Enjoying the School of Life

BESS MANSON
Last updated 05:00 19/07/2014
Baxter Fitzsimons

FAMILY OE: Baxter is independent and confident after jaunting round the world with parents.

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Hanging with a European circus troupe, mingling with African wildlife and learning foreign languages. Sounds like a great introduction to the rest of the world and a good education for adventurous kids. These three families embarked on unconventional journeys as a means to open their childrens' eyes to a bigger world - and some seriously good times.

EUROPEAN JAUNT

The gift of experience and gaining an insight into their place in this world was Chris Morley-Hall's premise for taking his children on wild and exotic ed-ventures around the globe.

With money from the sale of his house, Chris has given each of his three kids - Koko, 13; Tito, 12; and Mo, 10 - carte blanche to choose where they would like to travel between leaving primary school and starting secondary school.

"They get to choose where the family will go for an extended trip. An adventure of their own making," he says. "Secondary school is where they start getting serious about education. I want them to be able to relate the stuff they are learning to things they have seen and done in the world already. To put places in context, so that they can relate to the places they are learning about because they have experienced the smells, the food, the languages of those countries."

Chris and his children had already done a dummy run to Vietnam and Laos for six weeks when the kids were 6, 8 and 10. "That trip was a chance to see what they would be like to travel with, and they were better than amazing considering they went off the beaten track," Chris says.

"It was difficult to do anything without being on a tourist package. It was very prescribed and that started to grind my gears. I'm used to being a lot more spontaneous when I travel, and when I saw an opportunity to go across the top of the border into Laos, I took it.

"It was rough and uncomfortable and not many people would do it, let alone with three children. But I have found that if you put a kid on a bus with their own seat they get very niggly and annoying. If you put them on a bus where they have to share with three other people, a chicken and a pig, they do not seem to mind at all. It becomes an adventure, especially when you end up pushing the bus when it breaks down and digging it out of a ditch when it gets stuck."

Seeing how they enjoyed that trip prompted him to consider doing longer trips. So, last year, when his eldest child, Koko, was 12, they took off to Europe.

Chris, who was born and raised in England, took the children to places where he knew people - contacts from his life on the festival circuit when he was a fire eater, whip-cracker and general circus trouper. A heady prospect for three wide-eyed kids looking for adventure. They spent two months meandering through England, France, Spain, Morocco, Croatia, Netherlands and Belgium, with a stop en route to Thailand.

They saw how different countries dealt with food, money, rubbish, transport . . . Everyday things done differently in different countries.

"In France they saw that hardly anyone is fat; how all the portions of food are small. They found that everyone they met there ate cheese and ham and bread for lunch. They saw how different cultures socialise. They learned so many lessons on so many different levels."

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In Nantes, western France, they hung out with Chris' friends from the circus troupe Royal De Lux and La Machine. In Spain they went to a bullfight. They cycled in Amsterdam. They picked up bits and pieces of language. They still say "c'est impossible", and "heerlik", the Dutch word for delicious.

In terms of education, travelling is about as good as it gets, Chris reckons. "It is a huge thing for them to understand and experience other cultures. It allows them to see where they sit in the world."

It also allows a father to spend fun times with his children, he says. "Once they are 17 or 18 they are going to want to do these sort of trips by themselves or with their friends, so I have this really small window to enjoy doing these things together with them."

Chris says the children's school was "hugely supportive" of their trip and future ed-ventures, encouraging them to keep a diary of their travels.

Their next trip is set for 2015 and Tito has chosen Central America as the backdrop of their ed-venture. In 2017, Mo is nudging towards India and Indonesia.

OE FOR THREE

Harriet Palmer and Tom Fitzsimons were about to head off on their big OE when, as Harriet puts it, someone else decided he had his own world to see. Enter their son, Baxter. The arrival of Baxter rather put the kibosh on those immediate plans to swill pints in the pubs of London and summer on the Continent.

It took three years and a big decision on whether to buy a house or travel (travel was the obvious winner) before they headed out on that long-awaited world trip, with Baxter making up the third member of the team.

"We were really keen to spend proper time together as a family," Harriet says.

"My parents were travelling when I came along and gatecrashed their OE. They spent the last six months of their time in Europe travelling around with me in a Citroen 2CV back in 1983. That sort of formed a backdrop to my life of travel. What my parents did always made me feel like that kind of travel was a possibility."

Carrying only the essentials, including a couple of can't-live-without toys, the family spent three months trekking through Asia - Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, China - followed by a stint in Europe, including a couple of months in Berlin and three weeks in Jerusalem, writing a blog OEforthree.com along the way.

On the last leg of their travels in Central America, Harriet discovered she was pregnant again, their second child joining them on the travels by proxy.

That year of travel was an education in itself for the young Baxter, Harriet says.

"It certainly made Baxter a child who is very much at ease with people. He is his own person and makes his own relationships with people. He does that himself and not through us. He is independent and confident.

"He has been in so many different situations with new people that he makes friends very easily. Baxter had to make friends all the time when we were travelling. He would seek kids out wherever we went, and make friends despite any language barrier."

Kids are really open to being approached, she says. "In fact, Baxter introduced us to lots of people on our

travels. We met a lot of people we would never have met had it not been for Baxter. We met more locals because wherever we went we used local facilities like libraries and parks. We went to people's places and to parties. It was a different way of travelling but it worked for us as a family."

Baxter learnt to count in German and he is still saying "danke schon" for thank you, and "si" for yes following their time in Spain.

It is an experience that may influence his travels in years to come, Harriet says, the way travels with her folks in the 80s did for her.

