The Long and Whining Road

Ben Tarring (Guardian Unlimited, 12 August 2007)

In the heart of the ancient Spanish city of Cordoba lies the Mezquita, the pinnacle of Moorish architecture in Spain and for 300 years the heart of the western Islamic empire. Inside the Mezquita, cordoned off and lying several metres down, is a small section of Roman mosaic, probably from the temple on whose site the mosque was built. Lying in the middle of this jewel of a bygone civilisation is a shoe. A child's pink sandal with white polka dots. Size 12-and-a-half. Mini Boden.
Elsa, five, had been standing above the tiles and rubbing her feet together. The sandal had fallen. And there it lay, unapologetic on the 2,000-year-old floor.
A crowd began to form. Elsa began to cry. Her sisters began to laugh. The security guard arrived and tutted. Elsa cried louder. 'It's so embarrassing,' said eldest sister Molly, melting into the crowd. The security guard summoned the maintenance man, who brought a ladder, lifted a nearby flagstone, descended into the gloom, emerged below us, tiptoed across the priceless floor and rescued the fallen footwear.
As every parent knows, children have an uncanny ability to bring you down to earth. However sublime your surroundings, a child can reduce them to the lowest/funniest/most exasperating common denominator - as we found when spending six weeks backpacking through southern Spain and Morocco with our three daughters: Molly, 10, Eve, eight, and the briefly shoeless Elsa.
I had a sabbatical, which could be taken any time other than the school summer holidays. Where could we go that would give me, my wife, Claire, and the children an insight into a different way of life; a trip that, while not being too far-flung, would provide a cultural jolt, a linguistic challenge, a gastronomic question mark? After much debate, we chose Andalucia and northern Morocco. We plumped for April and the first half of May, when it would be hot, but not too hot, when the orange blossom would be in bloom, and when Spain would be celebrating Easter, with all its incense-perfumed pomp and circumstance.
Six weeks on the road, staying in each place for two or three days before catching a train or bus to the next guesthouse, beach hut or riad (some pre-booked, others not) is not a holiday in the normal sense of the word - as the children pointed out almost daily. No, we countered, it's an adventure, an adventure in which the destinations and, more importantly, the children's reaction to them, were unknown quantities. An adventure in which we would eat, sleep and breathe together for 42 days and nights. How we coped with each other would determine the success of the trip.
Cordoba, our first port of call after catching the overnight Trenhotel from Paris to Madrid, taught us three things: that Molly is not at her best when she perceives she is the centre of attention; that Claire's and my Spanish was not as good as we had thought when learning from our Linguaphone CDs; and that the sun does not always shine in southern Spain. It rained and it was cold. With only two rucksacks between the five of us (the children had little ones for teddies and toys), we were limited to one fleece each, one pair of trousers and one cagoule. The children were not impressed. 'You said it was going to be hot.' The UK, meanwhile, was basking in 25C sunshine.
The rain had not abated by the time we reached Seville. The gloom was compounded by our hotel, the Casa Sol y Luna, an overpriced collection of airless rooms with nary a glimpse of either sol or luna. Here we learnt another lesson: the Spanish really do live in another time zone. Arriving at 6pm, our girls were starving. Could we find a restaurant? Yes, dozens of them, but none opening before 8pm. So we tramped the streets in our sandals, while the chic fur-clad locals gawped at us in amazement.
Our saviour was Christ the Lord. For this was Maundy Thursday, and this was Seville, where Easter week is the high point of the year, a time to commemorate Christ's crucifixion, to celebrate his resurrection, to dress up, to eat, to drink and to indulge your emotions.
The children were transfixed. Christ was everywhere, lifesize atop a succession of gilded floats, dressed in purple robes, cross over his shoulder. And when it wasn't Jesus it was his mum, weeping, surrounded by candles, borne aloft on a golden litter. Before and aft were row upon row of sinister-looking penitents, clad from pointy-hatted head to toe in white, purple or black. We had only to hear the beat of drums or the plaintive cry of trumpets to leg it in that direction, attaching ourselves to the crowd, sombre until it passed a bar, seeking refreshment of a less spiritual kind.
Easter came and went, and slowly we crossed Andalucia from west to east: Cadiz, Vejer de la Frontera, Tarifa, Granada, the Alpujarras. And with every passing town, guesthouse, bus and restaurant we learnt a little more about each other. For example:
· ELSA: At five years old, found the going understandably tough. Would often burst into tears and collapse on the ground at a time of maximum inconvenience: in the car hire office in Granada when we couldn't understand the man's Spanish; on the way to the Alhambra when we had only minutes before our tickets would cease to be valid. Fought with Molly. On the plus side, she had a better sense of direction than I did, walked uncomplainingly for miles and amused herself, often for hours, with the most unlikely ingredients: the sand in Cadiz became magic dust to give our sandals wings; the leaves in Seville's Maria Luisa park were turned into boats and birds' nests.
· EVE: A natural traveller. Interested in people, places and, above all, nature. Built houses for cicadas in Jimena de la Frontera. In Tarifa, carried sand beetles home to the campsite in her hat. Spent the entire trip ministering to Moojy, her toy bushbaby, showing him the sights and ensuring he had a comfy seat on the train. Acted as go-between for Molly and Elsa. Scatterbrained, she would have lost most of her wardrobe were it not for Claire. Not good in the heat.
· MOLLY: Very helpful. Always packed her rucksack and often her sisters'. Got up uncomplainingly at crack of dawn when required. After a sceptical start (an early postcard to her teacher revealed she would rather have been back at school), overcame her fears. Panicked when under pressure. Turned vegetarian during the trip, which would have been fine except that she doesn't like many vegetables.
· CLAIRE: Team leader and keeper of passports, tickets, money. Not a natural backpacker (her one foray into the genre as a student had seen her spending three weeks of her month-long InterRail trip in one place), she coped valiantly with her heavy load and with marshalling her flock. Convinced the children were going to contract cholera and/or be sold into slavery. A tendency to be overpunctual but, as she pointed out more than once, 'We never missed a train, did we?'
· BEN: A more relaxed attitude to travel than his wife and arguably better able to deal with squalor and things lavatorial. Indulgent of the children's peccadilloes - perhaps overly so: when Eve and Elsa were pretending to be hummingbirds while waiting for a bus outside Vejer de la Frontera he failed to intervene despite the fact that the birds' nest was the town dump. Cue very smelly hummingbirds on the bus. Prone to the odd outburst of temper. Sweated a lot in the heat.
Our four weeks in Spain were almost like a dress rehearsal for the fortnight in Morocco, in terms of travel and coping with each other 24 hours a day. For while Spain had its difficulties - we didn't really speak the language, we had to adjust our body clocks, the children didn't like tapas - in Morocco the challenges were greater, leading to lows that were lower and highs that I will never forget.
Take our arrival in Essaouira, a laidback seaside town on the Atlantic. We had the keys of our pre-booked accommodation and, aided by the cart man who was ferrying our rucksacks, were trying to track down the riad. When we did so, it was only to discover that between us and it lay a large, stinking pool - actually, more of a lake - of liquid nastiness, courtesy of a blocked drain. Or was it a sewer?
After much deliberation, I took the plunge, waded through the pool and established that this was indeed our riad. The cart man offered to transport Claire and the girls across the nastiness to the door. Fine - except that Molly wouldn't set foot in the cart. There were too many locals watching. It was embarrassing. She would rather walk through the sewage. Which she did.
And when we crossed the threshold into the house that, too, stank. And Molly woke up in the night in floods of tears. She wanted to go home. She couldn't even remember what her best friend at school looked like. But in the morning the sun came out, the lake receded - leaving a few fishheads in its wake - and we went to the beach and ate ice-creams and rode camels and played football with boys on the beach and watched the sun set over the fishing boats and life was grand.
A few days later, in the Atlas mountains, we set out from our lovely kasbah for a round trip beneath Mount Toubkal, Morocco's highest peak. The path was steep, Molly fell over and cut her knee and it was hot - too hot - for Eve. She refused to go on. We promised her a Fanta in the village up ahead - only when we arrived, there was no cafe. Then, a minor miracle. The path descended into the cool of a walnut wood, where irrigation channels yielded cold, clear water, fresh from the mountain snow.
Revitalised, Eve and Elsa played in the water, fishing for weed. A group of village children appeared, herding goats. Shy at first, they sidled up to our girls and began to play. Between them, these children with no common language splashed in the water, learnt each other's names, laughed and gelled over river weed. And when it was time to go, the eldest Berber girl presented us with a bunch of wild flowers as a farewell gift.
Since their return to England, our girls have been reluctant to reveal their feelings about the adventure. People asking for the highlights of the trip are invariably greeted with noncommittal platitudes about ice creams and swimming pools. And maybe these were their highlights. Perhaps it was all too much for them to take in. Perhaps we travelled too much. Perhaps Elsa was too young.
But I like to think that deep down they're proud of their achievement, that they've done something not many of their friends have done, that they have learnt to understand each other's - and their parents' - foibles, flaws and fortes. If nothing else, I hope they've learnt that when things look bad and they are being engulfed by a lake of sewage, there is always a camel ride around the corner.

