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8 Essential Lessons We Learned About International Travel with an Infant

Photograph of Chris and Sloane on beach.

People thought we were a bit crazy. Actually, some people thought we were a bit crazy, and others—the grandparents, in particular—thought we were embarking upon an act of premeditated parental negligence that might necessitate the intervention of local authorities.

What caused all the hubbub, you might ask. Well, we decided to take our nine-and-a-half-month-old daughter, Sloane, on an extended trip to Asia. Dad had a couple of months of field research to do, mom had a best friend with a comfortable flat in downtown Bangkok, and the wee girl had a brand spankin’ new passport just waiting to be filled with exotic visas. (First lesson of International Travel with an Infant, or ITI: Yes, there is something inherently comic about the photo page of your baby’s passport, and yes, it does have a lot to do with the air of seriousness being lent thereby to a visage you’re used to seeing smeared with oatmeal.)

So off we went on the biggest leap of faith inveterate travellers can take: dragging our innocent, vulnerable little baby girl to the other side of the planet. And after six long-haul flights, two Hong Kong layovers, several extended stays in Bangkok, one long jaunt through South India, and short-haul travel via taxi, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, motor scooter and (most memorably) private yacht, we can testify to the second lesson of ITI, which is this: You’ll be terrified about all the stuff that could happen. But you’ll learn the real rules on the fly.

Herewith, our best lessons learned from ITI:

1. Go somewhere hot.
Canadians see plenty of cold as it is, man. So if you’re going to take a trip with your baby in tow, it might as well be to somewhere you don’t need a toque, snowsuit, long underwear and fancy bottle warmer contraption. Having children multiplies your essential-goods lists by a hundred as it is—you will not be travelling light—and in hot climes your kid can go naked in a pinch (which is nice when they’ve just shit their drawers and you forgot to bring another onesie). With all due respect to Dervla Murphy, it’s really not necessary to drag your kid to Baltistan in the middle of winter to prove you haven’t lost your pre-parenthood travelling chops. Even though we’d lived and backpacked throughout Asia before our daughter arrived on the scene and thought we might be missing out on the “challenging” stuff, we can truthfully report that there’s a unique kind of challenge to stuff like balancing naps with public transport schedules. So it was a welcome bonus to be warm and tan as the Canadian winter raged back home.

2. Rice is your friend (and so are bananas).
Whether it’s congee at a Hong Kong breakfast buffet, sticky rice at a Bangkok street stall or basmati on a banana leaf at a dhaba on the Pondicherry highway, rice is everywhere in Asia. Not only is it nutritious and filling, but also kids the world over seem to find it palatable. Same goes for bananas: Perpetually in season, they’re a nutritionally rich food, kids love them, and they’re a natural remedy for diarrhea. We fed Sloane pounds of rice and bananas, bananas and rice. Rinse her down and repeat.

Various photos from Chris, Ashley and Sloane's trip.

3. Animals are not (your friend, that is).
Did our daughter enjoy the grand menagerie that is street life in Asia? You bet she did. She giggled at the monkeys and birds and insects, gawked at the cows and goats, and even delighted in the ubiquitous dogs and cats. There remained, however, an unassailable golden rule: Never, under any circumstances, was she permitted to touch the animals. Fido and Puss next door in Winnipeg might be tail-wagging friends, but in Asia many animals are kept either for security or to rid the property of vermin. And due to a lack of spaying and neutering programs, most aren’t pets: Many tame-looking animals are actually feral and won’t hesitate to bite. So to be on the safe side, and until she’s able to speak in full, erudite sentences and holds a brown belt in jiu-jitsu, no touching the animals.

4. Fork your kids over.
One of the greatest joys of ITI? Asia is ridiculously kid-friendly, and pretty much everyone is willing—nay, running-across-the-temple-courtyard-like-crazed-Backstreet-Boys-fans delighted—to fawn over a cute, exotic little white baby. Which meant that the kindly old Thai ladies on the sky train happily yanked our daughter away for the duration of our ride, and the collective staffs of a dozen restaurants were overjoyed to drag our girl into the kitchen to coo at while we enjoyed our meals in kid-free, both-hands peace. Indeed, the maître d’ at our favourite sushi place in Bangkok saw it as her right to carry our daughter around from the moment we arrived until after we’d paid the bill, stuffing her with crab maki from the kitchen.

