A Screen-Free Spring Break

Corona grounded us, but years of travel taught us how to fly.

By Dulce Zamora

Wednesday, April 15, 2020 — My daughters have never known a sedentary Spring Break. Ever since they can remember, we have traveled somewhere every March or April. Even when our oldest, Sienna, was still in my womb in 2007, my husband, Noel, and I traveled to New Zealand to see friends. A friendly Kiwi tried to convince us to take a speedy jet boat ride through a gorgeous, albeit very narrow river canyon pass. When I informed him I was four months pregnant, he said it was okay as long as I was comfortable with it. I could have easily written off his comment as an anomaly, except he wasn’t the only one who offered me adventure tours. The whole experience was the first of many lessons I learned while parenting on the go: Love is universal, but ideal child rearing varies around the globe.

This was also the world that my girls were born into — a world where, every chance we got, we explored and re-explored different places. We lived as American expats in Singapore. We often accompanied Noel on his international trips as an accountant for a global firm. While he worked, the kids and I would figure out where to best eat and play on our own. When he was done with his assignments, we’d go on a family vacation in the area. We did not know how long we’d be in Asia, so we visited as many places as we could. It helped that countries in the region were so close together. From our place in Singapore, it was a twenty-minute car ride to Malaysia, an hour ferry ride to Indonesia, a two-and-a-half-hour plane ride to Vietnam, and a three-hour plane ride to the Philippines.

The only year we could recall without a vernal trip was 2009, the year our daughter, Jasmine was born. In the years that followed, we experienced springtime with cherry blossom flurries in Tokyo and New York. We built sand castles along the shores of Phuket, Borneo, and the Maldives. We snowboarded down Hokkaido’s white mountain slopes, and sand-boarded down Oregon’s hilly coastal dunes. We hunted for Easter eggs on a California chicken farm, and inside a Kyoto hotel room. Once, we also cycled with chilly autumn winds whipping our hair along the shores of Rottnest Island in Australia. In the Southern Hemisphere, autumn happens between March and May.

People always inquire: What is our favorite Spring Break destination? When I ask my daughters, their answer is not so much a place, but an event — actually, two events within one month of each other in 2015. In February, my sister gave birth to Everest, and, in March, my sister-in-law (my brother’s wife) birthed Addison. 

The precious photos of our first family gatherings with Everest and Addison elicit the most oohs and ahhs out of our entire springtime collection. Just goes to show: Our relationships matter most in life’s journey.

This lesson seems all the more poignant this year, as Noel, Sienna, Jasmine, and I spent Spring Break at home in Singapore, sheltered from community spread of the coronavirus. (This is our second stint in Asia). We had tickets to Dubai, but canceled them, because of safety concerns. Instead of riding camels in the desert, we cloistered at home, distancing ourselves from the world we so ravenously explored.

A Hearty Home-cation

One would think the confines of our walls would be too constricting for our well-traveled heels. Quite the contrary. Staying in also greatly expanded our emotional and inter-relational horizons. When the Earth seemed to spin out of its axis with heartbreaking news of COVID-19 deaths and despair, we hunkered down with routine and virtual connection. 

In the mornings, we usually communicated with loved ones in the U.S. via video calls. We got a chance to have virtual play dates with people we don’t usually see until our summer family trips.

Then, I gave my daughters a #ScreenFreeChallenge until at least 4:00 p.m. While Noel and I worked, Sienna and Jasmine baked, sewed, and immersed themselves in arts and crafts projects. They read, wrote short stories, acted out their own dramatic scenes, and played LEGOs.

Most impressive were the half-hour afternoon camps the girls created for the whole family. Sienna gave us tips on sketching, improv acting, generating story ideas, and developing characters. Jasmine led classes in yoga, art therapy, and DIY office supplies and decorations. It struck me that, for my well-traveled daughters, adjusting to new situations was part of life.

During our jaunts to foreign countries, we often had to determine where to eat, rest, and play. Places and food were often unfamiliar. Things didn’t alway go as planned. So, we’ve had our fair share of disappointments, blowups, and frights over the years.

Spring Fever Lessons

When Jasmine was one year old, we were in Hokkaido when she came down with a high fever late at night. We were in a remote area with limited medical facilities. Plus, we didn’t speak Japanese so we couldn’t communicate properly with health care providers over the phone. The next day, we drove two hours to the nearest emergency room at a major hospital. By that time, Jasmine had angry rashes all over her body. It was scary, but we still couldn’t explain ourselves to the doctors since our Japanese was limited to Kon’nichiwa. So, we called Noel’s colleague in Tokyo to translate for us. Turns out, the doctor said, Jasmine’s fever caused the rash, she no longer had the fever, and the worst was over. We were relieved.

