Teaching Geography With Google Maps

Google Maps
Travelers aren’t born, they’re raised.

Last week we talked about how to connect with your kids while you’re away traveling. There are plenty of ways to get them interested in this great big world of ours while you’re both at home too. One of the best and easiest ways to fire their imagination is with Google Maps.

Like many good ideas in our family, my seven-year-old son thought of it first. He’s recently gotten into Internet Radio, especially Tonik Radio out of Dublin. Tonik and most other stations show a Google map with pointers to where their listeners are. I find it kind of freaky that our house is clearly indicated on a map for all the other listeners to see. The kid just thinks it’s cool. He’s of a generation that has always known the Information Age and thus has a whole different attitude towards privacy.

So as he listens to House and Trance he surfs the globe, looking up where the other Tonik Radio listeners are–the cluster of fans in Dublin, the farmer in Israel, and the guy in the apartment block in Sterlitimak, Russia. Zooming in with the power of satellite photography, he can see what far-off countries look like from above. In some places he can even use Google Street View.

Once he gets bored hunting down his fellow radio fans, he starts exploring the Terra Incognita of the spaces between the points. This week he conducted a close-up survey across the Pacific and happened upon the Johnston Atoll, a lonely little former U.S. military base that I had never heard of.

I also show him places where I’ve been. He got an aerial view of the amusement park in Baghdad where I ate mazgouf. When the satellite took its photo, a small plane was flying over the riverside park and left its shadow on the water of the Tigris. A week later I came into my office and he’d found it again. He’s learning to navigate.

I can even show him my past, hovering with him above the Danish farm where I was an exchange student back in my teens. I brought him up the country lane to the nearest highway and its bus stop, the same route I rode with my bike when I wanted to go to Slagelse, the nearest town. The hedge and ditch where I hid my bike before I caught the bus are still there.

Strangely, this obsession with the computer hasn’t killed his interest in regular maps or his light-up globe. So if you have a young kid who’s curious about the world, try surfing Google Maps. It’s more than a bit Orwellian, but it’s a lot of fun.

Image courtesy Google Maps, copyright 2011.

Parenting On The Road: How To Connect With Your Kids When You’re Traveling

parentingParenting is a tough job. It’s even tougher if you have to travel a lot for work. Being away form home doesn’t mean that you have to be away from your child’s life, however. Here are eight tips on how to keep connected to the rugrats while you’re on the road.

Skype. The greatest aid for the wandering parent ever invented. Why miss story time when you can pack a few of their favorite books and read to them over the computer? One guy I know even puts on puppet shows for his two boys. There’s also a fun coloring tool where you and the little one can paint each other’s faces.

Email. If you want something more old school, get them an email account and send them messages. Attach some photos of yourself on your travels. You can stay current with their schedule too. If you know they have a history test coming up, send them an email the night before wishing them luck (and reminding them to study).

Postcards. Or go classic with postcards! Nothing is more personal than getting a handwritten note from mom or dad with a cool picture on it. Once you’re back you can share your own photos with them.

Studying Maps. Show them where you’re going with an atlas, globe, or Google Earth. My son loves Google Earth and likes to zoom in on the places I am, and he often goes to sleep with his illuminated globe shining Africa or Asia over his bed. You can also use programs like Tripit to show your itinerary so the kids know where you are. One friend also shared that her son has a “huge world map and every time I take a big trip I text him often on the way and he marks my progress. This was a lot of fun when I circumnavigated the globe. He learned about flat maps in a round world!”

Planning for the future. Figure out what to do together once you’re back under the same roof and mark it on a calendar in their room. This gives the kids something to look forward to.

Online Games. Hey, you know they’re playing tons of video games while you’re gone anyway, so why not join in?

Hide things. Gadling’s Chris Owen shares, “I hide things for them to find later, when I am away. Once I folded very tightly a permission slip one of them needed for school and put it in their cereal box..” Libby Zay says, “My mom and I used to tuck notes into each other’s bags/coat pockets/lunch box/purse/wherever. To this day she’ll sometimes put a coat on that she hasn’t worn in awhile and find a note in the pocket from little Libby!” My son does this to me too. I always end up finding one of his toys hidden in my bags. One has even made it onto Gadling!

Put them to work! Give them a complicated puzzle or Lego set to work and challenge them to get it done before they come back. Dave Seminara’s two boys like to be given titles. “Leo, 5, is the man of the house while I’m gone, and James, 3, is the ‘associate’ man of the house. They like these roles and if they do a good job they get souvenirs. Actually, they get souvenirs either way.”

What do you do to stay connected with your kids? Share your advice in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy user woodleywonderworks via Flickr]

International Parenting: Avoiding Stereotypes With ‘Rastamouse’


My son is having an international childhood. His father is a Canadian who lived for a long time in the U.S. and his mother a Spaniard who lived for a long time in England. We divide our time between Santander in Spain and Oxford in England.

