February 19, 2013

The Beauty of Flexible Departure Dates

Young adult siblings on an elephant in Thailand.

We have plenty of prearranged departure dates to choose from, but there’s always the possibility that none of the dates you see listed fit with your busy schedule. Luckily for you, that’s not a problem; we can always organize a custom date just for your family.

We’re in this business because we want to deliver the ideal family adventure for each and every one of our valued clients, and we’ll never let rigid scheduling issues get in the way of that mission. You can even work with us to create your own private, custom itinerary or villa-style vacation if you’re not totally satisfied with what we already offer.

We find that the fact that we can always arrange custom dates is especially vital to emphasize when dealing with families with older teen and 20-something kids. Since this particular age group encompasses a wide range of life stages – high school, college, and the working world – what works for one young adult may not work for another. Older teens and 20-somethings have different school breaks and different opportunities for time off from work; this isn’t news to us, and we’re fully prepared to work with you to organize something that fits with everyone’s schedules.

Just give us a call and we can work through all your departure date concerns together.



February 14, 2013

You’re Never Too Old to Learn from Travel

An action shot from the game

When I consider the significance of travel in my own life, the clichéd-but-apt adage “Don’t let school get in the way of your education” comes to mind.

Three years ago, I was a junior in college; I was in the middle of a wonderful classroom education that, unbeknownst to me, couldn’t hold a candle to the 5-month practical learning experience I was about to dive into. I left in early January of 2010 for a semester abroad in a small city outside Madrid. Now, I’ll be honest here – I spent very little of those next 5 months attending classes or doing homework… but I also gained a concentrated dose of real-world knowledge and insight worth about 5 years of highlighting textbooks and attending lectures.

In addition to the 5-month period of culture shock and adaptation that was my semester abroad in general (that’s a long story for another day), I had opportunities for some incredible shorter travel experiences afforded by my proximity to surrounding countries. The most memorable of these was a week spent in Morocco with a small group of friends.

One vivid memory in particular that will stay with me for as long as I live took place on a humble little beach frequented by Moroccan locals. As a few of my American friends and I were walking along the beach, a young Moroccan man – probably about 26 – approached us. Seeing that we were white and out-of-place, he assumed we were probably from Spain and asked us somewhat shyly in soft, shaky Spanish: “¿Queréis jugar con nosotros?” (“Do you guys want to play with us?”) He motioned to a group of about fifteen Moroccans of various ages kicking a soccer ball back and forth and setting up makeshift goals with sticks and rocks. My friends and I looked at each other a bit uneasily, ignorantly considering all the worst case scenarios in our heads (locals running off with our valuables, etc.) as most sheltered First World kids can’t help but do when presented with the unfamiliar. Then we shot a mutual glance and shrug, as if to say “How often do we have the chance to play a game of pickup soccer on the beach with a bunch of Moroccans?” and I told the man we’d love to accept his gracious offer.

The friendly game that followed was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life; we laughed, high-fived, and congratulated each other’s athletic accomplishments through smiles and body language. I was ashamed to have ever – even if only for a brief moment – doubted these hospitable people’s genuine intentions. After a few hours of soccer, we shook hands and the Moroccans placed their fists over their hearts as a gesture of peace as we parted ways. Forcing myself to let go of ignorant preconceptions and embrace the new and different taught me that you get as much out of a travel experience as you put into it, and that you’re never too old to learn from the world around you. Do any of you have stories to share from your own experiences that highlight travel’s profound teaching power?



February 1, 2013

The Importance of Age Matching in Family Travel

Having fun with new friends!

We loved our Thomson trip with our teenage son Phil and can’t wait to do another. He really bonded with all the teens on the trip, and still keeps in touch with them. Even now, one year after the trip, he has just returned home from a visit with one of the other kids on the trip. As an only child, having other teens to share the trip with made all the difference in the experience.

