When Jennifer Boyd decided to take her six year old daughter, Brooklyn, on the trip of a lifetime, it wasn’t just because Brooklyn asked her to; although, that was part of the reason. It wasn’t just because Jen knew it would be one of the most exciting and interesting things her daughter had experienced in her young life, so far; although, that was also part of the reason. It wasn’t just because, upon returning from several extended trips to Sri Lanka, Brooklyn told Jen that “next time you aren’t going without me”.
Although, that was a large part of the reason.
Although, that was a large part of the reason.
What essentially motivated Jen to go on a very special journey with her daughter was the greatest long term, big picture, down to earth, important reason there can be.
“I wanted her to see that, at the end of the day, the world is a really small place,” Jen says. “I wanted to break down any barriers that might be forming. I don’t want her to be fearful of differences in people. I want her to understand that people are people, no matter how different they look or talk or how different their culture is.” She brings it down to an even more basic level. “I may not be the perfect mom, but I know I won’t have totally failed as a parent if Brooklyn grows up to be kind and respectful and has compassion for others and treats others well.”
With that statement, it seems clear that the trip Jen took with her daughter actually had its roots in Jen’s own childhood and began a long, long time before last June.
Along with brother, J.D., Jen was raised in the small town of Eads, Colorado by parents Rod and Sharon Johnson. Throughout the years they lived in Eads, Rod and Sharon were truly cherished by those who knew them.
Sharon was the longtime Director of the Library and, like her husband, served on a multitude of community boards.
Rod worked at the Farm Service Administration for years and had the well-earned reputation for being one of the kindest, most thoughtful men around. But he wasn’t just devoted to the people; he was also devoted to the land and the other cultures who had once inhabited the plains where Eads now stands. Few people can look at the serene beauty of Jackson’s Pond and not think of Rod, without whom that oasis would never have been created. Rod passed away in December of 2013. Sharon moved from Eads some time later.
When asked about her childhood, Jen recalls that growing up in a small town didn’t provide much opportunity “to view the rest of the world”. What traveling she did was largely within the state. But her parents, especially her father, instilled in her a love for the world around her, including whatever people she came into contact with and whatever wildlife she encountered in nature.
“They taught by example,” she says. “I’ve always been close to my mom. But, in a lot of ways, I guess I was a ‘daddy’s girl’. My favorite memories growing up were when I went hunting and fishing with my dad,” she says. “I did things with him every chance I got.” After pausing for a moment, she continues, her voice grows thick with emotion. “He was always thinking about the bigger picture and the people who were involved. And he was such an adventurer, too. He always had so much respect for different cultures and would learn everything he could,” she says. “He was also such a conservationist. We’d be driving down the highway, and, if he saw trash by the side of the road, he’d stop the car, go back and pick it up. Not many people do things like that. But my dad did. He did things like that all the time.”
Growing up in a household with parents who modeled such an embracing of and appreciation for life, it makes perfect sense that Jen’s interest would extend beyond the immediate horizon. An interest in seeing the world was peaked when the family hosted a foreign exchange student for a year while she was in high school. It grew stronger when she went to CSU and met her college roommate’s mother who was a high school French teacher, an acquaintance that paved the way for her to escort students on trips to Europe.
She’d gone to school with the intention of studying Wildlife Biology, but a year spent abroad studying in New Zealand changed all that. At long last, Jen had finally seen what lay beyond the furthest horizon, and she knew she wanted to see more. Much, much more. That passion took her in the direction of the tourism industry where she’s been ever since.
Jen is a tenured travel expert who has worked for years with ATJ, an extraordinary organization that designs custom journeys for travelers who are looking for a more authentic travel experience. In fact, Travel and Leisure just named ATJ as one of the “Top 10 Tour Operators in the World” for the second year in a row, this time garnering the number two spot.
Over the years, Jen has traveled to more than 40 countries, but her specialty is Asia. Consequently, it was natural for Jen to plan a journey with Brooklyn to one of her own favorite places: Southeast Asia, specifically Laos and Vietnam.
Up front, Jen is very clear that, on her own, it would have been difficult (okay, maybe really difficult) to enjoy a trip with the amenities she and Brooklyn enjoyed during their travels. Fortunately, 20 years of experience accompanying people on their journeys to new places brings some rewards (and discounts), a fact which allowed her to treat Brooklyn to the kind of custom experience she’d been designing for other travelers for years.
And, so the adventure began. And what an adventure it was.
After departing Denver on May 31 followed by a brief time spent in Tokyo and a night in a luxurious hotel in Bangkok, the pair took off for Luang Prabang, a rural destination (as in no stoplights rural) in the midst of the beautiful country of Laos. It’s also known for having a very devout Buddhist community.
Brooklyn had some previous exposure to Laos, largely through Jen’s conversations with her after her own experience in this part of the world. Also, Brooklyn’s aunt is Laotian. But even words and close relatives couldn’t totally prepare Brooklyn for all that she experienced. Neither could those things prepare Jen for what she was about to learn about her daughter.
Their time in Luang Prabang started with alms-giving to the novice Buddhist monks in the city (see photo), which involved the young monks essentially lining up to receive a small amount of rice. As Brooklyn’s first real encounter with local people, Jen wondered how she would react. “She didn’t hesitate,” Jen says. “She seemed to just pick up on what a serious and significant thing this was to do, and she gave each monk a little bit of rice as if she’d been doing it all her life.”