One effect of this is that he has different associations for different places. England, for example, is a summer place, a small-town place where in the early morning before going to camp or the park he gets to watch TV. Spain isn’t a TV place because TV sucks in Spain. We didn’t even bother buying a TV there.

I don’t mind him watching BBC because they have some great kids’ programs. One of his favorites also helps make him more international. It’s called “Rastamouse.” Rastamouse is a mystery-solving Reggae mouse musician who always catches the bad guys. Once he does, he shows them the error in their ways and helps them make amends. Rastamouse calls this “making a bad ting good.” It’s a nice change from superheroes, who simply kick the bad guy’s ass.

“Rastamouse” is hugely popular in the UK and is coming soon to the United States. It hasn’t been without controversy, however. Some viewers think the cheese on the show is a symbol for marijuana, ignoring the fact that Rastamouse and his friends are, um, mice. A less silly complaint came from Daily Mail columnist Lindsay Johns, who in his op-ed on “Rastamouse” objects to the Jamaican patois. He says it panders to racial stereotypes and that “the BBC is leading us down the path of linguistic rack and ruin.”

“Very soon (if they aren’t already), a whole generation of primary school children will be rushing around the playground mimicking Rastamouse and saying, ‘Wha gwan?’” he writes.

So far, I have yet to hear my son imitate Rastamouse, and if he did I don’t think that would lead him to forgetting the Queen’s English. I also don’t agree with Johns’ statement that Rastamouse’s being cool means he isn’t cerebral. He solves a mystery every episode by analyzing clues.I let my son watch this show because, unlike what some of its detractors say, it actually breaks stereotypes. I have to admit to a certain amount of snickering on the part of me and my wife when we first saw this show. We kept waiting for pot references but they never came. We missed the whole cheese thing. Rastamouse creators Genevieve Webster and Michael De Souza (who is a Rastafarian) are clearly not interested in making a cult show for stoner college kids.

Our reaction made me think. While we know that most Jamaicans aren’t lazy pot smokers, we were brought up with that stereotype so it pops into our heads even if we don’t believe it. I was interested to learn from various African-American friends that in their community, Jamaicans are stereotyped as workaholics. One friend who worked briefly as a farmer in Jamaica (growing sugar cane) said he couldn’t keep up with the hard pace of his island coworkers. The TV show In Living Color did a riff on this with a series of sketches of a Jamaican family who have more than a hundred jobs between them. Every skit involved the father complaining about his “lazy, good-for-noting son who only has eight jobs.”

My son is getting a different impression of Jamaicans. For him, folks from that island speak differently but have intelligent things to say, make good music, work hard, and help their erring brothers and sisters “make a bad ting good.”

Photo gallery: children of the world

children, India
When I’m on the road, children make some of my best new acquaintances. A foreigner with a backpack is a surefire cure to a dull day, and a crowd of giggling kids will make even the most tired traveler smile.

Take this great shot by Robin Lerner, for example. Two Indian kids being silly, like silly kids everywhere. Sad to say, Robin tells us these children were begging at a bus station. When they realized they weren’t going to get any money, they stayed and goofed off with Robin and his travel companions. Poverty hadn’t dampened their spirit and they had a good time with the foreigners practicing their two words of English: “Hello” and “banana”.

I wonder if they taught Robin any of their language? Kids make great language teachers because swapping vocabulary is a game they never seem to get tired of. Most of my Amharic was taught to me by Ethiopian schoolkids, and I learned a lot of Arabic from kids when I used to work in the Middle East. The fact that my ability in both languages is pretty poor is my fault, not theirs!

Rob’s photo summarizes why children are one of the highlights of travel, especially budget and adventure travel that takes you to places where visitors are an uncommon sight. Check out the gallery below for more images of kids around the world, all taken by the talented photographers in Gadling’s flickr pool, plus a couple of cute shots by my wife, who fell in love with the wonderful children of Ethiopia.

Have some nice photos of children in far-off lands? Share them on flickr and you might see your artwork up on Gadling!

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Knocked up abroad: the baby-friendly difference

baby friendly
Me in Istanbul on Mother’s Day, 7 months pregnant, with Dalin baby product mascot

Just over two weeks ago, I made the leap from pregnant American in Istanbul to expat with child. My decision to have my first baby in a foreign country has been met with reactions from friends and strangers ranging from surprise and curiosity to outright disapproval. The transition to new parenthood is a strange and challenging time for nearly everyone, but living in a country that respects pregnant women and worships babies has made all the difference. While baby and child bans are being considered in many places from travel companies like Malaysia Airlines to American restaurants, Turkey remains one big baby-friendly country.