- Kate, parent, Costa Rica Teen

We’ve organized a lot of family adventures over the years, and one thing we know for sure is that age matching has some priceless benefits. It’s hard not to enjoy a family vacation loaded with activities in a new and captivating destination, but an already-incredible trip can be improved dramatically by pairing your kids up with other kids of similar ages. The chance to share the experience of learning a new culture with peers and newfound friends holds a value that shouldn’t be underestimated. Whitewater rafting is a blast for kids no matter what, but doing it with other kids their age that they can relate to adds a whole new element of excitement to the adventure! Similarly, a too-cool-for-school teenager is sure to get more enjoyment out of a hike to Machu Picchu in the company of other like-minded teens than with just mom and dad or with a little kid who can’t keep the same pace… and we all know it’s much easier for you as parents and grandparents to let loose and enjoy your own vacation when you have the comfort of knowing your children or grandchildren are having the time of their lives.

We currently have several trips with families already booked, waiting for some new friends to join! Call us and see about joining one of the following:

Panama March 23 – 10-year-old girl

Galapagos and Ecuador Smithsonian March 8 – 18-year-old boy

Costa Rica: Volcanoes & Beaches June 15 – 15-year-old girl

Peru Smithsonian June 28 – 17-year-old boy looking for another boy in his age range

And there are plenty more in addition to these! Call Nicole for more information at 1-800-262-6255!



January 23, 2013

Around the Serengeti in 80 Minutes

Rising above the Serengeti

Following is part 4 of Ed Prutschi’s story of his familys’ Thomson Family Safari in July 2012. For more photos go here. You can follow Ed on Twitter @crimetraveller

It’s 4:30 a.m. when I hear a voice at the flap of my tent.

Jambo Edward!” It’s my guide sing-songing the traditional Swahili greeting. He’s wrapped tightly in a fleece sweater to ward off the cold, while clutching a kerosene lantern in his gloved hand to stave off the darkness. Today, we have planned the ultimate capstone to our Tanzanian safari — a sunrise balloon ride over the Serengeti.

I grab an extra cup of coffee and push steaming mugs of cocoa into my daughters’ hands before crawling into the back of our Land Rover. We bounce through the inky darkness at speed, pausing only when our driver slams on the brakes to avoid a baby hippopotamus. We inch our way cautiously past the massive mother following closely behind her calf and continue to our launch site.

After a short pre-flight briefing, I’m lying on my side stretched out awkwardly in a compartment of a giant wicker basket that has been tilted to lie horizontally. My nine-year-old daughter is beside me, giddy with a combination of excitement and lack of sleep. I can’t see them but somewhere underneath me, in a separate compartment, are my wife and seven-year-old. Tongues of super-heated gas belch massive noisy flames less than two metres from my head. The intense heat is a shocking contrast to the crisp cold of the Tanzanian pre-dawn. The blackness of the Serengeti plains is quickly giving way to dappled muted smears of purple and streaks of orange as we race against the rapidly approaching sunrise.

I clench my teeth and grip the side runners, anticipating a lurch as we tilt vertically to begin our ascent. Instead, I experience a gradual weightless feeling as we float into position and begin drifting upwards. The powerful heaters fire intermittently up into the belly of the balloon but I am struck by the intense silence that exists between the flaming blasts. Our pilot, Captain Frank Bellantoni of Serengeti Balloon Safaris, cracks a joke under his breath about Serengeti air traffic beating the daily grind along Highway 401. I stare at him slack-jawed and he chuckles. “I’m from Guelph, I could tell from your accents that you guys live close to home.” Two international flights, a bush plane, and countless kilometres along an off-road dirt path in a Land Rover and my balloon pilot turns out to hail from a town 30 minutes down the highway from my house. Small world indeed.

My reverie at this amazing coincidence is broken as I am suddenly blinded by the appearance of the sun. The difference is dramatic as I begin unzipping layers of fleece, my face already perspiring in the heat. We glide over a pool, soundlessly floating just 20 feet above the water. The grey blobs I initially thought were boulders crack open giant maws revealing enormous stained teeth. Hippos.

