Traveling with Kids in Your Home Town


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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