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Tales from One Family’s Year Abroad

Here is a dispatch from a Calgary family-Deb Cummings, 48, her husband Scott Lazenby, 49, and their two children, Siobhan, 14, and Quinn, 11-who recently travelled and volunteered around the world.

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The photos rotate on my screen saver, flicking through a world that now seems galaxies away. There’s one of our family gazing serenely across India’s Thar Desert, flanked by dozing camels. Another shows us cycling past medieval castles in France; branding cattle in Australia; boating down the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Did we really do all that or have I just stumbled into someone else’s life? Was it just last year that our family travelled around the planet with a knapsack apiece, a duffle bag of books and a sketchy itinerary? Now we’re back in Calgary, with closets the size of rooms we bunked in in India; with toilets full of ‘drinking water’; with a heat source larger than a hot water bottle; with more things to lose, clean, break. Sometimes I think I tumbled down some bizarre time tunnel last year, where life for 358 days was curled inside out and upside down.

 

Then I get a call, which usually straightens me out. Such as the one from the Glouchkows, a family from Ottawa, who tracked us down in August to say they were off on a similar adventure and wondered if we could swap notes as they swung through Calgary before departing for Fiji from Vancouver. What follows is a list of questions culled from Ellen and Jamie Glouchkow, fellow travellers, new e-mail “pals” and folks curious about the “backstory” of our year abroad. I’ve tried to answer each as best I could.

 

 

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What kind of technology did you travel with, and were you ever robbed?

No, we were never robbed, surprisingly, for we travelled with more bits of flashy technology than we ever had on any previous trip. Scott had a large digital camera, the kids had a small one and I had a cheap laptop – plus three iPods, an external hard drive and two cell phones. The cell phones gave us the safety and ability to break up into two travelling groups (even for half a day), plus they were extremely useful for booking guesthouses ahead of time, saving us hours of schlepping packs from place to place in search of accommodation. Just be sure to keep the receipt: In order to buy a SIM card in Turkey and India we had to prove our phones weren’t stolen. We came home with all our equipment apart from one phone that we accidentally left in a guesthouse in Darjeeling. My husband figured the maid needed the phone more than he.

 

Were you ever extremely frightened?

 

The only countries that left us nervous were Kenya and Tanzania – and only in large, urban centres, not on safari. In most of east Africa, the sun sinks swiftly at 6 p.m,. so we avoided the dark streets at night. However, we had to eat. So, at dinnertime we always carried headlamps and chose restaurants a block or two away, but we always looked over our shoulders and moved in a tight little pack. There was one significant moment-at a bus station in Arusha, Tanzania-where we most certainly felt uneasy. We’d been on a “chicken bus” from Mombasa to Arusha-a leg that should have taken six hours. Instead it took ten hours because the bus got stuck on a muddy shoulder, so we had to get towed out of the muck. During that fracas the chickens escaped from the baskets and were pecking their way through the collapsible door. We arrived in Arusha, not tarred, but certainly “feathered” and right at dusk. Hundreds of men were loping around a big bus park-hustling guiding services, shuttles to lodges, hotels, hookers, you name it. We just huddled and tried to figure out where best to go. Right at this juncture I looked at our youngest, Quinn, who was jumping. Honestly, he was hopping on the spot like a young Masai warrior. Had he got fleas? Again? Later, he told me that he thought if he kept moving no little fingers would be able to get inside his backpack. Moments like that made us realize that travellers, even at Quinn’s age, quickly develop an inner awareness that has you doing whatever is needed to stay safe.

 

What was your system for travelling with money and important documents?

 

We used ATMs (bank machines), which are virtually everywhere. But do take several debit cards as we had at least two eaten. Expect to pay about $4 per withdrawal, a considerable percentage, when in some countries the maximum you can take out is $100. Make sure your daily maximum withdrawal is sufficient and realize when you need a large sum that the day has to flip over in Canada, not where you’re standing.

 

Credit cards are not always accepted in lesser establishments and they often charge a three percent premium. Notify your bank and credit card company where and when you’ll be travelling, otherwise they may shut down your card because of the unusual activity. Traveller’s cheques are pretty much old school, but we had some as a back-up. Carry lots of U.S. cash for emergencies and for entry visas. We stored our cash and secondary debit cards in several places. Both children had $50 in cash that they carried in their money belt and a document that listed every contact possible, from consulate information to our banker, power of attorney, relatives and so forth. We also scanned this vital document as well as our passports and e-mailed them to ourselves and others. At the last minute we made up some business cards with all of our e-mails and our home address, which made it easy for fellow travellers to stay in touch with us.

 

Our family has aspirations to complete a year of travel before the kids have grown and left the nest. We’re hoping to leave next summer (2008), when our children will be 15, 13, 10 and 8. Would you recommend a Round the World (RTW) airline ticket? Are there are good savings to be had versus pay-as-you-go, which obviously leaves you with more flexibility?

 

In the spirit of experimentation we did both. I had saved frequent flyer points with Air Canada for a decade and had enough to buy two RTW tickets, for my son and I. We decided my daughter and husband would buy one-way budget tickets and we’d all try to land in the same city on the same day. For the most part it worked splendidly and was extremely cost-effective. On our RTW ticket you were allowed one open segment (where point of arrival didn’t have to be the same as your departure), which we used in Asia. That meant that Quinn and I flew on our RTW from Toronto to London, London to Istanbul, Istanbul to Zurich-Nairobi, Nairobi to Bangkok. The next time we used our RTW ticket was almost seven months later on our return flight from Sydney, Australia, to Calgary. In Asia, we all travelled on budget airlines, which are ridiculously cheap (lowest fare: $17, Air Asia, between Chiang Mai and Bangkok). Most RTW tickets start at about $2,000, so if they get you to most of the places you wish to go, they’re likely a good deal. If however, you’re spending all your time in areas that have budget airlines such as Europe or Asia, you’re likely better off buying one-way tickets and hunting for web deals. The best one-way deals we found were on Zoom Airlines (from Toronto to London), Ryan Air (within Europe), Air Asia, Swiss Airlines (we found a great seat sale from Zurich to Nairobi) and United Emirates (from Nairobi to Bangkok). In total we spent about $10,000 on airfare, and each of us took 30 flights.

