Home away from home
Vacay, especially the weeks-on-end sort that so many foreign service families experience, is at once fun, educational (in a good way), and exhausting, all at the same time. Our family tends to only go back to the US during the obligatory home leave (in between countries/posts) and use our R&R to explore parts of the world we have not yet experienced. This leaves us often landing in countries for even up to a month at a time wherein we are not familiar with the language, the culture, or the flow of life. Every city is a learning opportunity. This is an amazing way to see and experience the world, and share it all with our little people.
Over the years, we've learned a number of lessons that might be useful to pass on. I offer an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and experiences.
We walk a lot. I mean a LOT, like more than 20,000 steps each day. Thus far, I have yet to find an anti-fatigue/peppermint foot and leg rub that keeps feet and legs happy. I have no real words of advice here, except try to find some sort of foot relief should you opt for packing in the miles as well. What I do? I break our family rule (‘mom’s prerogative’) and I bring more than one pair of shoes. I bring my Chacos, another pair of walking-friendly-but-still-cute sandals, and I bring workout/running shoes. I find changing up my footwear makes my feet happier. That an occasional foot rub and I am happy.
Let your kids have a say in what you visit. The older the little people get, the more important this is. Let them help decide which museums to visit, or let them have the final say on three options you all like. Give them an afternoon at the beach. Let them pick their own souvenir. Give them opportunities to do and see the things they want to as well, and not just be dragged along on your itinerary; otherwise, they will revolt and it will be ugly. Another thing we like to do is Geocaching, which is sort of like electronic treasuring hunting (checking it out at www.geocaching.com). We've visited some amazing off-the-beaten-path parts of major cities where we are the only non-local thanks to this amazing app. Be forewarned though: the app is a HUGE battery-drain on your phone. Which leads me to....
Bring a back-up option for recharging your devices. We download the map of the city we are in to Google Maps so we can use it offline. Still, using that plus all of the photos, plus geocaching plus plus plus ends up getting my phone down to a worrisome 15% some days. I have a very good sense of navigation, but some of these towns can be harder to get home at the end of a day of meandering based on my innate map-sense. We either bring cords and plugs and will plug in during lunch or a snack-stop (my eldest's ability to find a plug in a crowded restaurant is pretty amazing), or we use a power bank. We just got a solar recharging power bank so we'll see how that works out for us.
That said, please get a local SIM for your phone. Or, if you are coming from the States, make sure you have an international roaming option. Having phone and internet access is important, as is having What’s App to keep in touch with your group or lodging option.
Spread out your art museum visits. Space out the churches. There are other fun less ‘typical’ places to visit. Check out the toy museum or candy-making shop. Watch a local street performer. Stop at a playground or a park. Wander through a botanical garden. There is more to see in a city than another building. Recently, our youngest finally got old enough and tall enough to do a segway tour and that was a particularly fun way to explore a larger portion of the city. We've also rented bikes or little pedal carts to speed around. All of these options are a nice alternative to walking for a few hours; of course, you may then be sore in different parts of your body (especially from bikes). Nonetheless, especially for those of us who don't have the opportunity to ride these sorts of transport options regularly, it's a nice change of pace. Note: don't wear a dress on bike-riding days. Also, segways are freakishly challenging on the feet. (I guess because you don't ever take your weight off them? Not sure, but all of us were especially foot-tired that day.)
Some of our best times have been attending local cultural (read: not-intended-for-tourists) events. We got to watch a horse race in Sienna, where all of the town's people have a horse and a rider and then, after smaller practice races, there is one big city-wide race. Every townsperson packs into the city center and the horses fly around the cobblestoned 'arena'. We also were in Paris on the day that the French men’s soccer team faced off to Croatia, whipping the entire city into a frenzy with their win during the World Cup. Want another eye-opening experience? Try the Rainbow Parade in Amsterdam. Sure, these events where smallish spaces are packed with people are fodder of security officer briefings, but these have also been amazing experiences.
Figure out the tipping/gratuity custom. Be nice to the waitstaff and reward them for their good efforts, but do it in way that is culturally acceptable. In some places, leaving a large tip is actually insulting, so make sure of what is the norm and act accordingly.
Speaking of cultural sensitivity, mind your clothing. Especially for women, it is important to remember that in some places/countries, bare shoulders, midriffs, and short-shorts are not appropriate. If in doubt, go for more coverage, or bring a scarf in your walk-around bag to cover up in the situations where it is necessary (e.g. mosques or churches). Men, take your hat off when entering these same places. Don't wear obnoxious or insulting slogans or words on your clothing, or anything that is overtly incendiary. I usually try not to include any overly-American slogans or logos, because you just never know what might set someone off.
