Over the course of my traveling years, I have made a fair number of trips with children, teens, and young people. I am a huge advocate for the benefits of travel on developing minds and souls. Many people recognize the benefits of getting outside of the comfortable bubble of Western adolescence and digging into new cultures, new customs, and new values. It is certainly satisfying to greet a young person, fresh off the plane from their first international trip, and hear them say just how thankful they are for what they have. Likewise, it’s refreshing to have conversations with well-traveled teens who recognize that designer jeans and name brand electronics are not the things to hang one’s entire being on.
But it’s more than simply “being thankful for what you have”. Not all travel happens in the developing world, where materialistic needs are quickly pulled into question. Not every trip to the developing world yields such a simple realization as thankfulness for one’s material possessions back home.
It’s so much more than that.
Here are six wonderful things young people have told me they gained a new appreciation for after traveling.
6. “I am so grateful that my parents trust me enough to let me do this.” There is something incredibly liberating for a young person when the adults in their life make the decision to let them fly on their own, even for a brief time. Anxiety is ever-present in parenting these days. There is an almost relentless push to make us believe that danger lurks around every corner. Culturally, we make a sincere effort at keeping our kids absolutely “safe”. But, fairly or not, when Mom drives you everywhere, Dad takes two years to let you go to the movie alone with your friends, and everyone keeps telling you about all the “creeps” out there, you begin to wonder if they really are trying to keep you safe or if they just don’t trust you to make good decisions. In my experience, the most “rebellious” teens are the ones who are wrestling with this question the most. They are also the kids who get joyfully teary eyed when describing how it makes them feel to know that their parents have enough trust in them to allow them the freedom to explore this vast world. Being grateful that the people who care about you most also trust you is a huge building block in the creation of a confident, capable adult.
5. “I am so glad you told me to bring less stuff!” Funny, but true. When you have to carry everything around on your back, suddenly there are a whole lot of creature comforts that seem very, very unnecessary. Hair straighteners, expensive clothes, jewelry, and extraneous electronics continually try to wiggle their way into the backpacks of my young travel companions. Those who choose to heed my advice and put thought into each item they pack not only have an easier time boarding planes, buses, and trains, they also realize that “needs” beyond the basics are subjective. They don’t just learn to be “thankful for what they have”, they learn that “stuff” does not define them and that they actually could live without much of it.
4. “I chose my college/thesis/after school activity/job/partner partially based on my trip.” This happens more often than you think. Shaking up the norm sometimes leads to clarity. A young person who previously felt unsure of what they might be headed toward might discover a new interest they may not have been exposed to at home. New languages, customs, and flavors might spark interest in the world around us. Like other big experiences, international exploration can have positive reach far beyond the dates of travel and many young people express gratitude for the experience when they realize the far reaching influence of their experiences.
3. “This is so cool! I have friends in _____ now!” In this age of technology, keeping in touch with friends made at the far corners of the earth is easier than ever. Teens and young adults are known for being quite interested in their friend groups. Broadening that friend circle to include people from different countries, races, religions, and cultures has an enormous benefit in the long run. It’s not a magic pill for reversing stereotypes or ending racism but being thankful for having met people from backgrounds different than yours is certainly a step in the right direction.
2. “I can’t believe I am here. This is… amazing.” This planet is full of awe-inspiring adventures. Exploring the Taj Mahal at sunrise, navigating ChiChi market in Guatemala, snorkeling in the Red Sea, and sharing a chai at a road side stand in Kolkata are just some of the big and small exploits that can make a kid say, “wow”. Connecting with people across cultures is often eye opening for young people seeking their place in the world. Realizing just how many experiences there are to be had in a lifetime can be freeing for young people, many of whom were just beginning to wonder if all there was to life was the familiar daily grind of their hometown. Recognizing the infinite possibilities in this world is something to be truly thankful for.
1. “I am so incredibly glad to be home!” Believe it or not, I love this one. Learning to “be thankful for what you have” is one thing, realizing with utter clarity that you are thankful for the “home” you come back to is quite another. Most often when a young person says this, they are referring to home cooked meals, playing games with siblings, and laughing with friends. Sure, some of them missed their cell phones, but that’s generally not the focus of their gratitude. Sometimes distance really does make the heart grow fonder.
The writer Frank Herbert once said, “Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.” This could not be more true for young travelers. New experiences feed their souls and make it possible for them to awaken to a new view of their own lives and the world around them.
Have you ever traveled with young people? Did they express gratitude in surprising ways?
Travel is ruining my kids.
And me, for that matter.
All of our well meaning efforts for a broad education, liberal experiences in the “real world,” and our sincere efforts to raise kids who are cultured, multi-lingual and have some perspective on the diversity of the history, geography and human family of the planet have back fired.
