and engravings are in German. What caught Rose and Calvin’s attention most was a tiny grave with a stone that indicated the baby buried there had lived only one day. “Oh, that’s so sad,” they said repeatedly to one another and to me.

Next was a drive on a dirt road, deep into the ravines of the county, past bone-dry hillocks and dense oak groves, to an old ranch house still occupied by Cousin Gene. The kids were amazed at the deer skulls on the fence, and the mounted heads of a cougar, a big-horned sheet, a coyote—wild native animals shot long ago.


Finally, they had the very best part of the whole trip: about an hour on a round tire-swing on a swivel joint in the park where we had a barbeque. Rose and Calvin laughed wildly and sweated profusely as they spun each other around. “I want a swing like that for my birthday,” Rose declared.


The memories these kids will talk about most, I expect, are the hotel bed and pool, the tire-swing in the park, the tiny baby’s grave, and the mounted animal heads.

But somewhere deep in their memories will also be the knowledge that they had a great-great-great-grandpa and grandma, and that they know where to find them.

That’s what I really was after for them.

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Traveling with Kids in Your Home Town

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Yep, most kids can have the experience of “traveling” to far away places right in their hometowns.

Here’s how I discovered that, serendipitously, this week:

Rose, 7, and Calvin, 4, are spending an overnight with me. After breakfast, they wonder aloud what we are going to do for the day, and I do, too.

“Well, we can certainly go to the park,” I say. That pleases them. We clean up the dishes, read a few books aloud, Rose works on creating a collage—our pace is leisurely for the day is already hot. Then we climb into the car for the park several miles away.

But lo and behold, at the park entrance, bright plastic orange cones bar the driveway…apparently it is closed to visitors today.

Hmm. Now what? We head back home.

We turn on Phillips Street and see an unusual house—a large bungalow that has been turned into a Buddhist temple of sorts. And there’s a parking space in the shade right in front of it. Perfect for a brief stop that’ll kill some time, I think.

The kids stand on the ledge to look over the fence. I become teacherly: “That’s a Buddha statue right there in front, and notice the two kneeling female statues beside it. They are probably his disciples…”

Unexpectedly, the front door behind the Buddha opens. Oh.

A radiant young nun, head shaven, dressed in a gray cotton tunic and pants, walks toward us, holding aloft a small bowl with three golden Asian pears in it. She comes to the fence and offers them to us. Her smile is broad, her teeth perfect; her English, limited but understandable.

Rose and Calvin, mouths open in surprise, each take a piece of fruit and say thank you; I indicate I’ll share theirs. The nun burbles about Buddha; we ask her name and she simply says, Nun.

Then she invites us inside the compound. I snatch my camera from the car and we go down the driveway to the left of the house. It opens into a huge back yard, ringed with fruit and shade trees and several building. There is a stage with elaborate fabric backdrop, a covered eating area with tables, and scattered about, many more statues of Buddha and his disciples. Though the day is almost unbearably hot, here it is cool and serene. Our nun disappears for an instant, and returns with a small conical hat on her head.

We ask for permission to take photos, and as we walk around from one cluster of statues to another, we pose and she eagerly participates in picture-taking. Repeatedly she tells us that there are services on Sunday morning at 10:00, and that children come.

Our Buddhist nun and kids on the temple grounds in Southern California

Our Buddhist nun and kids on the temple grounds in Southern California

Then she guides us to the best display on the far side of the building: a huge artificial molded mountain with cracks and crevices and waterfalls. She flips a switch and water flows down the mountain and into the streams. You must look closely here, for on the tiny ledges and ridges, there are ceramic, wood, and plastic knick-knacks—a tiger, a farmer with hat, a bridge with someone about to cross it, small intricate pagodas, birds, a water buffalo, small cross-legged buddhas—the longer you look, the more you see.

In the moat at the foot of the mountain, koi, goldfish, and transparent minnows swim lazily. The nun finds the fish food container and hands each child a capfull to toss into the pond.

Rose and Calvin are charmed; I am, too. What fun someone had making this!

Finally our nun friend guides us into the carpeted meditation room or sanctuary. We take off our shoes before we enter. In the front of the room are three large gold Buddhas. The nun explains they are from Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar. On the left wall, there are several hundred small, framed portrait photos. Those are pictures of community members who have died, she explains.

