Beating the Beast that is Jet Lag

Sad Aloha

Travel is exhausting and stressful (especially with two kids) but the experiences and memories are always worth it. But one beast I’d happily leave behind (or at least tame)? Jet lag. We’re in the midst of a multi-week, multi-continent boondoggle and having a blast. But this jet lag is killer.

Hanoi to Honolulu: two flights, one red eye, and 17 hours of time difference. Honolulu to Boston? Two more flights, another red eye, six more hours of time difference. Lots of miles traveled, lots of whining, tons of fun, but not lots of sleep (at least not at the times it’s supposed to happen). Add to this no real routine and you get cranky, whiny kids and spent parents.

When I’m traveling solo, I know how to deal with jet lag: get on the destination schedule as soon as possible, exercise, get some sunshine, avoid napping during the day, and take a melatonin before bed. It’s not fun but I can tolerate it and am good to go after a few days. But when traveling with kids, my normal tactics don’t seem to work as well, especially because we’re staying in hotels or rental properties and trying to keep the kids quiet and avoid ruining other people’s vacations. 

Here are some tips for managing jet lag with munchkins:

  1. Stick to your routine as much as possible – meals, naps, bedtimes – replicating the schedule at home will help kids get acclimated.
  2. Get your kids outside and active. The sun will help get them on the new schedule and stay awake and being busy will tire them out!
  3. Encourage them to drink lots of water.
  4. Bring a few familiar items to help with the bedtime routine – blanket, lovie, nightlight – this will help comfort your kids and (hopefully) make bedtime a bit easier.
  5. If traveling with a toddler in the midst of potty training, expect some setback and bring some extra diapers and/or changes of clothes everywhere you go.

And here are some new tips I plan to try the next time we travel:

  • Delicious Baby has these great tips for how to help kids sleep better on the plane (thereby reducing jet lag’s duration and unpleasantness).
  • Take fish oil on the plane to boost circulation (for me, not the kids).
  • Focus on maintaining good sleep routines before the trip.

Fellow family travelers: what are your tips for beating jet lag with kids?

Shine on!

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Expat Lessons Learned: Seven Things I Learned During my Two Years Overseas

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The first year is the hardest. I knew this—in theory—before I left the States, but reality was a lot harder than I imagined. I had planned everything to make the transition easier but it turned out that most of my plans didn’t work out. Part-time graduate school? Didn’t work out. Part-time job? Not when I was ready for it. Homesickness, discomfort, exhaustion – I experienced these on entirely new levels. I’d lived abroad before moving to Hanoi and thought it would be no big deal, even though I was leaving my career, bringing my 2.5 year and 2 month olds along for the ride, and didn’t speak the language. Truth? I was so naïve, and the first year nearly did me in.

The second year is so much better. Throughout the lows of my first year, several seasoned expat friends assured me the second year would be better. They were right. After the first year, I had friends, a routine, could communicate in basic Vietnamese, and things (cultural differences, directions, etc.) felt more normal and comfortable.

Forget the “old me.” Abandoning the “old me” was hard, and I held on to it for a long time. I didn’t even realize how strongly ingrained my identity—full-time working mom who “did it all” despite the stress—was until I left it behind in D.C. All of a sudden I found myself in a new country, with two kids, no friends, and no job. And I was miserable for a while. I mourned “the old me” and obsessed about how to get her back. I realize now that I was grieving my old life, and it was a painful process. But after 1+ years of feeling sorry for myself, I took action and started making things happen. I embraced the new me. And when I did, it felt like someone had ripped off blinders I didn’t even know I was wearing!

All of a sudden, opportunities started presenting themselves because I was open to them. The new me is still evolving, but I like her.Also, the more I talked with friends, the more I realized that the changes and challenges at this point in my career and family life were common and normal. It’s just that being abroad made them more emphatic. There was no old routine to fall back on and get lost in—just the hard cold facts staring me in the face. And it was up to me to address them.

Communication is critical (and HARD). Communicating is entirely different with a 12-hour time difference. It requires thought, planning, and even some sacrifice (getting up early, staying up late). I thought it would be so easy with FaceTime, Skype, iMessage, etc. but the truth is, everyone is busy and unless you make communicating a priority, it doesn’t happen. I was pleasantly surprised by some of the people who made efforts to communicate (not necessarily those I expected) and it reminded me to be a better communicator. I’m a work in progress, but I have a new appreciation for family and friends that went the extra mile to keep in touch.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder. Cliché for a reason: it’s true. I love my country but have never appreciated it as much as I do now, after two years living so far away from it. I loved getting to know Vietnam, its people, and its culture, but I also found myself missing aspects of the U.S. I usually take for granted—its diversity of people, cultures, religions, foods, the clean air, city parks, sidewalks unobstructed by motorbikes, and affordable, accessible consumer goods from all over the world

Kids are more adaptable than I thought. In the “helicopter parent” world of American parenting (especially in the D.C. area of hyper-competitive everything), I succumbed to planning everything for my kids. I’m still a planner, but I’ve learned the lesson—the hard way—that the best laid plans can be disrupted (or chucked entirely). Like all kids, mine love their routines, but they also love experiencing new things and, after an adjustment period, can really thrive in new environments. They adapted faster to living overseas than I did!

