How do we teach our children to tread lightly on the earth; to be responsible, engaged social citizens and fight for a safe and healthy future on our planet that is being increasingly squeezed and depleted of its natural resources? Travel wouldn’t be top of the list for most families at a time when emission fuels created by air travel need to be drastically cut in the coming years, but I’d like to share our story with you.
We’re from the UK but lived in Kenya for several years where my husband was working with low-income urban communities in various water and sanitation projects. Our time there had finished and we were heading back to England, but before returning to our native land, we’d long been flirting with the idea of a final overland adventure, or a ‘family gap year’ as we liked to call it. My husband and I would snatch snippets of conversation, tossing ideas back and forth like a ball between us. Where should we go? When? For how long?
And slowly, as our days in Kenya drew to an end, a plan began to form. We would fly to India and spend six months travelling around this vast, colourful country of over a billion souls with our three children (who turned 12,10 and 8 while we were away) before returning home. The more we planned, the more we recognised this slice of time as a precious gift. But just as important as taking the trip in the first place, we wanted to make sure we weren’t just blindly travelling from one place to the next. We wanted to interact with local people as much as we possibly could, and to travel mindfully and responsibly. We wanted our kids to see and to really feel the shared web of humanity that connects each and every one of us.
But how to best do that?
It began on a purely practical level as alongside the rucksacks, we ordered metal straws for each of us as well as a fold-up water filter to accompany our re-usable bottles so we wouldn’t have to buy water in plastic bottles. Then I got in touch with somebody through work, a person I didn’t know hugely well but she’d once said to me that if I was ever in India, her mother would love to host us. Could I really ask her to put all five of us up (plus the travelling Granny, my mother, who came with us for the first two months of the trip)? A resounding yes came back, and it was to her we headed right at the start of our trip, in a small tiled-roof cottage on the edge of a paddy field in rural South India.
Somehow, this set our trip off on just the right note: we were introduced to her neighbours, taught some words of Kannada, the local language, cooked incredible Karnatakan food and taken around a number of temples by a friend.
Staying in Air B n B’s rather than hotels, we realised quite quickly, provided a short cut straight to the locals. I really do believe this has changed the face of travel, as it has also opened up people’s homes in areas that are well off the tourist trail and we may not ordinarily have found ourselves in. From the little house in a leafy street in a University town north of Calcutta to a mountain cottage high in the Himalayas, an eight hour bus journey from the nearest town, we often found ourselves choosing our next destination because of what Air B n B had on offer, rather than the other way round.
“It was so important to us to tread as lightly as we could around India and to not further contribute to the terrible problem that already exists with waste and waste disposal.”
It was so important to us to tread as lightly as we could around India and to not further contribute to the terrible problem that already exists with waste and waste disposal. As well as the aforementioned metal straws and water filter we carried in our backpacks, we had a few mornings of picking up trash on the beach in Kerala. A local fisherman scoffed at us, saying that he used to do the same but eventually gave up as every morning, the sea washed up on to the shore a new round of litter. Be that as it may, I don’t want my children to think they can’t make a difference and for many years, have lived by the African proverb, ‘If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.’
We were also away during World Earth Day and this seemed like the perfect opportunity for all of to celebrate this annual environmental awareness day by making a pledge, writing it down and signing it to hold ourselves accountable. My husband committed to buying no more disposable razors (investing in a permanent one), I made a pledge to only source sustainable clothing from that point on and natural fibres as far as possible, my son promised to reduce buying items wrapped in plastic with his pocket money, and my daughters joined together to make a short film about plastic pollution and the need to reduce our plastic consumption.
With the demands of everyday life, whether it’s work, the school run, cooking and cleaning or the various activities children (or us as parents) are involved in, it is a challenge for every family to make that time and space for one another. But when you are out of your normal routine, a whole host of opportunities to spend that much-needed time together present themselves, as well as swathes of time to follow through new interests that grow. Outside of the structured space of school and after-school activities, it became apparent, for example, that my one of my children has a passion for codes and languages and another is happiest when creating things with her hands.
Years before, I’d read Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, a book that helps us to identify the unique ways we all receive and give love to help deepen our relationships. I’d found it really interesting, but while we were away I discovered that there was a book that the author had designed specially with children in mind, helping us to identify our child’s ‘love language’ and also practical tips for helping our children connect with others through the expression and ability to receive through these languages. Would we have found the time had we not been out of our routine? Possible, but unlikely.
Something else that was really important to us while we were away was to engage in some kind of voluntary work, so that the children (and also us) could experience the value of working in a community. There are so many global platforms available now to help connect volunteers with community projects, and we signed up with Work Away and found a vegan farm located in the hills of northern Kerala. The founder has taken a single acre of depleted land and, with the help of volunteers, is regenerating it through organic farming and the reintroduction of native species to see exactly what can be achieved in a small space and with unconditional giving.
Gaia Grid was in its early phases and accommodation was basic: we bedded down on hard wooden pallets in the open air and showers entailed a half bucket of water filtering through a tin can in a makeshift hut. But our children looked to us for affirmation: if we had turned up and thrown our hands up in horror, it wouldn’t have worked. But we saw it for what it was: a unique experience, and our children involved themselves, heart and soul, in the project. There at Gaia Grid, we encountered a small group of committed individuals making a difference on a small patch of land on a hillside. I was struck by the simplicity and beauty of it all: the simple, healthy food; the conversations with like-minded people and the belief that, thought by thought and seed by seed, we can help transform our world.
WHAT DID THIS TRIP MEAN TO US?
I don’t want to give the impression that this trip for our family was always easy with day after day of fun and family bonding, for this is far from the reality of it. Over six months, we had some pretty challenging and hairy moments: tortuously long train delays to strain the most stalwart of nerves; taking the wrong route whilst trekking in the Ladakhi mountains and thus skirting a terrifying precipice; staying in a place infested with rat droppings and clouds of mosquitos; rarely being able to get a meal without copious amounts of spice and serious arguments amongst our three children who were not used to spending so much time together. But this was all part of it, and has helped weave the tapestry of of our shared experiences as a family and now we’re back in England, very few weeks pass by without one of us are saying, Do you remember the time in India when…
Taking a family gap year is, granted, a luxury and for many, it is not practical or possible. But I realised something so important while we were travelling: that this isn’t just about taking big trips. Every single time we go away, whether it’s for a day or a year and whether it’s at home or abroad, we are making a powerful statement. Conscious consuming is not just about which food or clothing or beauty products we buy, it’s also about where we chose to visit, how we get there and how we act and interact once there. After this trip, I feel more keenly than ever that we are one tiny cog working a vast global network of mutual links and that we have a responsibility when we travel, not only to act as ambassadors but also to tread lightly and mindfully. The generosity we received in India was humbling and if we can treat travellers to our own land with the same kindness, then we are helping to reinforce the bonds of our shared humanity.
To travel is a privilege, whether it’s to Devon or to Delhi. Just as we are guests on this planet, we are also guests when we visit somewhere and thus, must use our time away with wisdom and kindness as well as environmental and cultural sensitivity. I look forward to seeing how my children are inspired to treat themselves, others and our planet from our India trip and also in helping to plan and enjoy future holidays.
Rebecca Stonehill is a historical fiction author. After five years of living in Kenya and six months of travelling in India, she is now based in rural Norfolk with her husband and three children. She loves yoga, photography, playing the piano and seeking our adventures. For more on Rebecca’s work, visit rebeccastonehill.com