Following 15-Year-Old Dreams

Adolescents looking for their place in the world lead their grandparents overseas

By John and Sally Macdonald

We worked at a major Seattle newspaper for more than two decades — John was travel editor, I was a reporter. We retired six years ago, but we still love to travel and write.

A few years earlier, over lunch in a Reno hamburger joint, we talked about what we could do to help our six grandchildren appreciate their place in the world. We are convinced that travel is important to that coming-of-age process.

We decided that when each grandchild reached the age of 15 — old enough to be responsible and thoughtful, but not yet heavily into boyfriends or girlfriends — we would take that child on a trip anywhere in the world he or she wanted to go. The rules are simple: no U.S. destinations, no theme parks or Caribbean cruises, no trips so expensive that we can’t afford to take the next teen.

So far, the kids have taken us on three trips abroad.

Our oldest granddaughter wanted to see dolphins and "other different animals" in their own habitat; so we went to Australia. Her brother chose China "because it has a different culture from ours" and it is becoming an international heavyweight. Our third journey took us to France, England, and Wales where a grandson wanted to get a feel for medieval life and warfare.

Each trip has stretched us all in some way.

Aussie Animals

In Australia, our shy Ashley found herself mesmerized by the wild dolphins that come to shore each evening to be fed and studied at the Tangalooma research station near Brisbane. Joining the researchers in the water one starry evening became a life-defining moment that she wrote about in her college entrance essay.

She had dreamed of communing with wild dolphins since she was very small, she wrote. The adventure proved to her that she had what it takes "to expand, to seek out more lifelong dreams and goals." Ashley wrote, "Just stepping into the water, waiting to feed the wild dolphins, showed me that I am yet unfinished on my journey to find who I am."

And one evening she put aside her then near-vegetarian eating habits to sample John’s grilled kangaroo steak. "Poor thing," she said of the kangaroo. "It's okay," she said after a bite of the meat, "but I don’t think I can do that again."

Beijing on a Bicycle

Her brother Max says his "biggest question" was us. What exactly would it be like to travel with us? Would we all "sit around a lot" because we needed our rest?

He quickly found he didn’t have to worry about that. He even became comfortable enough to call us "old-timers" to our faces and was relieved to find we were up to trying new things with him.

He really wanted to ride a bicycle in Beijing. At first we said no. "Too many cars, buses, bikes, and pedestrians and — not enough rules," he remembers us saying. But he begged, and — finally — we gave in.

Weaving in and out of the city’s convoluted traffic proved to be one of his fondest memories. We were still shaking when we got back to our hotel.

Max also remembers the pollution that regularly turns the sky over Beijing a sick-looking brown. An enormous new dam on the Yangtze will provide electric power to the countryside and help turn the coal-smoked sky blue again. It also will flood 570,000 acres of farmland and cities, and displace 1.5 million people.

"There are drawbacks to [building the dam]," he says, "but good things, too, if it gives them bluer sky and longer life."

Max would like to go back to China someday. Not to the big cities, he says, but to the river to visit some of the villages we passed on our Yangtze tour boat.

From Computer Games to Medieval Castles

Ashley and Max’s cousin, Luke, had the most difficult time choosing what they’ve all taken to calling their "grandkid trip."

He’d talked when he was younger about taking us to the Bermuda Triangle. But that was just a joke, and when it came down to it, the world seemed too big to make a choice.

We stayed up late one evening helping him think about what interested him most in school. It came down to medieval history, salted with an extracurricular knowledge of early weapons and warfare gleaned partially from computer games.

We visited France’s medieval battlefield at Agincourt and saw the tapestry at Bayeux that tells of the Norman invasion of England in the 11th century. We romped the beaches at Mont St. Michel like medieval tourists did, and — for contrast — visited the World War II D-Day beaches nearby. We tried on iron helmets in the Tower of London and stayed in a haunted castle in Wales.

Luke’s most moving moments were at the ruined castle in western Wales where historians believe Llewelyn the Great was born. Llewelyn ruled Wales in the early 13th century. He tried unsuccessfully to fend off the English, and Wales has been part of the United Kingdom since.

Luke was "looking to go back in time," as he walked up the hill to "that decapitated castle." He found himself imagining approaching it with his valiant steed “and my grandparents in tow, of course.”

As for us, we have loved putting ourselves into their dreams via our grandkid-trips. It’s a pleasure being with each of them without their parents to run interference, discipline them, or answer their questions.


Read our article on travel to Washington, D.C., gain inspiration for a trip to Tinseltown here, and see our Bucket List Trips for Grandparents.

**Note: Contruction of the Three Gorges Dam Project on the Yangtze River was completed in 2009**

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