3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD POST 13: 5th March 2017, Ubud, Bali.
6 months ago, we took our two eldest children out of school, our youngest out of nursery, stacked most of our boxed-up belongings into six self-storage units, lent out our car, rented out our newly-renovated house and got on a plane to Greece.
Given that we are now just past the half-way mark of the entire trip, here is a round up of what went right, what went wrong and how we have changed. And for an update on our physical progress, click here!
COUNTRIES & PLACES VISITED (for at least one night):
GREECE (4 weeks living like locals): Athens; Nas (Ikaria); Ermoupolis (Syros) - we based ourselves in Nas (the last hippy outpost of the island and the source of its culinary fame), first, in a hostel and then in self-catering accommodation. Travel-wise, we interspersed longer day excursions with shorter trips and added a 3 day spell on nearby Syros to break up the month (and celebrate my b'day)! This worked well although the driving was quite tiring given the state of most of Ikaria's roads and the fact that it is actually much bigger than it seems on a map!
Highlights: feeling like one of the family in Nas; the to-die-for cakes (orange semolina, baklava and cheese cake); the crystalline sea water; dancing into the night at the village panigyria. (Read more in my 4 Greek blogs: So long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye; When in Ikaria, do as the Ikarians; First the Shabby, now for the Chic & Eat, Pray, Love)
MYANMAR (3 weeks exploring): Yangon, Bago, Inle Lake, Old Bagan, Mandalay - this was our first Asian destination. We backpacked our way round the country using public buses and hired, private mini vans. The thrill alone of being back on this continent (with its exotic smells, tastes, sights and sounds) kept us going for two weeks until the slightly too-fast pace of travel caught up with us and we all got ill with (dengue?) fever. This forced us to adapt our strategy and slow down. We found that 3 nights was the absolute minimum we need to stay in one place in order to get a sense of it without feeling rushed, and 5 nights in the same hotel is the minimum we need in order to retain the energy to continue at that pace.
Highlights: the sheer scale and splendour of the Buddhist temples; the generosity, hospitality and easy affection of the Burmese. (Read more in my 3 Burmese blogs: The Land of Temples, Pagodas & Stupas; Magnificent Myanmar & Taking the Rough with the Smooth)
THAILAND (4 weeks living like locals): Bangkok; Mae Nam (Koh Samui) - Thailand was booked as a last-minute respite after so much exhausting rushing around in Myanmar. There was also the lure of some beach time and the promise of an international school. In our haste however, we'd forgotten it would be rainy season (so beach time was limited), and the school turned out to have closed the day before we arrived. This taught us to plan ahead a little more. We stayed put in the same town on the same island, firstly, in a hotel and then in a luxurious, self-catering, private villa (off Airbnb). The latter not only saved us loads of cashola but also gave us a real sense of belonging and quickly felt like home. As in Greece, we hired a car and explored the island during day trips.
LAOS (2 weeks exploring): Luang Prabang, Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoy - we felt ready for an adventure again after living like expats on Koh Samui so travelling round Laos seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately however, we didn't quite realise how non child-friendly it was with its exclusive, chic restaurants and equally exclusive (for different reasons) adventure tourism. Using public transport (boat and bus) to get around was hard, because the former are pretty terrible (no pee stops, no meal stops, crummy seats and no suspension) and the heat during the daytime was relentless. Accommodation wasn't great either and the people weren't very welcoming, so even though we followed our new strategy of staying in one place for at least 5 nights, Laos was probably the worst leg of our trip.
Highlights: travelling up the Mekong by boat; the dramatic, mountainous scenery of northern Laos; my decadent facial at Amantaka. (Read more in my 2 Laotian blogs: Exposing Cultural Differences & It's the People that Make the Country)
INDONESIA (16 weeks living like locals): Ubud (Bali) - Bali was also booked as a last-minute respite from Laos and originally we only planned to stay for the festive Xmas season. But the slow pace and quality of life available in Ubud, quickly prompted us to extend our stay. We have enjoyed just one (pimp) Airbnb villa for the entire duration. Having finally outsourced schooling, we have been proper expats for this stint of our trip and have not really done any sightseeing or cultural activities!
Highlights: the welcoming warmth of Pelangi school; the breadth of healing modalities available in Ubud; finally learning Bahasa. (Read more in my 2 Balinese blogs: Beautiful, Bountiful Bali & Living Life in the Slow Lane)
- lugging two English and two French (very bulky and hugely heavy) anthologies of bedtime stories around with us. These help create familiarity and routine in new and foreign bedrooms.
- not bringing toys. Luckily the kids have each other and having a private pool definitely helps. (Thankfully, Peppa Pig is also accessible worldwide).
- taking daily probiotics. I'm convinced that this alone has greatly reduced the overall incidences of runny tummies especially given how prone the two youngest kids are at both licking public objects or putting their (unwashed) fingers in their mouths at all available opportunities. In fact, aside from our Myanmar blip, severe upset tummies at least once in each of the kids (thank God for codeine phosphate), an ear infection, a parasitic infection, an anemone sting, countless mosquito bites and the two self-inflicted ailments that resulted in trips to A&E (a damaged ear drum and a cut to the cheek), we have all escaped pretty unscathed.
- bringing a plug-in night-light for the kids (left behind in Thailand).
