Poor locales, rich experiences: Traveling with kids to developing countries is worth the risk


A canoe, full of tourists, makes its way along the Amazon River in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park. While children can have rich experiences on trips to developing nations, preparation is essential. (Corbin17/Alamy Stock Photo)

In the heat of the Ecuadorian Amazon, my 10-year-old son and I followed a farmer named Mr. Bargas along a dusty path, past groves of coffee, cacao and banana trees, and down a hill where, after about 20 minutes of walking, we arrived at a slow-moving stream.

“Here is where I come every morning at 4 a.m. to collect clean water,” Mr. Bargas told us through an interpreter provided by Me to We, the nonprofit organization that we coordinated with to volunteer in this remote community. Bucket by bucket, he scooped the water into one-gallon plastic jugs. “The water from the river is not good,” he explained. “It makes us sick.”

That night, as my son and I lay in our beds beneath mosquito nets with bottled water by our sides, the visit to Mr. Bargas’s home lingered with my child.

“Why is the water polluted?” he asked, distressed. We sat up talking about clean water and how access to it connects to realities such as poverty, health and the environment. Nearly two years later, I still remind him about Mr. Bargas any time he stays in a hot shower too long.

Traveling in developing nations, where infrastructures, security and economies are in stark contrast to those in the United States, can be some of the richest experiences for children. These are often the same countries where formal tourism has yet to manipulate ways of life, ancient customs are strong, eating means being adventurous and the opportunities for meaningful personal interactions are plentiful.

For Daria Salamon, a novelist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba — who recently returned from a trip through 20 countries in South America, Asia and the South Pacific with her husband and children ages 5 and 8 — the challenges of traveling in developing nations were far outweighed by the rewards of connecting with the people, landscapes and cultures of those remote countries.

“At times, there were safety issues,” she acknowledged, thinking about a bus trip late at night in Colombia. “There were moments when you question whether or not putting your kids in those situations to experience these places is worth the potential risk. But we wanted to show our children the world and how other people live. Sometimes, the most rewarding places where you see the most interesting things and learn so much are those places, which tend to be more dangerous.”

Preparing for travel in a developing or remote country may take a bit of extra planning, some preemptive vaccinations and travelers insurance, but more than anything it simply requires patience and an open mind, said Jacqui Lewis, president and managing director of North America for Audley Travel, a company that offers tailor-made journeys.

To prepare children, Lewis suggests sharing age-appropriate books and movies with kids ahead of the departure to start conversations, whether it be about Nelson Mandela and the history of apartheid in South Africa or animal poaching in Botswana.

“Have conversations about what to expect,” said Lewis, who recently traveled with her children, ages 12 and 13, to Africa. “Ask them what they think they are going to see. Give them a glimpse of where they are going and what the norm in that country is.”

Preparation also means parents should understand the risk of illnesses such as malaria, yellow fever and diarrhea, and how to treat injuries where access to medicine and hospitals may be limited.

“There are more than 1 billion people traveling annually, approximately four percent of whom are pediatric-age travelers. But a quarter of all travelers who become ill are children,” said John Christenson, a physician who specializes in infectious and tropical diseases and is a member of the International Society of Travel Medicine who serves on the council of the society’s Pediatrics Interest Group.

“Travelers’ diarrhea is a serious problem in children traveling to high-risk areas. Parents must be prepared to administer oral rehydration solutions, and in some instances an antibiotic may be beneficial,” he said.

Under certain conditions, parents may want to invest in travel insurance and medical-emergency-evacuation services such as International SOS, Christenson suggested. They cover things such as 24-hour assistance, visits to doctors and hospitals, and translation services — as well as those evacuation needs in worst-case scenarios.

Parents who have children with a history of health problems, or those traveling to regions with limited health care resources or participating in
ad­ven­ture-travel activities such as skiing, mountaineering or diving might want to investigate this.

Travel insurance made a difference for Theodora Sutcliffe, a freelance writer based in Bali, when her 9-year-old son was injured while riding a horse in Mongolia.

“My son’s saddle slipped and he was dragged behind a galloping horse, resulting in a bad fracture of his upper arm,” Sutcliffe said. “There aren’t any roads in that part of Mongolia, so evacuation meant a four-wheel drive to the nearest clinic, which was very basic, with electricity but no running water, followed by a helicopter to the capital and an air ambulance [private jet] for surgery in Hong Kong.”

Insurance not only paid for getting the medical care her son needed but saved her tens of thousands of dollars in expenses for the evacuation flight alone.

Despite the challenges, children who have embarked on immersive travel in developing regions say the benefits of their experiences last well into adulthood.

Tyler Jenss was 11 years old when he and his family set out on a round-the-world trip that included 28 countries. Now age 20, Jenss said that his travels, which stand at 45 countries, changed his outlook on the world, and opened him up to different people, food and experiences — as well as the common ground on which we all stand.

“One of the main things I learned is that people all over are the same,” he said. “As kids, you don’t think much about words like wealth or poverty. When we were in Africa, we visited with tribespeople and my brother and I would still be playing with the kids. Kids are kids wherever they are in the world.”

Beazley is a writer based in Aspen, Colo. Her website is awbeazley.com. Find her on Twitter: @awbeazley.

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