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How Becoming a Father Changed the Way I Travel

Does the jetsetter life change after having kids? Photographer LESTER V. LEDESMA muses on the challenges of fatherhood for a professional traveler. Illustrations by WASINEE CHANTAKORN.

Published on Jul 22, 2019


SUNRISE FINDS ME HARD at work in the village of Ywama, on the shores of Inle Lake. With a camera in my hand I am exploring a morning market, capturing scenes of daily life in this corner of Burma. The air is cool, the atmosphere busy at this early hour. Before me, rows of wooden stalls lead to the water's edge, where boatmen disgorge loads of passengers eager to get on with their market chores. There is much hawking and haggling everywhere. In the middle of all this picturesque chaos, I glimpse a scene that makes my heart skip a beat. Backlit by golden sunlight, an Intha mother, a smoldering cheroot wedged between her lips, is carefully adjusting her daughter's headscarf. I discreetly move in, careful not to disturb the moment. Then I quickly go through the motions I've done countless times before as a travel photographer: change lens, set exposure, focus, frame the scene, put finger on the shutter button...

My phone suddenly rings. It doesn't stop ringing. People look in my direction while I reach for the phone. "Daddy I miss you. When are you coming home?" says the voice on the other end. It's my daughter Leanne, crying back home in Singapore.

I spend the next five minutes somewhat patiently explaining why daddy has to be away. By the time she is pacified, my subjects have moved on. The scene has changed, and I lost the shot. While it's heartwarming to know that my little girl misses me when I'm away, I can't deny that in the last five years, my job has been trickier with the extra challenge of parenthood.

Now don't get me wrong—I love being a family man. But as a professional traveler for more than two decades, I was accustomed to a life that isn't set up for raising a family. Not too long ago, my schedule was a constant parade of overseas trips to shoot magazine covers or feature stories. It was the life I had always dreamed of living, and needless to say I enjoyed every second of it. That life changed in 2014—just a week after my 39th birthday—when my daughter was born.

I still remember that odd mix of happiness and dread when I first laid eyes on Leanne Ava Ledesma. Ecstatic as I was to finally become a dad, there was that sinking feeling that perhaps this new title came at the expense of my wandering ways. I wanted to keep the best job in the world, but I was also serious about fatherhood. Thus began the constant and ongoing struggle to balance my passion with my love. It's not always easy to find the middle ground between the two, and I've already missed a few birthdays (shoot a story in Bhutan or attend a kiddie party? Admit it—you'll do what I did!). Thankfully, most of the time I've ended up being proud of the choices I've made.

Truth be told, I've changed quite a bit too. Keep me out there for a while and I'll start missing my wife and kid. And I no longer fall off the map like I used to do, because a little girl is always looking for me. These days, I try to stay at least a week at home in-between trips, and I now limit my travel assignments to twice a month. It's my way of ensuring that I'm never too far away from my family.

Then there are those blessed instances when I get to bring my girls on location. No luxury resorts or theme parks are involved, mind you—my wife, Joanne, and I believe in searching for authentic local experiences. Usually they arrive after my job is done—this lets us enjoy a few days together unfettered by work. Travel takes on a new dimension with a toddler in tow, and my wife and I have learned to cope with the intricacies of bringing the little one on an adventure. A sarong provides instant cover when changing diapers. She's being picky with food? Anything crunchy (but not spicy) seems to do the trick. When kiddie tantrums threaten a flight, a bag of toys—or, God help us, an iPad—often helps keep the tear bombs from exploding.

Despite the hassles, my wife and I happily put up with the inconveniences just to see our baby experience the rest of the world. We did it to see her squeal with delight when she came face to face with a herd of giraffes on Calauit Island in the Philippines. We did it so that she could play with local children in Siem Reap, and in the process learn that Khmer kids are no different from Singaporean kids, or French, or Indian (especially when there's candy involved). We did it so she could join us in a Tuscan harvest festival to witness what parties are like in a faraway place. And we still do it so she can grow as a traveler, and realize that places and people all over this world are both different and the same.

It is in times like these, with my wife and daughter happily by my side, that I realize what having a family means to a person driven by wanderlust. My family is an anchor for this restless soul, the place to return to when the journey is done. But whichever place I find myself in, as long as my Joanne and Leanne are with me—that's home.



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Illustrations by Wasinee Chantakorn.
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