Traveling Families on the Yellow Brick Road

We are not original and we were not alone.

When we took our kids out of school, packed a few backpacks, and took off for SE Asia with only a coupla nights in a hotel booked and no other plans except to spend 9 months exploring the eastern side of the earth, we had no idea how many other western families had made the same decision. When we arrived in the East, all these friendly, like-minded people with backpacks, kids, and no plans except to explore the Earth came out of the woodwork like the Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz (except taller).

Imagine our delight!

urlThey welcomed us to the magical place in which we had landed, shared their worldly travel wisdom and suggested various yellow brick roads we might choose to skip down while we were there.  These traveling parents and their munchkins (the short ones) shared our desire to journey to the proverbial Oz, which for world travelers is any country and culture that calls.  There are many Oz’s in the traveler’s mind, far off destinations that beckon you to slurp their noodle soups, climb their karsts, run through their rice fields, bask on their beaches, haggle in their markets, and meditate with their monks. When you arrive in Oz with your munchkins in tow, you feel at home inside yourself, that part of you that knows you are sharing something magnificent with the short people you love.  For me, there’s no place like that home.

And there’s nothing as validating and supporting while you’re out there exploring the yellow brick possibilities as connecting with others on this or that side of the rainbow, who are willing to share the brains, heart and courage of travel with you.

(btw, I’m no Dorothy, though I’ve sung “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to my sleepy children more times than I can count.  I am chasing a dream, but I didn’t run away from home.  I made a choice, with my husband, who is from Kentucky, not Kansas. My youngest is as scruffy and yappy as Toto.  There is no Wizard and there is no Witch, so don’t wait for it.)

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Munchkins in Bali’s Emerald City     Jatiluwih, Bali

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Dorothy should have worn ruby-red Keens.

The number of families I now know making world travel a priority in their parenting years is much more than I had expected, but it’s also surprising how few people I knew personally who had done this before we did:  ZERO.  The families we’ve met this year are not fancy.  They don’t fly first class, they don’t travel with nannies or tutors, they don’t wear designer shoes – which would get ruined in a nano-second.   Some watch every dollar they spend, eating as cheaply as possible, cramming the whole family into one budget hotel room.  They aren’t rich by American standards, but they do live richly.

These folks are as privileged as we are, and as many of our contemporaries at home are, in terms of race, native language, income and education.  (Being white, English speaking, and American affords privilege in many places in the world).  Nobody handed them the opportunity to travel with their children on a silver platter, nor were they swept up by a tornado.  They chose this experience, and with that choice came some risk.

We met lots of families virtually on Facebook groups (Worldschoolers and Families On The Move).  These groups gave us thoughtful and specific advice on just about anything that came up along our way:  how to renew visas, how to find babysitters or a decent Dr. in themiddleofnowhere, how to handle homesicknesses, which trekking company to use in somemountaintown; you name it, someone on those groups has been there, no matter how remote “there” is, and has a suggestion (or two!) – which, needless to say, was immensely helpful and supportive.

Through these groups, we met a handful of families in person, and enjoyed campfires, museums, waterfalls, mountains, and volunteerism alongside our new friends.  Our munchkins just loved hanging out with their munchkins.

Allow me to introduce you to a few of our traveling family friends…allow them to inspire you!

DSC03277Meet Bliss Broyard, Nico Israel, and their munchkins Esme and Roman of Brooklyn, NY.  Nico is Associate Professor of English at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.  Bliss is a writer of books and magazine articles about culture, women, and parenting, and the author most recently of One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life – a Story of Race and Family Secrets.  The adventurous, kindred East Coasters are traveling for 9 months for Nico’s sabbatical, and have explored 12 countries in Africa, India and Asia.  We met them in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we climbed a waterfall together, and where both families (9 of us) huddled around our laptop to watch The IMG_2811King and I followed by a street food gorge (all must-do’s in Thailand).  We saw them again in Cambodia where we volunteered together in excruciating heat at a village school (our video about this wonderful school), attended a local circus performance in excruciating heat which included setting objects on fire 5 feet from our sweaty faces, and rode a speedy and quite rickety Bamboo Train. Esme and our daughter Maddie made a special, much-needed connection. When one traveling girl meets another who is equally obsessed with fantasy novel reading and delights in pool-dance choreography, it makes for a very good match.  And when one traveling mama meets another who is equally in need of a stiff drink and the chance to vent the frustrations of spending every!freakin!minute!of!the!day!and!night!with!husband!and!children, it makes for good relief!  Bliss wrote a beautifully descriptive storytelling post featuring vignettes of their trip’s highs and lows (and she’s like, a real writer).  Since they live so close, and because all Philadelphians should have a place to crash in NYC, we may actually see these guys again!