 

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Are either of you teachers? Did you “home school”; how much time did you spend on schoolwork and did you bring lots of textbooks?

No, neither of us had ever taught before. In advance we chatted with the principals and teachers at both children’s schools. Our eldest attends a French Immersion program at Branton Junior High School; they supplied us with math books and two point teachers-one of whom designed four fantastic research projects tailored to the Grade 8 English curriculum, involving places we’d be travelling. Siobhan’s other teacher was there for French language support. All communication was via e-mail. Everyone seemed to agree that if we kept up Math, English and French, Siobhan could likely slide into Grade 9, which she has.

 

For Quinn, who was missing Grade 5 at Briar Hill Elementary, we went through the Calgary Board of Education’s “alternate” schooling program and with their assistance designed a very loose program that fulfilled the necessary requirements, replacing a few core areas like social studies with world religion. We were vigilant at the start (an hour to two a day) and got awfully lax as the trip progressed. The Internet and Lonely Planet guidebooks were our biggest resources.

 

Most of all our children just read. A lot. We all did. After all, what else are you going to do on a three-day train journey through rice paddies? Plus, Siobhan and Quinn filled four journals apiece, so their penmanship and spelling improved enormously. Our daughter taught herself math and Scott helped Quinn by using a terrific book, the Saxon Math book for Home Schooling. The amount of “schooling” varied dramatically. Sometimes we’d go for weeks only journalling and reading. When we volunteered or stayed somewhere that came with a routine, we’d try to do an hour or two of schoolwork a day. We took and shipped an enormous amount of books, not realizing how easily we could find books (including the latest editions of guidebooks) along the way. We did enroll the kids in summer school upon returning-to help smooth over some of the gaps in their education.

 

What would you change if you did it again?

 

We certainly wouldn’t take all 17 guidebooks and dozens of novels. Our packs were painfully heavy as was our duffle bag (our moveable library), which we often stowed at a hotel or airport. Actually the wheeled duffle was great because whatever gear or books we wouldn’t need for a few weeks we simply left in there, locked up in left-luggage somewhere. If you’re going with a reputable safari company to Africa or on prearranged tours through malaria zones you likely don’t need to carry light, but bulky, mosquito nets. However, if you’re truly “roughing” it, take them. Restaurant food, after Europe, was so cheap and so divine, we never used our pot set, plates, cups and cutlery. Without those items and our heavy books we wouldn’t have been charged excess baggage which happened a few times. As for our routing, I would have spent less time in Borneo and tried to volunteer in one other place.

 

Did you have all your vaccinations before your trip or did you have to get some along the way?

 

We completed all our shots (our children needed 12 apiece) before we left-starting about four months before our departure. It pays to shop around as the costs at a private clinic can be considerably higher than at public international travel clinics. Also, if you subscribe to Blue Cross, a portion of your shots may be covered but you have to be contributing to their program for several months before vaccinations start-so inquire long in advance.

 

Due to our routing we had to be on malaria pills, Mefloquine, for 11 months and that bill alone was about $700. In fact, we spent about $2,400 on vaccinations and drugs before we even left. Undoubtedly there are cheaper alternatives along the way, but we heard enough horror stories to persuade us to get all our treatments here. We didn’t get any rabies shots, but now that we’ve seen the sorry condition of so many mangy dogs, I think we would have broken down (they’re pricey) and paid for the peace of mind.

 

Is there an ideal age to take children on such an epic journey?

 

If you want your children to remember the trip, then the older the better – but remember, they have to still want to hang out with you. As well, we had to factor in missing a year of school and were told by numerous teachers that the last year we could “safely” do that and have our child slide into the following grade would be Grade 8. Plus, we wanted our children to have stamina so they could enjoy lots of outdoor adventures, such as a multi-day trek in Sikkim and the 15,000 ft. climb to the summit of Mount Kinabalu in Borneo. When we left, our children were nine and 13-perfect for the sort of trip we designed.

 

Would you recommend breaking up the trip periodically with longer stays in one place so the kids can rest up, so to speak, from “travelling” and being bombarded with new sights, smells and surroundings?

 

Absolutely. We did that by volunteering every three or four months, and in retrospect I think we could have tried to do more volunteer stints and visit fewer countries, though it’s not a serious regret. Pacing becomes a huge issue when travelling with children, especially when that trip is for a year (we agonized over “the order” when buying our RTW). While we wanted to shake up our kids, we didn’t want them to explode. There’s no question that had we gone to India first we would have faced a mutiny, so we slowly increased the level of “cultural hardship.” After travelling in Europe, Turkey seemed like a logical bridge before venturing to Kenya, which it was. Geographically and financially, travelling from Africa to India makes a lot more sense than flying from Africa to Thailand, but that’s what we did. Two months later we were “backing up” with a flight from Thailand to India. We had suspected that Africa and India would require a lot of “work” so we broke it up with an easy stretch in Thailand and Vietnam. By the time everyone arrived in India, we were healthy, relaxed and up for the madness that comes with that phenomenal place. After India, we had a base in Bali, which also let us re-energize and plan the last leg of our trip, Australia.