To say it’s been a big year is an understatement. One of the final sentences of last year’s letter was: “Hard to believe that our next letter will likely have to be posted on our blog and written from a cafe in Morocco or a beach in Goa.” Well, we’re not far off. Gazing over the top of my laptop, the sun is rising over the southern coast of Cyprus, skittering over the Mediterranean Sea in a glittery lightshow of orange, pink and blue.
It’s 6:50 am and everyone else is sleeping – the six of us plus Lindsay’s family who flew out to be with us for Christmas. Fourteen Canadians in a villa perched on a rocky hill overlooking the seaside town of Peyia.
How did we get here? That is a long story involving overcrowded emergency departments, Netflix, and real estate bubbles. Let me explain.
After seven or eight years of practicing emergency medicine I found myself getting tired. Medicine wasn’t the problem. I enjoyed helping people, even the most challenging cases. It was the system I couldn’t escape. I wanted to provide excellent care for my patients, but the inefficient, bureaucratic public system had been deteriorating before my eyes from the beginning. I changed hospitals which helped for a while; I got involved in administrative roles which never helped at all. I stuck it out for thirteen years finding it harder and harder to maintain a positive attitude while brainstorming strategies to get out before I became bitter and resentful.
Whether the change would be permanent or not, the catalyst was, of all things, Netflix. In particular, a low-budget, award-winning documentary called “Given” in which a family with two young children travels around the world. In September of 2017 we watched Given as a family. By the end of the flick, Linds and I didn’t need to say a word to know what the other was thinking. Maybe it was a little crazy – but it felt right. We started to plan our own “Gap Year”.
Once we had made up our minds, three things happened very quickly. First, what seemed almost unthinkable was normalized as we learned of many other families embarking on their own full-time travel adventures. Second, it became apparent that one year would barely be enough to scratch the surface of our travel dreams. Third, perhaps because there was a light at the end of the tunnel, I hit my limit in the ER. Coming home from a particularly exhausting shift, Linds asked, “This house is worth a lot of money. If we sold it could you stop working for a few years?”
From “gap year” to full-time travel
In answering that question, our temporary hiatus from “normal” life was transformed into open-ended full-time travel. We finished our planned renovations over several months then sold the house. Before the closing date we also sold the boat, both cars and most of our possessions. The kids rocked the transition to minimalism like they were born to it, consolidating their most prized possessions into a bin and selling or giving away the rest. We all went through the same process and experienced the strange and awesome lightness that came with it together. By the end, the only items that had not been given, stored or sold fit into carry-on sized backpacks. On July 26th we boarded our first flight.
That was nearly five months ago. Since then we’ve been to ten countries, stayed in twenty-one different lodgings and traveled by plane, train, bus, ferry, taxi, car, and sailboat. We’ve gasped at geysers, marveled at mosques and found friendship just about everywhere.
Some people call us brave. We’re not. Bravery is doing something in spite of great risk. Traveling full time comes with a healthy dose of uncertainty but very little risk. In fact, the greater risk would have been to accept the status quo and not take this opportunity to learn about the world.
We traded comfort for adventure, material possessions for experiences, and familiar routines for time together as a family. There are ups and downs. The highs are higher and the lows are lower. But the point is that we are learning things that our old life could not teach us.
Top 10 travel lessons
- It’s easy to confuse busyness with productivity
- Independence is great. Community is better.
- There are kind, generous people everywhere (especially if you show kindness and generosity)
- What is normal to one person is strange and foreign to another
- Core values like honesty and integrity are remarkably constant
- Learning even a few words of a foreign language is not just practical, it is a gesture of kindness and effort.
- Safety and security are ideals, not god-given rights
- Time spent listening is time well spent
- Relationships are what matter in the end
- When it comes to relationships, there is no substitute for time spent together. And we like spending time together.
Many people are fascinated by this unusual path we are taking and, understandably, wonder how we’re doing. Perhaps you can tell already – I tend to get philosophical about a lot of this because I feel like it’s a problem to be figured out. Maybe I never will, but the thought process is interesting. At times I struggle with our “homelessness” and a need to feel “productive”. But I’m grateful for the opportunity we have to be on this path, to explore the dark corners it is illuminating, and most of all, to be doing it together.
