Travelling with children, whether you’re driving through the Scottish Highlands, on a Lancashire narrow boat or flying long haul in economy class, presents its own unique challenges to parents. This summer our family did all three. Air travel is perhaps the most popularly derided and satirized, to the point where my experience of this annual ordeal is actually beginning to improve. So low are my expectations that any flight that doesn’t involve a vomiting child, a hijack or an emergency landing is considered more than satisfactory.
Children restrained in car seats on a long drive will always perform to type, tormenting you and each other in equal measure and ignoring even the most spectacular of scenery. Driving through the unsurpassed beauty of Glen Coe my kids couldn’t have been less impressed if I’d been playing them Glenn Miller, such was their fatigue with their confinement.
Travelling on a narrow boat along the Leeds to Liverpool canal was an experimental first for our family. Akin to caravanning on water, narrow boating feels like rambling, only with a cooker and a fridge. By design you can shower, cook, and relax all while “motoring” at a pedestrian pace like a slow moving self-catering sleeper train. With caravanning, however, you have the freedom to choose the (single track) road less travelled, where you can hold up long queues of enraged local traffic when negotiating mild inclines in second gear. In a narrow boat, hills are climbed by a whole series of complex Victorian engineered set pieces called locks, designed to confuse, exhaust and distract you, while your children dare themselves to fall into the jaws of these menacing contraptions.
Yet all these activities were planned, paid for and pursued in the name of leisure. Other less fortunate families were forced to travel with their children this summer in order to flee one of the continuing wars in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. The first leg of their journey would have entailed walking to the Mediterranean coast while carrying the remainder of their possessions. A mere 150km if your home was barrel bombed in Aleppo and closer to a 1000km if you are escaping from murdering medieval fundamentalists in Mosul. All while avoiding the attentions of the likes of, the Syrian Army, Hezbolla, the Al Nusra Front, Kurdistani separatists (Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian), Islamic State, The Free Syrian Army and airstrikes from the US, Saudi and Jordanian Air Forces, to name but a few.
Upon reaching the beach they would then have to use the remainder of their funds to pay people smugglers to pack them onto a leaky, overcrowded, decommissioned fishing boat. All in the hope of making it to a bankrupt Greek island or being picked up by the overwhelmed and indifferent Italian Navy, before the inevitable horror of a capsize or sinking. Families, like mine, who cross international borders by passenger jet, presenting valid passports and bland reasons for travelling, are classed as tourists and directed to the taxi rank. Those who arrive by boat in desperate conditions and in need of help are deemed illegal immigrants for political reasons and are lucky to receive incarceration.
In Hong Kong asylum claims are processed painfully slowly, and almost always refused, through the Unified Screening Mechanism. This Orwellian piece of legislation drives a Kafkaesque process more complex, drawn out and doomed than trying to get PCCW to terminate your cable TV contract. People smugglers, abhorrent as they are, only represent the small independent trader end of the human misery market. The real experts in Walmart volume suffering are the professional politicians, oil executives, institutions and ideologues that vie for power, wealth and control of the world’s hearts and minds. Who do you think has more blood on their hands this century, “Hamid and Sons, People Smugglers since 2012” or Bashar al-Assad, Dick Cheney or Tony Blair?
So what moral lessons can be drawn from this turbulent summer? Certainly that problem’s are relative. Perhaps next time when your kids, ten minutes into a journey, ask “Are we there yet?” Be grateful for the fact you know how and where you are going.