Bring lots of feminine hygiene. I searched it up once, but can't remember the actual reason, but there is some sort of effect that being in 'travel mode' situation (like on a train or a plane) that unexpectedly brings on a woman's menstrual cycle. Travel always impacts your food intake, sleep amount, and stress levels, and all of these impact your hormones. Even though, literally since the beginning of humans, women have menstruated, this is one of the most challenging situations (read: spaces are too small, products are extraordinarily hard to find, messes are inexplicably hard to clean up). I'm not even going to broach the whole birth-control part of shifts in one's menstrual cycle; I'm focusing solely on dealing with the actual period itself. Travel with a few of your preferred product options in every bag you will carry with you (on your person, not checked). In your checked luggage, bring twice as much of each as you think you might need, because I promise you, what you will find in the store will not at all be like what you get at home. In fact, bring enough to share, if necessary. Once, at a guesthouse in the middle of a small African town, we met up with a woman whose luggage had been stollen, and I shared all of my feminine hygiene stash with her. She couldn't find any in the stores, and not having that on hand would have been a definitely downer for her trip-of-a-lifetime experience.
Don't expect your skin or hair to act as they do at home. The mineral content of the water you shower with and that aforementioned lack of sleep, different food intake and probable at lease minor dehydration will (probably negatively) impact your 'normal' look. As long as you have deodorant on, little else matters to those around you. They are focusing on their own experience; They don't care if your hair is frizzy, if you have a big pimple on your cheek or if your clothes are wrinkled. You are on vacation; this is not the time to spend/waste energy on worrying about your state of hair. Bring a hairband, be sure to wear sunscreen and get on with your day.
If you are traveling with your family, don’t pack all of one person's clothing in one bag. Put a little in each bag you are bringing along, just in case a suitcase doesn't arrive as expected. We have been super fortunate, and only once did we get luggage late (we did once have to navigate a larger city without the buggy, though, thanks to the airline sending the stroller off to a different part of the country. That was with just one child though, so not as big of a challenge as we thought it would be. And, discovering a site - the Forbidden City, I think it was - at the walking pace of a 18-month-old lends itself to all sorts of interesting experiences). But losing luggage on a flight is not at all a rare occurrence. If you are traveling with more than one bag, what is the harm is splitting up the clothing in different bags? Thankfully, the kids are mostly passed this stage, but I used to have to pack a spare shirt for myself too in the diaper bag, thanks to the puking potential of one of my boys.
Don't nickel and dime your vacation. I'm not saying you should spend your life savings, but enjoy the experiences the trip has to offer. Likely, this will be the one time you get to visit the city in question; enjoy it as much as you can. Make sure you know what creature comforts are important to those traveling with you, and include it (or enough money for it). For the love of all things holy, if you are renting a car, get one big enough for all in your party AND your bags. And yes, sometimes, even though you've reserved one size, if you show up with all of your party and your plethora of bags, the car rental agent might up-grade you. But ... sometimes not. Speaking from experience, you do not want to end up driving for hours with a too-small car and your kids sitting on luggage.
Stay in an Air B&B or similar rental situation. We have found that renting a larger space (that includes a kitchen and separate sleeping spaces and a washing machine) is preferable to hotel stays. Especially as the kids have gotten older, needed a bit more space, it just works better to let us wake up on our individual times, have breakfast at home, and then head out. We pack lighter because I can do laundry, we get better breakfasts with more fruit and whole grains than often offered at breakfast-out places, and we get to enjoy our own wake-up patterns (especially early-riser me). There are a lot of rental options out there, and you can certainly find options that fit your preferences wherever you might want to wander. We've found that we can usually make do with one bathroom, the boys are fine with sharing sleeping spaces if necessary, and we do not really like to rent someone's home/living space (versus a space they maintain solely to rent out). Stand alone, especially with a yard is highly preferable to apartment, but we don't generally spend huge amounts of time in our rental anyway, other than to sleep. And 'double' usually means just that; if you are used to sleeping on a queen- or king-sized bed, then you might want to include that in your search. Not all hosts include toiletries, but many do. You can always buy what you need when you get to your AirB&B if it doesn't have what you need; this is also a perfect opportunity to use some of your samples from Sephora (especially those you can reseal). Btw, if you are a coffee drinker, you will become well-versed with the myriad of coffee-making options (hopefully, your hosts won't be like the ones we had in Philly who had a wonderful Nespresso maker, but there were no ways to get the appropriate pods in the shops around us). People who host on AirB&B are also invaluable sources of information on things to do in the area that are off the normal tourist circuit. One of our hosts in South Africa ended up organizing an amazing day for us biking in the mountains near Stellenbosch, complete with a lunch at a winery, and another set us up with a great driver for airport pick-up and drop-off who gave us a scenic route tour and still an on-time delivery.
Skip the big mega-stores and get your fruit and groceries in a small local place. Not only are you supporting a small establishment, but you are also going to have a much greater chance of having a conversation with a local who might be able to point you towards some local gold nugget (a particularly great bin of fruit, a gem of a local liquor, a made-only-in-this-region baked delight, etc). We have a vacation rule that no one at the table can order the same thing, and, if possible, you have to order something different than the last 36 hours. Especially in places with fewer options or potentially more indecipherable menus, this can be very challenging, but it has offered us the opportunity to try a lot of new foods. Some, honestly, will not be repeated. Others, though, are tasty new favorites (provided we can remember what the dish is called).
My friends, traveling is an adventure, especially with kids in tow. Traveling with an open mind and an intrepid spirit will give you the chance to have a fun adventure, and will teach your kids (and maybe you) a thing or two. Bon voyage, my friends and bonne chance!