Wild swimming in Asia
Wild swimming in Asia

Family Holiday Near-Disasters

By Andrew Eames

‘Does little Fatimah have any teeth?’ asked Salah as his battered Mercedes caressed the foothills of Morocco's Anti-Atlas. Why yes, we responded proudly. At the time, our ‘Little Fatimah’ - aka Rhena - was approaching her first birthday, and her teeth were fine and dandy.  The driver seemed relieved. ‘In that case,’ he murmured, ‘she need have no fear.’

'From then on we avoided the hotel pool, and started to seek out Yucatan's cenotes – naturally occurring freshwater pools. In the end, our experiences of these made up some of the most memorable moments of the holiday, proving that, with the right attitude, something good can be derived from adversity.'

You can't make remarks like that to parents and expect them to remain calm. Fear of what? we demanded to know. Eventually Salah explained that women up in the Berber villages wove spices into their clothes to ward off unwanted male attention, and these same spices could distress toothless babes. My wife and I exchanged glances; our packing had been meticulous, but we hadn't been prepared for predatory coriander.

I'm sure some parents would disapprove of the way we've hauled our two around the world, and at times the kids have disapproved too. They thought the (delicious) food in Sri Lanka was yucky, preferred not to swim in the Red Sea on the grounds it was full of fish, and couldn’t see why we had to walk in Nepal, when men had already invented helicopters. But they still have two arms, two legs, sunny dispositions and iron constitutions. In fact, I would suggest that they are far more adaptable and mature as a result of their travels. Moreover, in most places the hazards they faced were no greater than experienced stepping out into the traffic-filled streets of home. But there have been some difficult moments.

Our first long-haul trip as a family was to Bali, where we took a room in a rattan-walled homestay in the rice fields by Ubud. Our son Thomas was just eight months old. Aware of the possibility of mosquitos and malaria, we'd schlepped a travel cot around the world; that, in combination with a mosquito net, and sprays and arm- and ankle-bands recommended by MASTA, created such a Fort Knox that I don't recall him being bitten at all. In fact, the statistics are reassuring: only around half a dozen children return from overseas holidays every year with malaria.

Our daughter went through a stage of being particularly nervous about the wildlife whenever we travelled, and she made an almighty commotion when stung by a wasp on a lake shore in Canada. The screaming was pretty useful, though, because passers-by turned out to have every imaginable solution: one produced a cream, another came up with ice in a ziplock bag, and a third started to dig up the mud, which he said would quickly sort her out. It did.

Underestimating the power of the sun is a classic mistake. In the excitement of the first day and the relief at having survived the flight, it is all too easy to let the children spend too long in the water. But there is another hazard of swimming pools in the sun, which we discovered while on holiday in Mexico. We'd chosen a local hotel with a nice-looking pool, and taken the precaution of making the children wear T-shirts for the first day. The pool's water was a bit cloudy, but we didn't think much of it until Thomas started to complain of ear-ache. It turned out the hotel owners hadn't put in enough chlorine, and Thomas had a nasty ear infection that started to prevent him from sleeping.
One night it was particularly bad, so we set off in the wee hours into the backstreets of small-town Yucatan to find a 24-hour clinic. The doctor - who we had to wake and who spoke no English - prescribed regular injections of antibiotics in the bum, which Thomas accepted like a stoic. From then on we avoided the hotel pool, and started to seek out Yucatan's cenotes – naturally occurring freshwater pools. In the end, our experiences of these natural pools made up some the most memorable moments of the holiday, proving that, with the right attitude of mind, something good can be derived from adversity.     

From a dietary point of view, our most unfortunate experience was on a farm holiday in Slovenia. It was one of those farms that took pride in its self-sufficiency, and most of the food that appeared on our table was home-produced. Very admirable, you may say, but unfortunately it was early spring and the growing season was still too young to provide anything fresh, so most of the food was from the previous year, pickled, pâté-ed or otherwise preserved. As adults, our systems could cope. For the kids, it was a different matter, and after several days of feeling off-colour, Thomas, in the act of handing over our departure gift to the farmer's wife, distinguished himself by vomiting all over her kitchen floor.

The hairiest incident of all involved the son of friends who'd travelled with us to Sri Lanka. We'd been there about four days, and the adults were sitting on the hotel lawn, sampling the local brew, while the children knocked the stuffing out of the furniture inside. The night air was as heavy and sticky as an airline hot towel, humming with cicadas, frogs and imminent thunder. Then, from much nearer at hand, came the screams of a four-year-old, and Nicholas appeared, framed in the doorway, his face covered in blood after a close encounter with the bedside table. A local doctor was summoned, and with the help of a torch and the sterilised needle from our first-aid bag, he put in four wobbly stitches.

The following morning Nicholas seemed completely unconcerned by his swathe of bandages, but the problem was the swimming: he couldn't go near the water for seven days. So we hired a driver and took to the hills for a completely different kind of holiday that the one we’d planned. In any case, we hadn't come to Sri Lanka just to grease the children and put them on the beach to fry.

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