Sure, they’ve been to the big museums in Washington DC, London, Paris, Berlin, Prague, and beyond. They’ve hit the culture highlights of Bangkok, Vienna, Jakarta, Singapore & Boston. They’ve learned their history first hand climbing pyramids in Central America, peering into American bunkers in Vietnam, and playing gladiators in the ruins of Roman colosseums in Tunisia. But instead of making them better people, people with depth of understanding and perspective, it’s ruined them
Case in point: Ezra, at six years old, standing in the middle of Notre Dame de la Guarde, the fantastic fisherman’s cathedral in Marseille says with authority, “Well, it’s nice, but it’s no Sistine Chapel.” He then proceeds to go out and play in the courtyard instead of marveling over the boats hanging from the ceiling.
They’ve made the classic American road trip, with seven of their best friends, no less. Ridden their bicycles nearly 10,000 miles and are au fait with the finer points backpacker culture (the good, the bad and the ugly.) They know how to haggle for hats and cab fare and they know, from experience, why they should pay top dollar for T-shirts and olive oil. But their privilege is completely wasted on them.
Case in point: Ezra (again… poor kid, perhaps he’s the worst because he’s been traveling the longest, proportional to his age) after a magical boat ride through a cave coated with glowworms, the likes of which are found few places in the world, he shrugs and says, “That was cool… but… well… it’s no Carlsbad Caverns!”
They’ve had fresh buffalo mozzarella in Rome, mole in Oaxaca, and Pad Thai on the island where it was invented. They’ve eaten a wide swath across continents, like the locust-teenagers they are. But it’s ruined us all. Thirty cents a kilo for clementines in Africa, twelve cents a piece for avocados in Guatemala, a buck a kilo for kiwis in New Zealand, mangos that melt in your mouth in Mexico, dragon fruit in two colours in Thailand, black bread to die for in Germany, meringues as big as your head in France. My mouth is watering as I type… we’re doomed forever to culinary disappointment.
My children have been ruined for food forever by their travels.
They’ll never be satisfied with a slice of American cheese. They’ll always compare the cost or the quality with that place in the world where the absolute glut on the market drove the price through the floor and we gorged ourselves until we couldn’t eat one. more. bite.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, to have their first Shakespearean play be at the Swan Theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon and their first opera at Sydney’s opera house. Now I realize that those were just two in a very long line of terrible parenting decisions that have doomed our kids to disappointment forever. How will adult life ever measure up?!
Are they going to spend their whole lives trying to replicate that perfect winter of learning to make coffee and chocolate from scratch, or in search of a mango that just doesn’t exist outside of the tropics? Probably. Are they going to be perennially disappointed by local theater and back yard adventures? Not likely. If there’s one thing traveling kids get a grip on it’s the precious nature of “local” and “back yard.” Will they appreciate the gift of what they’ve experienced? Eventually. I was about 20 before the gift of my childhood dawned on me. Would we do it any other way? Definitely not. In this case, the ends definitely justify the means.
While frequent flyer miles can help alleviate the costs of flights to a destination in a game-changing way, the travel that happens once in a destination can really add up too. This is particularly true in an affluent place like Europe.
But, as a continent that has a fabulous infrastructure for public transit, it should come as no surprise that even those with their own personal cars find a way to contribute to the public’s transit needs.
Indeed, carpooling is yet another task that the internet is revolutionizing in some way. Europe has a number of websites that exist to connect passengers to carpooling hosts, much as Couchsurfing.com or Airbnb.com do for travelers’ accommodation needs or Uber and Lyft do for local transportation needs
Unlike the short, local jaunts that Uber and Lyft accommodate however, these carpooling sites help you connect with drivers going long distances. For instance we’ve gotten rides for 150 miles or more such as Salzburg to Vienna or Berlin to Hamburg. Or even London to Paris in one case.
How it works:
Signing up for many of these sites requires registering a text number. If you do not have a phone that works internationally, we usually communicate with someone back home to use their text number and have them send us the code to complete registration.
Once registered, you have the ability to connect with drivers who have posted the routes they intend to do along with the payment required. Unlike Couchsurfing, the guest pays the “host”. It’s more like AirBnB in that way. However, we have always found the prices to be cheaper than the other public transit options, not to mention the trip is almost always quicker than these options as well.
Car-pooling sites you for Europe travel, by region:
UK carpooling sites:
German carpooling sites:
1.) Mitfahrgelegenheit.de -(the German version of carpooling.co.uk)
Non-region-specific carpooling sites:
1.) blablacar.com -(the site that seems to be most popular here in Europe.)
A few extra notes/challenges:
1.) As suggested above, some of these resources can be challenging without a phone. Even if you have a web-generated text number from apps like “TextMe” and “TextPlus”, sites like this do not seem to function properly with web-generated text numbers. (This is true for resources like Uber and Lyft too.) So even if you have a travel-friendly phone alternative like those mentioned here, not all of them will cooperate with these resources. Specifically ones relying on web-generated numbers.
2.) Even though Europe has a pretty decent coverage when it comes to these car-pooling sites, some regions of Europe are still lacking. For instance we’ve had trouble finding carpooling options to the Balkans.
