I Took a 23-Day Trip With My Toddler. It Was the Most Rewarding Trip I’ve Ever Taken.

It was all trial by fire, but the lessons will last a lifetime.

Rear view of small boy in shorts walking barefoot in sand dunes, with trail of footprints behind him

“Parents who are afraid of the world raise kids who are afraid of the world,” writes the author.

Photo by Ashlea Halpern

When friends and family heard that I was taking my 20-month-old son, Julian, on a solo trip through the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Tanzania last fall, they marveled at how “brave” and “strong” I was. A few thought I had lost my marbles.

It didn’t surprise my husband, Andrew, whom I met after studying abroad more than 23 years ago. We’ve visited dozens of countries together and traveled full-time for nearly four years before having our first (and only) child at age 40. While he relishes having a home base, I thrive on constant movement: It’s why I’m on the road four to six months a year for work. It’s also why I refused to accept that procreating would condemn us to a decade of Disney vacations. Once I decided that this trip—my first mother-son solo venture—was something I needed to do, nothing could stop me.

My plan was to ride camels in the Arabian desert, frolic across the famed beaches of Zanzibar, and catch the Great Migration in the Serengeti. Julian’s, like most toddlers with the iron will of a dictator and self-control of an inebriated rock star, was to foil my ambitions at every turn. Though we both had our share of teary meltdowns, this was the most rewarding trip I’ve ever done. Here’s what I learned.

I don’t need to pack the whole house.

The baggage allowance (33 pounds per person) on our flights in Tanzania determined how I packed for the entire trip. After extensive fretting, I settled on a week’s worth of clothing, basic toiletries, and what felt like a freighter’s worth of diapers. Julian plowed through the snacks I’d brought in three days and I had to make an emergency stop at a store in Dubai, but this worked out—it was how I discovered camel milk soap and olive toothpaste. Aside from my son’s beloved stuffed chimpanzee, I didn’t pack toys. At the One & Only Royal Mirage in Dubai, Julian had a blast opening and closing the doors in our suite. At Breezes Beach Club in Zanzibar, he busied himself ripping up toilet paper. At Taasa Lodge, just north of the Serengeti, he spent hours playing “banker” with a stack of bills I’d set aside for tipping. New environments, I quickly discovered, were entertainment enough.

Loosening up is an art, and art takes practice.

Before I had my son, I never understood how parents let their kids run amok in airports. I got it after this trip, when we took 12 flights in 23 days. On travel days, my brain was in a constant state of cost-benefit analysis: to stop my toddler from doing one obnoxious behavior could spark a tantrum of epic proportions. As a woman, I’m conditioned to apologize for my existence; as an American, that shame extends to my child, whom I only half-jokingly offered to stuff in the cargo hold every time he made a peep on a plane. I soon realized how messed up my thinking was. Every time I shushed him in public or sheepishly picked up food he’d flung, locals would tell me not to sweat it. Waiting for a transfer at Arusha Airport, I reprimanded Julian for putting his shoes on a coffee table. A Tanzanian woman seated near us cocked her head to one side and said, “Don’t worry about it, mama! He’s a child.” What a liberating thing to say to a mother. And what a concept: letting kids be kids.

Now when Julian claps and squeals at something funny, I try to clap and squeal with him. Monkeys slurping water from a hotel pool is hilarious! Why would I want to squelch that joy? Children are supposed to jump and shout and play and scream and be curious—it’s in the job description.

Tall man and young boy outdoors, with Jeeps parked in background (L); distant side view of small boy walking up broad white stone stairs outside building (R)

On the road, the author discovered that new environments are often entertainment enough.

Photos by Ashlea Halpern

You’re not a bad parent and neither am I.

I’m forever wrestling with the “bad mom” narrative—wondering if I’m doing right by my child. This trip magnified that anxiety tenfold. Self-doubt gnawed at me when we were hurtling through a white-out fog in a bush plane with no working seat belts and rattling around in the back of a 4x4 on a dune-bashing spree in the desert. It reared its head when there was a lion licking its bloody chops 10 feet from our open-top safari vehicle and again when Julian was gamboling around tide pools in Zanzibar and narrowly missed pressing his doughy foot onto a spiky black sea urchin.

But eventually, it hit me that parents who are afraid of the world raise kids who are afraid of the world. Travel is hard. Travel is uncomfortable. Things go wrong, sometimes more than they go right. But overcoming these setbacks builds character and opens our eyes to possibilities we may have never otherwise considered. The sooner I stopped worrying about the worst-case-scenario what-ifs, which could happen just as easily at home as they could abroad, it felt like a house had been lifted from my shoulders. I was not fearless but I was also not afraid, and that’s exactly how I want my son to feel. More importantly, I want Julian to experience the beauty of this planet and its people. Time and again on our trip, I was stunned by the kindness of strangers, from the KLM flight attendant who saw me struggling with a broken arm rest and moved us to an empty three-across on an otherwise packed plane to the safari staff who played with Julian for hours, pretending to be a lion stalking him in the bush. Every day, people showed us their hearts, and that’s something I felt extremely proud to show my son.

Control what you can and let go of what you can’t.

I believe there is value in introducing Julian to people, languages, and cultures that are different from what he experiences back home. I also realize that expecting him to appreciate that objective is a tall ask for a human who can’t even wipe himself. So as much as my Type-A personality desperately wanted Julian to be as fascinated by our game drive in the Ngorongoro Crater as I was (we spotted four of the Big Five!), or to pay attention to a thunderous musical performance by the local Iraqw tribe at Gibb’s Farm in Karatu instead of ripping leaves off a bush, I took the wins where I could get them. After all, releasing our unrealistic expectations of children and how they should act at any given age is half the battle of parenting.

Refusing to ask for help doesn’t make you a superhero.

Being on the road with Julian 24 hours a day, 23 days straight, taught me that nothing has the ability to summon white-hot rage like a belligerent, overtired toddler. It also taught me how to tap into a reserve of patience I never knew I possessed. Channeling that inner Zen came almost supernaturally: Julian would wail at the top of his lungs and I would take the longest, deepest breath I could muster and give my mind permission to float away. The out-of-body experience lasted a minute at most, but observing the scene from on high was long enough to regain my composure.

While I take pride in being self-sufficient when it comes to travel, not giving myself a break on this trip was masochistic. If I were to do it over, I would take advantage of kids clubs and hire the babysitting services offered by the hotels I’d booked. Kids are exhausting, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that you need a time out.

Slowing down may be the greatest gift of all.

You can’t do it all. And you definitely can’t do it all with a toddler in tow. Similar to how we roll back home, I would set out with one or maybe two major sightseeing goals in a given day; anything Julian and I saw beyond that was just icing on the cake. While I still got wistful with FOMO, I learned to appreciate the myriad ways that traveling at my son’s leisurely pace has helped me notice stuff I would have previously blown right past: droplets of dew on a crimson flower or the way a lilac-breasted roller shimmers like rainbow mica in the sun. These are the things that come roaring to life when I stop rushing through it—and for that, I have only my toddler to thank.

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to Afar, New York Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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