Captain Frank hits the jets and we begin to gain altitude. We skim past a tall acacia tree and stare down at a vulture’s nest. The mother bird glares at us with fixed black eyeballs. She ruffles her feathers but stays fixed to her perch. We are close enough to count the eggs huddled protectively under her belly. As we clear the tree and continue our ascent, the criss-cross of thousands of trails begins to unfold. We have arrived here just a week late for the grand spectacle of the Great Migration, where 1.5 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras pound the ground into zig-zag patterns.

A pair of bat-eared foxes dart out of a burrow while a group of five dik-diks appear to defy gravity as they bounce over a thin stream. A lioness suddenly senses our proximity and I can see the muscled fur of her shoulders tense, her ears twitch and flatten, as she turns her head skyward to watch our strange contraption pass overhead. We climb higher and higher until we can clearly see the ribbon of emerald green marking the path of the Seronera River slashing its way through the brown and tan coloured plains.

Too soon Captain Frank announces that we are approaching our landing site. The balloon descends, the basket bouncing as it hits the ground before gripping the dirt and finally tipping smoothly over, leaving us lying on our backs staring up at the blue sky. Our safety latches are quickly unhitched and champagne flutes are pressed into our hands (fresh orange juice for the girls). We toast our successful flight before being driven just a few hundred feet where, in the shade of a giant acacia tree, we settle in for breakfast. Toast. Fruit. Eggs to order. All while a group of disinterested wildebeest, zebras and gazelles chew their own morning repast within sight of our tables.



December 19, 2012

A Family Holiday Story

Thanksgiving Oysters

Reprinted with permission from the Taking the Kids blog

Oysters await at our T-Day breakfast

By Andy Yemma

Maybe Christmas is the big day in your house. Maybe it’s the family Hanukah or Kwanza party.

For us, it’s always been Thanksgiving, from the time the kids were small and we flew from Chicago to New York to celebrate with Eileen’s parents. It’s the touchstone of our year – and this year was especially poignant as we gathered, now our kids flying in from around the country.

This Thanksgiving marked 30 years of marriage for Eileen and me. She’d floated the idea of taking everyone on a vacation Thanksgiving week but the kids nixed that idea. They wanted the Thanksgiving we always had—running in our town’s Turkey Trot, cooking together, arguing over doing the dishes, football, walks with our pooch on the beach and Scrabble in front of the fire. The last few years we’ve treated everyone to a Broadway play too.

Where did the last 30 years go, we asked as we started preparing for the annual Thanksgiving Day feast, ordering a 20-pound grass-fed, chemical-free turkey from a farm in Vermont (most expensive turkey ever!), buying potatoes, yams, onions, green beans, cranberries, stuffing mix, you name it.

Our youngest daughter, Melanie, about to graduate from college, is helping to run her college farm and writing a column about cooking for her college newspaper. So she had a lot to say about the menu. Our daughter, Reggie, is embarking on a new career as a teacher and pursuing a graduate degree. Thanksgiving is the only trip home from the West Coast she has time for all year! Our son Matt is building his own business and working on a graduate degree as well. Both Matt and Reggie have significant others in their lives who joined us, as did 13-year-old Enesi Domi, who we have come to know through the Fresh Air Fund. He brought his older sister with him this year.

The kids all told us how excited they were for our annual family reunion. “I wish it was Thanksgiving already,” Melanie said back in September. They swapped ideas for side dishes they promised to make. Matt and his girlfriend Emmie picked up 3 dozen oysters from a fish market in New York City—a new tradition, the kids decided, would be oysters and champagne for breakfast Thanksgiving morning. Several of signed up for the annual 5-mile, 2.5 mile run-walk fundraiser.

But you know that old expression of “regression to the mean?” Once they all get home it’s like they revert to their old pecking orders. Some of the oldest sibling rivalries start to percolate. One of them suggests getting some Diet Coke (which I can’t figure out how we forgot during our multiple shopping forays). Another immediately pipes in that drinking soda is bad for you, not to mention all of the packaging.

Despite the interminable discussion via email, text and links about the menu, some of the menu items fall a little short of perfection – like the “hockey puck” homemade biscuits and the pumpkin pie, though yummy, that we put in too large a pie pan. There are disputes over whether to listen to music or watch football. They don’t let me watch the news, preferring music instead. They complain we use too much water to do the dishes. Perfection? Not.