With their second baby almost due - nicknamed Quesadilla after discovering Harriet was pregnant in Mexico - would they consider another ed-venture as a family of four?

"No doubt she'll get jealous at some point and we'll have to take her somewhere," Harriet says. "But right now our plan is to enjoy being being in Wellington. That means lots of walks, lots of cooking and lots of being with our friends and family. We really missed being part of a place, being at home."

A WILD RIDE

For their ed-venture, Alicia Williams took her son Benny Lindsay-Williams to Africa. A group of her colleagues from Weta Digital were organising a trip in Rwanda and Uganda, where they hoped to photograph wildlife, so the pair tagged along over the Christmas holidays of 2012/13.

"Benny was 8, really on that cusp of being a small child and a bigger kid. I wanted to give him the gift of experience. I thought that would be more valuable than all the stuff kids usually get at Christmas time."

Benny thought she was a little bit crazy taking him away from the family at this time of year, Alicia says, but her partner Joe Lindsay, a musician, was to be on tour. She sensed an opportunity.

"We just wanted to do something a little bit different. And I wanted to use this opportunity to give Benny a different perspective of the world we live in.

"We flew 55 hours from Wellington to Christchurch to Kuala Lumpur to Mumbai and then on to Rwanda. He flew over time zones, saw the changes in climate, landscape and culture in a matter of hours."

The trip started with a bit of a hitch, but it was all to add to Benny's experience of the world. "We were held up at Mumbai Airport because of a visa issue. That was a bit scary for Benny," she says.

"They put us in this room with criminals who were being fed lots of tea so that they would go to the loo. We were detained for hours before they let us go. Benny was saying ‘this is the worst Christmas ever' but we survived and finally made it to Rwanda."

Rwanda was a real-eye opener for Benny, Alicia says. "There was no electricity, no sewerage system. Everyone lived off the land. And there was no rubbish. At all. They don't have any of the plastic packaging, and plastic bags are banned there. It was incredibly clean. And it was phenomenal to see a country that has been through so much now doing do well with such a burgeoning economy."

People there were not used to seeing a child on a tour, Alicia says.

Most of their group were concentrating on taking photographs. But the locals would spot Alicia and Benny and spirit them off. "Wherever we went, the locals would just grab Benny and I and take us on an adventure of our own. Once we were taken out on Lake Victoria in Uganda on a boat to an island, which was like Taupo but Taupo 100 years ago. There were all these old people lying in hot mud pools.

"I got to see things that I may never have seen because I was with a child and not a wealthy tourist. We really got to see family life."

Alicia took Benny to the Uganda museum and Gaddafi Mosque - the largest mosque in East Africa, built by the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Benny also saw the Kasubi Tombs - a Unesco World Heritage site - and their travels took them from the jungle, to the swamps and lakes of Akagera National Park in Rwanda, and the top of a volcano. They saw baboons, lions, rhinos.

In the Kibale Forest National Park, known for its birdlife and primates, they saw chimpanzees; red-tailed monkeys; blue monkeys; white-cheeked mangabey; olive baboons; black, white and red colobus monkeys. They saw bushbucks, bush pigs, African civets, giant forest hogs, blue duikers.

A lot of animals they saw are endangered, Alicia says. "Perhaps, when Benny is grown up and can do a trip like this on his own or with friends, those animals might not be there anymore. I wanted him to see these animals and show him how important it is that they remain on this planet."

Benny was always the first to spot the wildlife. "I remember being on the roof of the van and seeing a lion," Benny recalls. "Suddenly I was pulled down into the van and there was a lion staring right at us through the window."

A wild encounter indeed.

"We also saw rhinos. We were five metres from one. We had been told to run zigzag style or climb up a tree if we were charged. I didn't think I'd be able to outrun a rhino, but I wasn't scared. I was too full of adrenaline."

During their ed-venture, Alicia and Benny hiked up Mount Bisoke, an active volcano that straddles the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

They climbed the 3700m volcano in about six hours with a guide who was armed in case they ran into a gorilla unexpectedly. The guides used to be poachers and know everything there is to know about the flora and fauna in the area, Alicia says. "They told us Benny was the youngest kid they had known of to climb the volcano."

But it wasn't all animals and safaris that Alicia wanted to expose her son to. They also visited museums and memorials dedicated to those who were slaughtered during the horrific civil war in Rwanda in the early 1990s.

At the Genocide Memorial in Gisozi, fellow tourists told Alicia she shouldn't be bringing a child to see such things. She disagreed. "I think children need to understand what has gone on in the world - the good and the bad. There's no point in not teaching them about something that happened because it is sad or horrific. I don't think we should shelter them from these things."

On their way home, they spent a further four days in Mumbai, where she showed Benny Mahatma Gandhi's house and taught him about that leader's non violent movements for civil rights and freedom. As he toured the city, Benny was shocked: "I saw people living in shacks made from cardboard and anything they could find. People were washing in dirty water, drinking dirty water. There was rubbish everywhere. It made me feel lucky. Like a privileged kid."

After that trip Benny understands how lucky he is to have bathrooms, a toilet, clean running water, food, Alicia says. "He is incredibly privileged on a global scale. I wanted to teach him to be grateful for what we have and to get some understanding of other cultures. To see people living off the land, to see it's possible to have a country without rubbish, to see how a lot of people live in a big city like Mumbai.

"Some of my friends thought I was having some sort of midlife crisis taking this trip with Benny, but I knew it was just a great opportunity to take him somewhere different and do something different. It was great for Benny's education, but it was also great for an adult to travel with a child. That makes it such a different experience."

- The Dominion Post

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