- carrying a mini sterile kit: I was able to convince the doctors not to attempt a non-anesthetised stitching procedure on me and to use my steri-strips (which were not available in Luang Prabang hospital) instead.
- giving up on homeschooling: unless you have permanently opted out of the official schooling system in your country, do not attempt to home/un-/or world-school your children. This is only for the very patient, very creative and very motivat-ing (and -ed) type of parent. Needless to say, we both sucked. Enrolling the kids in the nearby international nursery/school was the best decision ever: they are now thriving and we have some time to ourselves! The girls have picked up the basics of a new language, they have made friends with children from a whole range of different nationalities; they have reconnected to a working rhythm including homework, show-and-tell presentations and class assemblies, and they even do weekly yoga and gardening. What Raphael gets up to at nursery is frankly awe-inspiring and way better than anything back home.
What didn't work:
- assuming that our children (7, 5 and 3) would suddenly become adventurous eaters because they were being exposed to different flavours and styles of cooking. They will now just about (aka be forced to) eat food that is a tiny bit more "spicy" than they are used to. Please note "spice" for them means an-amount-so-teeeny-that-it-is-barely-perceptible of soy sauce or coconut milk, as opposed to actual spice or chili). We have therefore found that it is much easier to order them western dishes when out and we try to be as self-catering as possible.
- bringing audio CDs: most hire cars are so basic that there either are no speakers in the back or it is impossible to vary the balance between front and back sets. Since most don't have air con either, you need to open the windows in order not to die of heat. It is thus very hard for the kids in the back to actually hear any of the story being read unless the CD is on full volume. Bobomama then gets deafened as well as bored silly so we quickly aborted this as an entertainment option.
- bringing large versions of expensive toiletries to "get me through the trip". This only works if you are not travelling with a back-pack into which you have to squeeze all of your family's stuff. Unfortunately for me, most of my wholesale-sized, exorbitantly-priced Dermalogica facewash oozed into the recesses of my wash bag during our first month away as a result of being squashed. I have since resorted to buying toiletries on-the-go. Hopefully I won't look 20 years older on my return as a result.
- global travel adaptor plugs: these are so top heavy in order to accommodate so many different types of plug, that they topple out of sockets. Avoid.
Travel 'hacking' tips:
- negotiate on Airbnb! Prices are geared towards one or two night-stays and are usually ridiculously high. For stays longer than this, email all the villa owners whose places you like the look of, and offer them the price that you can afford to pay (however small this might seem in comparison). You might get some outrage but some will respond and you will end up with a good 'local', long-term rate on a very nice place.
- do not pack anything on the outside of your rucksack even though there are hooks to hang things off and nets to secure things behind. These are deceiving. It will get nicked.
- use packing cubes. I had never even heard of these before this trip but they have quickly become indispensable. They divide an otherwise chaotic mass of stuff into individual compartments, and can be used as mini suitcases when staying somewhere short-term with no room to fully unpack.
- most visa applications specify that you need to provide proof of an onward journey on arrival at customs. This is a major hassle if you don't actually know where you are going next or when. So don't bother. We have not once been asked for this (touch wood).
Have we changed? Yes! Are we definitely going home? Yes!
Our trip has not always been easy on a practical or emotional level, and there are undeniable challenges of travelling abroad, including: super uncomfortable Asian pillows; huge hotel bills (thanks to having to book two rooms to accommodate 5 of us); the stress of trying not to lose too many things every time we change destination; the very basic standard of very basic accommodation; lack of privacy (villa staff come and go as they please, unannounced - the gardener has seen me naked at least 5 times); the sometimes intrusive, physical curiosity of Asians; tropical insects - particularly cockroaches and scorpions; trying to avoid the heat of the burning sun and trying to avoid catching mosquito-borne, dengue fever.
But the benefits of being far from home far outweigh the disadvantages, including: outsourcing the cleaning and laundry; living in luxury accommodation with staff; owning a private pool large enough to do proper laps in; constant warm temperatures; swimming in warm seas; the magic of fireflies; sleeping under a magnificent starlit sky; being serenaded nightly by cicadas and frogs; re-visiting the uber-luxurious Amanresorts.
This year of travel and exposure to other ways of living has helped us to work out who we really are. I always saw this 'gap' year as an opportunity to be re-birthed into the blue-print of me that was hiding behind the masks. The me that lay beyond the adopted habits of my peer group and generation, behind the family patterns I have inherited and absorbed, underneath both the societal belief systems that have been imposed on me, as well as the pervasive collective attitudes of my socio-economic class, culture, race and nationality. And it has done all that and more.
Will we carry on exactly as before on our return? I hope not. Because doing things that are out of the ordinary (and out of your comfort zone), keeps you alive. It is also fuel to the engine of gratitude. I want to continue to feel alive and grateful, so I want to continue to travel. That doesn't mean I don't also appreciate my creature comforts. I no longer crave some aspects of English life as I did after a month or so of hard-core backpacking, but I am not ashamed of admitting that I do miss some aspects of the life we had and am looking forward to it resuming.
The solution: to be based in the UK during term time and to dust down our backpacks for some adventure travel every school holiday. Is this realistic? Why wouldn't it be? We are, after all, the creators of our own reality. I want to incorporate what to me, is the best of both worlds: Bourgeois and Bohemian. And I can. So I will. And this blog - and you, dear reader, - are going to hold me to it...