3.) This car-sharing strategy is virtually impossible if you are a person who doesn’t like to pack light, because drivers often try to fill every seat in their car. Do not assume you are the only passenger taking advantage of any given car-share. If you have more than one or two pieces of luggage, include that in your correspondence with your driver ahead of time.
4.) Sometimes you can suggest the meet-up location and sometimes the driver will suggest a spot that works for them. You may have to do a little traditional public-transiting in order to catch your ride.
Of course, another reason I love using carpooling resources is because, like all the other people-to-people resources, it connects you with locals and other travelers.
I mean, in some ways it gives me the thing I love about hitch-hiking without the exhaustion and uncertainty. When people connect with locals, and locals connect with travelers, there’s a host/guest mentality that’s naturally built in and it produces conversations you simply wouldn’t have in the service-provider/consumer environment of traditional public transit.
We’ve had so many fascinating conversations with drivers and most times the hours spent driving just fly by. Next time you are in Europe, remember this carpooling option for your semi-long-distance journeys.
We’re sneaking up on our fifth anniversary of full time travel with our kids. When we left on our bicycle trip around Europe and N. Africa they were five through eleven years old. They are now ten through sixteen, and as comfortable in the livestock market in Tona Toroja as they are in a department store in the USA.
We travel specifically for the education and development of our children; we want them to grow up in the real world and become citizens of it in a way that transcends borders. There are so many things they learn in a classroom without walls, here are three of the most important:
1. People Are People
You can preach tolerance and multi-culturalism in a classroom until you’re blue in the face, but it’s so much easier to just take your kids to a park in every country you pass through, have as many guests in for dinner as you can lay hands on, and accept every offer of food or shelter from strangers as you go. Before long the kids stop seeing skin color, stop worrying about what kind of food hits the table, and get over stressing out about the language barrier. Pretty soon they’ll take off to play with the Indonesian kids and carry a soccer ball so that they can always draw in kids to play with.
I remember, when I was young, hearing my Dad say that it was good for my brother and I to have the experience of being, “The only white people within a couple hundred miles.” What he meant by that was that it’s a very good thing to experience life as a minority, perhaps to even be discriminated against a little bit. It builds compassion in a way little else can. It helps a developing person to see the commonalities, instead of the differences: We’re all doing our best to keep a roof over head, feed and clothe our families, celebrate the beautiful things in life, and leave the world a better place for our children.
It’s hard to hold on to an “us vs. them” mentality when you’ve eaten a meal with “them,” and count “them” among your friends. One of the primary benefits to liberal travel with children is that this lesson is absorbed organically, you won’t have to say a word to teach it.
2. Live Generously
We are not rich people, but on a world scale, we are fabulously, ridiculously, filthy-stinking rich. Just the ability to make American dollars as we travel and spend them in places that they go much further is a huge lottery win on the international economic scale.
We have dear friends who live in huts with dirt floors and metal roofs rusted through with holes. Others who support families of seven on less than $5,000 USD a year; some far less.
There is a lot of talk in traveling circles about how to give, and where to give, or more specifically, where NOT to give, so as not to exacerbate the problems. Careful consideration must be given to that balance.
In our experience, it is always better to live generously. When a need is presented, we try to find a way to give into it to fill it in a way that empowers instead of enables. We hope that our children will recognize their extreme privilege on the grander scale and do the same. We see glimmers of it, in their willingness to share the little they carry in their packs with kids who have far less. Their willingness to stretch a buck or do with less so that we can give more to someone else. And sometimes, they’ve seen us get taken advantage of too. But there’s a lesson, even in that: the “takers” are in the vast minority, and living generously is worth the risk.
We have so much, how can we not give?
3. Tread Lightly
The invention of plastic was simultaneously a boon and the bane of human existence. Trash is strewn from horizon to horizon across Tunisia. Barefoot children pick through heaps of plastic detritus in the margins of virtually every paradise. Plastic grocery bags are caught, like limp jelly fish on the coral of dying reefs in even the “best” of the world’s dive destinations. Jakarta is a fetid cesspool. Walking out in Beijing puts your lungs at risk. We can talk “green” all we want, but these are realities, and realities that are hard to remedy in places where money, education and resources are lacking.
It’s easy to look at the global problem and throw up our hands. We talk about that, in various arenas, with our children on a regular basis. But the answer lies in our own two hands. Understanding that every choice we make has consequences for the planet, and every piece of plastic anything that we buy will end up in a landfill somewhere eventually.
It’s not just about the three R’s, reduce, reuse, recycle, although those are important. We have to learn, as a race, to “need” less. To be happy without consuming more “stuff” and to tread lightly on the planet. One of the easiest ways to “teach” this is simply to travel. To allow kids to see the consequences of our over consumption first hand, and to connect the dots between the first world usage and the prices paid for that in other parts of the world. With global eyes, perhaps the next generation will do better.
