Chet of Arabia

In defense of exotic travel with young children

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.

This ancient city is preschool-boy Utopia—there is no shortage of sand and stones to play with, or caves and ruins to explore. Chet is enchanted by it all. He cheers as the “donkey boys” race their steeds along the ancient Roman road. His laughter reverberates across the valley as he rides his own donkey to the top of en-Nejr mountain. He expresses curiosity at the Bedouin cave-homes and attempts to sing along with prayer call. He says the children selling all manner of trinkets are his friends and uses some kind of innate child-communication to invite them to play with the few toys he has, as well as whatever else they can scrounge from the grounds. Even when dusk is descending, he is never ready to leave.

The naysayers were right about one thing: my son and I are conspicuous. But though we are eyed with curiosity, we are embraced. We are invited to share meals and laughter, to learn more about how the locals live and to explore areas we might not find on our own. In exchange, we share our stories and experiences. It’s soon clear we have more in common than not. Chet does his part by making sure everyone is well versed in his favorite Cars characters. Soon, an elderly woman who can’t quite manage his name simply calls him “Car.” He answers to it just the same.

Some might argue that I’m selfish to take him along on these adventures—that they offer him little. But I wholeheartedly disagree. As I watch my son explore these ancient Nabatean ruins, I see that he’s learning lessons that will be of great value to him later in life. That the best playthings are those powered only by imagination. That true communication requires a little patience. That family is universal—even when it comes in a Bedouin cave-home instead of a suburban split-level. That people, no matter which God they worship, are more similar than different. These lessons seem even more essential, given his father’s chosen profession.

Chet scrambles up a path into a small cave along the ridge. He disappears from sight for a moment and then peeks out to smile at a Bedouin boy and his mother hawking handmade necklaces below. It’s soon clear he is beckoning the boy to follow him. Chet climbs down from the cave to make sure the Bedouin boy has a clear view of him. He is done with teasing glances—instead, he yells, “C’mon, let’s go!” The boy makes pleading eyes at his mother, his sales partner and, today, perhaps, his warden. She attempts to look stern but soon smiles and nods. He wastes no time in joining Chet for some hybrid of tag and hide-and-seek. After a moment, the mother turns my way and offers a glass of the local sugary tea. After a few basic formalities, we don’t try to prolong conversation—instead, we simply enjoy the sweetness as our children play in the ancient rose-colored caverns above us.