The H Word: when there’s no place like home

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My heart is warm with friends I make, 
And better friends I’ll not be knowing; 
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, 
No matter where it’s going. 

Edna St Vincent Millay, Travel

NOSTALGIA, pining (for the fjords?) – call it what you want, I think that homesickness is something that nowadays everyone expects you to have grown out of at some point before the age of seven. Up to that point, it’s perfectly OK to demand to go home from a sleepover because you’re scared of the shadow in the corner and you are missing your Snoopy duvet cover. After that, suck it up.

That’s not always been the case, however. According to a book I haven’t read  (isn’t Google grand?), homesickness used to be seen as a legitimate killer. In 1865, the book notes, 40 soldiers in the American Civil War died of it. They called it ‘nostalgia’, but it seems to be the same thing.

Meanwhile, Dieu Donne Hack Polay, at the Centre for International Business Studies, states in his paper on Expatriates and Homesickness, that sufferers can experience “gastric and intestinal pains, lack of sleep, headache, feeling of tiredness and some eating disorders”.

So it’s science, folks, and nothing to do with my duvet cover (which doesn’t have Snoopy on it anyway, for the record). And now I’ve got academic backing, though thankfully none of the above symptoms, I don’t mind admitting that, at the moment, home feels very far away.

We’re nearly three quarters of the way through our trip and two weeks into our stay in our last casa in San Cristobal. Which is lovely, by the way – bags of space, loads of light, a great view and still only ten minutes from the girls’ school. The weather’s great (spring has sprung), and the girls are loving their days at Semillas; playdates, school trips and all.

So what have I got to whinge about? Absolutely nothing, except that I miss you all. This week I’ve been thinking of old-style missionaries, sent off with their coffins into the Congo and not expected to return, and of settlers in the US (because Daisy is reading Little House on the Prairie) making home as they go. Unlike them, I can keep in touch with my friends and family with the swipe of a touchscreen. What’s more, we chose this trip – and it’s a wonderful privilege. This kind of cogitation makes me feel guilty because I’d really quite like a night out with my UK friends right about now, when I should be making the most of the wonder that is San C.

The girls get homesick too, as does Paul – though he won’t admit it. He would like you to know that he’s mainly pining for Brockley’s Rock – which is our local chippy, and the London Beer Dispensary. I don’t mind telling you that there’s a little bit of bravado there though. He’s missing everyone at home as well.

With Daisy, homesickness takes the very specific form of ‘missing my cousin Izzy’, who she adores and who stands for England, bunk beds, baths, schoolfriends and everything she wants to have from home. When she’s tearful about Iz, I know she needs something familiar on Netflix and fishfingers for tea – or perhaps a special trip out with mummy or daddy for hot chocolate.

Clover gets clingy. She’s never far from my lap when she’s missing home. She’s really too big to curl up on me now – legs and elbows everywhere, but lots of cuddles and a story usually sort her out, thankfully.

Fortunately homesickness isn’t particularly contagious. We don’t all get it at the same time. The girls have it less at the moment because they’re loving their new school, while I think I’m more isolated working in our new house because it’s a little further out of town, which may explain why I’m feeling it now.

How do we beat homesickness? The one thing that doesn’t work for me is ‘counting my blessings’ as my Mum used to put it. I’m not Pollyanna. Telling myself how lucky I am and how I must make the most of each day is just a recipe for a guilt trip.

Instead, I’m trying getting out a bit more and (terrible phrase, this) reaching out a bit too. I’ve made more plans this week, and written more emails. I’ve been running three times, been to three Pilates classes and baked a lemon drizzle cake – so the house smells like home. Small things like that work, so that I think that I’m nearly back to my usual bouncy self.

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So why am I telling you this now? Partly I suppose, because I don’t want people to think that a year on the road doesn’t have its drawbacks. They are massively outweighed by the positives in our case, but anyone who tries this needs to be prepared. Also, this blog isn’t just a great big show off about what a wonderful time we’re having. This is real life on a family gap year – warts (well, verrucae anyway), dogbites, regrets and all.

