I am happy to offer you another great interview in the Family Travel series: please meet Geri from Snaps & Blabs! Snaps & Blabs is the blog where Geri describes how she started and lives her life as an around the world traveler. Last year she and her husband decided to sell off most of their possessions, put the rest in storage, and take the kids on a year-long around the world life of nomads.
I admire Geri for her challenging attitude towards traveling our world. “What’s wrong with this picture?” she asked on her blog, sharing a snapshot of designated seats for women in a bus in Abu Dhabi. Only to see all the seats were occupied by men.
It was a great opportunity to talk to Geri about issues like how to deal with dirt and poverty and how you prepare children for different countries and cultures. More importantly, she shows how this journey has her children facing fears, only to discover the world is not that scary after all. Enjoy the interview!
Can you tell us something about you and your family? Where do you come from and when and why did you decide to travel the world long-term?
I grew up in communist Bulgaria. Some brave decisions at a young age afforded me the opportunity to study in Australia and meeting my Mr.Blab there. He is an American and together we have three Australian children born in the two ends of the vast country. We have traveled before meeting each other and after. I went on a 7 week around the world journey by myself when I was 6-7 months pregnant with our third child and loved it. That could have sparked me to suggest 2 years later that we sell everything and do the trip of our lifetime now and not in some vague point in the future. About 4 months later, with all of our possessions in a small storage in the outskirts of the city, we were on a plane to Bali.
How did having children impact your decision?
I had my concerns of taking them to far away developing countries, but the benefits of showing them the world, its people, various cultures and beliefs, were in fact a big reason in helping us overcome all the fears that choked us in the beginning.
Can you shortly tell us something about the places you have visited so far? You just left the Middle East and now arrived in Africa, what’s the itinerary for the coming months?
A short flight took us to Bali, where we took it easy for a month. Another short flight and we were in Singapore. From there we made it overland to South Korea via Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Japan. Our visit to Japan required me to face my fear of the open sea and step on a two day ferry from Shanghai to Osaka, but it was so worth it. Definitely one of my favorite parts of our trip. From Korea we jumped on our third flight headed to India. We spent 2.5 months there and about 4 weeks of that we spent in a small village in the Himalayas. Our fourth flight delivered us to the Arabian Peninsula and Oman, a country that pleasantly surprised us. Then from the UAE we jumped to Alexandria and started our Egypt adventure.
Next…Europe. We endeavor to buy a car and gallivant freely through the continent. No plan really. Then North America through Iceland and if our lucky stars smile at us we will have enough money left to see South America. Doubtful, but it doesn’t hurt to hope.
Your family has traveled to well-known but also to more obscure places. What makes an area of the world (country, region) more family friendly than others?
The only measure I use to judge how suitable certain destination is for my family is how safe is it. If there are no lunatic dictators, guerrilla killers, mystery illnesses killing hoards of people it will pass my family friendly test. Our collective favorite destinations would be Japan, Vietnam, Oman and Thailand, but I am well aware that not everyone will agree with our list. Vietnam, for example, seems to be hard on some people, while we enjoyed ourselves a lot during our month long stay there.
You traveled in India with mixed feelings. How did you deal with this country and especially, how did your kids feel about the poverty, the dirt and the lack of hygiene?
Before we went I thought it will be hard to deal with the issues you mention, they are after all the most frequently talked about problems. As it turned out those were easy to get used to. Poverty can be seen just about everywhere in Asia. Dirt too. After the initial shock of a huge rat in a market in Kota Bharu, Malaysia, the kids had moved onto being able to watch them run on the river bed while enjoying their noodles in Hoi An, Vietnam a few months later. By the time we reached India, we were ready for the local buses, filthy streets and overwhelming touts. For the children the country did not seem to offer new challenges and while I was wondering if the century-old looking stains in our trains can kill us, they were busy creating games and bridges across their top bunks.
As you know by the end of our stay there I had had enough, but it was the culturally ingrained discrimination and injustices that really struck a cord with me. Now that I think of it, my eldest did have a hard time dealing with the hardship in the eyes of Indian people, a sight that is impossible to avoid.
