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Advice: Don't Leave Home without a Cope Kit

Recently, a group of travel writers were surveyed about their top ten travelling necessities. Items ranged from a comfortable pair of walking shoes to a good map to a favorite shampoo. "How different would that list be if devised by travelling parents?" I wondered. A shampoo designed to keep the coif silky is the least of my worries.

That thought hit home two weeks ago when our VIA Rail train from Montreal ran over something hard, probably a piece of wood, that punctured the fuel tank. After leaking diesel fuel for some 11 kms, the train stopped in a corn field. Strong fumes were wafting throughout the seven passenger cars making some people feel very sick, and besides, we needed a new engine. Firemen were summoned to be ready to hose down our train.

After sitting for more than two hours in a sweltering, un-airconditioned car (the power had to be shut off), an engine arrived. It took another hour to hook it up and we set out with a lurch, power on once again, to Coteau Junction. There, big guys in black suits and helmets clambored onto the roof with pails and brooms. Others aimed hoses alongside. Soon, we were in the midst of a giant car-wash-like cleansing. Of course this all took time. Before you knew it, guess what, it was dinnertime and we were still only about a half-hour outside Montreal.

Although everyone on board was treated to a free pop (whoopee), the sandwiches ran out. When new provisions did not arrive at Kingston (surely someone could have rustled up a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches during the three hours we sat on the track), it was decided that available food would be given to hungry children. Lucky for the little gal whose mum was serving cheese and crackers from her Tupperware container at the first sign of a delay. Likewise, for two lads who boarded the train with a laptop's worth of computer games. For them, the nine hour ordeal seemed to glide by.

A well-packed cope kit can mean the difference between a nightmare journey and one that can counteract anything from backseat wars to airport delays to an onset of hives. Here, based on 18 years experience of travelling with kids, is my own chosen list of absolute essentials:

1. A change of clothes-for the parents. On our first overseas flight with our four-month-old, I was covered within minutes. A plunge of chocolate ice cream into the lap, a sick kid, a kiss dripping with jam and honey could necessitate clean clothes for mum and dad.

2. A medical dictionary to see if those spots really are chicken pox, a first aid kit and IAMAT's booklet of English-speaking doctors if we are travelling overseas (call 416-652-0137).

3. Some surprises to calm the backseat wars. Small books from home or trinkets wrapped in foil placed in sticker-covered paper bags have been lifesavers. Also, books like the Klutz Press's Kids Travel, a Backseat Survival Kit or its newest cousin, The Amazing Backseat Book-a-ma-Thing, as well as the boxed game for road trips, Are We There Yet?, have saved many situations.

4. A camera and film. We didn't laugh when toddler Willie decided to plunge headfirst into Kingston's city fountain, but we laugh about it now when we see the pictures. It's interesting too to let your kids shoot off one roll of film. They'll capture the sites from a totally different perspective.

5. A small high-beam flashlight that serves as a reading light, a lantern or even comfort for a child afraid of the dark. It's also good for impromptu ghost stories.

6. Large zip-lock bags for dirty clothes, or sudden motion sickness, including one stuffed with wet washcloths.

7. A set of plastic bowls and cups (so that we can buy large bottles of water or soft drinks and have picnics) and my trusty Swiss Army knife with tweezers, a pen knife and a corkscrew.

8. Trip diaries or scrapbooks. I never had much luck at getting my three to keep diaries but I relish their brief entries: "Today a starfish peed on Daddy." An easy kid's journal: buy a postcard at each spot and write a few sentences. Punch holes and fasten together with rings (the kind you see in ring binders). Presto! A mini-record of the trip. Or, bring sketch books and paints or small dictaphones for audio recordings.

9. A Walkman and tapes. A three-year-old who's happily listening to Bread and Jam for Frances for the umpteenth time while the plane is in a holding pattern is a vastly different creature from one who's jumping up and down flicking on the overhead light and desperately trying to make friends with other passengers by winging paper airplanes created from the ripped-up inflight magazine. I know because I've travelled with both.

10. A kid's own backpack stuffed with blankie or soft toy, a few books and a light change of clothes. As soon as they are old enough to say "backpack," pack them one and let them carry it. Bon Voyage!





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