The map of all maps

The base map for Kidsmap.

The base map for Kidsmap

Despite the fact that we live in an age of GPS navigation and Google Maps, I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for old-fashioned, fold-‘em-up-and-stick-‘em-in-the-glove-compartment paper maps. I’ve raised my kids to know them and appreciate these travel aids. Call me a dinosaur. I don’t care.

This archaic obsession of mine has prompted us to keep the folks at our local AAA office busy with requests before big road trips (or, I guess, big international air trips).

It also is the reason for my rabid love for The Kidsmap, from German cartographer Simon Schuetz and his company, Awesome Maps.

This map—which (it’s important to note) exists in physical, not virtual, form—comprises three main parts: A super-simple base map showing nothing other than continents, deserts and major mountain ranges; sheets of re-attachable stickers depicting natural wonders and indigenous animal species from around the world; and a deck of quiz cards with questions about different sites and people and lands.

Because the map has both stickers and cards, it can be used as a sticker map, or as a full-on geography game.

Of course if you’re like me, you also can use it to teach your kids about which landmasses are where.

The most delicious irony: This map isn’t available yet, and only will be available later this year if Schuetz can get the project funded through his Kickstarter campaign to do so. (In case you’re wondering, I don’t know this guy at all; I just think his project is REALLY REALLY kick-ass. And, yes, I’ve contributed.)

Schuetz is no stranger to cool maps. In 2013—also through a Kickstarter campaign—he created the bucketlistmap, a map that depicted most of the must-see places in countries all over the globe. As part of that project, he also created world maps featuring all of the best places to surf, take snow trips, and see football/soccer matches.

IMHO, this latest map—the one for kids—is by far the most awesome of the maps from Awesome Maps. In this house, we’ll stop at nothing to incorporate geography (and cartography) into the stuff we teach our girls every day. The Kidsmap is a great tool to do just that.

Doing is believing

Tossing rocks (and pinecones) into the Merced.

Tossing rocks (and pinecones) into the Merced.

There are logical reasons why touch tanks always are kids’ favorite part of the aquarium. The exhibits are at kid-level! They’ve got stuff kids can reach in and grab! Most important: They are one of the only places in the facility where kids can DO instead of just SEE.

This last reality is one we traveling parents often overlook. Yes, it’s amazing to expose our kids to international cities and world-class museums and great music and all sorts of cultural phenomena like that. It’s also a big deal to let ‘em get down on their knees, roll up their sleeves and interact with stuff for themselves.

I was reminded of this last weekend, during our storybook family vacation to Yosemite National Park.

Sure, the kids loved it when we hiked to Mirror Lake. And yes, they loved it when we traipsed around Yosemite Valley for different perspectives on Yosemite Falls, the highest measured waterfall in North America.

But they were happiest when they were able to get their hands on the nature around them.

The first example of this came during our hike (from The Ahwahnee hotel) to the lake. About halfway out, L and R insisted on wandering off-trail, exploring the granite boulders around us for “cozy hideaways” for fairies. I monitored these activities closely; technically they weren’t supposed to be off-trail at all, and the terrain wasn’t exactly easy to navigate. Still, amid the boulders, picking at moss and leaves and all sorts of other stuff around them, the girls played for hours (literally).

The second example of the importance of doing came toward the end of our visit, on a day when L and I went out to explore while R and Powerwoman napped back in the room.

My older daughter and I wandered out of the hotel and back toward the Merced River. There, along the riverbank, we spent 15 minutes tossing pinecones into the current and watching them head downstream. I could tell L was curious about something, so I asked her if there was anything else she’d like to do. Her response: “I want to feel the water, Dad.”

And so, I let her. I held her jacket while she leaned out from the side of the bank and dipped her hands in the Merced. Once her hands were wet, she pulled them back and wiped the water on her tiny face. As the droplets ran down her cheeks, she stuck out her tongue and giggled.

“It’s cold!” she commented. Then she dipped her hands in again. And again.

To be honest, I had no idea how meaningful that moment was until the drive home. Somewhere around Mariposa, my wife turned around and asked the girls what they liked best about our trip.