Meet Aaron Eden, his wife Corrina, and their munchkins, twin 10 y/o boys and a 7 y/o daughter from Northern California.  Aaron is a kindred out-of-the-box educator, and we realized right away that we had much to discuss on how children learn.  Aaron left his job as Director of Education Technology at a private school to travel the world with his family, and to seek inspiration for his next career move.  After several months of exploration, he found it unexpectedly in Ubud, Bali, where while on a tour of The Green School, he was offered a job!  With some quick thinking and a zip back home to tie up loose ends, the family now lives in Bali, where the kids are loving their open-air bamboo school where they can walk around barefoot and wrestle in mud pits in between classes, while Aaron is neck-deep in all things Green School (except the mud) as Director of Entrepreneurial and Enterprise Education. I find Aaron’s approach to rethinking traditional education thought-provoking and forward-thinking.  Here are some of the paradigm shifts he discusses in his blog, edunautics: 1. Education should be focused primarily on creating advanced learners, not primarily on transferring particular sets of information.  2. We should approach learning based on strengths possessed by each individual, and approach all learning through those.  3. We need to get rid of the idea that school is separate from the rest of our world; much of what we learn through should have a positive impact on the real world now, not at some later date. 4. We need to find a way to remove coercion from education. We’re sending the wrong message about learning.  I look forward to following his ideas and continuing our conversations!

DSC00092Meet the Kings (literally and figuratively).  Sabina, her husband and their two munchkins, lived in Colorado before they took off for Costa Rica in 2010 with a toddler and a baby on the way.  They left with very few plans or material things, not knowing how long they’d travel or what their next career move would be.  Fast forward 5 years, and they’ve explored 17 countries according to their 6 y/o, who seems to be the only one who keeps track anymore.  They now have a home base in Ubud, Bali, from which they travel 4-6 months a year, and several online businesses that they’ve forged together from various places on the planet.  They are digital entrepeneurs whose inspirational, adventurous, do-what-makes-you-happy outlook tends to rub off on others.  They don’t use the word “school” to classify the way their kids learn, but the phrase “consciously casual life learning” best describes their outlook on education while their kids are little. They open their Bali home to so many traveling families, bringing kindred spirits together for support and good, clean fun.  If you’re passing through Ubud, you may find yourself jumping on a trampoline and sipping an organic juice, feeling like royalty at the Kings’.  Follow them: WebsiteFacebookTwitter.

DSC00224Meet Ellen and her 7 y/o munchkin Clem from Gloucester, England. Ellen is the only single traveling parent we met personally, and hats off to her for taking Clem on this adventure solo!  Before their travels, Ellen was in interior and theater design, and owned a small business upcycling and restoring vintage furniture.  She saved up and closed down shop to travel with Clem.  Her plan upon returning home is to continue interior design, focus on helping the planet get rid of plastic bottles, and begin importing Asian baskets.  She funds their trip by renting out her home in England, and with a few sixpence she scraped together.  We met these fine, English gals in Ubud, Bali, where we hiked ricefields and shared “puddings” as we watched the sunset on the gorgeously green paddies.  We happened upon them again in Hanoi, Vietnam, where we visited the War Museum, went to the movies, and rocked out karaoke style (which is what the cities are for!).  Clem and Bro had a special thang going.  7 y/o’s holding hands is cute.  Very fair-colored 7 y/o’s holding hands in an Asian city draws a crowd.

DSC03070Meet Mark and his 3 y/0 munchkin Sally from Manchester, England.  Mark and his wife have a business selling instruments.  They structured their company with a priority on simplifying and delegating to make more time for family travel.  We met Mark and Sally in Chiang Mai, Thailand where Sally and Lil-Sis discovered their deep, shared love for all things princess and all things competitive.  A month later, while Mark was doing a solo stint with Sally (after his wife and baby boy returned to England) and Tom was doing a solo stint with Lil-Sis (while I took big kids to see family visitors), the two dads and princesses spent a week together on a Thailand beach, playing soccer with the locals, watching pink dolphins, and honing their one-upping skills as strong-willed munchkins will do.  We also enjoyed adventures with the Mark-Sally duo doing Tarazan stunts in a rainforest river, and bungee bouncing at a water park.  Thanks to Sally, Lil-Sis has a firm grasp of the English lilt. This was definitely Lil-Sis’s most special friendship on the trip, and she reminds us periodically that she misses Sally and that she is still bigger than Sally.