But then we all gather around the table and, as is our tradition, we tell each other what we’re thankful for this year. “Thank you for being such wonderful kids and such terrific, responsible adults. We can’t imagine our lives without you!” Eileen says.

The kids are thankful for all the good eats they didn’t have to pay for and, I’m glad to say, the time together. With assorted friends, we had at least 10 for every meal that weekend. Afterward, I don’t even know how many loads of wash we did of sheets and towels. Yes, it is a lot of work—and a lot of expense—to gather the gang and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I know next year we’ll be joking about the hockey puck biscuits and the soda pop just as we always do about the time out late beloved black labrador, Gus, ate a large snoutful of the homemade pate a cousin had brought and left in a vulnerable place.

As the kids packed up to leave the nest again we feel a bittersweet mixture of pride and relief. How did they grow up so fast?

Nothing lives up to expectations, we agree, but that really doesn’t matter—as long as we can laugh about the imperfections. That’s what makes us a family, after all.

So don’t set your expectations too high for Christmas. Relax and enjoy the imperfection.

We can’t wait for our next adventures with them – to the Bahamas with Matt and Emmie in December; skiing with Melanie in February in Colorado, visiting Reggie and Dan in San Francisco in the spring! And of course, next Thanksgiving.



December 11, 2012

Striking a Chord

Megan and Marjie

Another Great Kid! Let us introduce you to Megan Spector, 12 years old, who loves to sing. In fact she’s been singing and performing since she was 5 years old. Megan’s Aunt Marjie has ALS (Lous Gehrig’s Disease) for which there is no cure. So using her considerable talents Megan has organized a benefit concert to raise funds and awareness for ALS.

The concert will be held in Encinitas, CA on February 11, 2013 and features not just Megan but many talented singers and performers from across the United States. Along with a silent auction proceeds, 100% of all money raised will go to the ALS Association of San Diego.

To learn more about the concert (maybe you can go!) and Megan’s fundraising efforts email strikingachord@gmail.com.

To find out more about ALS contact the ALS Association



December 3, 2012

Fabulous Photos! #3 – 2 – 1

Winners of our 2011 – 2012 Photo Contest!

Biking in Yangshuo, China

That’s Number 3 above, by the Basile Family

Next is # 2 below, the crab by the Hacohen Family

Crab in the Galapagos

And finally, our #1 winner, by an overwhelming margin I might say, is this beauty from the Weissman Family Safari:

Wise elephant in Tanzania



November 12, 2012

Great Things Our Kids Make Happen

Emily and her friend Otis

I want to share with you a story about a fabulous girl named Emily. Emily lives near Boston’s MSPCA–Angell and she likes to play with the animals waiting for adoption. Emily loves animals – she has a real passion for all feathered and furry creatures. She couldn’t stand the thought of neglected and abused animals and so, at age 11, she is determined to do something about it.

Emily created a website to fundraise for the MSPCA-Angell. Her mother Belinda may have done the coding, but Emily did all of the thinking and writing and photography planning. I love animals too, so I think Emily is a hero! Not only has she put her time and effort into something she believes in, her cats Marty and Max both came from the MSPCA shelter. They are so happy in their forever home with Emily.

To see her new creation and learn more about Emily visit The Animal Helpers. If the spirit moves you please make a donation, or think about supporting a similar organization in your town.

(Just be careful if you click on ‘Adopt An Animal’… you might end up with a new friend yourself!)

To tell us a story to share about the cool things your kids think of please email me at moo@familyadventures.com



November 1, 2012

Meeting the Maasai; Part 3 of a Family Safari

a blending of cultures

Following is part 3 of Ed Prutschi’s story of his familys’ Thomson Family Safari in July 2012. For more photos go to http://lawandstyle.ca/the-crime-traveller-in-africa-part-three/. You can follow Ed on Twitter @crimetraveller

He’s wearing an Obama toque.