On the surface, Istanbul is not an easy place with a baby. The city is crowded, traffic is terrible and taxi drivers will barely pause to let you run across the street, and the sidewalks are a mini Olympics for a stroller with few ramps, cracked pavement, uneven cobblestones, and endless hills. There’s not many green spaces or parks, and for older children, few museums or activities designed for or appealing to kids. It’s the people that make the city welcoming to children. I can’t walk down the street without a chorus of “Maşallah” (bless you) and “çok güzel” (how cute!). Crowds form around us in stores of people wanting to kiss the baby, ask questions about her, and give me advice (this is when my limited Turkish is a blessing and I can just smile and nod). Waiters in restaurants coo over her and offer to hold her when I go to the bathroom (note: I’m hyper-aware of being a disturbance for other diners and will always take her out if she starts to fuss). As much as she is adored, the feedback isn’t always positive. Some older Turks don’t believe young babies should be out in public and think mothers should follow the custom of staying in the house for the first 40 days (our pediatrician says it’s fine to go out and we’ve taken her places nearly every day since she was born). Despite the current 100 degree heat, I’m warned against holding the baby near a fan, in air conditioning or even in front of the refrigerated case in the grocery store, lest she catch a draft.
Even before the baby arrived, Turks go above and beyond to make mothers and babies comfortable. Recently, a Turkish woman told me how she had been heavily pregnant in winter and one day found herself out in the rain, unable to get a taxi home. She began to cry in frustration and a police officer stopped to see if she was okay. She told him she was fine, just wanted to get home, so he approached a nearby taxi with two men inside, kicked them out, and gave the cab to her. I have no doubt that the ousted men were probably understanding and gracious about the situation, and the whole story encapsulates the Turkish experience for me.

In contrast, when I spent a week home in New York at five months pregnant, I was never offered a seat on the subway and struggled like everyone else for a taxi in the rain. Shortly after my visit, I read an article about a proposed official ban on food in the NYC subway (the idea has since been dismissed) with suggestions for other things that should be banned and was shocked to see a few commenters indignantly refuse to give up their seat to pregnant women. They reasoned that pregnancy was a choice and not the responsibility of society or any other passenger to cater to them. While I can understand their viewpoint, it’s so far from the Turkish mentality, I’d be hard pressed to explain it here.

While these are very extreme examples and not necessarily indicative of the average pregnant woman’s experience in New York or Istanbul, they represent two ends of the spectrum in terms of baby- or pregnant-friendliness. Consider this chart of a New York woman’s experience getting seats on the subway; while the overall results aren’t bad (just over 80% of the time she was offered a seat), it’s pretty appalling by Turkish standards. Since I began to show, I could barely step onto a bus or through the metro doors before I was offered at least one seat (and they’ll insist on it, even if I say I’m not traveling far). It’s not just on public transportation: I’ve been offered to cut in line for public bathrooms and even in line for ice cream. Several American cities like Boston and Chicago are considering or enacting rules against strollers (at least open ones) on public transportation to save space and aggravation for other passengers. When I return to New York, I’ll plan on wearing a baby sling or carrier on the subway, especially since few stations have elevators or escalators.

A few weeks before my baby arrived, I was wandering around Cihangir, a neighborhood I’d compare to San Francisco partially due its artsy, cafe-culture vibe, but mainly due to its many hills. My afternoon stroll involved many hikes up steep staircases and near-vertical sidewalks. Each time I’d pass a Turk, he would stop, watch, and wait for me to get to the top and once he saw I was okay and not about to pass out or go into labor, he’d continue on his way. Last week, I battled the same hills with a stroller and was helped by Turkish men on nearly every corner and curb.

So what makes Istanbul such a welcoming city for little ones while New York remains hostile? It’s hardly a small town, Istanbul’s official population of 13 million is nearly double that of New York and the high density doesn’t make it much less crowded. It could be the volume of children, Turkey’s birth rate is nearly double that of many western European countries and significantly higher than the United States. I asked on Twitter about what countries travelers have found to be the most baby-friendly and most hostile, and nearly all of the positive experiences were in European and Latin American countries. Writer Anita Bulan put it well when she noted that in these baby-friendly countries, kids are seen as a part of life and allowed to participate in it. I’ve seen babies out late at night with their parents in Argentina, young children at fancy restaurants in Italy, and toddlers in museums in Spain. I’ve also seen hardly any tantrums in these places. I haven’t figured out their secret yet, but I imagine it has to do with exposing them to real life from an early age. Few restaurants in Istanbul have a kid’s menu but nearly every place will happily provide something appealing to a child, even if it’s not on the menu. If a baby cries, the parents as well as strangers will quickly comfort him and return to their meal practically before anyone else can notice.

This week I applied for my baby’s first passport and am planning travel in Europe and home to the US in the next few months. I’m not sure what to expect in each place, we might continue to be treated like rock stars in Europe and get dirty looks in America, or the reverse. I’m hoping my past travel experience helps me navigate airports and new cities but I’m aware of how a little one will slow me down and make me think ten steps ahead. My baby won’t remember these early trips or appreciate new places, but I hope that kindly strangers and a well-used passport for my child will make me a better mother and traveler.

Vera Alcazar Nesterov was born July 12 in Istanbul. Read her about her travels before birth and pregnancy in a foreign country in past Knocked up Abroad posts.