It sounds like such a romantic notion: Leaving everything behind but the family you’ve created together and heading out to see the world.
And in many ways, the trip I took with my husband, Ish, and our two sons, Ethan (then 8) and Cameron (then 6), was exactly that.
And in so many ways it wasn’t.
Our around-the-world-trip was not borne out of well-thought-out planning or a “budgeting to the penny” lifestyle. We were simply a young family struggling under the weight of routine and obligation. We wanted something different. And we went out into the world to find it.
When you become a parent, routine is your salvation. Our kids needed to be trained to sleep, to eat, to talk. There were social norms they had to learn early so they could grow up to be “model citizens.” All the rule-following and conventions didn’t often come naturally, but soon enough I had two little people who did exactly as they were told.
Except, that wasn’t who we wanted to raise.
My husband grew up in a downtown housing project in Toronto, where his world was confined to a 24-block radius. At the same time, on the other end of town, I was growing up in a pampered suburb. As a child my family traveled farther than his — hitting spots across Canada, the U.S., and the Caribbean — but our trips were almost always to visit friends or family. Ish and I knew we wanted more for our kids.
As our passion for travel grew, we took trips farther afield. Road trips across North
America led to a month-long trip across Southeast Asia and eventually to Peru. The more we saw, the more we wanted to see.
And as the kids began to join us on travels, we couldn’t help but wonder what kind of people could they become if they grew up thinking of the world as their neighborhood. How would it change them if they knew more about a place than that a tsunami had hit it or that people there were “poor?” How would it change their lives to have a friend in Thailand, or Cairo, or Paris? Who could they become if their eyes were opened now, as kids, before they started believing the stereotypes they saw all around them?
We wanted to find out.
And so in June 2011, we set out for one year of seeing all we could. We left home with one bag each, a list of countries we’d try to get to, and only a few plane tickets and fixed dates in mind. The plan was to abandon our routines: We’d sleep when we were tired and wake when our bodies told us to. We’d eat when we were hungry, not when the lunch bell rang. We would focus all of our energy on each other, our experiences, and the people in the places we were visiting.
It was a magical year. Kids who could barely swim when we left were suddenly confident enough to jump into (seemingly) bottomless lakes in Thailand, a place where their curiosity led them to street-side checker matches with men three times their age and had them pointing out Canada on a map to orphans half their age.
As parents, we were tested with questions we couldn’t answer (“But why would anyone make them slaves, mommy?” in Zanzibar, and “So she’ll never leave Vietnam, ever?” in Mui Ne), and rewarded with a chance to bear daily witness as our children grew. Soon we had kids who never questioned women in burkas or men in sarongs because they understood that “that’s just the way they do things here.”
For our family, it was a year of transformative joy. Without the confines of soccer schedules and school days, we found each other again and again — in the Thar Desert, in the Valley of the Kings, on the river Nile. We held hands more, four of us across or two by two. We climbed on the backs of camels and elephants and ostriches. We sailed on zip-lines, crammed into packed buses, and rocked along in overnight trains in China. We traveled with our eyes wide open and came home with the memories firmly imprinted on our brains.
And as it turns out, that’s exactly what were were seeking: The ability to close our eyes at any moment and be there again. Just the four of us, exploring the world together.
Heather Greenwood Davis and her family were recognized as Travelers of the Year by National Geographic Traveler in 2012. Learn more about their journey by reading Heather’s blog, globetrottingmama.com and following her on Twitter @GreenwoodDavis.
- SPECIAL NOTE: Heather will be speaking about her experience traveling around the world with kids (along with three other Travelers of the Year honorees) in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, February 5th. If you’re in the area, please join us!