What are you learning from your travels?
Nine years ago, bedridden with a debilitating case of chronic Lyme disease, I examined my life. For 36 years I’d slaved away in jobs I detested because they provided me with a good living, but despite having all the material things that money could buy, I was miserable. In that rare moment of clarity, I thought, Is this all there is?
Three-plus decades after entering the work force, I was no closer to achieving my dreams of being a travel writer and photographer. Instead, I’d become ensnared in a web of mortgages, car payments, and a seeming unending desire for more “stuff.” I promised myself that, if I recovered, I would walk away from corporate life to pursue the only thing I’d ever wanted to do.
A year later, at the age of 54, I slung a backpack over my shoulder and headed out on my first round-the-world trip. I was excited and a little scared. Vietnam was my first destination, and for weeks my friends and family had been alarming me with stories of the dangers of the country. My first night did not go smoothly. I checked into my guest house, found an Internet cafe down the street, and settled in to work. A couple of hours later I stepped back onto the street, only to find that metal shutters had been rolled down over all the storefronts. Everything looked the same.
By the time I’d spent two weeks traveling solo around Vietnam by bus, I was confident in my ability to travel the world solo.
Rather than panic, I calmed myself with the idea that, at worst, I would have to move to another hotel for the night. I did eventually locate my guest house and, after a few minutes of banging on the metal door, woke the night watchman, who let me in. It was my first lesson in rolling with the punches. By the time I’d spent two weeks traveling around Vietnam by bus, I was confident in my ability to travel the world solo.
My second experience in Vietnam was even more profound. In Hanoi, I visited the War Museum and was shocked to learn that Vietnamese refer to the 20-year conflict as “The American War.” This one small fact translated into a fascination for the differences between cultures that has influenced all my subsequent travels.
In the eight years since my initial round-the-world trip, I’ve visited more than 50 countries, traveling slowly whenever possible in order to immerse in the local cultures. In 2009, I gave up my apartment and became a perpetual traveler, with no permanent home base, and I have no plans to stop anytime soon.
When people learn what I do, they often exclaim, “You’re so brave,” or ask, “Aren’t you afraid?” I tell them there is no reason to be afraid, that people the world over are more similar than they are different. Though we may wear different clothes, speak different languages, and practice different religions, at our core we all want the same things: a safe place to live, enough food to eat, freedom from oppression, and a better life for our children.
“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” Miriam Beard
Miriam Beard, daughter of the American historians Charles and Mary Beard, said “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” Without a doubt, travel has irrevocably changed me. I have no interest in owning a home and never purchase souvenirs. My wardrobe is limited to what fits in a 25” suitcase. Material possessions are of no interest to me. And I have never felt so free.
I now realize that my initial fears were foolish. Travel is not dangerous. Despite traveling solo to numerous developing countries where poverty is rife, I have never felt the least bit threatened. Strangers have gone out of their way to help me and even welcomed me into their homes. Lifelong friendships have resulted. Travel, more than any other activity, eliminates the fear of others whom we see as different from ourselves.
Perpetual travel is not for everyone, however, long-term travel is becoming popular with more than just ‘gap year’ travelers. Baby boomers especially, who are healthier and more active than ever before, are looking for ways to make valuable contributions in retirement, and many are opting to do so by volunteering overseas. Having mastered the art of long-term travel, I plan to share my wealth of knowledge in this monthly column. So, whether you’re an armchair traveler or are contemplating long-term travels of your own, be sure to watch for my future articles. It should be an insightful journey.
When Barbara Weibel realized she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside, she walked away from corporate life and set out to see the world. Read first-hand accounts of the places she visits and the people she meets at Hole in the Donut Cultural Travels. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter (@holeinthedonut).
Travel, for me, has always been an amazing journey into the discovery of what connects us all as human beings. Travel is also hard, exhausting, and seriously trying on the nerves at times. The dichotomy that exists within the experience of traveling is part of what makes it so worthwhile. It’s this dichotomy that forces us to really reflect on Below are my top five worst travel experiences, paired with the the most positive takeaway from each experience. Travel may be difficult, but it is certainly still worth it.
5. The day the car broke down at the amusement park. This one may seem like it wouldn’t be such a big deal but when it’s a group of high schoolers, with no money, who find their car to be utterly incapable of starting after a day riding roller coasters, the scenario looks a little more grim.
After prom (one I did not attend), my friends and I headed to an amusement park to celebrate. We drove two cars and arrived with no incident. Ten hours or so later, we headed back to the parking lot to find one of the ancient vehicles we drove across the state, completely dead. Imagine that. We tried jumping it, we tried starting it, over and over. As it became clear that we were not going anywhere, tempers started to flare and the blame game began. Ten teenagers were standing in the parking lot trying to figure out how to fix this and no one had any good ideas. After much debating we called two parents to come rescue us and spent the late night ride home complaining and blaming. We would find out later that it was the starter that had gone bad, nothing anyone could really have predicted. That incident would flavor our friendships and conversations for the rest of the school year- a couple of people even stopped talking for a while because of what happened. In fact, it’s still a topic that comes up whenever more than two of us end up in a room together.
