Monday, 4 May 2015

Toddler on tour

Well, I can't imagine this sounding anything but irritating BUT we just came home from a hot, exotic, holiday-of-a-lifetime, and I need to shout about it before the effects fade along with my tan.
We spent three weeks, two parents and our 23 month old, in Sri Lanka having a proper holiday - no marking, no emails, no surreptitious reading. I even read a novel! I can't even remember the last time I went on holiday and didn't take a huge pile of work with me. It was a long time ago.

Anyway, we were calling this our honeymoon, as we never had time for one when we got married four years ago. Obviously a holiday with a toddler isn't what most people think of as a romantic honeymoon, so we were being very 'realistic' about how this might have turned out: stressful, exhausting, and about as romantic as being repeatedly punched in the face. But we figured there would be at least moments in which the exotic location would feel like a good thing and, having had many exotic adventures as a member of a much-travelling army family myself, I was determined that we should fit something long-haul in before Orson turned two and started needing a full price airline ticket to himself.

We knew we wanted to go somewhere hot, with exciting local animals, tasty food and an unfamiliar culture. But we knew we couldn't do anything too crazy. I retired my backpack when I was three months pregnant and we'd booked ourselves into a hostel in Sorrento that could only be described as 'lively' and I realised I'm just too old for this shit. For this trip we needed a country with a robust tourist infrastructure and, well, hotels with nice pools. We will never be package-holiday-people,but we did exchange local buses for air conditioned hire-cars and 20-in-a-room hostels for airbnb apartments.

I was rather stressed out, before we left, about whether any of us would get any sleep, whether Orson would eat anything, whether we'd all get sick, or get lynched on the flight. I bought an implausible number of tubes and bottles of mosquito repellent and sun block and cooling spray and hand sanitiser and all sorts of gadgets aimed at tropical explorers, in the hope of tranquilising my fears.

Asleep...for 1/11th of the flight

It turned out I really needn't have worried so much. Orson coped great with the heat -  we all did. He slept without incident every night in the travel cot we took, and took all his naps in our trusty £50 mothercare pram, just like he does in England. He took heartily to meals of rice and curry and lots of fresh fish, pointing at his tongue and panting if it was *very* spicy, but then carrying on eating it anyway. And while there were of course moments when things would have been easier if we'd been at home - the flights were unremittingly dreadful, for example - the balance was very much in favour of us all having a wonderful, exciting, bonding, relaxing, and even romantic, time.

nom nom nom

The main challenge that we had to overcome to make this trip a success was the accommodation conundrum. Like many modern first-world families  who have the luxury of multiple roomed homes, we sleep in a separate bedroom from our son. We have done since he was about six weeks old, when it became obvious that my husband's light sleeping wasn't compatible with my son's noisy snuffly sleeping. It gives us greater privacy and the luxury of reading with lights on before we go to sleep. As time has gone on, it has become obvious that it has also given us a son who expects to sleep in perfect quiet and darkness. Furthermore, some recent experiments in sharing hotel rooms taught us that a son accustomed to sleeping alone will not sleep in a shared room. Instead, he will awake every 40 minutes or so to stand up and look gleefully at us over the top of his travel cot, before saying 'hello' and then bursting into laughter. This only remains cute until about 3am.

All of this means that the prospect of spending an extended period of time in a double hotel room, or a larger family room, or anything with just one internal cavity, is not very holidayish at all. It would mean putting orson to bed, and spending the remainder of the time before adult-sleep time sitting silently in the room, in the dark. and even then his spider-sense would probably alert him to our presence and rule out any idea of anyone sleeping.

My initial searches of Sri Lankan accommodation caused great dismay, accordingly, when it seemed that 99% of the places on offer were traditional hotels with standard doubles or deluxe doubles only. What to do? I started wondering, are we the only parents with this problem? Do other families just stay at home?

I sought the help of specialised family travel companies, only to quickly realise that they didn't get it. They were all about offering air conditioned cars and family rooms. My next thought was to ask the hotels themselves, and some of them offered suites, in which we'd have the use of several rooms, or interconnecting doubles. These probably would have worked but both tended to be horrifically expensive. We splashed out on a suite for the first two nights at 'the beach all-suites hotel' which is obviously ahead of the curve in realising that modern families like to travel, and like to have use of a washing machine while they do it.

I had a bit more luck with the beach hut concept - in sri lanka they call them cabanas, for some reason. Many huts are just single rooms, but some offered family cabanas, which had two bedrooms plus a third living space, or a balcony.

