Temples, Toilets, Tantrums and Trying New Things
One of the (sometimes limited) joys of family adventure travel is exposing your kids to new and different things. Fruits we’ve never seen before. Crowded fish markets. Untouched palm frocked beaches….
When I travel, I seek out the different. In fact, I specifically pick destinations that offer cultures, scenery, and food totally alien to everyday America. India, for example, where women are adorned in bright colored saris and even grandmothers have nose rings. Turkey, where carpet sellers chase you down the street. East Africa, where many people live in mud huts and lions are a game drive away. And this trip, of course, Sri Lanka – where even the “mildest” local food we could find was Pepto-requiring spicy, and where a dynamic blend of local cultures and religion make for a dynamic, exotic blend (masala) of local culture, dress and customs.
Kids, of course, don’t always appreciate – or even notice – differences. The splendor of the natural world they sometimes seem remarkably blind to. A beach is a beach to them – regardless of whether they are surrounded by coconut-laden palm trees or crowds + Candy Kitchen. The fact that some women were in saris, some sport the full burka, and that most men wear skirt-like sarongs: failed to impress. (The shift from sit down toilets to crouch-over-the-ground squatties, however, THAT got noticed.)
Religious pluralism? Also apparently not of much interest to a 5-year-old and 8-year-old. The start of our trip was temple heavy. Buddhist temples in town. Buddhist temples in caves. Buddhist temples on a hill. Standing Buddhas. Sitting Buddhas. Reclining Buddhas. Blessing Buddhas. Praying Buddhas. Every little town seems to have a temple, rice paddies and farm lands have a small temple, and even people’s cars and houses and shops have little mini altars. Mix that up with some super colorful Hindu temples with their blue Vishnus and multi-handed elephant gods (Ganesh) and mischievous monkey gods (Hanuman), plus a smattering of minareted mosques, and you can image how colorful the religious architecture is.
Our kids = nonplussed. But then again, I remember my first trip to Europe – going crazy at first for all the hundreds of years old cathedrals. Took the tours. Enjoyed the history. Then, by like the fifth baroque or Gothic cathedral, it’s like: Nave. Check. Arcade. Check. Apse. Check. Basilica. Check. Stained glass window. Check. That’s apparently how the girls felt about our temple visits. The first visit was sensory overload with the sights and smells. Very cool to see people walking around with baskets of fragrant flowers that they leave at different Buddha figures for blessings and good luck…until I noticed my own kids collecting some of those flowers and making their own mini bouquets and sticking flowers in their hair ( Was it ok to touch the flowers? Could my girls leave their own – as I know they’d have fun sprinkling their own baskets of flowers around? or was that tantamount to idol worship?! We don’t know…we just instituted our own “don’t touch the flowers on the altar but OK if you pick some up from the ground” rule!).
By the middle of the trip, the girls were throwing tantrums and begging to wait in the car. At one memorable visit, Adam and I toured the local stupa while the girls entertained themselves leaping from the top of a dirt pile from an ongoing temple construction project. When Adam and I came out of the inner rooms we visited, they were covered in dirt, busy yelling “king of the mountain” from the top of the pile in their loudest voices, and unintentionally entertaining (or frustrating?) the whole community of monks there.
At a more memorable visit, we entered a Hindu temple at the same time a family was making its puja offerings. They were busy in the corner cutting up fruit on a tray, which they handed to the local priest, who in turn started chanting and placing the tray at the altar where a bronze carving of Ganesh, the multi handed elephant god Ganesh sat. Pungent incense was lit. We were invited to move in close, and then they grabbed our hands and we joined them in a walk around the altar. At the end, when the family was given the tradition red/white “puja” mark on the forehead, the temple puja lady came right on over and put one on all our foreheads too. The girls were thrilled. Talk about an interactive experience. And it didn’t end there – turns out that after offering the basket of fruit to Ganesh and saying the blessings, the fruit then gets eaten by those who participated in the ceremony. So we left with puja marks…and pineapple stuffed cheeks!
So what do kids get out of adventure travel, temple visits and all those circumambulations around the stupas? Enlightenment? For sure not. Nirvana? We parents can be pretty far from that amid jetlagged kids and fussy eaters who would prefer to watch movies on their iPads than visit exotic temples. But the world is a big and mysterious place. And you do occasionally see the eyes widen, the sense of wonder creeping in (ever so slightly), the slowly growing recognition that everything it not always as you would expect.
And that makes life – and parenting on the road AND at home – great!