Positive take away: Problem solving. Between the ages of 16 and 18, none of us was very skilled at calm, effective problem solving. We did our best to get ourselves out of a sticky situation but the reality is that this became a serious learning experience for all of us. With no adults around, we were left to our own devices to figure out a plan. It was messy, not very nice, and involved a lot of drama. As an adult, I realize how important this process was, even the uncomfortable aftermath of so much blame being thrown around. Kids need space to figure out their own messes as often as possible. We definitely got practice in that area, the day the car broke down at the amusement park.
4. Getting stung by a scorpion in the middle of the night. I rolled over in bed one night and jumped up, screaming. In my half-awake state I had no idea what had happened but my leg was on fire. A quick inspection of the bed uncovered a scorpion and suddenly, the pain made sense. This wouldn’t have even been that bad if getting stung by a scorpion hadn’t been on my list of travel fears and if it hadn’t happened IN MY BED. There is something extra awful about being woken up from a sound sleep by a sharp shooting pain caused by an uninvited guest. The stuff nightmares are made of.
Positive take away: Shake your sheets out before you go to bed. Not exactly philosophical but seriously valuable lesson for any traveler. Oh, and checking your shoes isn’t a bad idea either.
3. The day nothing went right. You may be surprised but this was not one day, it is a “day” that happens over and over the longer I travel. Surprised? I didn’t really think so.
The bus arrives 6 hours late, the air conditioning stops working, I see a dead man on the street (not kidding here, people), I slam my thumb between the boat and the dock so badly my ring is embedded in my finger (and a Mayan man wants to use his teeth to get it off), the vegetarian lunch I ordered to make myself feel better comes topped with bacon, the border control agent is about as far from reasonable as one man can get, my quick run to the local market takes over five hours and I miss the Skype call I have been waiting for, it pours so hard that every bag I was carrying starts to break and shred into very unhelpful pieces, and when I finally arrive back “home”, I find that another hostel guest has eaten the food I was planning on preparing for dinner.
We’ve all had those days. The days where we think there would be nothing better than to be home, in a house we never leave, tucked safely into bed, with a cup of tea, as we watch the rain coming down on the other side of a very handy window. It’s these moments when we might think travel isn’t worth it. Not for this. This sucks.
Positive take away: I am stronger than I think I am. Even on the hardest of days, I always get through. It may not go smoothly, but I get through it. Usually I end these days by collapsing into my bed, eating chocolate, or crying until I laugh. But the next day, I am always, up, ready to go again, and once again surprised by my ability to get through the toughest of days. Knowing what I can handle makes me love myself a little more… and that’s never a bad thing.
2. Needing surgery in Nicaragua. I was in El Salvador when a painful boil started to develop and I realized I was going to need medical attention. Since we were moving on soon, I decided to self-treat for a few days, see if it got any better, and go to see a doctor first thing when we arrived in Nicaragua if it didn’t. Well, it didn’t. And after a very uncomfortable boat ride across the border and the longest immigration process I have ever experienced, we found ourselves seeking a hotel that had bathtubs in the bathrooms and a doctor that I felt comfortable taking medial advice from. The first doctor was a no-go and I started to panic that I would not be able to find someone to help me. After a call to our travel insurance company, we decided to seek a second opinion at a hospital in the capital. Further research told me that the hospital we were headed to was “the best in Central America”. Things were looking up. We traveled the distance by cab (a hefty expense on our limited budget) and arrived at the ER. After a brief exam I was told I had staph and needed surgery. Right away. Not exactly my idea of a fun travel experience and certainly the most pain I had been in in a long time.
Positive take away: Health care around the world is not scary. While having surgery in a foreign country doesn’t top my list of things to do, I must admit that my experience was generally a positive one. My doctor was patient, knowledgeable, and kind. The nurses were as well. My surgery went quickly and smoothly and I had no pain afterwards, despite warnings that I would. Not every hospital is as wonderful as the one I was admitted to. Not every person has access to the best care their country has to offer. However, the notion that quality health care does not exist outside of Western borders is a fallacy. Good to know.
1. Getting Robbed in Guatemala. Never have I been so scared as when a man with a machete stopped us on a path in the middle of nowhere and told my husband to hand over his money. I knew instinctively to freeze and remain utterly calm but in the few seconds it took for my husband to hand over his wallet and for the man to run away, I thought of every awful thing that could happen on a secluded path, on a mountain, with a desperate man wielding a machete. Thankfully neither of us was hurt but our nerves and our faith in humanity was shaken that day. Never again do I want to feel that fear.
