Rocky and Heidi Weaver are WORLD readers who are planning a trip to Israel this fall-"Lord willing," they say. "We hope to stay with a family we got to know several years ago here in the States. This family lives on a kibbutz and has invited us to stay there with them. We have five children ages 9, 7, 5, 3, and 8 months," Heidi writes. "Could I trouble you to give us some recommendations on what to take or how to travel best as a family? We have not flown overseas before as a family."
In 2002-2003 during the months leading up to the war in Iraq, months heavy with war-on-terror tension, my family of six spent seven weeks traveling around the world, much of that time in the Middle East. Children grow quickly, and mine as I write are living in three different states. We revel in our collective memories of that trip. We're glad we didn't listen to the voices (our own!) telling us we were crazy. So if you are like the Weavers, here are 10 quick recommendations on how best to travel as a family:
(1) Stay together. This may sound obvious, but Americans like to split up, to multitask. We spend a lot of effort and money on cell phones and elaborate schedules so everyone can do his favorite things. But the best part of a trip is coming home with a common set of shared memories, so commit to going almost everywhere as a family. Contrary to the wisdom that you can do more in twos and threes (occasionally true), a family of six or seven is a conversation starter, an attention getter, and a witness everywhere. Exception to the rule: Travel is tiring and rest is usually not on the itinerary. Sometimes let the young ones sleep in.
(2) Set high and low expectations. Face it: If you are an American you are better off than nearly everyone else in the world. We insisted on high expectations of ourselves (eat the food, say thank you, no grumbling faces) and low expectations of just about everyone and everything else. Planes, customs agents, and shop vendors may fail you; God will not.
(3) Know the customs. In the Middle East, Muslims in particular are sensitive about having their photo taken. In Cairo a butcher, his knife fresh from the belly of a goat, came at my husband's neck after he snapped one. Good travel guides are a good starting place (Blue Guides, Lonely Planet, and Let's Go are my favorites). Travel blogs and local newspapers are online for those with time for more research.
(4) Prepare physically (and mentally). Before heading overseas we took long walks into town or to restaurants as a family. Sounds basic, but walking in familiar territory helped old and young know what a day of touring feels like. On one walk our 6-year-old said suddenly, "How will we get all our Christmas presents on the plane?" We looked blankly at each other before her 16-year-old sister wisely responded, "Sara, the trip is our present." That was an essential moment of truth before we set off.
(5) Trust. People are people everywhere. The headlines and State Department travel bulletins are useful signposts but hardly the whole story. Arab hospitality to strangers is unsurpassed-and most Arabs are not terrorists.
(6) Embrace community. Americans tend to plan their travels as singular family time. Through your church, your denomination, or faith-based charities, find churches and Christian gatherings where you travel. You'll never regret connecting with believers in other cultures.
(7) Travel light. Our family of six (but without diapers, Heidi) had a backpack each plus two duffel bags. That's all. We don't remember anything we did without, but we do remember how much easier it made hauling ourselves in and out of cabs and subways.
(8) Fast food is there for you. No harm in a hamburger and French fries (no cheeseburgers in Israel) when the kids (or you) have had enough falafels.
(9) Abound and abase. We often ate very small meals to later splurge on larger ones. We never felt deprived staying at a hostel or Y (usually very centrally located). Living simply, you can tell your kids, is also a way to enter the culture.
(10) Pray. A lot. Ask other people to pray for you, too. It works.
I'll be praying for Rocky and Heidi, Luke, Jacob, Maria, Silas, and Toby.
If you have a question or comment for Mindy Belz, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.