Two years ago, passport and frequent flier number tucked in her diaper bag, our four-month-old daughter, Eloise, wound through the cobbled streets of Fez, Morocco strapped to my husband’s chest. Slabs of raw meat hung from butchers’ stalls and the smell of freshly dyed leather and Moroccan spices filled the ancient walled city. Our little “worm,” as my husband, Brian, calls her, craned her neck to absorb the scenes. Women and children kissed her cheeks and hands in the market. And like the mysterious Islamic call to prayer sounding overhead, we experienced something spiritual – sharing our passion for travel with our infant daughter. By the end of her first year, we had hit Morocco, England (twice), and Cameroon. Despite our excitement over our baby’s adventures, we caught grief from friends and family about dragging our infant around the world.
Before parenthood, we globe trotted without a care. Our passports grew thick with hundreds of stamps from work and leisure travel and a two-year stint in Moscow, where I became pregnant. With the news of the pregnancy, the warnings from our seasoned-parent friends became louder.
“You’ll see,” our friends said. “Once you have a kid, life will change, and you won’t travel anymore.”
The excuses ranged from financial constraints and travel-related illnesses, to disrupting sleep schedules and the inconveniences of air travel. Gripped by their kid-fears, most parents we knew let their children dictate their lives. Rather than grounding us, our daughter’s birth fueled our sense of adventure. Of course having a baby meant tweaking our lifestyle a bit, but most of the changes we made accommodated our desire to see the world, not her schedule.
In January, and with Eloise walking and talking, we accepted another overseas assignment, and our family moved to Douala, Cameroon. Visions of the three of us crisscrossing the continent in a safari jeep made me giddy with excitement. For a few months, our move to West Africa fit neatly into our plan of raising a little citizen of the world.
Our two-year-old recited her ABCs and counted to ten in both English and French. She knew the difference between a water buffalo and a cow. And she understood that the world is larger than “Birginia,” where she was born, or “Norf Carwina,” and “New Orweans,” where her grandparents live.
Our big world shrank pretty small this spring, however, when we hit some turbulence. The only bug we had hoped she would catch was the travel bug. So when our Cameroonian doctor stood in our bedroom and told us that Eloise had malaria, tears welled in my eyes and self-loathing thoughts ran rampant through my mind.
That first night, her fever reached 104 degrees, and in those moments that she lay writhing and moaning in my arms, I questioned every decision we had made up until that point. Maybe our friends and family were right. Maybe we shouldn’t take all these risks with our daughter and just live a “normal” life, in which Disney World tops our travel wish list.
Upon hearing the news, all of our seasoned-parent friends and family responded with the same shock: “Malaria!” The naysayers were vindicated.
But after three days of mixing a green liquid medicine into her chocolate milk and bribing her with cookies to drink it, our little worm wriggled her way back onto her trampoline – malaria free. Along with her declining fever, those moments of doubts about our unconventional lifestyle faded. We understood well what could have happened, but our family had no room for kid-fears in our suitcases. Armed with our antimalarial pills, mosquito nets and bug repellent, we started planning for our next big trip to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
Hiking three hours through the rainforest to see Dian Fossey’s gorillas poses many problems for a toddler. (We have limits.) So we did something our friends back home would have done. We hired a baby sitter. We found her through the American Embassy in Kigali, and the next day, Brian and I trekked up to the gorillas and back again, reuniting with Eloise at the lodge by 3 p.m.
She heard different languages and learned how to say a new word, “Rahwunda.” Eloise missed the big furry beasts, but they probably would have freaked her out anyway. Instead, she rode with us through the countryside, with children waving and running along side the car. She saw kids, not much older than she, playing and working on farms. She heard different languages and learned how to say a new word, “Rahwunda.”
This time, I posted pictures of our travels on Facebook. Some of the images showed Eloise posing with a plaster gorilla family back at the lodge, and others showed Brian and I less than six feet from an actual silverback. As I expected, the comments rushed in. But this time, they took a different tone.
“Amazing,” and “sooo cool,” appeared in multiple posts from those who typically knocked our decision to show Eloise the world. Finally, it seemed, we agreed on something. The trip was “awesome,” as one friend wrote, but having our little worm along for the ride made it more so – spiritual even.
I expect when Eloise grows up, she might not remember vividly the mountains of Rwanda. She may have forgotten how to speak French, and for sure, she will only know the Moroccan kisses as a classic family story told to her throughout the years. But if she has a choice between traveling to Disney or Dakar, I hope she senses that same mysterious calling we felt that first year in Fez and lets passion, not fear, guide her through her life.