The cracked, weathered face and hesitant gap-toothed smile don’t take me by surprise. I succeed in keeping my eyes from fixating on the dangling fleshy earlobes that hang like ropes of silly-putty from his elongated ears. But I can’t get past the swirl of black knit cotton emblazoned with the American President’s name that sits atop his shaved head like an inverted soft-serve ice cream cone.

I’ve travelled over 12,000 km from America’s shores but party politics knows no bounds. Or maybe he just wants to keep his head warm during the cold African nights.

***

Taking a break from the game drives that have become routine on our safari, our truck jostles and bumps across the barely passable dirt track until we arrive at a dense thicket of thorn bushes arranged in a circle. We are joined by a guest guide who loftily introduces himself to me as “Johnston, your Maasai ambassador.” Johnston is a living breathing example of the incredible contradictions apparent in the lives of this semi-nomadic pastoralist tribe. He is rail thin and clad in the distinctive red cloth and beaded adornments of the Maasai. Around his waist, a belt loop grips a wicked-looking machete while on his other hip is strapped an Android-powered smart phone. Leaning on his wooden staff, he switches easily between English, Swahili and Maasai. University educated in nearby Nairobi, Kenya, Johnston tells me he hopes to develop a career combining his ambassadorial skills with environmental and wildlife protection.

We bend our heads and follow Johnston under the low-hanging thorn branches that mark the entrance to the Maasi boma(village) we have come to visit. It’s immediately apparent that these Maasai do not lead an easy life. Their homes (known asmanyata) are built of thatched wood held together by a mixture of mud and cow dung that dries into a kind concrete after baking in the hot sun. Slabs of corrugated steel sit as makeshift repairs to an occasional leaky roof. We are invited into one of themanyatas. The blackness inside takes on a palpable physicality as we choke on the remnants of the hundreds of cooking fires that have been lit here over the years. Young children wander about the village caked in dust, barely clothed, and swarmed by flies. And yet, to say that the Maasai are “poor” is an over-simplification.

As I talk at greater length with our guides, I learn that some tribes have amassed substantial wealth. This is particularly true for those tribes on whose land the gemstone Tanzanite has been discovered. Wealth itself cannot be measured by Western standards when speaking of the Maasai. Although some talked of trying to save enough money to purchase a motorcycle or a phone, the true measure of prosperity in their community is the size of one’s cattle herd. Several days earlier, as we drove between the lush environment of the Ngorongoro Crater towards the vast flat plains of the Serengeti, we were stopped on the dirt road for many minutes as a group of Maasai shepherded a line of humped Brahmin cattle that snaked into the distance as far as the eye could see. One of our guides, a Maasai himself, whistled softly from the front seat of the truck and tipped his head in respectful acknowledgement as they filed past us. “That is a very rich man,” he said.

But standing here in the middle of this isolated village with no running water, electricity or medicine, it is apparent that the Maasai we are visiting today face tremendous challenges. Despite efforts by the Tanzanian government to push the Maasai into embracing modern assimilation, most members of the tribe are fiercely protective of their cultural traditions. While the government has succeeded in discouraging the hunting of lions that long formed a coming-of-age right for the Maasai, polygamy is the norm and ritual circumcision is still practiced around the age of thirteen. An awkwardly painful procedure for men, it is widely accepted as genital mutilation and torture when practiced on women, as the Maasai still do. I ask one of the men about the hardships of Maasai life, expecting complaints about food, schooling or healthcare. Instead he replies through my translator, “The biggest problem we have now are the leopards. They come each night and try to eat our cattle.” Um, right. Leopards.

Whereas Johnston seems casually at ease with us, the Maasai villagers keep a safe distance from our group at first, staring at us with bemused expressions that I can only imagine mimic closely the bewilderment our own faces reflect back at them. I train my camera on a group of young children. No one mugs for the camera, or even smiles. Johnston explains that while he leads groups like ours several times a month, each batch of tourists is taken to a different boma. This ensures that the fees paid by the groups are shared equally across the many different villages but also has the side-effect of creating a dramatic cultural experience for both sides. I ask Johnston when the last time a group like ours visited this boma. “Probably never,” he answers.

