Kids in tow or young, free and single, few Indians living away from home take the opportunity to explore new places. In my experience, given a few days off, most of us head home, travel locally or go to destinations we already know. So when I decided on a whim to go to Syria, my 10-year-old twins looked up at me in awe and wonder.
"Syria" simply did not sound real to them, in spite of all my efforts to paint a picture of the country: a place full of history, dotted with ruined castles set in beautiful landscapes. I tried my best to make them look forward to the trip.
Of course, this created its own problems: when we arrived in Damascus, a tatty and neglected city in parts, it turned out reality didn't match my fantastic descriptions. On our way from the airport to the Old City, as we went past dilapidated buildings, narrow, crowded streets and rather unimpressive neighbourhoods, my children gradually fell silent in frustration. As we checked into a hotel, my daughter suddenly asked, "How long will we be staying here?" Her question made me conscious of my own sense of disappointment. Damascus wasn't living up to any of our expectations.
But the unpromising start faded in Palmyra, an archaeologists' playground some 215km north-east of Damascus. The ruins saved the holiday - completely lifting the twins' mood - as they began to explore in their own, 10-year-old way. By the end of our four-hour stroll through the ruined city, I had almost forgotten that they were there. They seemed to take the history lesson in their stride, in an almost silent appreciation.
Not once did they ask for water - a favourite tactic when they are bored - or attempt to persuade me to take them to a restaurant, hungry or not. In an amazing show of concentration, they seemed unperturbed by the hawkers, tour guides and Bedouins who patrol the enormous site, trying to tempt visitors to buy souvenirs and take camel rides.
Instead, the twins asked intelligent questions prompted by what little information they had coupled with their limitless imaginations. And this continued, as we explored archaeological sites such as Anjar, Bosra, Ebla and Maloula - Palmyra had ignited a spark in their minds for the rest of our 10-day trip.
There's no dearth of suggestions on the internet about how best to prepare young children for what amounts to a history lesson. Some of the tips include scouring maps, giving lectures on your destination's past and present, and sitting down to enjoy films set in the places you'll see. Not to mention carrying essential items such as food, water and even medicines.
While such preparations are never a bad idea, the experience taught me the value of leaving the children alone to figure out what they were interested in for themselves. They ended up exploring Syria's ruins and scrambling up precarious places for better views. I'll need a few more trips to understand whether "leave them be" works better than an information overload in helping children to become more self-confident as they discover their interests and inner strengths. But this time I am sure it did.