Amid the challenges, traveling with kids also brings an entirely new perspective. In no way was it always easy (turns out they don’t sell Children’s Benadryl at the Luang Prabang night market) and there were frustrations, scratches, mosquito bites, and tears (theirs and mine!). But I found that encountering new places, cultures, sounds, and tastes becomes more multi-dimensional with your kids in tow, because you experience things through their eyes. My former college backpacker self still independently revels in the walk over the swinging bamboo bridge or finding a quiet nook on a bend in the Mekong. But doing this with my daughters conveyed a whole new level of fulfillment and sense of discovery. This lesson isn’t unique to being an expat, but for me, it took moving halfway around the world to learn it.

The expat life is liberating and FUN. I met so many incredible people in the past two years. People I never would have met in my “old” life. While I was learning to appreciate close family and friends back home, I was also learning to value the new friendships and experiences overseas. I met women from all over the world, of all different ages, with myriad experiences, and—regardless of these often considerable differences—we could connect and relate based on shared experiences as Hanoi expats. Becoming active in the Hanoi International Women’s Club was a pivotal point in my happiness, because I realized I wasn’t alone. There were tons of other women going through the same thing, and we could have fun. Exploring a new city, reminiscing about the places we’d been, venting about Hanoi’s challenges, and reveling in its charms. (Also enjoying the occasional glass of wine.)

Living it Up in Luang Prabang: Part I, Setting the Scene

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The Laos flag, flying high

Just got back from four days in lovely Luang Prabang, Laos. I loved it just as much the second time around. Highlights? Beautiful wats (temples) and saffron robes, peaceful Mekong breezes, the best night market I’ve visited in Southeast Asia, fabulous food, elephant rides, local artwork and handicrafts, and an exceptional hotel.

Luang Prabang’s town is a UNESCO world heritage site and boasts a delightful mix of historical buildings, quaint shops and cafes, traditional houses (many now guesthouses), and – of course – dozens of temples. As UNESCO explains: “Luang Prabang is an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.”

Luang Prabang Monks almsgiving

Early morning almsgiving, February 2014

Again, this trip was a combination of my favorite things: family, fitness, and frolicking, (with Lao Dark beers sprinkled throughout). To be honest, there was a bit less straight-up fitness than I would have liked, but I figure when you’re carrying/pushing two young children all over town in 90 degree, humid heat, that’s equivalent to a workout (or four).

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Getting there

Luang Prabang as an easy one-hour flight from Hanoi. We flew there on Laos Airlines on a packed prop plane and back home on a similar plane operated by Vietnam airlines. Not the most spacious airline experience but thankfully the flights were quick and on time. (I recommend dressing for warm weather, as it took half the flight for the aircon to get kicking.) The best part is that, not only is Luang Prabang a quick flight from Hanoi, but once you arrive at the small airport tucked among the hills, the car ride to town is ten minutes tops.

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    “We’re getting on this little plane?!”

Where to Lay Your Head

Our first time in Luang Prabang we stayed in a quaint riverside boutique hotel, The Belle Rive Boutique Hotel – a quintessential French colonial style set of buildings. The lobby feels like stepping back in time to a much earlier Indochine experience. The location can’t be beat. Right in town and only a block away from almsgiving (more on that later). Our room was simple but comfortable, the food was delicious, the hosts were warm, and the room rate included a cocktail cruise. We loved it and would recommend it enthusiastically.

Belle Rive Luang Prabang Door         Belle Rive Luang Prabang

The beautiful Belle Rive

This time, we opted for a hotel with a pool (it’s HOT in Laos in April). In Luang Prabang, this means you have to stay a bit outside of town, as pools aren’t permitted in the historic district. We stayed at Hotel de La Paix, a boutique hotel managed by Accor (soon to become a Sofitel property). A fabulous decision, it turns out. Thanks to our Accor Advantage Plus card, they upgraded us to a large, open poolside room, complete with a huge bathroom, an outdoor garden with lounge chairs, a stocked (complimentary) mini bar, an iPod with local music, and a ridiculously comfortable bed.

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View of our room from the breakfast table

Bonus? A free baby crib and a small sofa perfect for a four-year-old’s temporary “bed” with no extra charges!

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Getting Around

Most hotels include round-trip airport transportation. Once you unpack your bags, take a stroll along the Mekong and Luang Prabang’s main street. Most hotels offer free bikes and tuk tuks are plentiful, cheap, and fun!

Luang Prabang Bike

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Elephants are another great option (more on that later!).

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Riding in Style

Avec Les Enfants

Luang Prabang is one of the more child-friendly cities I’ve visited in Southeast Asia. There are plenty of fairly wide and obstruction-free sidewalks, making it (relatively) stroller friendly. Most of the restaurants we visited (more on this to come!) had high chairs and were kid-friendly. Additionally, the tourist activities – riverboat cruise, night market, elephant rides (more on these to come too!) – welcomed kids, (although if you’re safety–minded, I recommend bringing life jackets from home).

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Stay tuned for Living it Up in Luang Prabang: Part 2, Frolicking!!!!

On a side note, this is my go-to travel highchair. It’s light and folds flat so I can keep it under the stroller with no problem.