Since then, we visited emergency rooms in four other countries, including Australia, South Korea, the U.S., and Singapore. My daughters had common childhood ailments such as a dislocated elbow, an ear effusion, a fall on the playground, and Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease (HFMD). One might wonder if our travels contributed to the girls’ ailments. Actually, they fell sick and had accidents wherever we were — at home or in another country. We simply brought who we were to wherever we went. This idea reminds me of the saying: “Wherever you go, there you are.” 

What we are is a family of explorers. We’ve been able to look back at our trials and laugh about them. For example, in 2018, it was tough trying to communicate with emergency room staff in Jeju, South Korea, because they didn’t know much English, and my family and I didn’t know any Korean. We all used Google Translate to relay messages, which resulted in a conversation in which both parties took turns laughing at each other’s confusing translations. To this day, I don’t know what exactly was said, but my girls always recall our hilariously awkward exchange.

Sickness and hospital visits may seem out of place in a blog post about Spring Break trips, but, actually, our adventures and misadventures in general have familiarized us with the unfamiliar. In the current pandemic, we have used our experience to think outside of the old “normal” world. 

  • We explored new ways of connecting with family and friends. In doing so, we reaffirmed our bonds – sources of great comfort in this unprecedented time. 
  • We unearthed the wonders within our home, which were once buried by busy schedules outside of the house. (We discovered cool stuff hidden in our closets which we hadn’t touched since two moves ago!)
  • We processed COVID-19 news from different countries with some perspective. At 10 and 12 years old, my girls participated in family dinnertime conversations comparing and contrasting nations’ responses to the coronavirus. When we heard that South Korea flattened the curve, we all nodded in understanding. We personally knew how advanced, efficient and relatively inexpensive it was to get emergency medical care in the country. In one full hour, Jasmine’s ear ache was examined with an endoscope and underwent a full battery of hearing tests. Plus, I was able to get her medication at the pharmacy across the street while Noel and the girls snacked at the hospital cafe. All in sixty minutes. Even with the language barriers. Actually, most of the communication stumbles happened with reception. The ear, nose, and throat specialists spoke decent, albeit stilted English. It was remarkable, nonetheless, particularly since the language problem was ours and not theirs. We were in their country after all. 

Toward a Better Tomorrow

We acknowledge our good fortune in being able to access good health care. In our trips, we have seen barefoot children selling food and trinkets to travelers, and we’ve had conversations with hotel staff and tour guides, some of whom have shared with us their experiences in rundown, crowded villages. What happens to them when they get sick? How can they possibly social distance themselves in the age of COVID? What money are they making when the tourists aren’t there? 

Life has always been full inequalities, and the pandemic has surely widened the divide between the haves and have nots. Sometimes, being aware of other peoples’ problems can feel overwhelming. However, awareness can also spur us to think outside of the box we live in. In constantly challenging ourselves to face the unknown, we create and strengthen pathways in our brain to explore new ways of doing things. You know the adage ‘Practice makes perfect’? Well, practicing our adaptability helps us adapt to changing situations. I’m hoping that our exposure to different worlds will help my daughters become responsible, creative, and compassionate global citizens. It’s a tall order for anyone for sure. Yet, wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone had a sense that their actions could help better the world?

Even before the coronavirus was around, a large global body of scientific, economic, and education research has shown that people who are good at creative problem solving tend to be more successful than others. I think it’s worth noting that the problem is part of the solution. When my family and I wandered to various locations, we set ourselves up for complications — not on purpose, of course. We simply moved our physical bodies, individual personalities, and family routines to different locations. 

We know, for instance, that rest times are very important to our family. Without a break, we tend to get really grumpy and impatient with one another. So, wherever we went, we planned for afternoon quiet time. We had to alter what quiet time looked like, depending on various factors. In New York City, we lounged on sofas and read books at the public library. In Penang, Malaysia, we relaxed in a cafe, with the adults having coffee in one table, and the kids sipping smoothies in another table. At Hong Kong Disneyland, we watched an hour-long show in a dark, air-conditioned theatre. During a snorkeling trip in Phu Quoc, Vietnam, we used our lunchtime to do more than just eat. Noel napped, I read a book, and the kids lazed on a rope swing hanging from a leaning coconut tree.

This Spring, we didn’t take our usual break at a foreign destination. Instead, we mined the richness of our nomadic life. We learned that we didn’t need to leave the house to connect with loved ones, to solve problems, or to learn something new. We also had some understanding of what was going on in parts of the globe, because we had been there and had talked to locals.

Will we travel any time soon? It doesn’t look likely at this point. However, once the coast is clear, you can bet we will be on the first flight out to hug our dear Addison and Everest, and the rest of the family. Coronavirus may have curbed our international activities, but it cannot cancel our connections to loved ones and to the world.

© 2020 Windswept Wildflower

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