My daughter snaps a pic on her iTouch, stretching out her arm to show the children her shot. They step back reflexively. But then, slowly, necks crane forward to stare. Whispers and giggles begin to break out. The adults inch forward a bit leaning over their children to see what all the fuss is about. Ten minutes later I may as well be at a bar-mitzvah. The entire tribe is laughing and shouting loudly as they take turns posing for pictures. The adults start lining up kids in different combinations motioning for us to take more shots. I comment on the beauty of a man’s beaded earring and next thing I know, he’s clipped a pair to my lobes.

The following day, a group of the Maasai come to our tented camp and allow us to join them in traditional Maasai singing and dancing. One of the tribe’s elders is surrounded by the children in our group as she relates an ancient folk tale to the kids in her native tongue. Although Johnston is translating line-by-line, most of the meaning is relayed through her incredible intonation and wildly exaggerated body language.

In the afternoon, we visit a nearby women’s cooperative where the females of the tribe work with wire and beads to craft souvenirs. Shopping in the middle of the Serengeti was not what I expected when I departed for Tanzania, yet we happily leave behind some much-needed greenbacks and return to our camp laden with necklaces, bowls and decorations.

In the end, it is the many contradictions of the Maasai that make them most fascinating to me. A young warrior juggling his wooden spear in one hand and his cell phone in the other; an elder, her broad shoulders hunched under the weight of dozens of beaded necklaces, relating ancient Maasai myths to my daughters while sipping a bottle of Sprite to quench her thirst; and of course, my Presidential Maasai leaning on a crooked wooden cane in front of his manyata wearing an Obama hat atop his head.



October 30, 2012

A School in Tanzania: Part 2 of a Family Adventure

Children of Tanzania

Following is part two of Ed Prutschi’s story of his family’s adventures on our Thomson Family Safari last July. For more photos, go to http://lawandstyle.ca/the-crime-traveller-in-africa-part-two/ You can follow Ed on twitter @crimetraveller

We’re driving along a reasonably well-maintained two-lane highway outside of Karatu, Tanzania. The smooth rush of asphalt beneath the thick tires of our Land Rover feels like a soothing balm to my jarred fillings and aching back after four days of bouncing around the bush trails of Arusha and Tarangire. Our driver turns off the highway onto a rust-red dirt road and begins picking a path through the stones and discarded bricks. A large dog, clearly a recent victim of the highway — its skull split open like a cracked melon — oozes fresh blood into a ditch beside the road. I’m trying to block the wretched sight from my nine- and seven-year-old daughters when they are distracted by the piercing cry of Wazungu! Wazungu! A small band of children, led by a pantless child in a dusty blue sweater who looks no more than three, are running beside our truck crying out in Swahili “White people! White people!”

We are on our way to Ayalabe primary school — a visit that has been in the works for nearly nine months. With the assistance of our superb tour operator, Thomson Safaris we were connected through their charitable arm to two students at the school close in age to my daughters. My girls entered into a pen pal relationship. They would craft a short note in English which we would email to Thomson’s Boston office that was then forwarded to their office in Tanzania. In milliseconds, the message travelled the 12,000km between Boston and Arusha. The timeline expanded there considerably as the e-mails had to be translated into Swahili, printed out and delivered by staff on their next trip to Karatu. Then the student would write her own reply which would eventually be picked up again by Thomson, brought back to their Arusha office for translation and emailed to us. At times it felt akin to speaking through tin cans attached by an epically long string.

In all my months planning this trip, the focus was firmly set on maximizing unique wildlife encounters. The fact that Thomson would arrange a school visit registered as an interesting sideshow to my primary travel objectives. But now, nine months later, we were only a few hundred metres away from the school and my mind was filled with mixed emotions and apprehension. What does a 30-something English-speaking lawyer with a big screen TV in the basement, an Xbox, and a few too many pounds courtesy of three (or more) square meals a day say to a nine year old Swahili girl who just spent two hours walking over 10 kilometres on an empty stomach through grassy plains and along dusty roads just to get to school in the morning? What would my sweet over-privileged white girls have in common with their pen pals?

