A couple take their grandchildren abroad, opening their eyes and hearts to the world

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It all began a few years back in a Reno hamburger joint.

We were talking about what we could do for our six grandchildren that would be meaningful to them and to us. Before we finished our burgers, we had a plan.

Travel is formative, we believe, and invaluable. So we decided when each grandchild reached age 15, we’d take them someplace they dreamed of seeing. We had only a few rules: One kid at a time. No parents. No theme parks. No cruise ships or war zones. And no place close to home.

We’ve finished what we call our grandkid trips now. Over the decade or so those trips spanned, the grandkids taught us a lot about themselves and the world as they see it.

Who knew, for instance, that an American dollar could buy enough macaroni in the local market to feed a whole classroom of kids in Peru?

Max Wallace waves from a pagoda on the Yangtze River.  (John Macdonald)
Max Wallace waves from a pagoda on the Yangtze River. (John Macdonald)

Or that the memory of a visit to Hiroshima’s atom-bomb memorial could cause a lump in your throat years later?

Or that a 15-year-old boy could eat so much gelato in Rome?

Their dream trips took us to Australia for a dolphin encounter; China, to see a culture totally unlike our own; England, Wales and France, to stay in castles; Japan, to experience the horror of Hiroshima and the beauty of an ancient culture; Italy, to check out art and antiquity for a budding architect, and finally, Peru and the unique ecology of the Galapagos.

Lifetime memories

Our memories of each grandchild’s trip is so much richer than we could have imagined.

Ashley Buchmiller, our first, recalls growing up with “millions of ideas” spinning through her head about where we’d go. She decided on Australia and a visit to a dolphin-research center on Moreton Island, near Brisbane. Guests at the resort there can join the researchers in feeding the wild dolphins that show up every evening to snack on small fish and be studied.

Seeing dolphins up close “was something I had wanted to do for as long as I can remember,” she says. “I can still remember wading into the crisp ocean water,” to offer fish to the dolphins and feel their smooth noses nudge up against her legs to ask for more.

Ashley is a young teacher now at Bellevue Children’s Academy, and she and her husband, Jamie, have a travel bucket list of their own (they’ve ticked off some of Europe and Mexico, and Antarctica is penciled in).

And she still thrills over little dolphin mementos in her Christmas stocking.

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It wasn’t easy for any of the children to decide where to go — “anywhere you want” covers a lot of territory in a very big world.

One night we talked until the wee hours helping Luke Halter, Ashley’s cousin, to choose. He jokingly suggested going to the Bermuda Triangle. But when we said “OK,” he began fretting over better choices.

Under closer questioning he said he really loved fantasy novels and castle-and-dragon-games. So we planned a trip to France, England and Wales to stay in castles and explore medieval and modern battlefields.

Luke now lives in Calgary, Canada, with his wife, Amanda, and teaches fun science to school kids as “Laboratory Luke.”

The moment that sparks his imagination to this day was stopping alongside a road in Wales where there loomed a ruined castle believed to be the birthplace of Llewellyn the Great, a 12th-century king who ruled Wales for 40 years. We’d all read a book about Llewellyn before the trip.

Luke loved the uphill climb through a sheep pasture to the skeletal stone walls of the castle, deserted these days and eerily quiet.

“It was incredible being the only ones there and looking out over the crumbling ramparts and imagining what the people of the Middle Ages might have seen,” he says. “It was one of the few historical sites that wasn’t ruined by tourist traps and fast-food chains.”

Casey Halter visits the Senso-ji Buddhist temple complex in Tokyo.  (John Macdonald)
Casey Halter visits the Senso-ji Buddhist temple complex in Tokyo. (John Macdonald)

History and local life

We lost Luke’s sister, Casey, now a journalist in New York City, in the throngs of people in the museum that explores the atomic horror that defines Hiroshima, Japan.

While we lagged behind, gawking at the few things left after the bomb blast that cremated the city and helped end World War II, she went outside, to be alone and brood about it all.

