A series about Family Travel is not complete without the real life experiences of families that are traveling the world as we speak. I am thrilled to feature the first interview with a Canadian family that I have been following ever since they started their Round the World trip in 2011. Heather Greenwood Davis writes about her experiences at GlobeTrotting Mama. Be prepared for wonderful insights into the real value of family travel. Thank you Heather!
Heather, to start with, can you tell us something about you and your family?
We are an average Canadian family of four. Up until we left on this trip around the world the longest we’d been away as a family was the three weeks we spent with the kids when they were 3 and 11 months in France and Italy. I’m a writer by profession, specializing in Travel, Family, Parenting and Lifestyle topics. My husband is a municipal health inspector. My boys, Ethan (9) and Cameron (7) are missing grades 2 and 4 while traveling with us this year.
What I read in the stories on your blog is that you really want to open the eyes of your children to the variety and excitement in the world. What triggered you in your ‘former life back home’ to embark on this journey?
We (my husband Ish and I) have always believed in the power of travel. We’ve traveled separately and as a couple over the years and always came back with eye opening experiences and views. We’ve always wanted that for our kids and we vowed we would give it to them but the question was when. There wasn’t really a trigger point – just a recognition that things were aligning in such a way to make “now” the right time and we could either jump in and do it or live life regretting we’d missed the perfect window. I was a lawyer in a former life. I left that high-paying but high-stress job in 2007 and began focusing more fully on the name I was making for myself as a Travel Columnist with The Toronto Star Newspaper. My husband was offered a “4 over 5” prepaid sabbatical (work 4 years with a bit of overtime and get the 5th year off with pay!) in 2006. That meant that 2011 we could take my very portable job on the road and not worry about losing his income. It was also the perfect year to take the kids. Grade 3 in Canada is a fairly significant year in terms of testing and development. This way we were straddling it for our youngest and completing it with our oldest. It was the perfect time.
Can you shortly tell us about the places you have visited so far?
We are now in our 17th country since leaving home just over 6 months ago. We have been through western Canada, the USA (briefly), Argentina, Peru, Ecuador (including the Galapagos Islands), Colombia, China (6 cities!), Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa, Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania (including our current stop in Zanzibar). Every place has had something amazing to offer us.
Heather, I notice you travel quite fast (or maybe that’s just my observation) and you are now in Africa. What does your travel itinerary look like? Have you planned everything in advance?
It’s true. It does look fast from the outside but I have to tell you it suits our personalities more than I imagined. We’ve left every place knowing whether we wanted more or had had enough. It has been – with the exception of a few places where we REALLY wanted more – perfectly paced. We didn’t plan everything in advance. Doing so probably would’ve made this trip cheaper and more predictable but not doing so has opened us up to tremendous flexibility. We’ve often felt blessed that we didn’t have an outgoing ticket from somewhere and cursed when we did. The freedom of knowing you can stay longer has been really important to how we enjoy a place. When we left home in June we had our tickets booked through to China. When we were gearing up to leave China we booked Australia and into New Zealand. And we’ve carried on in that piecemeal way throughout our trip. It’s what is allowing us to make a last minute decision about whether we’ll go to Egypt or not and how much time we spend in Tanzania, etc. We still have India, Egypt, Dubai, Europe and the East of North America on our agenda but we fill in the details as we go.
What do you feel about the African continent as a family travel destination?
I’m absolutely blown away by Africa. It has been by far my biggest surprise. We, in North America, have very one-sided CNN views of the continent. Although it isn’t without its serious problems it has so many values I hadn’t really anticipated. The kids have been exposed to cultures that are unique to this part of the world, learned a new language in Swahili and I hope are having such amazing personal experiences that they won’t buy into what the TV tells them about the continent when we get home. We have found the people in the four countries we’ve visited to be friendly and engaging and I can’t wait to plan our next trip back to explore more of the continent.
Families seem to have difficulties in choosing a destination for their travels. How can you compare parts of the world you travel in? Is one region or country more family friendly than the other?
