Travel Thinky Thoughts

10,000 miles in three weeks. Am I crazy? Possibly. 

I just took myself and my three kids, 11, 8, and 2, on a wee bit of travel. I have thoughts about it. Early morning, groggily jetlagged, got back last night and the toddler needed pizza at 4am, unpacked just enough to find the toothbrushes, thoughts about it.

This was our itinerary:
One day driving to Las Vegas
One day driving to Los Angelos
One day (?? extended weird warp travel time) traveling to Copenhagen
One week in Copenhagen
One day traveling to Edinburgh
Four days in Edinburgh
One day traveling to Fort William via the slow train
Two days in Fort William
Two days on the Isle of Skye
Two days in Oban, one on the Isle of Mull
One day traveling to Copenhagen
One day in Copenhagen
One (horrifying extended nightmare) day traveling to LA
One day traveling to St. George Utah
And one day driving home to Utah Valley.

It was a lot.

It was every mode of transportation, every style of travel. Long drives, chugging steam trains, sleek city metros, gasping hydrolic busses, taxis, miserable budget airlines and wide trans-oceanic jets. Even a couple of ferry rides and canal trips to make sure our bases were covered.

How did we do this insane thing?

The kids missed some school, about a week on either side of spring break. I made up homework packets for them (check them out here if you like!) covering all the different subjects, with work pages and bingo activites for all the places we'd be going, and places to do rubbings of currency and calculate speed and money conversion rates, and to draw architecture and make comparisons between countries and imagine what life would be like in different times and places. I sent the packets to their teachers in advance, and we worked on them in the evenings after dinner.

Kid schedules work pretty well for my innate energy level (aka low) with travel-- I'm not that strong or energetic, so it suits me fine to have breakfast at "home", then one afternoon adventure with some easy lunch out, and then dinner and downtime back at home. Sometimes these adventures were elaborate 6 hour excursions over the water to astonishing castles, sometimes they were just wee strolls around cobbled pedestrian areas to find street musicians and ice cream cones.

We stayed more or less healthy by sheer witchcraft and paranoia. As in, I kept a fussy little bottle of hand-sanitizer on my person at all times, we swabbed down all airplane surfaces we were trapped in with antibacterial wipes, and we all religiously took our daily multivitamins and chugged orange juice. I also had an emergency backup supply of melatonin tablets to make sure we survived the jetlag transitions relatively intact. Dunno if it helped, but here we are, tired but healthy, even with two kids with immune issues!

And as for paying for it, I feel a little self-conscious about this since I am an unemployed widow and travel is expensive, but let me draw back the curtain. I automatically save a set amount of our death-benefits income each month into a short-term savings account, for things like kid activities, birthdays, christmas, and travel. And then I pay for the trip a little at a time, in advance, as I book the hotels/flights/pricey activities. So it's not one enormous cost of travel at once, it's spread out over the months and months of planning. And then I have a credit card with high travel rewards and flexible redemption that I put everything on during the year, and pay off in full every month, so I accumulate a lot of points. I can use those travel points towards hotels, car rentals, plane tickets, even some restaurants-- but I save them for things that maximize the point-price the best. I can usually use about $2000 in points a year with points, which covered a good portion of this trip.

Then for the costs of the trip, I waited for a ridiculously low fare (around $300 round trip per ticket), flew on (miserable horrible soul crushing) budget airlines, travelled during the off-season (Brrrrr march in Denmark and Scotland was very cold), and booked airbnbs and b&bs (and even one extremely sketchy but astonishingly cheap cash-only above-pub attic flat in Oban) that were slightly less central, slightly shoddy, but totally fine for what we needed.

We got most of our food at grocery stores, where prices were not too different from what we're used to, and only had a few meals at actual restaurants or cafes, and always took advantage of kid menus, B&B breakfasts, and very kid friendly street food vendors for lunches out. Picnics are more fun with kids anyway, even in chilly parks-- better than stressfully containing a two year old who considers eating a full-contact sport in a posh place with candles on the table. So really, we spent only a little more on food than we would have at home. 

So that's how.

But now the bigger question:

Why do I do this?
The glib answer is because it's fun. But at this moment, when I'm completely exhausted and overwhelmed by the experience, "FUN" is not the main descriptor of the last few weeks for me. Certainly there are a lot of moments of fun. Supremely bright and memory-searing family good fun: the private pirate ship lunch at Tivoli, the mad scrambled up the fairy hills above Glencoe, the JKRowling tour in Edinburgh in the snow, wands aloft. But going to the neighborhood pool and making waffles on a Saturday morning is also very fun. Why would I do this enormous, expensive, difficult thing just for fun?

