Travel March 2010

Chet of Arabia

In defense of exotic travel with young children
Kayt Sukel

We enter the archeological park early in the morning, soon after it opens. As a solo mother with a preschooler, I choose to take the horse-drawn carriage through the Siq—the astonishing mountain-cut pathway to Petra.

With so few tourists on the path this morning, our driver—noticing Chet’s Cars-themed shirt—says he will give us a “Lightning McQueen ride.” He isn’t joking. We bounce along in the dilapidated chariot, squealing and holding on for dear life. After a particularly vicious jounce, one of Chet’s prized Cars toys is jostled free from his grasp. I prepare for the impending meltdown, stabbing shrieks of profound 3-year-old loss, but as the Siq’s reddish-pink walls open up to al-Khazneh (better known as the Treasury), Chet’s disappointment quickly turns to awe. He is too entranced by the “big castle,” this great ancient playground that he can freely explore, to bother with tears.

When I told people of my plan to travel to Jordan with Chet, I was met with strong reactions. They told me that your average 3-year-old does not revel in ancient history, scenic majesty, or a cameo in an Indiana Jones film—and so will not appreciate such a journey. They said I had no business taking my child to the Middle East, especially when my husband, a soldier in the U.S. Army, was deployed to the slums of Sadr City in neighboring Iraq. An American mother and child would stand out, would be an easy target for mishap or mayhem. The trip was not only pointless, they lectured, but in a post-9/11, global-war-on-terror world, it was dangerous.

My son sleeps for the two-plus-hour journey on dark, deserted roads from the airport to Petra. He will not stir until we reach our hotel, where I reluctantly wake him to put his precious Blankie through the metal detector. He thinks nothing of it; every airport we’ve passed through—and he’s been through dozens in his three years—has one. And here in Petra, most hotels that host Westerners do, too. My driver, an Amman native, laughs a bit as our luggage makes its way through the machine. He jokes that no good terrorist would try to walk into a hotel with a bomb—but the Westerners like seeing the detectors. Insist upon them, in fact.

My role as a mother is clear; it is my job to love and nurture my son. To feed him, clothe him, and help him grow into a capable human being. But it would seem, in these first few years of life, I have a stronger mandate: to keep him safe. Taking my son, unaccompanied, to lands unknown, to places considered “unsafe,” would seem in direct violation of this mandate. What good mother would even consider it?

And yet, it’s all he’s ever known. Born in Germany, where my husband has been stationed for the past six years, Chet has journeyed to and from the States at least twice each year, and has explored a good bit of the European continent. But he has also held fast to my back as we’ve crawled deep into the bowels of Egypt’s famous pyramids. He’s dodged kisses from convivial strangers in Istanbul’s Sultanhamet. And he’s charmed stone-faced guards armed with M-16s as we’ve made our way from Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall to the Temple Mount. Petra seems fairly innocuous in comparison.

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Kayt Sukel has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and National Geographic Traveler, among others. She is a military spouse and has served as a Family Readiness Group leader for the Army.

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