Michelle Duffy, who pens the blog WanderMom.com, is currently six months into a year-long round-the-world trip with her husband and two school-age sons. So far, the intrepid family has visited Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. We wanted to check in with Michelle at the halfway point of their trip to see how it’s going so far. We were so curious: Any big surprises? How are the boys being schooled? Does she get sick of being with her family 24-7? Here’s her report.
My husband and I are travel junkies. Doing a round-the-world trip was something we talked about in the early days of our relationship. We thought we were starting that trip when we emigrated to the US (from Ireland) in 1995 but once there, we quickly became caught up in the daily routine of kids, work and saving for retirement. “The trip” came up in conversations regularly but there always seemed to be a reason why now was not the right time to go.
Our boys, now 10 and 14, were not a reason against traveling. In fact, once they were there, the trip became something that we passionately wanted to do with them, a grand family adventure where we would be their guides in far-flung places. We never talked about not doing it with them or waiting until they were grown up before following our dream. That passion to take our children hand-in-hand into places once marked “Here Be Dragons” was what, in the end, set the deadline for our trip. With our older son due to start high school we realized that the window of time for a family world trip was quickly closing.
Once we decided to go, there were a million other decisions to make. Putting together an itinerary helped bring practical decisions around budget and packing into focus. We set our trip length as one year, September to September to suit the kids’ school calendar. When planning a trip like this, at first you think that a year is such a long time and of course you’ll be able to visit every country on your wish list. It quickly became apparent to us that if we traveled at the pace required to visit every country we considered, we would spend very little time in each place and such frequent change would be extremely difficult for our boys. We cut out Europe from the trip entirely, mostly because my husband and I had each backpacked there in our college days but also to help our budget. Reluctantly, we dropped Africa and settled on an itinerary which included South America, South-East Asia, China, Central Asia and the Middle East.
When we left Seattle I had booked only four things:
- Accommodation for our first night in Quito, Ecuador (our first destination).
- Ten days at a beach house on the Ecuadorean coast for week two of the trip.
- The Inca Trail.
- Flights out of South America.
You could book every little detail of a year-long trip in advance but IMHO, you would go nuts trying to keep track of all those details. Also, in planning our trip we talked to other travelers (mostly couples, we didn’t know anyone else who had done a similar trip with kids) and the advice we got was to leave things open as much as possible since that allows you to adjust your itinerary to likes and dislikes as you go. There are internet cafes everywhere which we use to find and book accommodation as we need it, usually a night or two in advance of when we need it. We do book special experiences (the Gibbon Experience in Laos, for example) six to eight weeks in advance.
With this style of travel we haven’t had the experience of wishing we could stay somewhere longer or leave sooner. What we have learned is that pacing is key. Our kids don’t do well if we stay less than two nights in one place. For most destinations four days gives all of us time to become familiar, comfortable and ready to move one. We also need to make a longer stop, for a week to ten days, every six weeks or so to take a break from traveling.
Figuring out where to go when
Another planning tip we got from friends was to plan by the weather. Basically, our friend described how he had researched annual temperature charts for each destination on his planned itinerary and then used that information to decide when to visit each place and what to pack. We copied this approach and arranged our itinerary so that we are in late Spring/early Summer most of the time. This simplified packed tremendously and meant that we didn’t need heavy winter gear. Six months into our trip our clothing choices are holding up well even though it does get old wearing the same thing day in and day out. My husband is longing to be back in his jeans and is threatening a pant-burning ceremony when we get home.
We didn’t pack much specialized travel equipment. The criteria we used was that anything we packed could be lost or stolen and should be easily replaceable. Our Top 5 things we’re glad we brought are:
- Petzl headlamps rock for reading on buses or in shared hostel dorms late at night, for finding the bathroom in a campsite or a hostel and for general usefulness as a compact flashlight.
- Amazon Kindles provide us with a constant supply of reading material for the kids.
- A flexible clothesline, because if you hand-wash clothes in a hostel sink, you have to have somewhere to hang them to dry!
- Silk sleep sacks pack up a small as a pair of socks but provide huge peace of mind when the sheets in your budget accommodation are a little less than clean.
- MSR travel towels are not cheap but are worth every penny.
The one thing I can’t believe I forgot to pack was a universal sink stopper. We picked one up at a market in Santiago.
Schooling on the Road
“What about school?” was one of the most frequent questions we got before our trip and is something we’re regularly asked about by other travelers we meet on the road. Before we left, I imagined a daily hour of math and writing and of course, plenty of reading while on buses, trains, etc. I must have been imagining traveling with someone else’s children. Our older son has ADHD and resists any and all writing work – and always has done. He loves math and is working his way through a high-school Geometry textbook but he will rarely ever start a task by his own initiative and usually needs help to stay focused and to complete work. Our younger son is much more diligent but keeping a regular schedule with one child and an irregular one with the other is nigh impossible. We do make an effort to learn and talk about the history, language and culture of every place we visit. These impromptu “lessons” over coffee or on a walk have become our classroom. Museum visits are our field trips. I’m also keeping a list of questions which the kids ask (“How does rice grow?”, “What is Leprosy?”) because it provides an insight into the depth and breadth of our evolving curriculum.
I do have days when I feel like whacking my head against a wall – mainly because of frustrations with road-schooling. I know that when we return to Seattle I’ll be glad to wave my kids off to school not least so that I can have a full day away from them! Being together 24×7 is more demanding than I ever imagined it could be and yet intensely rewarding. Demanding in that one person’s bad mood is right there, in everyone’s way and there’s no way to get away from it. Learning how to live with each other all together, all the time, to appreciate personality quirks, to recognize and support each other’s weaknesses will be lifelong benefit of the trip. Each of us finds our own way to have some personal space, whether by taking a walk alone, sitting with a book or hitting an internet café for an hour. Getting a mani-pedi was my favorite “me time” activity, although, our younger son has discovered that he also loves a good massage so he’s my partner at the spa now!
I don’t think that everyone I know would enjoy doing a trip like this. It’s not a vacation; it’s more like a year-long travel-geography-history-parenting project. Am I glad we decided to go? Absolutely. Am I worried that the next 6 months will be as good as the first 6 months? Definitely. Would I do this again? In a heartbeat.
When WanderGal Michelle Duffy is not traveling the world, she lives in Seattle and pens the blog WanderMom.com. Photos courtesy Michelle Duffy.