R’s answer was simple: She loved the waterfalls. L’s response, however, caught both of us grownups off-guard. “My favorite part was feeling the river,” she said. “It was fun to see the waterfalls but touching the water itself was amazing.”

I’m not sure I could have said it better myself.

The yin and yang of family travel

Outside The Ahwahnee, right after we arrived.

Outside The Ahwahnee, right after we arrived.

Five days have passed since our family excursion to Yosemite National Park and The Ahwahnee Hotel. Though the trip was, by its very nature, a dream come true, the adventure included stratospheric highs and horrendous lows.

Chronicling the highpoints is easy. On the list: Watching the girls seek “cozy hideaways” for fairies as we hiked amid granite boulders on the way to Mirror Lake, hearing the kids sing songs from “Frozen” as Little R experienced snow for the first time in her life, taking them to the Curry Village Pizza Deck, helping L put her hands and face in the Merced River to see what it felt like, and, of course, spotting a bobcat slink by less than five feet away.

Of course watching my girls watch Yosemite Falls also was pretty amazing—the baby could not get over the fact that the waterfall never “shut off.”

The lowpoints are just as easy to enumerate.

Like the mid-brunch tantrum on the last morning that featured L scratching her mother like that aforementioned bobcat. Or R’s insistence on being carried for the duration of a 3-mile hike.

Both of these experiences paled in comparison to the indisputable nadir: The night when my 2-year-old daughter kicked me out of the bed we were sharing and screamed like a banshee until I agreed to sleep on the floor.

(At first this scene amused me; then I realized I was paying close to $500 a night to camp in a hotel.)

Personally, I expected the trip to have a little yin and yang—this is what happens when you travel with two humans under the age of 6. Still, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t at least a little surprised by just how much yang there was on this particular adventure, especially considering how well the kids did on our last major adventure in London.

Overall, the experience was a perfect reminder of what family travel really is—beautiful, frustrating, exhilarating, and exhausting. Yes, there were low points. But there also were high points, and all it takes is one of those to make a memory that can last a lifetime for any of us.

All about the storybook(s)

AAcover

Inside spread, Alaska Airlines magazine

This is shaping up to be the biggest week of the year for those of us here at Wandering Pod, and it’s all about the placements.

First, on Tuesday, the April 2014 issue of Alaska Airlines magazine hit seat-backs with a cover story written by yours truly. The story, which runs nearly 4,000 words, spotlights family travel in Hawaii. In it, I pulled together anecdotes and experiences from five years of visiting the Aloha State with (at least one of) the girls.

Check it out by clicking here (and then scrolling to page 34, where the piece begins).

Next, later this morning, Powerwoman, L, R, and I will hop in the Prius and head out to Yosemite National Park, where we’ll spend the next four days disconnecting from the world and exploring as a family.

This trip is part of a HUGE package of articles I’ll be writing for Expedia’s Expedia Viewfinder blog. The effort is in conjunction with Expedia’s new “Find Your Storybook” advertising campaign; during the promotion, each Viewfinder will create content about a dream trip.

The first of *my* storybook stories is slated to run on the Expedia Viewfinder later this month. I’ll be creating oodles of content for this site, too. Stay tuned!

The things they carry (on family trips)

Just some of the stuff we'll be bringing to Yosemite.

Just some of the stuff we’ll be bringing to Yosemite.

When you leave home on an extended trip, you never know when you’re going to want to have a tin pencil case in the shape of a mummy. Or when you might need that unwrapped green straw from Starbucks. Or when you’ll be looking for a ladybug eraser.

But if you’re one of my kids, you bring these items anyway. Just in case.

Yes, as we pack up for this week’s family vacation to Yosemite National Park, the girls have opted for some unusual items to bring along for the ride.

The mummy tin, green straw (??!!??), and ladybug eraser are only highlights. Also in the gyre of ridiculousness they plan to take: A die-cast double-decker bus, a Lego rectangle, a plastic Cinderella amulet (which sings when you depress the center), a bunch of bow-shaped hairclips, two pieces of wooden model railroad track (but, peculiarly, no trains), a Candyland game piece, a ball-pit ball, and old t-shirts that are way too small (apparently these will serves as “nightgowns” when the stuffed kitties get cold at night).