What we learnt about travelling with kids

1 Ensure you have enough food. On the long train journey from Algeciras to Granada, we wrongly assumed that there would be a trolley. Cue hungry children.
2 Value the kindness of strangers. Shed that British reserve and you will reap the rewards: a cup of herb tea and a chance to play with the pet chameleon at a spice stall in Essaouira.
3 Seek out open spaces. If cramped city accommodation gets you down, head for a park such as the Maria Luisa gardens in Seville, and frustrations will float away.
4 Ensure at least one child is blonde. Our sole fair-haired representative, Elsa found herself petted by waiters for our whole trip, leading to laughs and conversations we would otherwise not have had.
5 Embrace travel in separate train carriages. On the seven-hour journey from Fez to Marrakesh, Elsa and I were separated from the others, which meant no sibling warfare, only sweetness and light.

1 Be snobbish about food. You don't want to spend too much time in fast-food joints, but when hunger pangs were causing havoc, a Burger King in Granada was just the job.
2 Expect your children to share your taste in sightseeing. The Alhambra in Granada is the architectural holy grail for many visitors to Spain; our children were more interested in the ice-cream stall.
3 Assume waking up at night is a bad thing. On our first night in the 'train-hotel', a severe jolt woke Molly, Eve and me at 4.30am. We drew back the curtains and watched the moonlit Pyrenees recede magnificently into the distance.
4 Be afraid of throwing in your lot with 'dodgy' characters. We were 'adopted' on the train to Fez by two locals who wanted to make a few dirham by introducing us to certain shopkeepers. We evaded their commercial clutches but benefited from their entertaining banter.
5 Underestimate the importance of paper napkins. Invaluable as the raw material for paper aeroplanes during enforced waits.