The pair also traveled to a “Living Land Farm” where they learned all that was involved in growing rice, including standing in the rice paddy and working alongside the local farmers. However, Brooklyn—who’s just a tiny person—ended up in mud almost to her waist, which made moving pretty difficult. One of the farmers saw an easy solution; he simply put Brooklyn on the back of the water buffalo, another experience that didn’t phase her in the least.
Their stay in Luang Prabang also included time spent in the Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary, a place which—coincidentally enough—was started by two men from Colorado. (What was it that Jen said? “The world is really a very small place?” Uh, yup. Small, indeed.) Started just a year ago, the sanctuary is devoted to the conservation of elephants, providing them land where they’re free to roam in their natural habitat and being “ridden”—a truly abusive practice that is, thankfully, being discouraged around the world—is strictly prohibited. After their guide gave them an in-depth introduction to interacting with elephants, the pair were introduced to their elephants and hiked next to the elephants through the jungle covered hills the elephants call home. This was followed by feeding the elephants and watching the elephants bathe and play in the river.
Far from being intimidated by being in close proximity to the largest animals walking the planet, Jen describes Brooklyn as being truly drawn to the elephants and completely comfortable being in their midst. She also had a very special encounter with a baby elephant.
“Brooklyn has never been a ‘cling to mommy’ kind of kid,” Jen says. “But I was amazed that she wasn’t fearful of the new experiences, at all. She was just so open to whatever came along.”
As is probably obvious by now, Jen sees great importance in authentic, cultural experiences, at all levels. And one of the most key things about a culture relates to that culture’s food. “A big part of the trip was eating local, on the side of the street, just like the people who live there,” she says. “Food is a huge part of any culture, and you can’t really experience that culture without at least trying what the local people eat every day.” (Anthony Bourdain would be so proud.) Jen is quick to qualify that she would never force Brooklyn to try something she didn’t want to try or to pressure her in any way. Strange and different food is just often one of the obstacles people encounter in truly experience a new culture, and Jen was hoping Brooklyn would be open to something new and different.
As it turned out, being hesitant wasn’t an issue. Brooklyn was totally on board with the idea. Not only did she willingly try different foods that others might have not, she became quickly adept at using chopsticks.
Not only did Brooklyn pick up on using chopsticks, she was surprisingly adept at picking up phrases from the language, even being able to communicate in simple words and gestures with their various private guides at a level that Jen, herself, has difficulty negotiating.
The pair then flew to Hanoi in Vietnam where Jen decided to take Brooklyn to see Hoa Lo Prison, now a museum devoted to the history of the Vietnam War. She admits to being very judicious about what she allowed her daughter to see; at the same time, she was struck by the almost wise-beyond-her-years observations Brooklyn made.
Without prompting, the little girl noticed that the American prisoners were segregated from the Vietnamese prisoners, whose treatment was even worse than that American soldiers endured. Upon seeing photos of female prisoners of war with the babies they’d given birth to while imprisoned, Brooklyn began to express a sentiment completely on her own.
As Jen recalls different parts of the trip, she describes Brooklyn comments, such as talking about being so lucky to not have to be “with her mommy in prison”. At one point, Jen recalls Brooklyn exclaiming, “I might be the only first grader in Asia!”
Equally encouraging, if not enlightening, was how warm and loving the locals in various places were to Brooklyn. “Some of the older ladies would laugh and come up to her and touch her hair and hug her and kiss her cheek,” Jen says. “They adored her. It was so wonderful to see.”
There were numerous other experiences.
The extraordinary markets of Sapa.
Cuc Phuong National Park and a massive cave system where they decided, along with the guide, to jump out and scare a group that was following them, an action that was followed by laughter to the point of tears by all. Their guide facilitating Brooklyn interacting with local children.
A two day cruise on Halong Bay aboard the Orchid Cruise. Brooklyn fishing for—and eating—squid, which she loved. Ninh Binh with its magnificent limestone mountains that just rise out of the sea.
Brooklyn teaching two elderly Vietnamese women how to swim at the luxury pool in one of the hotels. “Eating local” at a sidewalk café, Brooklyn preparing to take her first
bite of barbequed pigeon head when the sudden arrival of police had everyone—including Jen and Brooklyn—scrambling to get inside (followed by more laughter).
And on and on and on. More cities. More extraordinary sights and sounds and smells and sensations. Three weeks of a mother-daughter journey that went far beyond the ordinary.
Back in Colorado and reflecting on her time, Jen discusses the experience that only comes with a little passage of time (and, perhaps, thousands of miles). “I’ve traveled extensively in this region, but being with Brooklyn…I was looking at it all through the eyes of a six year old. It was like looking at it in a whole new way,” she says. “And Brooklyn, I think she got an idea of what I hoped she would. How much she’ll remember when she’s older, I don’t know. But I hope it began to teach her to be open to chaos, because chaos happens in life. To roll with the punches. To be spontaneous and get used to change because things change in life, too, and sometimes when you least expect it.” She hesitates for a moment. “Most of all, I hoped she learned that people really are just…people. They laugh when they’re scared and even happy cry (something Brooklyn insists is an “adult thing”). They learn to swim no matter how old they are, even if they’re scared. I hope that’s what she learned the most. I hope she learned to be…brave.”
It sounds like a journey that would have made Jen’s father enormously proud. It sounds like a journey in learning just how ordinary the extraordinary can actually turn out to be.
Anyone interested in getting further information about the custom journeys ATJ designs can contact Jen Boyd at www.ATJ.com .