Then she turns. A short middle-aged man dressed in a saffron robe steps into the sanctuary. There’s something about him that conveys he isn’t pleased to see us, though his words are welcoming. “This is my master,” says our nun, arm extended to greet him. And in a second, she disappears through a door that I had not noticed.

That was the last we saw of our nun. The gentleman spoke with is briefly. He gave Calvin a plastic bottle of water, with a curt “Say, Thank you” before Calvin even had a chance to come up with that on his own. We exited the room, put on our shoes, took a last look at the mountain and fish moat, and then left the premises.

On the way out, passing a window that I thought might lead to the room where the nun might have been, I called out, Thank you! Who knows whether she heard me. But I wanted her to know what a lovely contribution she’d made to our day and to our knowledge of other religions and cultures.

Doesn’t just about every town in America these days have some immigrant or refugee community, for example, from Asia—Vietnam, China, India, Cambodia, Pakistan; or from Central and South America—Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Columbia; or from Africa—Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia? And don’t those immigrant communities often have small shops that sell goods from far away places, and small centers of worship.

What great opportunities these immigrant communities provide us as parents and grandparents to PLUS IT! with our kids, to use ordinary summer days to extend their knowledge (and our knowledge) of other cultures. Such an easy way to experience adventure and travel.

Do let me know if you’ve made such an excursion with kids.

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Traveling with Children: Riding AMTRAK

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August 2008

There’s nothing that conjures up adventure like a long, long train ride.

Rowan, age 6, and I just returned from a trip to the Midwest—spending 30+ hours on the legendary Southwest Chief from Union Station in Los Angeles to the small town of Newton, in the middle of Kansas—and then back again for 30 more hours.

Oh, it was nifty when we first saw “Our House” on the second level of the Chief’s coach car. Our House was what we dubbed the roomy side-by-side blue reclining chairs, across from the narrow twisting staircase to the upper level that we navigated with our bulky backpacks.

The spacious legroom in Our House was astonishing; Amtrak train seats totally trump cramped airplane seating. The overhead bin was virtually empty—perfect for the portable car booster seat we carried and Rowan’s pack. And the big windows had curtains!

My backpack—a large frame one I’m carrying (feeling foolish and conspicuous though I’m in training for long walking pilgrimage)—fit easily on the floor and made a divider of sorts between us.

Mom and brother Colin (age 3), who drove us to the station, seemed envious when they saw our traveling digs. But they kissed us goodbye and retreated down the stairs to the platform. The train pulled out; they waved and blew kisses and disappeared—and our adventure was underway.

Almost immediately, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder came out of the backpack. This was our read-aloud Trip Book to introduce us to the beauty and glory of the vast American Southwest and Midwest. (ALERT to others reading that book to children: I found a few places in that great book where the white pioneers’ prejudice against Indians was blatant, I chose to simply invent new dialog on the spot.)

But first, before we started reading, the underside of Los Angeles flashed by our window: huge parking structures, the city jail (I believe), acres of sorted recycled materials, miles of graffiti-covered industrial buildings. What a great way to see what really exists in LA!

Then came exploration. We’d had Vietnamese soup for supper before we left, right near the station in Chinatown, so we ignored the call for dinner in the dining car and did a brief walkabout.

The best thing was the large Dressing Room bathroom on the lower level via the steep twisted stairs. Two or three people could easily fit in it, for there was an enclosed toilet area and a large dresser-type mirror, bench, and sink. Sure beats the airplane bathrooms, hands down!

Next was the Observation Car. I loved this space—huge windows, plenty of light, the hubbub of happy travelers, meeting and greeting. Rowan, on the other hand, asked to return to Our House. What bothered her when we were there, I never figured out—perhaps she just wanted to be near her backpack in Our House. Or perhaps it was that her baby-doll needed to be fed.
Rowan feeding doll on train
Still we ignored the call—multiple calls—to the dining car. I have to say those officious announcements were the most bothersome thing about the whole train experience; they interrupted conversation, awakened the dozing, and on our first leg, had a down-right rude overtone. Fortunately the train crew changed at some point and more gracious attendants took over that job.