Positive take away: The ability to recognize the humanity in someone who does wrong by us. After arriving safely in the next town, we realized quickly that the man who had robbed us had taken nothing but money. Our entire backpacks, our camera, and my own wallet were all left untouched. Upon further reflection we also realized that he had never actually pointed the machete at us- we had been scared enough by its presence. As we talked we realized that the man who had robbed us had not been cruel or violent- he was desperate. You see we were robbed at the end of rainy season. None of the locals had been getting much regular work and coffers were drying up. Families were hungry. The man with the machete was also likely a husband and father in a country where social safety nets are not the norm. Suddenly, we could identify and empathize with the man who robbed us. Were we happy we were robbed? No…. and yes. It is a powerful thing to feel empathy for another human being who has wronged you- to see the humanity in your attacker. It was a valuable lesson and one we carry with us.
As an added bonus, we also realized, with utter clarity, that material possessions are absolutely unimportant to us. We would have given up everything we had in a heartbeat if asked. Knowing this to be true with such clarity has been truly freeing.
All travelers have bad days. What’s important is, as much as possible, to not let the negative overshadow the positive. What have been some of your worst travel experiences? Have you gained any positive insights from those bad days?
The other day a reader told me she had saved up for a gap-year of travel. She said that she hadn’t yet decided whether or not to do some remote contract work while traveling or not.
In my opinion, she was right to think decisively about the matter, because there are two very different types of travel she can experience. Traveling with a goal to work as you go is very different than taking a year off to collect incredible travel experiences.
Don’t get me wrong; one is not better and one is not worse…just different. Let’s look at how.
5 ways working-as-you-go travel is different than a gap year:
1.) You can move more quickly during a gap-year.
When you’re trying to work as you go, it’s very much like anyone else’s work life in that you’ll have work-days and off-days. Luckily, you can schedule the work days and off days according to your travel whims, but it often means doubling or even tripling the amount of time you would have ordinarily spent in a place, or just adopting a slow travel pattern in general. You don’t have to see less with the work-as-you-go travel pattern, but you will have to fit the sites into off-days, evenings, lunch-breaks, etc.
With a gap-year, you can let other travel preferences dictate how long you stay in any given destination. You can stay as long as it will take you to see all the sites you had your heart set to see, then move along!
2.) You need to pack more intentionally when working as you go.
When working as you go, you may need more technical supplies than a gap-year person might. If you’re working digitally, you’ll need a reliable laptop, possibly hard-drives. Perhaps you need a better or safer file-storage system. Not to mention if you appear for conference calls or Skype sessions, you may need work-appropriate attire.
For a gap-year, you might still want some sort of internet device, but it could be as simple as an iPod touch or an iPad. Not to mention your wardrobe will be more dictated by the weather than it is by professional expectations.
3.) Traveling with others is harder when you’re working as you go.
When working as you go, the need to spend time working can be hard for other travelers to understand. I can’t count how many times we’ve heard others say to us, “How often are you in [fill in the blank destination]? Just take the day off today and site-see with me!” It’s hard for other travelers to understand that working while you travel mostly requires as many, and sometimes more working hours as a stationary job would. Or it is hard for them to understand that your travel is sustained by the hours spent not site-seeing. So by saying no to the activities of the day, you are actually making it possible to say yes to the activities of another day.
Also the pace of a vacationer is different than the pace of a work-as-you-go-traveler, as mentioned in the first point. So when we have traveled with friends on their vacation time, we’ve gone at a faster pace than we’re used to and thus, we have needed to skip things. On our own time, we may spend 7 days in an area so that we can work for 5 of them and site-see for two. But with vacationing friends who only have so many vacation days, we may spend 3 days in a place, requiring us to fit site-seeing into evenings or lunch-breaks.
During a gap year, it is much easier to be flexible with your pace or site-seeing preferences. Therefore, it’s easier to travel with others and accommodate whatever pace they’re after. That is one of my favorite parts of gap-year styled travel. You can say yes to any excursion that suits your fancy or your budget without any kind of thought towards whether or not you should be working instead.
4.) How you choose a hotel changes.
When working as you go, your hotel decisions might need to include stricter preferences than gap-year travel. For instance we’ve talked about digital work a lot. Indeed, you may need to assure you’ve got a strong internet connection, free or affordable internet, and a space in which you can spend 8 hours working. Unfortunately this sometimes eliminates hostels as an option.
During a gap-year, you may be much more flexible when it comes to accommodation. In our gap-year travel we spent many more nights in hostels and homes-stays than we do now. We tried to find ways to access internet maybe once a week or so, but it was not something we felt we needed every day. Now, we fall behind in our work-load if we go more than a day without internet.
5.) During a gap-year that has a defined end, you may feel less pressure to stay connected with friends and family from home.
Working as you go often means that there is not necessarily an end in sight. For instance my husband and I are full-time travelers so there is no set-time for when we’ll “go back home.” Because of this, I feel a greater need to connect with home on a regular basis. I try to stay in touch with my family members ever week or two.
