Why I ignored the naysayers and took my baby backpacking in south-east Asia


It’s the little things. How to soothe a teething baby in a hostel dormitory, for instance. Or, where to find a clean water supply mid-jungle trek. These are all lessons that Susannah Cery learnt during the seven months she spent backpacking around South-east Asia with her nine-month-old son Alfred slung across her belly.

The blog she set up over the course of the trip in 2011 was initially a diary to keep Alfred’s fretful new grandparents up to speed but soon snowballed, to put it lightly. Fast forward eight years and the once-blog has become Our Tribe Travels – a self-perpetuating life-force of its own, with 11,000 members on Facebook who contribute page upon page of tried and tested advice to other travel-hungry new parents. “A global online community,” is how Cery describes it. 

Every day, new questions flood the page: from the mundane (“car seat dilemma!”) to the militant (“I’m hoping to win the war on prickly heat,”) to more niche enquiries. “Does anyone know if pebbles are usually confiscated at security?” posits one tribal member, “our son is quite a collector and the weight does add up…”  

Following in the footsteps of leading anti-plastics campaigner Jo Ruxton, Susannah has been named Pioneer of the Year in the Everywoman in Travel Awards 2019. It’s a title she modestly downplays. The surge in “bump to backpack” travel isn’t her doing, but part of a hangover from the post-millennium economic crash, she says. “I think people today are taking their health and wellbeing more seriously and not necessarily chasing money but actual life experiences.”

Despite being comfortably nestled in St Albans for now, she’s determined to gospelise the merits of travelling with a baby in tow. The benefits in terms of child development are immeasurable, she argues, referring to her 8-year-old son – a prized guinea pig of the Our Tribe Travels approach to child-rearing. His introduction to the world was “all on a budget, with two rucksacks”. 

Susannah Cery with son Alfred at Mount Bromo, Indonesia

Susannah Cery with her son, Alfred at Mount Bromo, Indonesia

Alfred’s memory of the trip  is patchy, of course. But that’s not a concern for Cery: “What you’re doing is cultivating behaviour,” she says. “I think children become more adaptable. If you’re growing up in one place, you’re not necessarily exposed to different lifestyles so I think it does make you view things in a more open-minded way”. 

Dr Kirsty Dunn, a research fellow and specialist in early cognitive development at Lancaster University, agrees. “The more variants – in space, language, visual and musical – you have at that point, the better the brain is going to develop in those areas,” she says. “Not only that, but studies have shown there’s much better dyadic communication between the caregiver and their baby [when carried in a backpack or sling] versus when they’re in a stroller.

The Lynn Family, part of the Our Tribes Travels community, at Amber Fort in India

The Lynn Family, part of the Our Tribes Travels community, at Amber Fort in India

“And of course, they’re going to have less screen time”. The jury’s still out on the merits of screen time during a baby’s formative years, she says. “But I think it’s widely accepted that at this age, probably less screen time is better.”

“From an environmental perspective,” Cery adds, “I made a point of talking to him a lot about the impact of how we damage the planet because one thing that’s plain to see when you’re visiting these remote places, is the impact of plastic on these beautiful beaches.”

Early on, she discovered babies to be terrific ice-breakers, too. “When you have a child, it becomes really easy for people to approach you. At restaurants in Thailand, people literally took the baby off my hands while I ate. It makes people feel less inhibited.”

Regardless of the positives, a stigma persists. People are scared to “come out” to their family and friends with their grand plan, and once they do, it’s often received with hostility. “Family question if they [the parents] are crazy – ‘why are you taking the kids out of school?’ That sort of thing.” As the website’s worldly tribal mother of sorts, Cery finds herself repeatedly counselling nervy parents with her own story.

The Frias Family, keen members of the Our Tribe Travels community, soak up Lake Titicaca in Peru

The Frias Family, keen members of the Our Tribe Travels community, soak up Lake Titicaca in Peru

“There were moments when I thought ‘okay, now what do I do?’” she admits. Once, after a hellish train journey in Indonesia, she found herself deposited in a small town in the twilight hours with nowhere to stay. “If I was on my own, I could have probably just jumped in my sleeping bag on a train platform but when you have a baby with you, you can’t.” 

One of the main take-aways from her trip was faith in our superhuman ability to adapt. For Cery was no backpacking aficionado when she set off, having only travelled intermittently while ambitiously clambering her way up the greasy pole of corporate advertising. At the top of her game, she headed up ‘Kinetic’ in Malaysia, an off-shoot of the behemothic global media agency, WPP. 

But “life’s too short to hide behind a desk” has been her mantra ever since she went travelling on a shoestring in Italy as a teenager – “I actually wrote it down on a postcard and sent it to myself at home” – and in 2014, she jumped off the corporate ladder to focus full time on Our Tribe Travels, among other personal projects.

The pleasant trappings of everyday life as a parent make jetting off for 7-month jaunts a little more difficult. But still, she relishes any opportunity for a family trip. Today, she outsources her adrenaline rushes to Our Tribe Travels where the regular stream of happy stories from newly-sprogged, nomadic families provides a constant thrill of satisfaction. “There was a party in New Zealand, an Our Tribes party,” she says in disbelief, “where four or five families who all met while they were travelling, all got together.

“It just makes me so happy because that’s what I really wanted to do, and I wasn’t quite sure whether it would work,” she says wistfully, “and now, I see it happening on a weekly basis”.

Would you hit the backpacking trail with your newborn? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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