No place like roam

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am


My youngest daughter went off to Year Five camp last week. She and her schoolmates went to Cheung Chau for five days, and it was hard to say goodbye. It brought home the notion that, while I have done my best to protect my daughters during their childhood, I will have to start letting them go. It also brought back memories of my own travels and journey of independence.

I had planned my departure from high school in a way that gave me an eight-month gap before university. After months of my cajoling them, my parents gave me permission to spend five months in Paris (to improve my French), and a month in Florence (to study Renaissance art history and etching). There was a two-month break in between, which I planned to spend backpacking from Norway to Greece. I was armed with my backpack, my student rail pass and my Let's Go guide to Europe. It was the mid-1980s, communism still loomed large and I was just a few weeks short of my 18th birthday.

I had an unforgettable time seeing the great sights of Europe, but what I remember in a more visceral way are my encounters with people - and wildlife. Some of them were fun and fascinating, but others were not. The bedbugs at the hostel in Amsterdam, for instance. One day I found myself crouching in the middle of the street in Fiesole, Italy, next to my art-school classmate, holding the hand of a woman who had just been hit by a truck. (She later died.) I told my parents about these incidents.

But there were things I didn't tell them: having a gun pointed at me by an Albanian border guard; the youth hostel in Nice that had no locks; perverts accosting me in the gift shop at the Centre Georges Pompidou and on the Paris Metro; being propositioned on the train to Marseilles.

So now I start to wonder how to protect my children from such encounters. When I look back on my backpacking days I see how naive I was. And I don't think the world has got any safer, not even with Skype and Facebook and texting for instant communication. Because of this, I have decided I will be more proactive about teaching my girls the ways of the world, and I have started early.

Last summer, I took my nine-year-old on a 'backpacking' trip across Belgium and France - destination Barcelona. I had no illusions about spending any more nights in youth hostels. My backpacking days, at least as far as accommodation goes, are behind me. We went from one hotel to another - interspersed with stays with friends. One day, at the Renaissance Barcelona, I watched three strapping American youths check in using (I am fairly certain) one of their parents' reward points. They had brand new backpacks, unlike the old days.

My eldest daughter was not with us. She had been selected, along with three other 11-year-olds, to represent Hong Kong at an international peace camp and would meet up with 12 other 'delegations' from around the world. These lucky 48 children would be kept in seclusion for a month to learn from, and be taught, the art of 'peace education'.

When told about her assigned camp destination some months earlier, I was grateful to learn that it was in what I consider a safe country. These camps are held in more than 60 countries each year, and I thought nothing out of the ordinary would happen in Oslo, Norway. But I was wrong.

My youngest and I had a few scrapes: we were confronted by aggressive beggars in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, ripped off by buskers in Barcelona and somehow ended up in a bikers' bar in the backwoods of Belgium one rainy night. But at least I had always been there to protect her.

As for my eldest, all I could do was have faith in the delegation leaders and camp directors, who refused to let all their work be compromised by the senseless tragedy visited upon the people of Norway one week before the end of my daughter's peace camp, when 69 people died in a shooting massacre on a Norwegian island.

What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Still, when my girls grow up and leave to see the world on their own, I will want to go with them. It will be hard to say goodbye.

Karmel Schreyer is a writer and mother of two children