Powerwoman and I don’t really understand why the girls want to bring all of these tchotchkes—not one bit. At the same time, we recognize the familiarity our kids have with each of these items, and respect the notion of bringing some of those familiar goodies along for a trip to somewhere new.

Sure, travel is exciting. But for little ones, it also must be scary (to a point). We’re in favor of anything the girls can do to make the experience more comfortable.

And if we need to invoke ancient Egypt along the way, we’re covered. Thank goodness.

What silly/ridiculous totems do your kids insist on bringing for family vacations?

Next on the family travel wish list: Cayman Islands

Family bike-riding in the Cayman Islands.

Family bike-riding in the Cayman Islands.

We’re not big into “Bucket Lists” in our family; generally speaking, when we want to do something, we do it. Still, we live by our Dream Jar, in which we have collected our family travel wishes since L was born in 2009.

We’re making one of those wishes come true next week with a four-day excursion to Yosemite. And tonight, as I ceremoniously stripped the jar of all those wishes about Yosemite Falls and Glacier Point and El Capitan and the iconic Ahwahnee Hotel, I added a new destination to the mix: The Cayman Islands.

The islands comprise a territory of the United Kingdom; there are three of them in all (Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman), and they sit in a cluster south of Cuba and northwest of Jamaica.

They also seem like one of the most family-friendly places on Earth.

No, I’m not talking about the powder-soft sand or the turquoise waters. Nor am I singing the praises of the friendly people (the world’s friendliest, according to Forbes). I’m also not extolling the virtues of the island hotels or restaurants. I’m just saying that it sounds like these islands have cool stuff to do.

Such as Cayman Carnival Batabano, an annual event in early May that is one-part circus one-part cultural celebration. Friends who have been tell me the event is a one-night cultural immersion, featuring music, dance, and colorful costumes. According to locals, it also features street parades for adults and children alike (this year, the family day is on May 10).

Another family-friendly draw: Pirates Week. This time-honored November tradition celebrates Caymanian culture with more than 40 family-friendly events, including live music performances, street games, parades, sports competitions, fireworks, costumes, and more.

(There’s also an homage to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” flicks.)

I know my older daughter in particular would love the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, which looks like it has other-worldly displays of native flora and fauna. L would never want to leave the Floral Color Garden, which bills itself as one of the most colorful places in the world. When we go, we’ll have to be sure to bring a sketch pad and enough colored pencils for the girl to share.

And we’ll have to stop at the Stingray City Sandbar for R. This natural sandbar area is home to a fleet of people-friendly southern stingrays who congregate all day long. Visitors can swim among these creatures and touch them. Because Little R is an animal lover, I know she would not want to leave.

Sounds fun, right? It does to me. I’m putting the Cayman Islands in the jar.

If you might want to visit the Cayman Islands, check out the current “Caymankind” promotion being offered by the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism (which paid me to write this post). As part of this promotion, one family can win an all-expenses paid trip for 4 to the Cayman Islands by sharing what makes their child a “Caymankind” of kid. To enter, click here and submit a blurb about your child’s kind act, his/her respect for others, or the care your child shows for the environment. Good luck!

Family travel experts who start young

Next week, we'll be here.

Next week, we’ll be here.

As Powerwoman and I make final preparations for next week’s road trip from our home in Northern California to Yosemite National Park, we’ve come up against a rather opinionated family travel expert: our own 4-year-old.

Apparently, since L has amassed multitudes of experience on the road, she has developed firm particulars about what she will and will not accept during a long haul in the car.

On the whitelist: Taylor Swift music, goldfish crackers, Etch-a-Sketch, and playground stops.

On the blacklist: Naps, male singers (including Mumford & Sons, unfortunately), uninterrupted drive times of more than two hours, and carrot sticks.