Our trucks pull into the school’s driveway and the scene is pandemonium. A sea of uniformed children clad in purple and blue come rushing out to greet us. They crash over the vehicles like waves breaking on the surf, jostling to get a view of the visitors through the dust-caked windows. The entire school, 475 students, has been given time off in anticipation of our arrival. I crack open the door of the truck, pushing it slowly to avoid shoving any of the children aside. This must be what Justin Bieber feels like. The school’s principal, a distinguished looking man who stands out from the mass of children in his lime green button down shirt, clamps a powerful grip on my hand and introduces himself.

The principal leads us on a tour of the grounds beaming with pride as he shows off the newest classrooms built with the assistance of our tour company’s charitable arm. With corrugated tin roofs and stone floors bursting with thin wooden pews for the 45 students crammed into the class, they are simple but functional. I immediately think of my daughters’ classrooms back home in Toronto, each equipped with state-of-the-art internet-enabled digital SmartBoards. The class I am standing in now doesn’t even have electricity. The box of simple school supplies we carried with us (pencils, highlighters, crayons, sharpeners, erasers) seems particularly meagre at this moment but is accepted as if I had handed over gold bullion.

The principal is addressing the class in Swahili. I am assuming he is introducing us as he points to each member of our small group in turn and I recognize the word “America.” When he gets to my family I hear “Canada” and then a long pause followed by blank stares from the assembled students. He says something in Swahili, the word “America” again, and then cups one hand on top of the other as he repeats “Canada.” I’m guessing the True North may not be on the Tanzanian primary school geography curriculum.

The class rises, hands on their hearts, to give a stirring rendition of the national anthem followed by a song in English exhorting the listener not to pollute the earth. Our girls are finally paired up with their pen pals. They stare at each other blankly for an awkward moment before the principal motions for them to shake hands for pictures. They look like tiny diplomats fresh from a treaty signing, clasping each other’s hands in a formal pose. The entire school then spills out onto the soccer pitch. A ball is tossed on the red earth and the principal produces a whistle. Suddenly, 475 pairs of legs are hunting for that single ball. I am at a loss to distinguish between the teams — if there even are any. It’s pandemonium of the best possible kind.

As the morning progresses, groups of kids break off. I spy my wife, the speech pathologist, surrounded by a throng of children who are teaching her how to count in Swahili. My daughters are leading long lines of school kids as they shuffle along the periphery of the soccer field. They’re each holding hands again with their pen pals but this time the stiff formality of the photo op has been replaced by a genuineness and warmth. My heart melts. I bring my camera up to my eye — as much to conceal the tears welling up there as to document the moment with a photograph — when I feel a hard tug at the back of my shirt.

“Pitcha? Pitcha!” The boy mimes the act of taking a picture and I turn towards him and snap away. I rotate the digital screen to face him and he smiles at his own image. In seconds I am mobbed. Dozens of children are shouting “Pitcha! Pitcha!” They paw at the camera until I finally relent and let one take a photo of me with his friends. Then my newly minted photographer goes into full paparazzi mode holding down the shutter and snapping dozens of photos of anyone he can find.

It occurs to me that — accounting for my camera, lens and external flash — I’ve just placed a piece of technology whose value might exceed the gross domestic product of the entire school into the hands of a 10 year old.

Too soon our guides are calling and we are ushered back to the waiting trucks. We roar off in a cloud of red dust and to the waves of hundreds of hands. As if to highlight the gulf that separates Western privilege from the difficult but rewarding life eked out in rural Tanzania, we drive only a few short kilometres up the very same road as the school before arriving at our opulent lodging for the night — the truly decadent and amazing Gibbs Farm. Sitting on our giant four-poster bed, the gauzy mosquito netting pulled aside and a roaring fire crackling in our bedroom, I reflect with my kids on their visit to Ayalabe. My seven year old is humming a Swahili tune she had learned while my nine year old updates her wildlife checklist in her safari journal. In three hours at a school half way around the world, my girls have gained knowledge they could never have obtained in a lifetime back home.