Family travel has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember and even before. I’ve been told that I would ask the dreaded “Are we there yet?” on road trips before we had even reached the highway. On planes I was an especially creative troublemaker, taking the opportunity to pull my brother’s eyelids open the moment I noticed him sleeping. Inevitably, we were always the family with the screaming kids. Fortunately, though, we’re now able to laugh at these tougher moments and somehow through it all they never stopped taking us on vacation. These vacations, whether they were dreamlike or went as planned, taught me some invaluable lessons that I think really reflect the impact that family travel can have in a young person’s life and last well beyond.
At just over two years old, I found myself sitting around a table of expectant adults in a small dim sum restaurant in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. They watched in wonder as I stuffed my face with octopus, dumplings, duck, and an assortment of traditional Chinese foods. As I ate, a crowd of elderly Chinese women gathered to watch the rare sight of a tiny American child enjoying a variety of foods that many non-Chinese adults would shy away from. Though we were still in the United States and had only traveled across the country in order to immerse ourselves in a completely foreign culture and cuisine, I was exposed to something that has remained incredibly valuable to me.
Years later, in the throes of my picky teenage years, I sat down at a restaurant in Puerto Rico as my family shared a plate of octopus, fish with the heads still on, and what smelled to me like a butcher shop. I remember begging for something familiar like a burger or mac ’n’ cheese, but those things were not options. I had to eat the stinky fish….and ended up loving it. Through travel and being pushed by my family to familiarize myself with things outside of my comfort zone, we grew together and eventually began seeking out destinations where we could try everything from alligator to grasshoppers.
I developed a deep passion for food, learning from and working with my dad who was the family’s resident chef.
Trying and creating new cuisine became a common ground for us and led to hours spent learning about foods from different places and trying to recreate the experience at home when we weren’t traveling.
Family dinners became opportunities to travel via taste bud and to test our limits and comfort zones even from the safety of home. Even more, it made travel infinitely more exciting and created a common adventure that I still crave as I travel now on my own or at college, thousands of miles away from where I grew up.
Tackling the Unexpected
As I think back to the many trips that my family has taken together, a vast majority of them did not go even close to as planned. One time, we got stuck in the Mexico City airport because we didn’t have the right papers to get back into the U.S. Tension was high and the language barrier kept us from making our flight or understanding what we would need to get home. After waiting for hours, trying to communicate with several airport officials and booking another flight from the airport’s spotty wifi, we were on a plane back home. Together, we often found ourselves stuck in situations that were less than ideal and had to laugh it off together or choose to make the best of something we hadn’t planned for.
As a child, I always had my family surrounding me to make this easier and could watch my parents navigate the stress of uprooting perfectly a planned itinerary to accommodate for the unexpected. As I grew older, being able to do this on my own, has been an incredible resource that, looking back, I think is in large part a result of those trips that required patience and maturity to salvage.
In Mexico, my mom stepped up to the counter at the airport and through a combination of hand signals, drawings, and an exchange of broken English, was able to get my family and I safely back home. Watching her rise to the occasion, tackling something completely foreign in a new place gave me valuable perspective. Looking back on being stuck without cell phones in a foreign country while we tried to get on a plane without the correct documents is just one example of the continuous stories my family has shared and grown close over. More than that, though, it has helped me take minor daily frustrations and think about them on a larger scale. From getting stuck in bad traffic to getting lost in a foreign city, traveling as a family and watching my parents cope with stress helped me learn to do the same, solving problems calmly instead of giving up.
Arriving at college, one of the scariest and most defining moments of those first hours on campus is the roommate situation. Is it going to be one of those roommate horror stories? Will we get along? I realized, though, that even if the worst case scenario was true, there was nothing I could do about it. Roommates were just a part of the whole experience, and it was going to be whatever I made of it, regardless.
I remember vividly thinking back to the many times sharing a room, and sometimes a bed, with my younger brother. On vacations, we had to compromise over who would sleep on the pull-out couch, who got to sleep in and who would wake up at dawn. With those squabbles in mind, I felt better about my new living situation. After all, siblings pinch, college roommates usually don’t.
The four-year age difference meant we had to compromise on vacation activities as well. Sometimes we disagreed over books on tape in the car or I had no interest in catching lizards and going fishing. Each of us had to let things go or do things for the other that we maybe would not have chosen ourselves. Not only did this teach me how to compromise with others, like my college roommate who snored relentlessly and needed total silence to do her homework. It also gave me interests that I would never have picked up otherwise, and common ground with my brother that is true to this day. We share a mutual love for adventure novels after listening to a book on tape during a road trip that I thought I would hate. Today, I like fish because he insisted on ordering calamari when we were in the Caribbean.
At holidays or family dinners when I’m home from college, so often we share memories and reminisce from family vacations. Together we laugh about “that time in Florida when Liam insisted on wearing his winter boots on the beach” and “when we go camping it rained too hard we had to sleep in the car and all our food got soaked” or “remember how beautiful the sunset over the ocean was in Puerto Rico? Remember when we saw the stingrays snorkeling?” We share things as a family that we would never have if we hadn’t had the gifts and nuisances of traveling together. So often we say “it was worth it, despite the bad parts.” I think the “bad parts” teach us not only how to appreciate the good ones, but also how to become more selfless and flexible. Because of these family experiences, I have been able to watch myself grow up and self-reflect in a really unique way and for that, I am forever grateful.