Choosing is tough. We are not an example of choosing well – we opted for it all! 🙂 No region or country has been more family friendly than any other. I think for the most part when people see a family traveling together like ours they are likely warmer than they might have been if it was just one of us or a couple. The kids are the ultimate icebreakers.
How do you prepare your children for the next destination?
I only “prepare” them when I know that what is coming may be extremely foreign to them. I prepared them for China by talking about the language, downloading apps that allowed them to learn a few words in Mandarin and talking to them about how it felt to be a linguistic minority in the country. I am now preparing them for India by pointing out some of the foods here in Africa that we might see again and talking about the poverty levels we’re bound to run across. But really I’ve done the most preparation by raising them to ask questions and to know that I’ll give them honest answers. They tend to walk into a new destination and make their own assessment of what they don’t understand or need clarification on and then ask us for guidance. I remember on one drive through New Zealand a conversation about the Vietnam War led to a discussion about World War II, Hitler, Apartheid and African-American slavery. They are curious kids and they’re able to put things together quite quickly.
How do you manage to keep the boys entertained and offer them the things children just love to do (playing with other kids, swimming, etc.)?
Whenever there are other kids around everything else is canceled. Homework, family dinners and everything else falls to the way side. We recognize that as kids they crave that interaction and so they get it in spades whenever possible. The great thing about traveling with two kids who are same sex and only two years apart is that they really are each other’s best buddy. They’ve developed ways to entertain themselves (made up games and continuing stories all of their own design) and they rarely need to rope us into their play.
How do you manage to keep up with their education?
Firstly, we aren’t stressed by it. I believe strongly in a good educational foundation (both their dad and I have post-secondary degrees) but I also believe whole-heartedly in the education they are getting outside our formal attempts to teach them. They do math online, read books and write in journals and on our blog www.globetrottingmama.com. They’ve taken more ownership of their education than they would at home. They’ll come running in proud that they’ve advanced to the next level of math or completed a chapter in a book. But I’m more blown away when I overhear them discussing whether they should give their extra backpack away to kids in the slums or telling their grandparents about Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Those aren’t things we explicity taught them, they are things they’ve picked up through touring and visiting places that captured their interests. Education on this trip has been the least of our concerns.
Besides the ‘regular ‘ education, you want your children to also learn about the history of a country, the meaning of a religion or the habits at a temple ground. How do you teach them about all this?
We’ve always made it a point to talk to the kids like little people and they respond in kind. We might introduce a topic like Apartheid for example – give them something age appropriate to read or define what the word means and then follow their lead. If they have questions we try to answer them or look them up together. When we hear the muslim call to prayer in Tanzania, I mention that that is what it is, that Muslims pray to “God” several times a day and that that is why friends of ours might excuse themselves at certain times. Kids crave information and if they know that you’ll give it to them straight, they relax and take it in. The boys have yet to ask me about burqas or shoeless kids or whether they should be afraid. They are comfortable in the world and they’re gaining confidence in themselves.
How can families benefit the most from their time together, in between the actual traveling, the search for accommodation and all the other excitement?
It’s those very things you mention that make this time together so incredible. When we are searching for accommodation and trying to decide where we should go next or what we should do next we do that as a family. They understand that we can’t always be at the hotel with the pool and they’ve taken active steps to search on their own for things they think will be fun in the next destination. More than anything we have the gift of time together. We aren’t as rushed as we were at home, pressing needs are less and we do make an effort to share the highlights of every day over dinner and to be together – even if we’re all doing our own thing like reading a book.
What is the key learning you want to give your children with this RTW trip?
The world belongs to everyone in it. What happens in the east affects the west. There are people out there who are suffering and what we do at home or abroad can make a difference. You are lucky to have been born where you were and to whom you were and with that comes a responsibility to own your life and live it to the fullest. The world looks big but it’s tiny once you begin to walk out into it. There’s nothing wrong with living a dream and make sure it’s as big a dream as you can conjure. You are loved more than anything.
In one sentence, what is the real value of family travel?
Time together – we aren’t promised anything and it’s not infinite – don’t waste it.