Practical question: How do you pick your next destination and how do you arrange transport and accommodation? Has that already became some kind of routine?
The Asian leg of our journey was decided by our wishes to fly as little as possible and to reach Japan at some point. Even now, cheap flights and ability to travel overland has a big effect on our itinerary. We break that only for places we really want to visit, like Egypt for example. It would have been cheaper to fly into Turkey directly from Dubai, but we just had to come. Once we start Europe and driving, other things will come into play – cheap accommodation is one that comes to mind.
Finding affordable, but good accommodation and good transport options takes a lot of research hours. We like small, possibly family run places. I usually start on TripAdvisor for ideas and options and continue from there. Expat forums are good when little else is available, especially for good suggestions for places to eat and reliable local transport. We have also done couch surfing, which is a favorite with the children, especially when we stay with families.
How do you prepare your children for the next destination? How do they respond to (again) a totally different culture, with different standards and habits?
They might listen to us discussing our next destination and what our expectations are and they might join in the conversation, but none of it is intentional on my part. I try to leave the discovery and impressions for them to make. Children have a wonderful ability to take everything at face value, so when they ask “Why do these people live here?”, “Why are all women covered in black?” or “What happened to his leg?”, a simple honest answer is all they really want to satisfy their curiosity and put the visual in agreement with their factual information.
What influence did the traveling have on your children up to now? For example, what is home for them?
Due to their varied ages, the effects have been different. My youngest is a true nomad, as this life for him is completely normal. He has no memories from our life back in Australia. He will sleep anywhere whenever he is tired, be it on a rickety bus, wobbly boat or squeezed in between our bags in a small taxi. “When are we getting to our new home?” is his usual question and home is wherever we are or wherever we are heading to. He can tell you where he has been and recite the address of our apartment in Bangkok and lately has started to peek behind my shoulder as I am reading the news and ask me if we have been to the places in the pictures, and if I answer no, he requests that we go there. He has opened up to people a lot, but the big change in that area has been with my young girl. She was impossible to get through by people outside of our family before. The other day she was wandering around the hotel and befriended an Associated Press journalist here, who is covering the Tahrir square events. I found them chatting in the small lobby about the world and their travels. Watching that change has been incredible. My eldest has always been social and open minded. She is the responsible, worrying one, so on top of spiking her interest in history and world events, this journey has her facing fears not once, only to discover that the world is not that scary after all.
Some people fear traveling with kids because they believe their kids need routine, a safe environment or they are just poor sleepers. Do you believe these kinds of things should withhold someone from traveling with their kids?
Yes. If a parent is truly worried about these things it is very likely that traveling with their children will be a rather stressful experience. I have friends back home who refuse to go to a wonderful meet up or performance, because it will interfere with their child’s sleep. I think a lot of them would be miserable living the way we do – different places, people, beds every few days, unknown food choices. Routines and training were never part of our family life, so fear of losing them was not an issue for us.
How did all the traveling change you as a family?
I am not sure it has. We were always close and spent a lot of time together. If there have been any changes, they must have been subtle, because I struggle to think of any.
You call yourself a vagabond family, but you also have nomadic families and traveling families. What’s the difference?
I am not sure if there is actual difference when using these terms to describe families on a journey.
I chose vagabonds, because we have been wanderers before this trip and it doesn’t look like we will be settling anytime soon. It also implies that somehow we are outside of the norm, which will be pretty accurate. Having that in mind, traveling family doesn’t quite cut it as a description. The other alternative is nomads, but this is now mostly used for digital nomads, implying those who work online while traveling. I wish we were in this group, but instead we are spending our savings.
12. In one sentence, what is the real value of family travel?
An impossible generalization. Every family will find different value in their experience.
For mine it has been stepping out of the small box called daily life in a Western country, and being able to show our children that life is almost never black and white, but many, many shades of gray, with each one having its own sparkle.