I am writing copy for a publication about travelling in Tanzania. My editor has included in the brief an instruction for 1500 words on travelling with children.
She suggests I include topics like health concerns, which inoculations a child should have pre departure and what baby foods are available where.
I suck my pen, chew the ends of my glasses and make another cup of tea.
I optimistically open a Word document and type TRAVELLING WITH CHILDREN across the top.
Then I underline it.
And put it in bold.
And then I potter off to make another brew.
See it’s not that I haven’t travelled with kids. I have. Often. It’s just that I’m not sure I’m the right person to be doling out advice about how to do it.
Take the time I flew back to East Africa from South with three children aged, at the time, 18 months, 4 and 6.
Things began to fall apart not very long after our arrival at the check-in desk. The post Christmas, back-to-work rush meant the queues were very long. And the children got very tired. And very cross. And very bored. And – because it was hot – developed a raging thirst.
Get them something to eat, I suggested to husband, as the eldest bared his teeth ready to bite the middle of two sisters. And drink.
Husband, who is not an apple juice and carrot sticks sort of man, came back with a family size bag of M&Ms and a litre of Fanta Orange.
The children fell on it like gannets. Not – I am mildly ashamed to say – because such fare is rare but because they were each anxious they got their fair share and with minimum backwash.
The tartrazine and E numbers fuelled the enthusiasm for suitcase leaping and trolley diving. And biting. Happily for me though, just as the children were reaching that point where you are debating whether to smack them (Oh God, what a terrible mother) or walk away from them and cast disdainful glances over your shoulder as you do (I wonder who those horrid children belong to), a pretty lady came to my rescue with a Where’s Wally book. Perhaps this will help, she kindly offered. Oh yes please, I said, trying to keep the desperate tone out of my voice and then making a show of wiping my trio’s hands clean with a tissue I’d surreptitiously spat onto (wishing I was the kind of mother whose tub of babywipes was always full) so that they wouldn’t leave Technicolor M&M finger prints on pristine white pages.
Wally offered blessed if brief distraction. If you discount the fact my savoir only lent me one book and I have three children, so a minor argument ensued about who was going to look at the book first.
My prize for arranging the children into a neat sort of pile on top of the luggage on my trolley, so that they could all see the pictures at the same time, was ten minutes peace and quiet. Except for the odd – and inevitable – fracas that broke out about who’d spotted bloody Wally before everybody else.
During this short-lived period of (almost) harmony, I was able to observe the fellow passenger who’d come to my salvation with such grace and speed. I hadn’t noticed until now, but she had children too. Almost as many as me. I hadn’t noticed them because I hadn’t heard them. They were sitting at her feet quietly looking at books (one each) and drinking from small bottles of water (as opposed to the litre of hyperactivity inducing Tartrazine fuelled orange pop mine had just polished off) and nibbling daintily on carrot sticks.
We wound slowly to the top of the queue, checked in our luggage and armed with boarding cards made for the VAT-back which my husband had promised me I could spend on an eternity ring (because I had promised him that unless I got one I would continue to breed, not, given our morning so far, an attractive prospect) You’ve seen the adverts haven’t you – ‘she gave me a son, I gave her the stars’ – I was about to embark on an entire solar system unless I got my way.
With husband safely dispatched to bank to cash Vat-back cheque (for a disappointingly small amount it turned out) and with three hyper active children in my determined wake, I made my way to Duty Free.
The sales girl at the jewellers smiled broadly and commented in thick Afrikaaner brogue that my children were ‘agh sweet hey’. Hmm, I murmured, my eyes already on the prize: can I have a look at your eternity rings.
She produced a tray of the sort so heavily studded with diamonds I’d have had a problem elevating my hand to give somebody a wave. I didn’t need to turn over the price tags (why do they do that in expensive jewellery stores: leave all the price tags face down so that you draw attention to yourself as a poor sod who has to perform menial turning-over tasks before you know if you can afford a thing) to know these weren’t the kind of eternity rings I was looking for.
Something a bit smaller? I asked, ‘I’ve got quite small hands you see …’ (but big enough to grab an errant 18 month old escapee by the scruff of her neck before she makes off into the melee of the departure lounge).