But mainly, I wanted to thank so many, many people for keeping in touch. It’s fantastic when you Skype and FaceTime us, and brilliant when you send emails and contact us on Facebook. When you don’t, we know it’s because you’re busy, and we totally understand that too. But a million thanks for when you can and do. In the absence of any ruby slippers, every bit of contact really matters. Because there’s no place like home.

 

 

 

Tech for travelling families- what should you pack, prep and download?

The advance of technology has transformed our ability to pack for a long term trip, compared to our last big adventure, six years ago, when Daisy was two and a half and Clover a baby.

Where once we had bag fulls of books, computers so heavy and fragile that we packed them in our children’s Grobags and acres of paper, we can now travel lighter and access more thanks to more reliable wifi and better ways of making use of it. The downside is the yards of cableage we have to pack with us, falling out of our bags like snakes every time we pass Security. But if you’re wondering what to take for the kids for a long (or even a short) trip – here’s what we’d recommend (or not, in some cases).

And yes, you could be sanctimonious and say that travelling should be about leaving the screens behind – but we’re also realists. The world is big, and sometimes hard work whether you are little or big. Technology can make it seem both easier and smaller, which can be a very good thing.

Hardware

 Kindles – the plain vanilla type

Lots of people suggested we just took the girls a tablet (such as the Kindle Fire) which also works as an e-reader – but we resisted the temptation. Why? Because, Puritan that I am, I wanted some distinction between the books that they read and the tablets that they watch and play on. I also wanted to be able to police the time they spent playing games but not limit reading.

Cheap Kindles for the girls have been the answer – we considered the backlit ones which Paul and I have, but I’m afraid they got the cheap ones. I caught them using them to weight down a den wall yesterday, so I feel this decision was justified on purely economic grounds. Also, our backlit Paperwhites are great for Indian trains in the dark, but not so great when you are trying to stop the children reading til 10pm when they get to a particularly exciting bit.

The Kindle Family system allows us to download the same books onto both girls’ Kindles, and on to ours, and I can see what they’re reading. Since both of them devour books at speed, we’d never have been able to carry enough for them otherwise. And they tend to like to read the same books at the same time – so Kindles save arguments.

Guidebooks on Kindle are still a work in progress, I think (maps are too small) but I’d still rather have them than carry heavy paper versions around the world, useful as they have been in the past when we’ve run out of toilet paper in an emergency. Yes, I know…scratchy.

Tablets

The girls received a Hudl 2 each for their birthdays before we left home. They are neat little tablets, with excellent child safety settings and rubbish battery life. We can set the number of hours they are allowed a day (and change it on travelling days so they get more). The tablets allow their favourite apps (Android) as well as very limited internet access – they use them to play and to learn. Shame Hudls are being discontinued – they’ve done exactly what we need them to do, though they have odd glitches – the volume sometimes goes unacceptably high for no reason, leading to huge rows, and software updates lead to things not working until they are painstakingly reset.

Headphones

If everyone is not to be driven mad – headphones are a must. Small children can’t keep the ‘in the ear’ ones in – so the girls have over ear ones like this. They’ve worked in many buses and planes as well (though not all, as some still have those funny earphone sockets which require two prongs – that’s probably not the technical term). We also have a headphone splitter – like this, so both girls can listen to the same film at the same time.

iPad

Actually belongs to Paul and me – but excellent for Skype and Facetime playdates – girls frequently wander off into their room with cousins or friends online to play dollies for an hour. It’s a welcome link with home, when the wifi’s good. Frustrating when its not – everyone looks like they are part of a Minecraft game.

Macbook Air

Mine, actually, and technically for work. Somehow still popular with everyone, judging by the sticky stains on the keyboard. Standing up well to the travelling life, despite a dodgy trackpad supplemented by a £2 Guatemalan plastic mouse.

