I used to think long-haul flights were hard. That seems hilarious to me now, but I honestly thought they were a challenge. Before a long-haul flight I would painstakingly consider what I needed to make my 10 or 12 or 14 hours in the air tolerable. I would think about entertainment, whether extra snacks were required, whether I had my eye mask and my noise-cancelling headphones and my little container of melatonin sleeping pills.
I would worry about seat selection, whether the window or the aisle would be best for sleeping, which part of the plane would most likely have spare seats. I would dread trying to curl up in a tiny space for an interminable length of time, putting up with the snorers and the farters and the arm-rest hogs while I tried to get some shut-eye.
I used to hate long-haul flights. But now? Are you kidding me? Now, things have changed. Now whenever I fly long-haul I look at those people like me, those solo travellers with their eye masks and their headphones and their iPads, curled up in their seats, I think: you lucky, lucky people. I wish I was you.
Because I don’t fly by myself anymore. Now, I fly long-haul with a small child. I’ve flown long-haul with him at all stages of his beautiful little life so far. I’ve flown long-haul with him as a bassinet-dwelling six-month-old, as a wriggly one-year-old, and as an absolutely unstoppable bundle of energy and dirty nappies as an 18-month-old.
Fourteen hours on a plane by yourself? With no one else to care for or worry about? Luxury. An almost unbelievable indulgence.
Because everything for me has now changed.
Packing for the flight has changed. No more eye mask – there’s no chance of sleep. No more noise-cancelling headphones – there’s not the slightest hope I’ll watch a movie. Instead, into the carry-on baggage go nappies and wipes and changes of clothing. In goes the sleep suit and the comfort toy. In go the blocks and the stickers and the puzzles and the deep anxiety that none of this stuff is even going to touch the sides and we’re going to have a bored, screaming toddler on our hands before we’ve even taken off.
The flights themselves have been brutal tests of patience and stamina. You think you’re inconvenienced because the inflight movie selection isn’t great? Try amusing an 18-month-old for 12 hours. Angus, my son, is a blur of motion: he wants to play, he wants to stand up and peer between the seats, he wants to run up and down the aisles high-fiving the other passengers, he wants to go to the galley and smile coquettishly until a flight attendant offers him something to eat.
Jet-lag has got nothing on the sort of exhaustion you feel after a journey like that.
But by then, of course, you’ve at least made it somewhere. Your destination. And you remember that travel isn’t just about planes. It’s not just about cars or buses or any sort of transport, really. That’s the stuff that gets you there. Real travel is what happens in between, on the ground, and that has changed for me too, but in ways that have been so much more meaningful and enjoyable.
Travelling with a toddler forces you to slow down, to pause to smell the flowers – or at least to tear the petals off those flowers and stuff them in your little pockets. It urges you to remember that everything in this world and in this life are amazing. That tree, those dogs, these pebbles, that light switch: amazing. “Boootiful,” Angus exclaims.
And it makes you realise that family – the state of being part of this team, of raising children and forming a unit – is a universal experience, one that binds you to other people you meet on your travels in a very real and immediate way.
Angus has been around the world now. He’s lived in Spain, had the challenge of learning to speak while being surrounded by two languages and a culture not even his parents properly understand. He’s stayed in a riad in Morocco. He’s been carried along the hiking trails of Portugal. He’s been to trattorias in Italy. He’s eaten at hawker centres in Singapore.
And everywhere he’s gone, and everywhere we have gone with him, we have been bathed in the unexpected kindness and generosity of strangers. We’ve experienced the goodwill that people of all cultures and creeds have for the family unit, this shared experience that pierces all barriers.
In Spain strangers would approach not to speak to us, but to play with “Ung-goose”, our little boy. In Morocco the cook at our riad took him under her wing, slipping him sweet treats when she thought no one was looking, taking him into the kitchen and letting him watch while she chopped and stirred and arranged.
In Italy, Angus would stop traffic. Crowds of people would gather around him on the street cooing and admiring and bursting out laughing at the smallest things he would say. He wore a red beanie during our stay in Italy – local women called him “pomodorino”, the little tomato. Another lady saw him riding in our shopping trolley one day and called him “piccola verdura”, the little vegetable.
On a flight from Singapore to Barcelona, a woman walked up from the back of the plane and asked if she could hold Angus, if she could take him back to her seat and play with him for a while. “I’ll bring him back!” she promised. Sure, we replied. Sometime around landing would be great.
This is life travelling with a small child: wonderful and fulfilling and yet so, so much work. You eventually get used to the added time it takes to do things with a toddler, the time required to get packed up and out of the house, to get on the move, to get from one place to another. You get used to the fact that you always seem to forget something, wet wipes or emergency clothes or even, once, the bathtub. You discover things along the way that make life easier too, little products or tricks or hacks that get your through that car trip, that restaurant visit, that hike.
And your reward for this effort is to see the world through younger, fresher eyes, to marvel and thrill and explore in the same way your child does. It’s to be forced to slow down and not try to do so much. When you have a toddler, you have to take what you think you can achieve in a day and halve it, and then halve that again. OK, you’re getting close now. You ditch the grand plans and just take things as they come. Have one goal each day, one sight or attraction or destination, and try to achieve it. Roll with the punches – and the tantrums – if you don’t.
Things have been getting easier now as Angus gets older. Those moments of beauty and wonder are becoming more frequent; the tantrums and the awkwardly timed dirty nappies are fewer and farther between. Car trips are easier now. Restaurant visits are easier. Even long-haul flights, those tests of patience and endurance, are simpler to deal with.
It almost makes you want to have another baby.
Award-winning feature writer and author Ben Groundwater is one of Australia’s most widely read travel scribes. He is a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age’s print and online travel sections, hosts the popular travel podcast “Flight of Fancy”, and is the author of two books. Ben has twice been named the Australian Society of Travel Writers’ “Travel Writer of the Year”. He has visited more than 90 countries, and still occasionally gets lost.