A child dressed in a threadbare shirt, with grubby grey shorts and bare feet, inched along the floor through the restaurant door with his hand out. Nobody took any notice.
Nothing about him – from his calloused soles with painful dark cracks, to his wildly dilated pupils – was unusual to any of the diners in a typical cafe in Nakuru, Kenya.
We were the strangers, travelling with our two and a half year old. When lunch arrived our toddler looked at his chicken nuggets and chips, and then asked where the toy was.
A little tensely, I explained that chicken nuggets don't come with toys in this part of the world. I was embarrassed by our normality in the face of child poverty, and I fussed with his food trying to get him to focus on it. My toddler, who had his back to the door, turned to look at what I was preoccupied by.
After a few moments of looking at the child on the floor a few feet away, he turned to his food, picked up a handful of chips and however many nuggets he could fit in the other hand, climbed down off his chair, and walked across the restaurant to give the hungry child something to eat.
He didn’t ask me for permission, he didn’t doubt himself, and he didn’t notice the restaurant burst into laughter at him. He didn’t know that the child was high on glue to suppress his appetite and preferred money – he simply saw a child with nothing, so he sought to feed him.
Today, that chicken-nugget-wielding toddler is eighteen. He is independently volunteering on the beaches of Greece with the refugee relief effort. Getting up every day and pulling people out of boats, tending to their immediate needs, and clearing the beaches after they go.
Would he be doing that if he hadn’t experience different 'normals' around the world? I don’t believe so. He wouldn’t be able to empathise so easily, he wouldn’t know he could be useful, and he wouldn’t have the confidence in himself to fly out there, walk on to the beaches and start helping.
Travel not only gives our children the space to decide what kind of adults they want to be, it also gives us the same space to see who they really are.
If you travel with your children, and put yourselves in unfamiliar surroundings over and over again, you see them amplified. Without the opportunities that travel opens up, these rich seams of insight would either not be exposed or would go unnoticed.
The young man on the beaches of Greece is the same person who travelled through India at seven and saw the street children of Delhi, the slum children of Mumbai, and the tribal children of Madhya Pradesh and said: “Santa doesn’t comes here, does he mum?”
Far from losing his childhood innocence when he travelled as a boy, his world went from the black and white of certainty to the brilliant Technicolor of empathy. Through countless other encounters, large and small, he understands the accident of birth lottery – and that understanding fuels compassion.
This is the same person who, at 16, walked 800km across Spain surviving on only what he could carry. I am sure that gives him perspective when he meets refugees who have walked across continents.
As I watch him insert himself into history on the frontline of this humanitarian crisis, I see the path he took to get here clearly stretched out behind him. As I see him calmly navigate the emotional, adrenalin-fuelled, lifesaving situations he faces, I see how he created his path as he walked it across the world of experiences. He can also stand in a post-apocalyptic environment, with thousands of people from countries he has never been to, with no shared language, in the face of desperation, and hold on to himself.
It is possible to see all the dots, every single one of them across his travels, that join together to map his journey to who he is.
His brother is a different person, but I have seen different qualities exposed on the same trail. That is why I am so certain that travel is the best gift I have given my children.
As a family we can take holidays for rest and recuperation, but travel throws down a challenge in which you can catch sight of who you really are. If our vision is to mould the adults of the future, we need to see the seed of that adult in the child, and travel is the space where that can be seen.
Melanie Gow is a writer, speaker and photographic artist who believes life is a brief shot at something incredible. Her book, Walking With Angels, is the inspirational story of walking the Camino de Santiago with her sons, aged 12 and 16, and is available on Amazon. For more details about Melanie and her book, visit her website, myofficetoday.co.uk.
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