During our gap-year on the other hand, I had an idea of when we would be returning to our friends and family. This made me feel a little less discouraged by long gaps without communication. At that time Skype was our only option for calling home for free, but we rarely had strong enough internet connection for a good Skype call. But I was reassured by the thought that I could tell my family and friends all about my travel when we returned home at the end of the year.
Now we’ve discussed 5 ways in which gap-year travel and work-as-you-go travel are very different. But in the end, either style of travel is going to require money. Either money you’ve saved, or money you make as you go. How much money depends on how you want to travel and is going to be a little bit different for everyone. But if you want a ball-park figure of what your travel budget can be using miles and points to help buffer that cost, I recommend jumping over to my stats page to see exactly how much it costs for us to live nomadically.
Cost/day: $2 for adults, $1 for children
What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened lately?
Today was our first outing since she’s been born. We went with grandma and grandpa to the Children’s Museum (Museo de los Ninos) in San Jose.
Describe a typical day:
We’re staying in the mountains of the Central Valley, with a gorgeous view of the ocean waaaay off in the distance. Grandma and grandpa have come to visit, for the birth of our sixth child.
Before she was born, we took a trip to the chocolate farm.
It’s been a couple of weeks since Saige Journee was born, so we’re ready for another (little) adventure — the Children’s Museum in San Jose, about 45 minutes away.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
Like: This is our second time living in Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful, friendly people, idealized in their most common saying, ‘Pura vida’ (pure life).
It’s a country with a lot to offer — mountains, beaches, cities, country. Living in the mountains, we’re not too far from all the conveniences of a major city.
The museum was wonderful. So much to see and do, and lots of learning — chemistry, biology, natural history and tons more. An old helicopter to explore, a ‘banana plantation’ to work, a big mouth with teeth chairs… a great time was had by all.
Dislike: The mountain roads from the house down to the city are windy… I feel a little nauseous.
Describe a challenge you faced:
There was some confusion about how to get to the museum, but after asking directions a couple of times, we found our way.
And we should have gone earlier in the day… we didn’t have enough time to see everything before the museum was closing up!
What new lesson did you learn?
Sometimes we put labels on countries — first world versus third world. But all countries have cities, towns and ‘states’ that are in varyied levels of development.
Culture, refinement and fantastic infrastructure can be found in many countries that are labeled ‘third world’.
And the worst internet we’ve found in our travels (so far) was in Homer, Alaska, USA — a ‘first world’ country.
Don’t be too quick to judge.
Staying put in Costa Rica, but we’re having a humble lunch at the home of a Nicaraguan friend.
Learn more about Worldschooling, Education and Funding Travel here.
Planes, trains, buses and more. We’ve gotten good at waiting over the years. Our secret weapon? Games. We play games while we wait. We always have.
When the kids were little we played “I spy” and sang nursery rhymes and told jokes while we waited. We counted things and looked for patterns and we read stories and made shadows with our fingers.
When they got a little older we went nowhere without our chapter book. We plowed through Ben Hur and Watership Down, the Narnia series and the Jungle Books while we rode in the car and waited at doctor’s offices.
Since we’ve been traveling full time we’ve elevated waiting to an art form. If you’re looking for a few activities to fill the long minutes that stretch into hours with kids as you wait, we have a few suggestions:
We play a lot of cards in our family and we have for generations. I remember learning the fine art of bluffing over the euchre table from my grandfather and uncles as a small child. We play Five Crowns, War and even travel with a little fold up cribbage board. The kids learned a little Poker from their cousins last time we were in Indiana. I much prefer euchre. Last month we spent a few minutes between pick-up truck rides explaining the finer points of the game on a dirt floor patio on the banks of the Mekong in Laos.
If you’ve been paying any attention at all, you know that our family reads aloud a lot. Since the kids were little we’ve read aloud over meals, sneaking in much of their history and literature study while they chewed. Tony always has a “fun” book going, and he’s the kids’ favourite reader, because he does voices. We’ve had whole train cars full of enthralled listeners as Daddy plows through the next chapter of The Princess Bride on a train in the Czech. Carrying books and reading individually can be a great way to pass the time, but reading aloud to, and with, your kids is a great way to bond as a family and to pass on a rich culture of literacy from generation to generation.
Charlotte Mason introduced me to the concept of Nature Notebooking when my kids were small. I loved the idea of studying science in the early years by drawing things from the natural world that interested each of us individually. We’ve long made a practice of finding something small to draw: an acorn, a slug, paying particular attention to it’s breathing pore, a squirrel. It doesn’t really matter. I carry a pad of tiny blank papers, 3.5 X 5 inches, and water colour pencil crayons at all times. The best nature drawing we’ve done recently: painting the sunrise over the main temple complex at Angkor Wat last month. Stunning.