IMG_1845Meet Kati, David, and their two munchkins Paula and Greta from Berlin, Germany, who have been traveling full time for 3 years visiting 11 countries so far.  Before they began their nomadic lifestyle, Kati was a teacher and David was a lawyer.  Though they don’t classify the way their kids are educated, they fit the description of unschoolers and worldschoolers, “We trust in their interests and support them. Living life is learning for us – not only for the kids, also for us adults. It is great to see the world, learn from different environments and people, develop and grow.” Keeping children out of a traditional school setting is illegal in Germany, so as long as Kati and David want to continue educating their girls unconventionally, they literally can’t make a permanent residence in their home country.  If they do, they would face fines and disturbing charges.  They are master budget travelers and vegans who use house sitting, couchsurfing and other ways to experience the world with their children cheaply, fully and simply.  They rent out the home they own in Germany as a monthly income, and interestingly, since they pay taxes on that income, they receive child benefit from the state.  Kati and David were the first western parents we found when we began our trip in Bali.  Little did we know at the time, we were one of at least 10 western traveling families (probably more) in Ubud at that time. David gave us our first motorbike ride – Thrilling!  I was truly taken aback by the freedom and independence Paula and Greta possessed after roaming freely around the earth for most of their young years.  Paula, 7, who picked up English while traveling in the US, boldly lead our kids into the ricefield in search of snakes, while I nervously trailed them from a few feet behind!

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Meet Jonathan Fasman and Pet, and their munchkins Pi 11, Piow 10, and Alex 3, from Chiang Mai, Thialand.  This cross-cultural crew is not a western family focusing on world travel like the others, though they have seen plenty of the world together, and they blend east and west beautifully.  Originally a chef and restauranteur from Boston, Jonathan met his love and made his life with Pet in Thailand years ago. We arrived in Chiang Mai at winter holiday time and had no idea how or where to celebrate Hanukkah, Lil-Sis’s birthday or New Year’s Eve. Enter Jonathan and Pet!  After posting an inquiry on an expat facebook group (man, those groups are awesome), Jonathan, never having met us, invited us to his house for Hanukkah dinner.  Not having a car and not knowing how to get around the sprawling burbs of IMG_2895Chiang Mai, he picked us up, warmly welcomed us in his home, and cooked us a delicious meal (chef, remember?) Their boys, who are still building fluency in English didn’t hesitate with a moment of shyness, and the 6 kids spent hours hootin-it-up on their property.  A few weeks later they included Lil-Sis as an honored guest at Piow’s birthday celebration, making her feel so special, with presents and a professional-grade Barbie Cake made from scratch by Pet, a budding pastry chef.  I found it so interesting to watch Pet mother her kids without doing the typical western hover-dance.  She doesn’t run just because Alex, 3, falls down or cries, she communicates that everything is fine without talking about it.  Less talking, less fussing, more modeling, more calm – it works – and it was a pleasure to observe.  I give Jonathan and Pet a lot of credit for navigating their cultural differences as parents.  If we ever get back to Thailand, and I’m planning on it, we hope to enjoy another round of Jonathan and Pet’s Thai hospitality.  If they ever get to Philly, they know who to call.

So, why did you just spend your precious time reading about the traveling families we met in SE Asia?

Because now you know there are “normal folk” like us, and like you, making their way around the globe with kids but without big bucks or grand plans.  You also know that if you ever venture out for a long stretch, you won’t be alone.  You won’t be at a loss for information, support or kindred spirits. Traveling can be an opportunity to withdrawal from being social, but when you need connection, you can find it out there.

These parents see the world with their kids because it’s important to them, not because it’s a no-brainer, in fact it took a lot of brains, courage and heart to step out of their home cultures, to make their futures a lesser known quantity, and to skip down the yellow brick road.

images-1 So, what are you searching for?  Do you feel at home in the world?

5 thoughts on “Traveling Families on the Yellow Brick Road

  1. Lovely piece Melissa, thanks! We also met sooo many cool and inspiring people on the road. Wow only a week left for us before we fly home! Will email you xxx Hattie (Ellen)

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      1. Hi Melissa, we are not planning on going anywhere in the near future, just getting slowly used to being home at the mo. It IS weird being back, but it’s hard to describe and write about. I need to make some money this year!! I would love to take Clem to Africa, Jamaica, New York. We might go back to Cambodia. My retirement will definitely be spent travelling – ideally on a motorbike – I intend to start a Facebook group called Old Crones On The Move! 😉 we have a family staying with us at the moment who we met in Indonesia, so that’s GREAT! xx

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  2. Great article! Our family is working towards joining your ranks in a couple of years, and it’s great to hear about lots of other families who’ve made it work!!

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    1. Hi Alexis, I’m so glad you’re planning to give it a go! I’m happy to help in any way I can. Definitely get on those facebook groups the post mentions. There really are plenty of people traveling with kids to connect with. Best of luck!!!

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