The sales girl smiled – but less broadly – and put away the rocks and brought out some pebbles. I didn’t need to turn over the price tags to know these were still way out of reach. But I pretended they weren’t and tried a few on, holding my hand up in front of me, tilting it so that the pretty stone caught the light and winked at me suggestively – go on, you know you want to .
Lovely, I sighed.
But the salesgirl wasn’t watching me anymore, she was watching a more promising customer approach, one unable to lift her hands above waist, ‘Yar’, she conceded in off-hand fashion.
I tugged the ring off.
But still a wee bit big, I said, anything a teensy bit smaller, gesturing with thumb and forefinger pressed so close together there was barely a gap between them.
She plonked a third tray in front of me. The prices face up. I could see those. But the diamonds were so tiny I couldn’t see them.
I was saved by a holler behind me ( ‘Mummmmmeeeeeeee’ … my maternal heart mightn’t have been in it that day, but the reflex is hard to ignore and you always know when it’s one of yours, don’t you?) and turned in time to spot middle and eldest both resurrecting the cordoned rope they’d been swinging on: it had brought the supporting pole down on their baby sister’s head. In front of my eyes a large egg was looming on her crown.
I think I’ll just leave these for today, I mumbled, pushing the tray of jewels away (as if I might be coming back later in the week for another look).
I gathered up the children, eldest two each blaming the other for the collapse of the cordon, youngest screaming her head off and sobbing so that tears and snot mixed with bright orange saliva courtesy of too many sunshine-yellow M&Ms and all that Fanta. I tried to ignore the reproachful stares of 369 fellow passengers including, I noticed, Mrs Where’s Wally Book. Who trotted over, perfect (and perfectly clean and calm) children in obedient tow: would you like some arnica for that, she said, indicating the egg on daughter’s head.
Please, I said, sheepishly as youngest looked on adoringly at a woman who produced useful things from designer bag not like her mother who produced spit-on-a-tissue from jeans’ pocket.
We boarded the plane and it was with relief that I took my seat. And with relief that other passengers noted neither I nor my any of my ghastly children were sitting anywhere near them.
It was with considerable discomfort, however, that I discovered, two hours into our four hour flight, that middle for diddle was as hot as Hades, ‘I don’t feel very well’, she said miserably.
My medical kit (if you can call it that: a sponge bag with a broken thermometer and half a bottle of Calpol with sticky sides) was in the hold. Beneath my feet. And quite out of reach.
I caught the hostesses attention, ‘my little girl’s got a temperature’, I explained and my Medical Kit (with my fingers tightly crossed behind my back) is in my suitcase, ‘you couldn’t see if anybody’s got some Calpol, could you?’.
The hostess sashayed off to survey the cabin for somebody that looked like a proper mother.
And guess who she asks first. Oh God I want to curl up and die. Mrs Where’s Wally. Who turns around and with raised eyebrows and just the hint of an ‘I might have guessed’ sneer, she sighs. I know she does. I hear her. From ten rows back. And rummages in the Boots (which actually turns out to be Holland and Barratt) department at her feet and produces a little bottle. Of homeopathic tablets. Which the airhostess ferries over to me. This, though, is where the buck stops. Homeopathic is all very well. On paper. But the reality – a child burning up and threatening to throw up – is something different altogether. I needed drugs. Real ones. I mouth ‘thank you’ to my watching Guardian Angel and as soon as her back is turned I hiss at the airhostess, Find something else. She does. From another passenger. A whole bag of medicines I know and trust and understand – Calpol included – and – somewhat tiredly now – brings it back to me. And all the while, guess who’s watching, with piercing accusatory stares.
The luminous pink Calpol goes down. And comes straight back up. Over me. With the Fanta and the M&Ms and the airline lunch and whatever else my greedy four year old has fed into herself that day. I am now Technicolor. And I smell. And I don’t have a change of clothes. Or a single baby wipe. I only have a snotty, spat-on, tear stained tissue.
Now. Would you ask me for tips for travelling with kids?