Our daughter also has shared deep thoughts about hotels over the last few weeks, seemingly in the hopes that we will base our planning decisions on her wants and likes (we won’t; we’re staying here). Some of the more notable statements: 1) Hotel rooms with extra space are better because that way the two sisters can run around “like maniacs,” 2) Sometimes the “toilet seats in hotel bathrooms are too big,” and 3) It is annoying when Daddy has to spend time talking to his “friends” who run hotels.

Yes, these statements are completely ridiculous (especially No. 2). But they’re also true. And they’ve led Powerwoman and me to marvel at how insightful our jet-setting preschooler has become in her short time with a frequent flier number.

We’re not the only parents to marvel at this type of precociousness.

Friend and fellow travel blogger Katie Wood Dillon, a.k.a., La Jolla Mom, recently posted on Facebook about a similar experience with her 6-year-old. With Katie’s permission, here’s the snip:

“I just had the option to upgrade/re-route our mileage flights so thought I’d run the options by [my daughter]. She rejected international first class (!!!) on American Airlines for business class on Japan Airlines citing cold green tea, Pac-Man on the inflight entertainment and beef curry at the Narita lounge. In the same breath, she stated that American Airlines planes smell worse and that she’ll do anything to avoid flying a regional jet unless we’re going to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific which is the best airline ever. At 6-years-old, all of this is so incredibly accurate that I can almost not handle it.”

When did these little humans become so smart? When did they become so perceptive? Are the ins and outs of travel THAT obvious? Most important: What else can our kids teach us about the vagaries and eccentricities and realities of travel we have come to accept as normal?

I’m not sure I know the answer to any of these questions. But I sure as heck am going to turn to the family’s newest travel expert to try and figure things out.

Taking the family on a solo trip

Like thunder.

Like thunder.

This weekend marks my annual pilgrimage with a bunch of guy friends to Las Vegas for the opening rounds of the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament. That means I’ll be spending the next four days traveling solo, for fun.

In our family, where the four of us usually travel together, this is big news. And to commemorate the occasion, L made me a present to bring with me on my trip.

She calls it “The Love Book.”

The book is a compilation of drawings she made over the course of the week—drawings that, according to my daughter, demonstrate how much she loves her daddy. Some of the pictures are age-appropriate: Pictures of trees and birds and princesses and butterflies. My personal favorite, the one pictured above, depicts L’s heart full of love for me—when she described it, she said the love was “like thunder.”

As she presented the book to me, L told me to take it with me on my trip, to look at it every day, and to think of her every time I do.

It was the first thing I packed. And I plan to carry it with me wherever I go.

Technically, L and R and Powerwoman will be back at home this weekend while I (gamble and drink and smoke and) hang with the boys in Vegas. Because of The Love Book, however, they’ll be with me the whole time. Which makes me the luckiest guy in town.

First-aid kits for the traveling family

The kits.

The kits.

I never was a Boy Scout, but—especially as a father—I always have embraced the notion of being prepared.

For this reason, the girls and I never leave the house without multiple snacks, plenty of water, and at least one change of clothes for each of them. Also in my fatherhood rucksack: a Ziploc full of crayons and a pad of blank paper. I also keep a backup cell phone battery, in case we are desperate to listen to some Taylor Swift (or, say, make an emergency call).

Faced with next month’s trip to Yosemite National Park, I’ve been applying my preparedness mantra in new and exciting ways. Backup raingear! Backup nightlights for our hotel room! Extra batteries for the headlamps!

The real focus of my neuroses in preparation for this trip: Our first aid kit.

Stocking the primary kit was easy; I’ve been hiking into the backcountry for nearly 20 years, and have become a skilled veteran at making sure the mothership has all of the bandages, Bacitracin, moleskin and other goodies it can fit.

Procuring secondary (backup, if you will) kits for the girls proved to be a bit more difficult. At first I tried piecing together my own, jamming Doc McStuffins-themed Band-Aids and Neo-to-Go vials into tiny little dry bags for the girls’ packs. Then, on an impromptu visit to Bed, Bath & Beyond, I discovered tiny kid-friendly kits from an Arizona company named me4kidz.