I thought about this a lot as I was planning it, living it, surviving it, enjoying it, observing the travel as it unfolded into its own story, like a novel.

I realized I like it because it's intense. Not in spite of the fact that it's hard-- I like budget traveling with kids because it is hard. It challenges my whole brain and body and spirit and mind and consciousness to the utmost degree, in a way that I can't, or don't, access in ordinary life. The left-brain/right-brain melting experience of navigating public transportation in an unknown language in an unknown city, of switching currency, of driving on the other side of the road, of communicating without any fluency-- it is a huge mental stretch. And of course, you learn things as you go. We learned about neolithic reindeer hunters and ingenious viking ship-builders. We learned about JK Rowling and the Highland Clearances and langosteen anatomy and 12th century castles. We learned a lot, deeply, in a short time. There's nothing like that.

And it's physically difficult-- my soft winterized body has been sitting grublike for months. On this trip, I was carrying strollers up  flights of stairs, lugging backpacks and toddlers, walking for miles and miles around city and country. It felt good to move.

And also, another, harder, more tender why. Travel was always the best time with Matt. It brought out his best self-- and the kids' memories of him that are the brightest are from roadtripping across Colorado, and Christmas in Ireland. I wanted to do this to show (myself and the kids) that we are still the same family-- that we are people who travel, even without him, that our lives and adventures don't stop just because he's gone and things have changed. And that we can have fantastic new memories even while we are sad he isn't with us. This trip in particular was an invitation to look back at him. I took some of his ashes, just a few bright flecks, englassed in a little amber-green-blue marble to the Isle of Skye, where he spent some formative time as a kid. His time there shaped his whole life, and I wanted to honor that, to show the kids something important and good about their dad. Since his death by suicide is so painful, it can be hard to focus on the unqualified good things about him. We are caught in the riptide of his violent and self-destructive death with an immediacy that I don't think other people can understand, unless they too are living in the aftermath of suicide. It is not okay and it does not get better.  But his bagpipe playing, his love for Scots-Gaelic, his beautiful hand-made kilts, his tradition of celebrating Robbie Burns night for his birthday every year-- those things are all unshadowed good. It will be two years next month that he's been gone, and the girls are forgetting him, and Liko never knew him at all. The fact of his death looms the largest-- but this was one way to say in a big loud important way, No. He was more than how he died, and the terrible struggles and pain that brought him to that point of self-destruction. He was a playful traveler, a curious and masterful historian, and a keen observer of nature and culture. He would have been a delightful tourguide on this trip. I didn't try and replace him, or play the role he would have played, by knowing all the history. I let myself miss him. I took the time to retrograde-- to circle back around and look at his absence, and honor it.

We arched the little marble into the waves a hundred meters below at Kilt Rock. It disappeared into a splash of waves far below, and the foam sworled up into a heart shape, for just a moment. I took home some heather from the spot-- a sprig for each of us.

It was hard, but good.
Rosie said it felt like a dementor attack.
We ate a lot of chocolate afterwards.

What about the larger world?
Travel doesn't happen in a moral vacuum. Living in Hawaii, I got an up close look at how damaging tourism can be for a small place. People love Hawaii-- they adore it. Universally, people from elsewhere go and visit Hawaii, fall in love with it, and then fantasize about moving there.

This is a bad idea, please don't do it. (I say with terrible hypocrisy as a white girl who moved to Hawaii. I justify myself in that I never wanted to move to Hawaii, had never been there before I went to meet Matt's grandparents and aunties, who looked askance at me with a baleful pidgin skepticism. I held onto the tenuous justification of Matt's family ties to justify my presence in Hawaii-- my line was "My husband's family is from Maui," subtext: I'm not one of those OTHER NASTY Haole. I'm a fairly benign Haole, but still, Sorry for existing and taking up space. I may still need therapy to recover from my time there, but that probably belongs in another blog post.)

Anyway. Tourism can be a terrible ravenous maw, like the No-Face demon from Spirited Away: an endless starving consumer like a garbage disposal, eating staggering quantities of every good thing about a place and disgorging out grey noxious sludge in its wake. Just ask about the sewage dumping into the waves below those glossy bright hotels and condos on the beach in Poipu.  But people go to Hawaii because they love it. They love the weather, the nature, the people, the culture, the food.

That love is good-- it's good to love things. There's nothing wrong with loving other cultures.

I love Scotland-- I love the romance of the misty mossy woods, the purr of Gaelic, the heartbreak of the songs. But I need to acknowledge that my love may be just as destructive as tourists' love for Hawaii, with the rubbish from our picnic left in the threadbare park's rubbish bin, and my rental car parked in a rutted gravel parking lot at an over-walked path up to the misty and imposing Old Man of Storr.

