My five-year-old daughter and I have left the town plaza in a mototaxi, headed to one of Colombia's many trout farms on one of its many dirt roads.
My ADHD brain is a workhorse, ever re-compiling a list of the stimuli it's currently managing: Kidlet is hanging on to me, her head in my lap, her flamingo legs all over the floor picking up dirt and mud. Does she have clean pants to wear tomorrow or will I need to wash those leggings before bed tonight so they have time to dry? She's knocking into my chin and my arm, she's sliding off the leather seat and I have to keep hoisting her up while not tipping over my bag.
Meanwhile, I'm tracking the route we're taking and gauging its length in case we need to walk back; could she make it back? Would I have to carry her? It seems mostly downhill. I'm watching her for signs of puking; so far, so good. She's asking me questions -- why does Ms. Pac-Man have a bow on her head when she doesn't have any hair? How many colors do alpacas have? Are alpacas the same as llamas?
The taxi's music is blaring and the driver is talking. When she's not asking questions, Kidlet makes random noises to remind herself she is still alive. I have my own, disparate thoughts. And I feel a little carsick. The scenery we pass, the grazing horses, the orchards, the green mountains, the valley and the river, it's all so beautiful -- I mustn't forget that, it's why we're here.
Thirty-eight days into my first trip abroad with my daughter, and I was barely keeping it together. I'd thought half a dozen solo trips to Europe and Latin America pre-Kidlet would serve as preparation for this adventure, but not so much. I'd never been so frazzled, for so many days in a row, in my life.
Traveling solo had always been a chance for me to simplify my life, turn inward, and get reacquainted with my values. Traveling solo with a five-year-old was mostly just kicking my ass. Some things I'd expected -- like increased costs and slower travel times -- but there was so much more. Here's a rundown of a few of the differences between traveling alone and traveling with my kidlet.
#1 What is "Downtime"?
This was the biggie. I'm an introvert and can be shy, so loneliness was previously my nemesis when traveling. I'd choose observation over participation and wasn't much for clubbing, bars or parties. My trips involved me walking for many hours looking at art and architecture, talking to fellow strays, and finding cool parks to wander. At night I'd curl up in my hostel bed and feel lonely and wish I'd been braver that day, promising myself, Tomorrow I'll be more outgoing!"
Well. Loneliness was not an issue in Colombia. At the Seattle airport, I must have passed under a sign that read, "You'll Never Be Alone Again!" because that's how it felt. I stayed at a friend's in Bogotá, and she looked after Kidlet several times while I ran errands and booked tickets online. Other than that, I was on duty 24/7. And downtime? What was that? Downtime was the time I spent in bed next to Kidlet (yes, we shared a bed all 55 nights) in an unsecured rural shack assuring myself we would NOT be attacked by the critters on the roof. Downtime was when we arrived at a bus station at 2am with $3 and sat with our backs against the wall till the Western Union opened (at 9), dubious types eyeing us from all corners.
The free time I did have -- the hour after Kidlet went to sleep, and the hour before she woke up -- was spent writing. I fought off mosquitos (dengue fever!) attracted to the glow of my phone as I tap-tap-tapped those journal entries. While writing was no relief from constant vigilance, it kept me from spinning off into insanity.
#2 All My Photos Were Instantly Better
If I look at my photographs from all my previous trips there are some decent ones in there, mostly of buildings, festivals, performances, and grand boulevards. And trees, and ancient, giant wooden doors. Stuff no one is interested in except me -- not even my husband. You could find superior photos of all the places I visited on Wikipedia or someone else's Flickr account. But insert my adorable 5-year-old ham of a child and BAM! -- all trip photos are improved by 1000%. Botero's gorgeously fat statues? Sure, I took one or two snaps of them sans her, but why did I bother? Kidlet in front with an irreverent pose is instant Instagram material. So. Many. Likes.
#3 Safety First!
Previously, deciding whether or not to do an activity involved weighing Fun Potential against Cost, taking into account the Novelty Aspect, and the Time Factor, and then, if appropriate, the Likelihood of Death Question. But on this trip, my number one priority was getting Kidlet back to Seattle alive. Most Americans I talked to about going to Colombia could only reference coffee, cocaine or Shakira, with a very strong emphasis on cocaine. My mother-in-law kept a cool front but I'm certain she was terrified for the life of her one-and-only grandchild the entire time we were gone. I had an obligation to my husband, too, because he'd be the first to turn on me if I lost Kidlet in a horrible accident or taxi cab. So we did not do anything risky, except take rides from strangers, rides horses on slippery mountainsides, and ride in cable cars.
#4 The Schedule is King
It's said variety is the spice of life, but it quickly became apparent that without a routine of rising at 7:30 and going to bed at 9, Kidlet and I would not make it home with any of our senses intact. One emotional afternoon I dramatically journaled, "I have to remember to love and be kind. It's time to eat, it's time to do the laundry, things have to be done at a certain time, every move is strategic; if not done there will be consequences. If it were me alone here, I'd be out walking for miles and not worrying about hunger and having to use the bathroom or even what time I went to bed, or a balanced diet that a child will actually eat. I'd go paragliding and I'd wake up at 5am to go look for birds."
Well. Let's just say I never saw a dawn in Colombia. Except for that time in the bus station. This was a difference that surprisingly hurt; it felt like a true departure from my pre-parenting self and I had to nurse that wound a little. But childhood is temporary. I may yet be an early-rising traveler again.
It all came down to that: This is all temporary. Eventually the 56 days were over, and we were back on the plane to the US. When people asked, "How was Colombia?" I replied, "It was hard." They usually blinked back, not knowing how to respond. But it's the truth. Above all else, it was hard. It was not rejuvenating or relaxing. It rarely felt like a vacation. Solo parenting without my usual supports, comforts of home, and familiarities of culture and primary language were harder than they'd ever been before because my heretofore unrealized secret weapon -- solitude -- was gone. That's what I learned about myself.
But I will never forget evening mass at the old Cathedral of Cartagena. As the organ pipes played slumberously and a male vocalist intoned in Latin, I felt a tap on my arm and looked down at a wide-eyed Kidlet. "Yes?" I whisper. She whispers back, "Is this music how Jesus died?"
So I'm doing it again, sort of. Kidlet and I are headed to Europe this fall. Will this result in me Freaking Out in Europe with My Six-Year-Old? I think it will be easier this time, if only because I'll be having my ass handed to me for just 22 days. Piece of cake.