x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Keep things predictable for children when travelling

Astrid starts to flick through the channels using the remote control. She finds a cartoon and sits back to watch it. It has taken her less than five minutes to settle in.

The hotel room looks pretty much like any other hotel room: a double bed in the middle, lamp and telephone on the table beside it, television mounted on a bracket on the wall, wardrobe and bathroom by the door.

This room happens to be in Madaba in Jordan. It is the first night of our holiday. Astrid runs inside. It is only a few weeks since we went to Kathmandu and the layout of a hotel room seems fresh in her memory. First, she goes to the telephone, picks up the handset, holds it to her ear, jabs the numbered keys and starts talking. She begins with a clear and definite "hello", but the rest is a jabber of silky phonemes that sound soft and soothing, almost like a song. It is a pleasant surprise. Last time she used a phone was in Nepal. We had to unplug it from the wall so she could not actually make a call. She paced around the room barking harsh consonants into the receiver like a future's trader in the midst of a deal going wrong.

She tires of the telephone pretty quickly and starts hunting around for other things to do. Then she comes across the remote control on the bedside table at the opposite side of the bed. She picks it up and without hesitation points it at the television and starts pressing the buttons. Nothing happens, so she moves closer to the screen and tries again. Eventually, she enlists my help with a series of yells and a barrage of vigorous pointing, so I turn on the TV with the big button on the set.

Our murky reflections fade only to be replaced by a young man sitting on a rock singing with waves crashing around in the background. The volume is very loud. His voice is piercing. I'm not sure if it's an illusion created by the "modest proportions" of the average traveller's dwelling, but televisions invariably seem to be very loud when you turn them on in hotel rooms. Do a lot of people have worse hearing than they would like to admit? Does the freedom of travel allow people to give unfettered reign to their desire to listen to CNN as if it were a rock concert? Perhaps it is merely a combination of paper-thin walls and competing volumes, an example of survival of the loudest. I turn down the volume while Astrid goes to sit on the bed and starts to flick through the channels using the remote control. She finds a cartoon and sits back to watch it. It has taken her less than five minutes to settle in.

I'm impressed by her ability to acclimatise, but much of the credit must, I feel, be given to the blueprint of the hotel room. It is so regimented and unwavering that an 18-month-old child can negotiate it with ease after only a handful of visits. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact we have neither a television nor a telephone at home, yet Astrid knows how to use them. Perhaps it is innate or perhaps it has permeated into her consciousness, as if by some kind of osmosis, merely by existing. The television screen and the telephone are so widespread that this knowledge seems almost instinctive.

Of course, standardisation leads to homogenisation, which will - or perhaps even already has led to - so many different parts of the world looking the same. When I wake up tomorrow in Jordan, the blurry-eyed scene that greets me as my eyelids rise will be very similar to the one in Nepal a few weeks before. While I lament this sameness as bad for the beautiful diversity of the world, it does make travelling with children easier.