Scotland, especially the unbearably beautiful Isle of Skye, seemed like a strange Tourist playground parody of itself. Tourism is now the main industry. Sheep and a few cattle gaze impassively at the rental cars as they buzz from B&B to B&B, but every little cottage is not a No Vacancy temporary home to hungry, pooping tourists.

Like us.

And the parks are ragged, the trash bins in the street overflowing, the roads pockmarked. The people who ARE the culture are not really benefitted substantially by our great love and appreciation for their culture.

In Edinburgh and all over Scotland, huge careening tourbusses disgorged mobs of Chinese tourists to stay in Eastern-European run B&Bs. And I was reminded of the local families in Hawaii who are squeezed out of housing and income by the outsiders (even lovely well-intentioned ones!) who turn their homes or businesses into Airbnbs or their land into condos. Hawaiians and Scots are not treated particularly well by our great love for what they've given the world.

Maybe that's too dark an overstatement. The family we stayed with in Fort William was cheerful to let us play with their dog, fix us some 5 minute boiled eggs, and give us rides to the train station on their way to work (at the local college as a Carpentry teacher.) And the little old lady at the tiny Glencoe folk museum was very happy to chat with us, give the girls chocolate eggs for doing a museum scavenger hunt, and discuss celtic jewelry. The adorable fiber-obsessed proprietress of the Skye Pie Cafe was incredibly kind to let Liko roll underfoot with the toy bin as agile young Scottish servers leaped over her like swords with platters of tea and pies held aloft. And the admission we paid for the Maclean castle on the Isle of Mull to further its restoration and maintenance was gratefully accepted by the Laird Maclean himself, in his tweeds, who warned us to watch out for ghosts as we stepped into the, I am not lying, 10th century dungeon.

But I felt a little warned off. It is possible for us to appreciate places to death. I want to make sure that if I am traveling and spending fistfuls of cash for the privilege of enjoying a place, that my money goes to the people who live and breathe that culture.

In Hawaii that seems obvious: buy local, support Hawaiian-owned businesses. In Scotland it feels a little xenophobic to say, support native Scots businesses. But I'm going to stand by it. I went there for the Scottish culture. I don't want to support a Chinese conglomerate mass producing Tartan trash. So the souvenirs I bought, I made sure were handmade, and from the artists. Dave, the proprietor of Stone Mad Crafts, became a friend as we compared own celtic designs-- his carved in stone, mine inked on my skin. And I bought a woven scarf made by a woman who sits in the tiny dinosaur/Jacobite miscellany museum and clacks and clatters on her ancient loom every Wednesday morning. 

In my future travel, I am going to be more conscious about that: making sure I am erring on the side of supporting, rather than exploiting, the culture I'm there to enjoy.

Stay Home
One sort of interesting but unexpected thing that is coming with me from this trip, is a call to be a tourist at home.
The values that make me want to travel tend to get a little flabby in every day life. It's so easy to get numbed to what's around us by familiarity, and the dull daily tasks for having a (more or less) functioning family life.

But here are the values that propel me out into the world:
An intense curiosity about culture and life that is different from mine
Interest in dramatic history and how people survived-- or didn't-- other times.
A worship of beautiful natural landscapes, and the belief in the ability of nature to act on our bodies and souls in redemptive ways.
A love of the challenge and spark of new experiences.

When I ask myself what are the actual values that make me want to travel, I can think more critically about whether travel really is the best way for me to honor those values.

I can look around me, look beyond the well-worn routines of my life (Smiths, school, home, home, school, Smiths) and be curious about the history and culture and daily life of where I am now. Who are the people who have lived here for a hundred, a thousand years? How did they survive? What can I learn from them? What is the nature around me that I can explore more actively? We go on a hike every Sunday, but we've gotten used to our few favorite places, up Rock Canyon and Provo Canyon. But there are infinite little trails and adventures branching out from the places we know well. Where are the places that I haven't been yet, that tourists come here to see, like the awesome grand canyons and ski slopes just above us and visible from our livingroom?

It took tremendous effort to put aside our normal lives and routines and go explore. It was fantastic, difficult, but so so worth it. And I think I can be more active in putting aside numbing routines and really acknowledging my values, I can be a traveler all of the time, even when we are at home.


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Shall we bring some pizza over tomorrow morning? :)

  2. Ocht, love, you write so well. I got all teary, and mushy around my heart. To many more travels (please incl. Slovenia in your itinerary sometime). X

  3. You, R'beeks, amaze me. Loved the Venn Diagram assignment.
    Thank you for taking us with you on these adventures. -- auntie M.

    1. I also believe deeply "in the ability of nature to act on our bodies and souls in redemptive ways." Bedankt.


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