Acer laptop

Paul’s. Distinctly dodgy – we bought it in a Malaysian IT mall because I kept hogging the other laptop. It frequently crashes, and the Microsoft package, which we were assured was legit, is pretty obviously not. Oops.

USB charger

Chargers are a big deal when you’re travelling – so this neat little block, which I can’t find online but this gives you the general idea, takes four cords and little space and allows us to charge on the go. Many buses and trains now also have charging points, which helps.

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Mobile phones

Three of them. Two on our UK numbers, and an unlocked iPhone that’s had more Sims in it than a few – giving us 3g coverage everywhere from Myanmar to Mexico. Much cheaper than any roaming plan, and peace of mind when I’m working on the road.

The airport is usually a good place to pick up an unlocked Sim – this site is a great resource for most countries. It’s usually correct, but mobile phone coverage is a fast -moving game in most developing countries so also check on the ground.

Apps, sites and ‘software’

Communication

What’s App: free texts to friends and colleagues wherever you’ve got wifi. What’s not to like?

Skype: Despite sometimes dodgy connections, Skype is great for almost free work calls (though I don’t route them through a UK number so people sometimes think they’re being spammed when a ‘000’ number comes up). Paul’s Gran doesn’t use the internet so we can also call her for cheap – she can’t quite believe it only costs us pennies. Also great for video-calling non-Mac friends.

FacetTime: Free video (or audio) calling from iPhones/iPads/Macs. Usually seems to be clearer than Skype for some reason.

Touchnote: Because sometimes sending a physical card is important. We buy credits in bulk and use them to send the children’s drawings for birthday or Christmas cards, or picture postcards of us on our travels to friends and family. Because no-one prints an email out and puts it on the fridge. They usually arrive in the UK in two days.

Education

Duolingo: Free language learning app with some bizarre sentences (‘the penguin sleeps next to the cat’ anyone?) but great gamification that keeps the girls interested. They do 15 minutes a day to supplement the Spanish at school. It really helps. Wish we’d started it sooner.

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The School Run

They’ve done the homeschool work so we don’t have to. Probably unnecessary for anyone whose child is in a UK school – though pitched as a homework aid and adjunct to schooling, it provides worksheets for the entire curriculum as well as progress tests. Since the girls need to go back to UK school life next year, we use it to ensure we’re covering the right stuff – and use a USB stick to get worksheets printed out as we go. Not a replacement for teaching, but very handy. Paid for.

Squeebles (various)

Good games for times tables and fractions. Not tried the rest but the girls don’t resist these. Paid for.

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Getting around

Tripadvisor             

Of course. Not always perfect but useful when you’ve just arrived anywhere for restaurants, cafes, and opening hours – and saves you just going to the five places mentioned in the Lonely Planet.

TravelKhana

Specialist but brilliant – get curry delivered to any seat on an Indian train – like some kind of magic – preventing both starvation and food poisoning. Works about 50 per cent of the time- so also bring crisps…

Google Maps

Goes without saying. Geographer Paul’s favourite way of ensuring we don’t get cheated by a taxi driver going the long way round, and are ready to get off at our destination on a long-distance bus. Also more prosaically, for walking along the street.

Girls’ favourites

Monster High, Ever After High, Lego ArtMaker

Noisy, free, and with in-app purchases disabled. I am a financial journalist after all.

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Netflix

Everyone’s favourite. A great improvement from the grainy YouTube children’s cartoon videos Daisy used to get six years ago. And there’s nothing like rewatching Gavin & Stacey to make you feel closer to home when the kids have gone to bed.

What have we missed? All suggestions gratefully received!

Some geography from the children

Because you can’t go to South East Asia with your Geography graduate of a father without doing a map or two, here are the girls’ effort on our SE Asia tour. I think they’re great. “New dresses” should definitely be a symbol on all Ordnance Survey Maps. Much better than all those Stone Age Tumuli anyway.

