It is perhaps surprising that my children, whose mother grew up overseas, reached the ages of 6 and 9 before leaving the country. But I am no dare devil adventurer, my friends, you know that. I enjoy life and take calculated risks, yes, but you won't see me jumping out of airplanes, rafting down the crocodile-infested Zambezi River, or touring the Louvre with anyone under the age of 15. And you know I would rather be Sean Spicer than get on a long plane ride with children of any kind. But when an opportunity presented itself to have my kids visit the continent of my upbringing with me only having to fly one way with them, well, I took it.
And who is the sucker that flew the other way with them? That would be my now-even-more-beloved, Kevin. And why pray tell did he agree to this? Well, he doesn't pay very close attention all the time when I am talking. It's how he copes. If you hit him up when he is solving a quadratic equation in his head, you can get him to do almost anything. I think that was what was going on when I suggested that, since I would already be in South Africa for work, he might just hop on over, you know, real quick like, with the kids. A few months and a SEVENTEEN HOUR plane ride later, they emerged from the arrivals gate at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg. At which point Kevin served me with imaginary divorce papers.
We spent the next week with my sister and her family, who live in South Africa, in Kruger Game Park. I grew up going to game parks, it was our go-to family vacation, and I love the whole scene. I love the rush you get when see 25 other vehicles stopped and you know there must be a cat of some kind in there, if you can just push a few vans full of Japanese tourists out of the way. The relief after surviving your father's off-road foray into a herd of elephants because he wants a close up of an elephant cornea. Wearing khaki clothing and pretending you are Karen Blixen. Seeing a spread of of amazing looking desserts at the game lodge restaurants and briefly imagining they don't all taste like crap because British colonialism failed to bring any sugar with it. Sleeping in a tent with plumbing (the only kind of tent I am interested in). The only thing I don't like about game parking is that it is an early morning enterprise, if you want to see the good stuff. Voluntarily rising at 6 am while on vacation so you can maybe see a lion eat something is truly insane and barbaric. I have no excuse for myself.
So I was super excited to introduce my kids to this awesome experience. As usual, my expectations for my children's excitement over the situation was beyond all possible reality, even after almost a decade of watching them be miserable in supposedly magical places and at great expense. This time, however, they almost met those expectations, which is a good thing. Because I can't have kids to don't like Africa. Can't. Will give such kids away. And I think they know that, too.
In Lawson's case, I anticipated he would barely look up from his device the entire trip, and that was generally true. But based on the essay he wrote for his return to school, he did apparently see a few animals, albeit briefly. More miraculously, he was fairly genial the entire time, even with some jet lag and lots of strange food (none of which he ate, but at least he didn't throw it at anyone). He did refuse to swim and had to be bribed to go to the bathroom, as per usual, but he also voluntarily played on three different playgrounds. At one point he got stuck in a structure made of tires and after his rescue, claimed to have enjoyed the ordeal. So a massive success. Charlotte was even more enthusiastic. She even found the eye mask thingy on the plane exciting. And she loved the animals. The worst moments we had with her were when the cheetahs we found were too far away to see properly and a brief spurt of moral outrage that Lawson was playing his kindle instead of appreciating nature's bounty.
They key ingredient on this trip as with other moderately successful ones we've had: OTHER KIDS. Generally speaking, other kids not only bring additional entertainment and distraction, they demonstrate for my kids how to enjoy things that almost all kids enjoy, like grass, balls, water, sunlight, exercise, playground equipment and sand. Also, how to walk around on working legs. In this case, the kids in question were my sister's kids, 9-year-old Liam and 14-year-old Brendan. While Brendan mostly inspired them at a distance with his animal obsession and teenage coolness--except for the interludes when Lawson insisted on hanging all over him--Liam kept them entertained and educated with tales of South African politics. Both of my kids now do very good Jacob Zuma impressions and know all about the Nkandla scandal, "fire pools," and "the power of the shower" (thankfully, they have no idea what that last phrase really references, and if you don't, I suggest you think twice about doing some google research. It is not an inspiring episode in humanity). When the lions and elephants became boring, Liam was there to inform them, as Zuma, that he was going to "steal all the money!!!" They even came up with a new idea for a cartoon called "The Crappy Presidents League" in which Zuma, Trump, Duterte, Putin, Mugabe and assorted other disasters roam the world siphoning off public funds, engaging in extrajudicial killing and illegal land appropriations, building walls and dismantling democratic institutions. I swear they came up with all of this by themselves.
With my kids behaving rather decently, I was free to focus on bigger challenges, such as driving on the wrong side of the road. Despite my years in Africa, this was actually my first time to drive British. And can I just say--how is it that stop signs look the same all over the world, basically, but there is no agreement on the slightly more macro issue of which side of the road we are going to drive on? And the British have been our dear friends for the entire car age, too. Did it never occur to anyone while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles that maybe we could get together on this? What a travesty of global noncooperation. I actually did fairly well on keeping the car on the correct side of the road. What I didn't do as well at was driving the tank the rental company gave us. To be more specific, it was what South Africans call a "bakkie," which is a massive double cab pick up with a top on the bed. The back window is basically a tiny portal in another dimension of space-time, it is so far away. The car did have a rear camera system, but it took me several days to trust that thing. You can't just believe everything you see on TV anymore. It also took me several days--no, actually the entire time--to not turn on the windshield wipers every time I wanted to use a turn signal. Very unnerving when you are trying to change lanes, and all of a sudden what appears to be a flock of violent birds noisily flies across your windscreen. Thankfully, South African roads are pretty good, miraculous by African standards. I was particularly amused that there were warning signs alerting you to stretches of possible potholes. Even China does not have enough labor to construct and place all the pothole warming signs most African countries would need if they were going that route. It might even be more efficient to fix the potholes.
We made it through the entire week without incident or accident, not even of the Lawson variety, and then it was back on the 17 hour plane ride home, which this time I got to join, oh goody. I got to see first hand--as opposed to Kevin's slightly traumatized assurance that "it was fine"--how my kids do on such a trip. And they did OK. The devices ran out of batteries within an hour or so, and the plane did not have outlets (Why, God, Why?) It did have an entire library of kids movies, but only one that my children wanted to watch. So they each literally watched Trolls 5 times (and Kevin reports they watched it 5 times on the way out as well). Lawson topped that off by listening to the Trolls soundtrack several times in the audio station. He basically is Justin Timberlake now, except he still behaves more like Justin Bieber most of the time. They each slept a good deal, all effortlessly folded up or else sprawled out all over everyone like kids do. Meanwhile, my back was going into spasms and my legs were developing clots from being unable to move in my role as a human mattress. The plane food was a no-go, as it is for most adults. They ate peanut M&Ms the whole way, which worked out fine. I may have had a few as well.
All in all, it was so much less excruciating than I anticipated that I am already getting cocky and planning more trips. My sister has invited us to meet them somewhere in Europe for Christmas, and can you believe that I am considering it? Europe with children is one of those things that I have never been able to get my head around, both in terms of the how and the why, like cloth diapers or homeschooling. Next thing you know I'll be doing IVF so I can have triplets at my advanced age. I remember my parents taking me to Europe at age 10--not exactly a toddler--and I making everyone miserable. You know you are entirely too old for such behavior when you remember not only the behavior but the calculations behind the behavior 30 years later. Europe is very risky, my friends. But if Liam is there, I think we might make it. We are all curious as to what Jacob Zuma will make of the Eiffel Tower anyway.