In South India, meanwhile, Sloane regularly caused uproars that verged on riots. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to travel as part of a rock star’s posse, take your grinning pink baby to a bustling temple complex in Mahabalipuram. For an Indian tourist, a 1,200-year-old stone carving of a reclining Vishnu is dullsville next to a real-life Canadian infant in a baby backpack.

4b. Which reminds us: Bring a baby backpack.
The lunar-landscaped, pedestrian- and hawker-choked sidewalks of Asia’s metropolises scoff at your high-tech ultralight Bugaboo Frog stroller, and the dirt roads and muddy lanes of its rural idylls flat out belly laugh. A backpack (or, if you prefer, a sling) is the only way to go. Trust us on this one.

Various photos from Chris, Ashley and Sloane's trip.

5. A baby, like any traveller, is likely to get a little sick.
And it’ll be okay. Our girl fell victim to a mild fever and a nasty bout of diarrhea in rural Tamil Nadu. Much later, we’d learn that these were symptoms of a garden-variety rotavirus she could’ve easily contracted at a daycare back home. Our first reaction, however, was—but of course—a blurry-eyed, heart-thumping panic because our baby had a fever in rural Tamil freakin’ Nadu. Where’s the doctor? Is there a doctor?! Do you people want an international diplomatic incident on your hands or do you want to cough up a doctor pronto?!?…And so forth.

Fortunately, we soon learned one of the universal truths of parenthood: Most kiddie sicknesses, scary as they might initially seem, rarely require immediate professional help. And almost better: Whether you’re in Tamil Nadu or Timbuktu, fellow parents and grandparents will quickly and happily help, proffering advice and medicine on hand. (Our local boon on this occasion: Smecta powder, a French antidiarrheal in the back pockets of every parent in Auroville.) Just stay calm and pump your kid full of fluids and bananas. It’ll pass, and so will the panic. (All this said—do get kick-ass travel medical insurance before you leave home.)

6. The real health hazard? The dreaded Tamil cheek.
What, you’re wondering, is this outlandish ill? Glad you asked. Tamil cheek—Pinchicus overzealousili—is a veritable epidemic among those very few white babies lugged around South India. It’s characterized by a slight but undeniable purple-black bruising of the left cheek, caused by the incessant good luck pinches of seemingly every Tamil woman whose path the victim crosses. Recommended treatment is a strict ban on cheek pinching within three days of arrival in South India. No, we’re not kidding even a little bit. Sloane had a bruise. On her cheek. From being pinched so much.

7. Brush up on your fort building skills.
In Hong Kong or the swankier resorts of southern Thailand, hotels may claim to have “baby cots,” and with a little luck and a ton of cajoling you may even get one sent to your room. In many other places, though—the entire Indian subcontinent, for example—your options are: 1) co-sleeping, 2) hauling along a “portable” 20-pound playpen from rickshaw to train compartment and back again, or 3) fort building. Guess which option we went with?

We overturned easy chairs, rolled up extra blankets, stacked backpacks and stuffed extra pillows in the cracks. We imagined ourselves the neo-colonial tamers of the Indian hospitality industry wilderness: Jim Corbett had his tiger hunts, we had a 16-pound bundle of energy, fine-tuned to exploit the weakness in any bedtime containment system. Our resolve did not falter, and neither did our barricades.

8. Worth the trouble? You bet.
Like travel in general, ITI is rewarding and enriching in a thousand ways you never expected. Sloane learned to walk on the wood-plank floor of a beachside restaurant on a tiny island off Phuket, with monitor lizards as an audience and a blinding white-sand beach as a backdrop. We taught her to bring her hands together and bow in a Thai wai of greeting at any mention of “Sawatdee kaa!” She once displayed this new skill at just the right moment to move a roomful of Thai locals to spontaneous cheering and applause. The girl selling cheap cotton wraps on the beach in Mahabalipuram—the kind of girl who heretofore existed on a dehumanizing plane of impoverished otherness from us backpack-toting foreigners—sat with us, our girl on her knee, for a contented half-hour. We skipped to the front of the line at customs checkpoints again and again—every traveller’s dream come true. Not to mention the sensory overload of Asia, which’ll have your kid staring fascinated for hours. You never knew you had such a calm child.

And of course we now have considerable bragging rights. “Oh sure, we took our daughter to Asia when she was…how old was she, dear? Right—nine and a half months old. It was just fiiiiiiine…” Which it was. Also awesome, life-affirming, transcendent. And even if your kid won’t remember a thing, you certainly will.