Finally we ran out of places to explore and got to our Trip Book. Chapter after chapter flowed by—and then it was time for bed, actually far beyond regular bedtime. Out came floppy brown Hippo (the most beloved stuffed animal in the entire world) and blankie (a small old quilt). Rowan changed into long pants while I held up blankie as a modesty curtain. I accompanied her to the restroom; she wouldn’t go there alone yet.

And then we tried to sleep. The announcements continued—for the dining car, for passenger stops along the way: “Please check the area around your seating and make sure you have all your belongings. This is not a smoking stop. We will discharge and board new passengers only. Do not step off the train if you want to continue with us to ___. We will leave prompt at ____, and if you’re not on the train when we pull out, you’ll have to continue on your trip on another train tomorrow.” Yikes!

All night: Barstow, CA. Kingman, AZ. Flagstaff. Winslow. We must have slept some, for suddenly it was Gallup, NM. The sun was coming up.

I was desperate for coffee; we went to the Snack Bar that opened before the Dining Car. And then it was time for real breakfast.

How civil to sit at the linen-covered booth tables, across from a pleasant retired couple eager to engage us in conversation, and have scrambled eggs and croissants!

Albuquerque was our next adventure. Our train came in early, surprise of all surprises, and it was close to lunchtime. We would have an extra 45-min at the station—and smokers could safely puff-away without fear of being left behind on the platform. Vendor tables lined the platform: Indian jewelry, fabric bags, souvenirs.

The station and fast-food area was not appealing. But it was what one encounters in hundreds of travel stations throughout the world—where staffing is minimal, restrooms are left filthy by travelers, food selection is limited, post-card and curio prices are high, and drifters nod on benches.

Hey, it’s a good experience to see this, to figure out what to eat as a vegetarian from a meat-sandwich-filled menu, to decide what postcards to send home to young brother. And to resist buying yet another stuffed animal.

Then it was back to Our House. The vast expanse of New Mexico sped by: the mesas, the scrub brush, miles and miles of that beautiful ochre soil, occasional grazing cows, horses, goats, even llamas. Distant glimpses of home in the distinctive Southwest and Santa Fe architectural style.

We made more forays into the Observation Car, though Rowan remained reluctant to go there. High school age eagle Boy Scouts headed for Raton, NM, were boisterous but polite; they played board games and cards together. Very few pieces of modern technology emerged. It was like the old days, when entertainment was interaction between live human beings.

Afternoon drifted into evening. Dinner was announced. We made early reservations so we’d have a chance of early sleep. The food was acceptable. The tail end of the Colorado mountains flashed by the dining car windows as the track led further east.

Then the endless plains and prairie appeared. Darkness fell. We brought out Rowan’s sketchbook and collaboratively—she dictating, I prompting and writing—we recorded the story of our day.

A few more read-aloud chapters, and we were ready to sleep. We would reach our destination at 3:30 in the morning. Uncle Jim was scheduled to pick us up at 4:30am.

Rowan slept; I dozed. In early morning darkness, we disembarked with many others in Newton, Kansas. I was surprised to find people from Oklahoma had driven there to get the train, for there is no east-west rail service in all of the vast Oklahoma plain.

What we did in our four days in Kansas is another story. It included a picnic in real tall-grass prairie, the kind a child or small woman could get lost in. It included multiple visits to Great-Grandmother Tillie in her nursing home, several prairie museum visits, picking tomatoes in Uncle Jim and Aunt Susan’s garden, walking in unexpected rain, lots of experiences with taking photos, and more reading—into another Wilder volume.

The return Amtrak trip was similar, but reversed: Uncle Jim took us to the station at 3:00am. This time Our House was in a less-traveled location. The seats across the aisle were open. We could spread out and sleep better.

And Rowan discovered a way to make a hide-out, which made the trip even more fun. By pulling out the tray table from the seat in front, and covering it with a scarf, it became a tiny secret cave—big enough for one six-year-old girl and her small trove of toys.

Union Station in LA appeared about 8:00am. Again we were early. But cell phone calls to Mom and Dad brought an on-time pick up and a very happy-to-see-you-again little brother.

“Grandma, next time we do this, maybe my friend, Alex—she’s five—and Colin could come, too!”

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