My kids are big now. A 14 hour bus ride doesn’t phase them. No one asks when the bus is coming or if we’re there yet. They just ride and find ways to pass the time. But they were little once, and they remember what it’s like to feel tired and bored to tears. Time always passes more quickly with friends and we learned early to pack a few things with “share potential” in our bags: marbles, cars, an inflatable ball, balloons, and plastic animal toys are all examples. Our kids still do this. Then, they look for little children who are struggling with the wait and they offer to play and share with them. Everybody wins! Elisha is the best at this, he is never without a pocketful of treasures for newfound friends!
Do you have strategies for passing the time? What do you do while you wait?
Most travelers consider volunteering at some point. We see a need and we know that we have the time, energy, or money to be able to lend a hand and be a part of creating change. Helping people feels good. Working on environmental issues and seeing results is exciting. We don’t just want to talk about problems, we want to do something about them.
Most travelers also know that there is a strong push within the traveling community not to volunteer while abroad- ever. Volunteers often do more harm than good. Children get attached to a revolving door of volunteers and develop attachment issues. Foreigners create environmental systems and forget to train locals so that when they leave, it all falls apart. And then there is the endless discussion about the harm that comes from middle and upper class Westerners descending upon a developing nation to “save” or “empower” the people there.
So what is a traveler to do? Put their money where there mouth is and actually do something about the problems they see or stay away from the volunteer complex for fear of being labeled as one of “those people” who doesn’t recognize the harm volunteering can do?
I will be the first to admit that even the most well-researched volunteer opportunity can dissolve into a lesson on why so many people are against volunteering. Not too long ago, my husband and I found ourselves pulling away from a volunteer opportunity working with sea turtles when it became apparent that the founder and his assistant had very little respect for the local community. No amount of research into their organization, practices, or beliefs could have prepared us for their level of distaste for the local population or for some other unethical practices going on that had nothing to do with sea turtles or the environment.
I could use this experience to highlight exactly why no one should ever volunteer abroad. I could, but I don’t. That’s because I believe that the potential pitfalls are not enough to outweigh the potential benefits. I also do not think for one minute that any amount of negative exposure on the volunteer industry is enough to make everyone stop volunteering. The drive to do something positive, the belief that things can change, and the need to feel connected in meaningful ways to other people is not going away any time soon. Unfortunately, neither is the “savior complex” that too many volunteers root themselves in. Instead of debating whether volunteering is “good” or “bad” as a whole, a better use of our efforts might be in facilitating real conversation, especially with new volunteers, about how to best research opportunities and combat the “savior complex”.
Before making the decision to volunteer there are three huge questions I think volunteers should be asking.
1) Does tho volunteer opportunity perpetuate the need for more volunteers or does it foster local, sustainable growth with the aim of eliminating the need for outside volunteers? An organization that has plans to utilize foreign volunteers for the length of its existence is a red flag because it means the organization is either choosing to not training community members to do those same jobs or it has a belief that community members can’t do those same jobs. Either way, red flag. Your skill set or knowledge should directly relate to a need and, ideally, you should be sharing your knowledge with a local or locals who want to be able to carry on the work when you leave.
2) Is the organization working in meaningful ways with- not for- the local community? Working to strengthen a community and get to the root of a problem involves working with community members, not doing things for them because the organization “knows better”. This requires mutual respect and open dialogue.
3) Have cultural and community needs been taken into account and does the work reflect this? An organization that invites foreign volunteers but does not educate them on cultural norms, needs, and beliefs is an organization that is asking for conflict and resistance from the community. It’s also a sure sign of an organization that has at least a bit of a savior complex.
There are many other valid considerations as well but these are the three that I think get overlooked the most. Look at the language on the website or paperwork of the organization. How do they talk about the local population? What words do they use to describe the culture? Do they have a clear plan for working with community members? Red flags are not always in plain view, sometimes you have to be a bit of a detective to figure out what’s really going on. Even then, as in our experience, sometimes the evidence just isn’t there until you are on the ground. Don’t be afraid to walk away and don’t be afraid to share your experience with others.
As a final thought, it’s also very important that volunteers, as well as those who choose not to volunteer, hold ourselves accountable to the words we use to describe our experiences. We are not “saving” anyone. “If it weren’t for us” should be followed up with “someone else would fill the role”. And, I know this may seem radical, but the words “poor”, “uneducated”, “simple”, or “backwards” need not be employed to evoke pity for the communities volunteers work in. Treating the recipients of our volunteer hours as human equals goes a long way in avoiding the perpetuation of that “savior complex”.
There are very real concerns when it comes to volunteering abroad. There is also no doubt that changes need to be made in the way we view volunteering and how we go about it. However, there are many small, locally focused organizations in true need of foreign volunteers to get the ball rolling, get a specific project off the ground, or to share specific skills and knowledge with the locals ultimately running the program. Connecting with people and lending a helping hand does not need to be viewed as a vice when partnered with the word “volunteering” nor should we be glorifying any and all things volunteer related. There is a very real balance to be achieved when it comes to volunteering, no doubt about it. The question for everyone is, how do we do that?