Most successful was airbnb. One time we stayed in our own two-bed villa, but the others we occupied two rooms plus a third living space that was next door to the owners' space. The latter worked out especially well when the hosts had children of their own, which implied toys and free entertainment, as well as making everything feel all warm and fuzzy and personal. It was nice having locals next door to tell us whether the thing that had bitten me was poisonous or not (it wasn't) as well as to cook us meals!

Nonetheless, most of these options didn't have a pool or beachfront locations, and it really was too hot to cope without a pool in the midday heat, we found. So our piece de resistance was to stay with a local family via airbnb, have our breakfast there, then take a tuk tuk to a nearby fancy beach resort to enter as day guests. Some resorts are finnicky and charge different rates for using the pool/using the pool and sun loungers/with or without lunch, although the most we ever paid was LKR1500 (about £7.50 per adult). Other places just let you use the facilities for free if you're buying lunch. Once in, we took advantage of all the comforts a big hotel can offer - swimming pools, restaurants, spas, kids clubs, entertainment. The best bit was that we were effectively enjoying the advantages of luxury resorts while paying a mere fraction of the room price. We'd give Orson a late dinner there, and then amble home by about 8.30, put him to sleep and then hang out to eat dinner and drink beer with our host family. Everyone slept, and everyone relaxed. Win-win!!

Here are some other things we learnt;

  • Heathrow  airport has a free family room, complete with soft play, craft activities and air conditioning. Whoever is responsible for this - I love you.

  • Holidays as a family are a lot more relaxing if we stay somewhere where there are lots of other people around, ideally some other children too. As a pre-mother, I shuddered at the thought of a resort where I would have to confront other people of my own kind on a daily basis. The new reality is resorts are our friends. They have stuff going on, they have kids portions, high chairs...but most importantly, other people. While we stayed at a private villa. or even a quiet hotel, there were no people around to relieve us of our 24-hour entertain-the-child duties. It was like being at home. Find other people, and let your child annoy them instead.
Holding court at the pool

  • Sri lankan families potty-train their children at about four months.

  • Long car journeys with a toddler who is used to being confined in a car seat and suddenly finds himself with mere arms strapping him down are not fun. I wish we'd taken a car seat with us.
  • Centipedes bite. Ouch!
  • Swim nappies are not remotely effective. Be paranoid.
  • Life is gaspingly, perishingly hard for some people in sri lanka. Fortunately, it's also full of amazing souls who devote themselves to helping, such as at the Rainbow Centre in Bentota. This is a refuge offering meals, schooling, counselling and basic sanitary care to children in desperate need of it.

  • The bassinets available on flights are only suitable for children younger than about 6 months.
  • I don't need to worry about strangers picking Orson up. The sharp pain in their shins will quickly let them know it isn't appreciated.
  •  If in doubt, let them have sprite and chips (Pairs well with 'What happens in sri lanka stays in sri lanka!')
  • Bananas, cashew nuts and curd were the best snacks I found, but I was also glad to have taken a large stock of dried fruit and oatcakes with us. Getting food in a hurry is not easy in a country where service is usually a little on the laid-back side.
Fresh lime soda. Don't tell the dentist.
  • Hand sanitizer is great for the mind.

Towel art

Cocktails: insert frequently

  • All fun-spoiling crimes will be forgiven for a tuk tuk ride.

When I grow up I want to be....a tuk tuk driver.
  •  Nappies, sun cream and insect repellent are all widely available, despite Lonely Planet's claims to the contrary (is this book on the way out? I give it two years!)
  • Toddlers will never react the way you think. Elephants, sea turtles.....meh. Cats? Meeoowwww!!!

  • Air conditioning isn't necessary - fans don't try your throat out or prevent you from acclimatising. But avoid places that don't have mosquito nets over the windows, though they won't stop everything from getting in.

Roaches in the cot: a low
  • Take your own pram and travel cot (and your own mosquito net to go over the travel cot) which can both act as familiar places to your child.

  • Putting on UV clothing causes many fewer battles than applying sun cream regularly.
By the time we flew home the levels of heat rash and insect bites and sand-in-the-nappy were at about 'full', and I was mildly looking forward to certain first-world comforts such as supermarkets and washing machines. But in general, life in Sri Lanka with a toddler felt so right. The people were so welcoming to Orson and all his chaos. Orson positively flourished in the glow of constant co-parenting, with acres of space to roam free in, captivating insects and other finds all around him, new flavours to taste and always new friends to make. I'm so proud of the way he and we rose to the challenge of so many new beds and strange places. Its with sadness that I've plunged him back into the sterile regularity of his Oxford life. In England we offer our children toys when what they want is adventures. We're going to do all we can to maintain some of the changes we felt, to take every opportunity we can to make life a little wilder, to raise a free-range human.

So, yeah, sorry about being annoying. But holidays - there ought to be more of them!

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