Are we there yet? Teens in paradise

Taking the kids

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The beautiful Balinese landscape glimmers before us: lush green jungle and a brilliant blue sky with white clouds streaking across the sun.

In our hotel room overlooking a magnificent waterfall, my husband and I agree that this has got to be one of the most romantic spots in all the world. As we settle into each other's arms, there's a knock on the door. A basket of exotic fruit? Tickets for the evening's Kecak dancers?

No, it's our 13-year-old daughter complaining that her brother in the adjoining room is hogging the shower and won't share the Chex Mix.

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So long, romance. Say hello to another day in the life of a family with teenagers traveling abroad.

My husband and I have always loved to travel, to experience the wonders of different places and cultures. Of course, we wanted to share that with our children. (This was, of course, before any children actually entered the scene.)

After our children arrived, we were content at first to travel closer to home.

Then our little, freckled-face cherubs grew into tall, opinionated, "Why do I have to leave my friends to go traipsing around the world with my parents to see boring museums" teenagers. They could no longer be bribed with promises of a chocolate milkshake or a souvenir key chain if they behaved.

After a few trips to Europe, our children started to warm to the idea of foreign travel. When we learned of a special package deal to Thailand, we decided that perhaps the kids were up to the challenge.

My husband, who had taught in Malaysia for a year, delights in the frantic hustle of the streets. The smells of food being prepared over open fires. Motor scooters zigzagging along busy roads.

Yet where he sees the excitement and continuous bustle of a busy Asian city, our children see poverty and slightly menacing crowds. Sights that intrigue him, such as butchered ducks on display, tend to repulse them. Nighttime marketplaces with throngs of shouting vendors make them nervous.

Eventually, they grow increasingly "daring," even bargaining with the vendors, who often are as interested in them as in selling their wares.

A trip to Phi Phi Island in southern Thailand causes a few shudders, especially when the kids discover there are no flush toilets. And the "air conditioning" in the 100-plus-degree heat is an electric fan (when the electricity is working).

At one point, our daughter comes in to say there are "weird bugs" on the floor near the shower (if you consider a nozzle attached to the wall a shower). The "bugs" are leeches. I tell her to wear sandals. "Pretend we're camping" becomes my mantra.

Eventually, the beauty of the island, its beach, ample opportunities for snorkeling, and the promise of unlimited soda win them over.

They also discover the humor of adapting to new surroundings. And, miracle of miracles, we all enjoy ourselves despite our humble lodgings. We even turn the flight home into a "movie marathon."

Traveling abroad has taught my children to take risks and not be afraid to try something new or different. They also learn that, by and large, most people try to help you, no matter how badly you're mangling their language, if you treat them with respect and express a genuine interest in their traditions.

In many ways, taking the kids has created some of my fondest memories. Holding my daughter's hand as we are encircled by brightly colored tropical fish. Watching as my son is "ambushed" by three monkeys who are trying to reach into his pockets to grab bits of apple.

What we've learned after several trips abroad:

*Allow teenagers to pack whatever they like - as long as they understand they have to carry it. On each successive trip, our children's suitcases get lighter.

*Realize that CD players and other electronic gear are often not allowed to be used on overseas flights.

*Bring along familiar foods for the inevitable times when you can't find something your kids like, or, because of time zone changes, you can't find anyplace open.

*Remember, this is your kids' vacation, too. Promises of parasailing or Jet-Skiing can go a long way toward eliciting cooperation on a visit to yet another temple. And although it drives my husband nuts, I try to take the kids to a local McDonald's if for no other reason than to give them a break from unfamiliar foods.

It's gratifying to overhear my children talking to their friends about what they've seen and what fun they had.

The world appears, simultaneously, both bigger and smaller. We discover that there are Pizza Huts almost everywhere. We learn that all kids like ice cream. And apparently the Eagles' song "Hotel California" has a wider audience than we ever imagined.

We also know that before long, we'll be making plane reservations again - for four.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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