An inebriated wild pig has taken a sudden dislike to my daughter. The bristly boar is lurching at nine-year-old Meg across a clearing on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, slobbery mouth agape, long yellow incisors poised to snap at her dainty hand. A moment to focus the parental mind: How did I get her into this pickle?
Months earlier, saintly friends had invited my family and another along for a 10-day vacation in Costa Rica. Kids would outnumber adults, seven to six. From Toronto came my gang — my girlfriend and me, with Meg and her 11-year-old brother, Joe — plus our hosts, with 12-year-old Emma and Connor, 14; from Washington, DC, came Kieran, seven, Hannah, 10, and Conal, 13, with their parents. The night we told the kids about the trip rivalled Christmas for giddiness. All of them were squealing and laughing and slurping ceremonial Shirley Temples, and feverishly googling Costa Rica. Tucking my two into bed that night, questions bounced off the walls: “Can we skip school? Will we have a pool? Will there be monkeys? Can we catch one and train it? Do they have hamburgers there?” We weren’t going the all-inclusive route, so there were all kinds of fun details to think through: places to rent, transportation, food, language, day trips.
Weeks later, not-so-giggly questions sidled into consciousness: Websites warn about riptides on that coast; how strong a swimmer is Meg? Will the teen boys keep Joe up all night discussing horror movies and boobies? Both my children hate eggs — is everyone serious about daily huevos rancheros? What about the four-hour bedtime discrepancy? OMG! Our daughters are like totally on a Hannah Montana binge: Will they blare that horrid CD all week? Another elephant in the room: 13 of us. In one house. For 10 days. Reality shows are built on thinner premises; will Danny Bonaduce slither into the kitchen and urge the little schemers to vote me off the vacation? And what about privacy? I’m sort of friendly, but even I need a little time alone now and again.
We all enjoy a little schadenfreude with our travel stories, but I can’t build false hopes of disaster. This trip was a giant success, and there are three words to explain it: incredibly detailed planning. A month before takeoff, we knew at exactly which spot in the Atlanta airport we would all converge to continue flying south. We knew the name and cell number of the driver who would take us to our rental house. We knew we were in for seven hours of bumpy roads and ferries — and we lined up lots of snacks to cover it. We made sure we had some Spanish and English speakers in our midst. Most of all, we had Mary, one of the moms and our secret planning weapon, who has a phenomenal zest for hashing out details. Mary organized a Facebook group and made us all join it. She asked everyone to list activities they wanted to do and food they wanted to eat. She emailed an advance shopping list to the cook. (Did I mention that house rentals in Costa Rica often include a cook? That is really the secret to enjoying a multi-family vacation. Let someone else do the cooking!) When we arrived, late at night, excited and tired, we found a fridge stocked with veg and fruit, fresh fish and meats, cheeses and breads, sauces, pop and snacks, Nutella, gin, tonic and limes.
Thanks to the pre-planning genius, we knew we all wanted to go snorkelling, we all wanted to try zip lining, and we all wanted to see some nature stuff…. But we also knew that some of us just wanted to slip off for early morning strolls or pokes around the nearest town, or quiet little hours here and there. I’m sure that having shared those expectations ahead of time helped head off any mid-trip friction. It made things easier knowing that some of our time was going to be big-group fun, and some was just a couple of adults or kids doing their own thing.
A houseful of kids, even a really beautiful (and it was) houseful, needs to be on guard against boredom. So two days after we arrived, talk about zip lining began. The idea with zip lining is that people hook little wheeled thingies onto long clotheslines that start at the top of cliffs and disappear into jungles far below. “Protected” by helmets that look like they’re made from Kinder eggs, zip liners whiz along from tree platform to tree platform, letting gravity work its magic. I am relaxed about heights and climbing, but this was scary.
Moments before our first victim was set to launch, a serious discussion began. Were we sure we all still wanted to do this? After all, once we started sending bodies down these long cables, it would be an ugly uphill slog back through the jungle if we decided not to continue. What if someone got the shivers? Everyone in? Tentative nods all around. Incredibly, despite all the juicy opportunities for teasing and name-calling, everybody got through. No one cried. With four wisecracking boys in our midst, I’m flummoxed as to how the outing remained so positive. It was like our own little Outward Bound session.
Early on in the trip, a delightful daily rhythm emerged. Sometime before it got very hot each morning, we’d sort out a grazing table of toast, eggs, fruit and tea. Maybe an hour later, at least a couple of adults would join kids to play in the surf. By midday, whether we were on our own or in a group, we’d all gravitate indoors and eat something, and some of the girls might get into a video game, while the boys watched a DVD and the adults snoozed or read. Afternoons would turn into tidal pool exploring, or jungle walks, and almost always more swimming. Dinners became the one time each day we were all sure to be together. These were lovely meals around a great table, spent shouting and laughing about the day’s heroic wave battles, Frisbee throws and near monkey captures.
The thing about planning, and foreseeing disaster all the time, is that worst-case scenarios seldom do materialize. So when Hannah and Connor got jellyfished on our second day in the sea, the stings were not excruciating. “They” say you scrub the welt with sand and salt water, which we did. It helped a bit, maybe. When our van died and we had to hop out and push it up a busy highway in the middle of the night, none of us dads with lousy backs were injured. When a thunderous wave grabbed some of the kids — hard to count exactly how many at the time — and slammed them all upside down into the sand, I’m pretty sure we got them all upright again. And when the drunken peccary (yes, it really was soused, much to the amusement of its bleary human guardian) snapped at my daughter’s hand, the pig missed! Occasion for another insight, which should have been obvious at the time: Wild pigs with beer on their breath should always be treated with caution.
Trying to assess what we did right, I keep coming back to incredibly meticulous planning. But there is also the widespread goodwill among time-tested friends: We have, over the years, camped together and done cottages and farms together. We have swapped Power Rangers and power tools, done dozens of sleepovers and blown out many birthday candles. If there were going to be any behavioural curveballs on this trip, we knew we’d see them coming.
In hindsight, for all my angsting about sleep and age differences, the sunshine itself made things simple. When it is 40°C and blindingly bright, no one minds heading indoors to flop out for a snoozy hour. And after days spent playing hard in the ocean, we almost always hit the sack with a hearty thump before the nights got too late. Truth is, all our varying needs, adult and child, quickly compressed through the funnel of sunny outdoor days. In the end, the three-family getaway made contented kids of us all.
Multi-family vacation tips
• Be meticulous with the advance planning. Cover as many details as possible: flight and hotel, of course, but also airport transportation, snacking and stretching places, contact numbers, car and boat rentals — everything you can think of.
• Have one point person booking and organizing all travel details.
• Pack light. Use small bags and don’t stuff them. Less is way more.
• Build consensus before takeoff: how to handle meals, trips, naps, snacks and plans. Get everybody talking about their hopes for the upcoming trip.
• Know your travel mates: Are there video-game junkies in your midst? Non-sleepers? Claustrophobes? Pineapple allergies? Jocks? Bookworms?
• Homework is not such a drag when it’s tackled poolside.
• If you are going away with new friends, consider doing a practice weekend together beforehand. Find out how the kids (and adults) cope with a couple of nights all together.
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