Clover’s is the coloured map, and Daisy’s the one with the Mekong (in blue) running right through it.

More words on our trip soon, I promise.

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Travelling with children – tips, tricks and trials

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Since I was so inspired by the blogs I read before hitting the road with the girls, I thought we’d wrap up India by sharing what we have learned so far from a month of travel. Partly to remind myself, but on the offchance you have stopped by on the eve of a big trip, this is what we’ve learned.

  1. Never travel without one of these http://www.watertogo.eu – it’s much less scary being stuck on a train for hours if you know you have your own source of clean water…. Apparently you could drink your urine/the Ganges (not sure which would be worse) with one of these. We haven’t tried. Yet.
  1. You will become obsessed by laundry. Four people/hot climate means it builds up fast. Carry a travelwashing line and one of these (thescrubba.com). When in doubt – wash. Clean clothes are much less depressing to pack – and you won’t always be able to find a laundry.
  1. Ditto cash machines. You will be obsessed with finding one that works. Many won’t. Keep trying. Carrying dollars too goes without saying. If you can use a card, do, but mostly you won’t be able to.
  1. You / your children will crave food that tastes normal. But even if it sounds ‘normal’ on the menu it probably won’t be. Don’t assume conrflakes is a better bet than chickpeas for breakfast as your children will spend ages telling you they ‘don’t taste like home’. When nothing else works bananas and plain rice always taste normal. Also Margarita Pizza is always the answer.
  1. Take as few clothes as poss. It may come as a revelation but you can buy them. Much nicer and much cheaper. However, never wash any clothes you buy in India with your other clothes – they will dye them instantly (bitter experience- did I mention my current laundry obsession?)
  1. When despondent; buy sweets. Children find them instantly cheering. So may you. Sometimes despair really is just low blood sugar.
  1. When you can, book a hotel with a pool. Instant joy. When you can’t, pay to use someone else’s. Children’s stamina is limited for tours etc – swimming is the best reward. Take a UV sunsuit though, or risk burnt shoulders. I am regretting lack of swimming goggles for the children – chlorinated eyes are no fun.
  1. Packing up is hard work. Three nights in a place is more bearable than two. Be prepared to be flexible if you can – sometimes you might want to stay put a bit longer – the kids will thank you for it.
  1. Tuktuks and trains are more fun than coaches for children. If there’s a rail network, use it.
  1. Take an unlocked smartphone – you can get a data sim in most countries for a dollar or so a day – saves you worrying about the wifi signal or using extortionate international roaming. Familiarise yourself and your family and friends with what’sapp, Facetime and Skype.
  1. That said, don’t expect to have sensible calls with friends and family while the kids are around – they will just randomly wave their toys at the screen and shout. Video calls are just so exciting…
  1. School work is best done in the morning (though the children will, in a pinch, do times tables on a tuktuk ride). It will be stressful at times, since children aren’t keen on being taught by their parents., but the internet has some great resources including apps that make maths a bit more fun. The girls like Squeebles…
  1. Mix it up, accommodation-wise. Even if you could afford five star hotels every day (fat chance in our case) no-one will enjoy it if you do it all the time. Homestays are fun too (instant extra grandparents in many cases). Small hotels often mean you can sit out by the pool while the children are in bed within sight of your bedroom door. The odd apartment means you can cook for yourself – a bit of normality.
  1. This app (touchnote.com) is a great way for the kids to send real postcards to their friends. You can’t stick an email on the fridge, after all, and these send a photo postcard in a couple of days, and you don’t even have to worry about a stamp.
  1. People will be kinder than you expect, and most will be more interested in your children than you’d dream. At the risk of sounding like Blanche Dubois I’ve depended a lot of the kindness of strangers in recent weeks. But by then they’ve stopped being strangers of course.
  1. Travelling with children, you do it by doing it. One step at a time…

Bye bye India, hello Bangkok.image1-12