The kits, which retailed for $3.99 apiece, are about the size of a standard glasses case. Inside they have standard-issue gauze, sting relief pads, towelettes, antibiotic ointment (a.k.a., Bacitracin), and sponges. They also have 12 bandages decorated with silly animal characters. And stickers. Lots of stickers.

No, the characters on these bandages aren’t as cool as the characters from Doc. But they are pretty cute. And they’re SOMETHING (as opposed to the boring rectangles that are grown-up bandages and Band-Aids).

That’s what I think I like best about these little first-aid kits; clearly they were designed by parents with kids like mine. The fact that the kits contain stickers is amazing in and of itself. What’s more, the cases come in different colors—something that young kids (including my own, BTW) get really interested in/possessive about.

(ICYW, L claimed the turquoise one, while R opted for orange.)

Will the me4kidz kits help us treat a serious injury in the backcountry? Probably not. But considering that we’ve got the fallback of my primary kit and the fact that we rarely will be more than two or three miles out into the actual “backcountry,” I think the kits will serve us just fine.

Conquering fear of potties on the road

For a while, this was the only potty L would use.

For a while, this was the only potty L would use.

We certainly have had our fair share of bathroom dramas away from home. Like the time L realized she was terrified of the “magic eye” automatic toilet flushers. Or the trip that R decided hand dryers are the corporeal manifestation of Lucifer. Or, most recently, the day that L followed a prodigious session on the toilet with a, “Look at my turd!” that echoed in the bathroom for what seemed like an eternity.

The list could go on for pages. And, when you’re traveling with little ones, it usually does. So, when a friend and loyal reader texted me last week asking for advice about how to deal with her daughter’s aversion to public toilets on the road, I sympathized completely.

Sadly, I didn’t have much to offer.

I mean, sure, there are all sorts of web sites (here and here, for instance) with formal advice from doctors—people who say things like “work on decreasing fears” and “model appropriate coping.”

My friend didn’t want any of that gobbledy-gook. She just wanted practical tips. She wanted to know what she could do to get her kid to make a @#!&@ pee without (wasting 30 minutes and) enduring a total meltdown.

I started by directing her to stuff I’ve written about the subject before (here and here). Then I told her the situation sucks but it gets better over time. I held back on my third piece of advice, largely because I didn’t want to discourage her. Instead (and now that this reader is back home), I’ll share it here: Pray for an accident.

Allow me to reiterate: I think an accident is the best way for a kid to overcome fear of using toilets in public. Because suffering the consequences of refusal is a powerful tool.

This opinion was forged out of first-hand experience with L, who grappled with this mortifying lesson during our first solo trip together (to Los Angeles).

I knew she had to go from the moment we arrived at LAX, but she simply refused to go. Then, on the plane, the flight attendant sensed what was up and offered to help; my kid refused again. Finally, at about 30,000 feet, somewhere between the animal crackers and the juice box, she couldn’t hold it any longer. I discovered the accident when I spotted a tiny puddle on her seat cushion. And I sprang into action.

Because I was worried about how she’d do with the whole potty-in-public thing, I was prepared, and had stashed a change of clothes in a Ziploc in the overhead bin, ready to go. As soon as I noticed pee on the seat, I grabbed the clothes, picked up L, and whisked her into the forward lavatory.

Yes, she was upset. No, she didn’t sit on that potty without a fight. But eventually, she did it. Somehow we even managed salvage the pee-soaked skirt for a trip to the dry-cleaner at home.

The rest, as they say, is history; since that day, despite minimal hemming and hawing every now and again, L hasn’t suffered the public toilets too much. She doesn’t necessarily like public potties, but she dislikes the embarrassment (and discomfort) of a public accident more. In the name of poetry, L even has started harassing her sister—who is still in diapers—about how it’s time for *her* to get with the potty program.

The lessons: Be prepared. Be patient. And weather an accident. No, this methodology is not ideal. But from personal experience, the only way to go from that situation is up.

How have your children overcome their issues of using the potty in public when traveling?

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