“It wasn’t a traditional memorial,” she says. “It was obviously depressing, but it wasn’t their main goal to say, ‘Look at what a horrible thing you Americans did.’ It was more like, ‘You weren’t the one who did this. You weren’t even alive. But we need to work together for peace.’ ”

Mack Temple, the youngest of the grandkids, now attending Everett Community College, was moved by the relentless poverty he saw in city stopovers in Peru and Ecuador on the way to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos.

A guide in Lima took us to a crowded market before a visit to a huge shantytown in Lima. He challenged us to spend a dollar — no more — in the market on something for the soup kitchen that fed the children of the slum. Mack bought a huge bag of macaroni, the biggest bang he could come up with for that buck.

If you go

Tips on trips with grandkids

Other grandparents we’ve talked with have liked the idea of taking their grandkids on a special trip, sans parents. Some suggestions:

Foreign or U.S.?

Foreign trips aren’t in the cards financially for everyone, and some friends have said they may take their grandchildren to visit U.S. national parks or Washington, D.C.

Best age

We settled on 15 as the best age for our grandkids. We wanted to go when they were old enough to get a good dose of history or culture from the trip. But we didn’t want to have our travel compete with first jobs or first loves and we thought some of our preteens might not enjoy being away from home for several weeks. Friends have suggested graduation from high school or college as the best time for their families.

Back to your roots?

Roots trips are a good idea for grandparents whose ethnicity is still fresh in the family lore. Our own ancestors left the old countries generations ago and are so thoroughly mixed we’d have a hard time figuring out to which country our grandkids would relate.

Get them involved

Involve the grandchildren early in the planning. They’ll let you know what turns them on and what doesn’t. And give them chores on the trip, such as using their young eyes to read faraway signs in airports, train stations and on the road.

Local lodging

For most of our trips, we booked B&Bs, hostels or small hotels to give the children a sense of how the locals live. We also tried to arrange a brief visit to a school or English-language class with kids their own age.

Plan ahead

Begin arranging for passports, necessary visas, vaccinations and travel items at least several months before you go.

— John and Sally Macdonald

“Seeing the favelas in Lima made me realize that I have a great life and that I take most living essentials for granted, like clean water and food,” he says. “It was an amazing experience and every teen should be able to travel outside of their country to see what the rest of the world is like.”

Mack’s brother, Austin, a University of Washington sophomore, calls his journey to Italy “the trip of my lifetime.” He wanted to see how the ancient Roman buildings were designed and remembers most “walking down beautiful little alleyways” there. And gelato stops after every meal. He wouldn’t change a thing on his trip, he says, unless it was to spend more time in Venice.

Ashley’s brother Max, who is working on a doctorate in chemistry at Oregon State, was shocked by the great dam on China’s Yangtze River. It was in the final stages of construction when we visited.

The dam inundated scores of towns and the homes of millions of people, but it also promises to provide insurance against the natural flooding that used to swamp settlements along the river since time immemorial.

Even though we also saw the new towns China was building on higher ground in which to resettle the people, Max worried they couldn’t be happy losing their homes. He vowed to return someday to see how things worked out.

But Max has a more lighthearted memory too, of an opportunity missed. He ordered a fish in a Beijing restaurant that came complete with eyes that stared up at him in a sullen dare to “eat me.”

“To this day I wish I had tried those fish eyes,” he says.

We think Luke may speak for all the grandkids when he says his travels — he’s since been to Spain and Morocco — have helped him see the world as a global community and taught him “that there are many solutions to the same problem and many problems with difficult solutions.”

We wish we had more grandkids coming up, to take us with them on journeys of discovery. But we have the next best thing.

Our three children — parents of the grandkids — didn’t say the words, but we could see it in their eyes as they helped get their kids prepared for their trips.

What about us?

So, next spring, the eight of us — we grandparents, the three kids we raised and their spouses — will head to Italy.

It’ll take a chunk from our retirement savings, but we’re sure the trip will be worth every penny.