Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar – to name just three countries: I send my regrets and my apologies, for I traveled to your beautiful nations and I took only photographs and left only footprints. It took some time for us to learn about conscious travel.
Now it’s different. Better, I think. Because now when my husband and I travel with our two daughters, we leave something behind: an extra suitcase loaded with children’s clothes, shoes, pencils, crayons, erasers, backpacks and learn-to-read English books.
It was at Yas Mall that the idea was born. Just 36 hours earlier, we had been walking along a dirt road on stunning Don Khong island in Laos, where many people live in basic huts. They don’t have indoor plumbing there; certainly no washing machines, no dishwashers, none of the things we take for granted. Toddlers often are naked from the waist down – there’s no money for diapers.
And yet, a day and a half later, the scenery was quite the opposite. Yas Mall, my “happy” place, was flooded with sunshine and high heels, and shiny purses were everywhere. And that’s when it struck me. I turned to my then 11-year-old and 7-year-old daughters and told them none of the people we met in Laos will ever have the opportunity to see a place like this, where people with so much come to acquire even more stuff. So we decided that we would, when visiting developing nations, pack an extra bag full of the things we don’t need anymore. The clothes we’ve outgrown. The paper, pencils and crayons that spill out of the art cupboard. The books we’ve read a dozen times.
And so that is what we did for our next destination: the Indonesian island of Flores, gateway to the Komodo National Park. We had no plan for where to donate our extra bag of items, but a school seemed the obvious choice. We asked a local man we met to take us to his cousin’s school, and he left his little store without any hesitation. Through the gates we went and in an instant children surrounded us, excitedly shouting their few English words, following as we were led to the English teacher’s classroom.
The noise inside was incredible. The kids jumped around until the teacher had them all lined up to each receive a pencil, a crayon and a book. Each child shook our hands, said thank you and met our eyes.
It was a tremendous experience, one that we repeated this past spring break in Cambodia, at a community school run by a small charity. So, to anyone who loves to travel, I encourage you to give it a try. You will meet locals you never would have encountered, people who are not in the tourism industry and who don’t benefit from seeing visitors to their country. The children you encounter will appreciate your effort. And so will yours.
Phairis Sajan is member of the livehealthy.ae expert’s panel for parenting and travel.
Addicted to traveling with her husband and two daughters, Phairis has visited more than 20 countries while in the UAE, including stays in Myanmar, Laos and Romania. Phairis started the Extra Bag Community on Facebook to encourage people to research whatever donations are needed at their destination, whether it is clothing or school supplies, and then find a place to distribute them upon arrival.