Lindsay was the wildcard, constantly surprising me. From her initial enthusiasm to her willingness to sell the house to the ease with which she has adapted to this lifestyle, I am deeply and sincerely amazed by her. Escaping the hectic routine-driven lifestyle of our old life has allowed her to relax a little more and become even closer with the boys. Just one example of this occurred in Turkey. Linds had the wonderful opportunity to learn how to cook Turkish dishes at a local restaurant. Coming home, she would take one boy at a time and cook an entire meal with him. It has always been important to Linds to teach the boys how to cook – somehow we couldn’t make this happen in our “old life”.
The kids have adapted to traveling with almost no issues. Owen, now twelve years old, whose greatest priority in life is to learn as much as possible about everything, would not hesitate to fully endorse his new lifestyle. Armed with his own computer and wifi access, he has used his “screen time” allowance to start his own blog, devour online courses (mostly technology related), and learn how to program his own video games (since we still won’t let him play anything else). We recently asked Owen if he thought he was learning as much “worldschooling” as he would be in “normal” school. “No. I’m learning at least five times more!” Just the other day Owen proudly showed me a working computer program he had written to test an equation he had formulated showing the relationship between two consecutive square numbers. Uh, wow.
From our perspective as parents, we have never seen Jake happier. Now that he is not embroiled in schoolyard dramas and having to be accountable for behaviour at both school and home, his life is much simpler. Having said that, Jake, who is now 11, is the one child who has had some unease with our new lifestyle. He misses his friends and he misses having a safe and constant place to call his own. And, like his father, he probably analyzes everything far more than what is good for him. But it is his sensitive nature that will benefit the most from this life of full-time togetherness. Ultimately, I think that seeing so much of the world will give him confidence that there is a role for him in it. In the meantime, Jake continues to amaze us with achievements like solving a Rubik’s cube in under 1:30, and writing a 15 000 word novel in under a month (“Battle of the Cosmos!!”).
I have to admit, I was concerned about how Ben might handle full-time travel. Ben, who is now 9, is our most introverted child. How would a child who is happiest in a closed, quiet room with books and Lego do exploring the planet with almost no alone time?? We needn’t have worried. Ben has adapted to this life of travel like a champ. He will still take every opportunity to build something out of any material available (we have wooden blocks and “Plus Plus” packed just for him), but Ben is also learning to come out of his shell. On numerous occasions, Ben has been the one to make friends with other children at local playgrounds and he is not shy to try out new words in foreign languages when we go out. Because he is so quiet and low-maintenance it was always too easy not to notice our little Ben. I am so grateful to have this time with him, free of the distractions of our old life.
It seems that the younger the child the more easily they adapt. Eli was six when we started on this journey and is now seven. He has transformed before our eyes from a precocious and adorable “little kid” into a friendly and sociable boy. His blue eyes sparkle less with innocence and more with thoughtfulness but still with the same amount of outgoing affection for people and life in general. To be honest, I wonder how much of these months he will even remember. At the same time, it is clear that the impressions that are being left are significant. Eli connects with people everywhere we go from flight attendants to tour guides to Airbnb hosts. Perhaps more than any of us, Eli will understand deeply that the world is not scary, it is full of friends – those we know and those we don’t know yet. Travel is a way of meeting more friends and learning more about them.
Travel vs. settle
For hundreds of thousands of years, humans were nomadic. It is only in the last ten thousand or so that travel has become the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps we were drawn to this idea because of some spark in our primitive brains trying to remind us that life is about more than houses and cars and money and stuff. We have found that to be true.
On the other hand, ancient humans traveled because they had to, foraging for resources that were spread out over great distances. It was never easy. Uncertainty is a law of nature.
I suppose we are trying to find middle ground. Safety but not boredom. Purpose over possessions. Experience without burnout. But most of all, we are learning how to be a family. A lesson, I will admit, I didn’t know we had to learn.
What’s next? We are moving east in the near term. Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand . . . and – brace yourself – keeping an eye on the used sailboat market. How do you travel the world and not feel homeless? Travel with your home, of course!
Stay tuned for next year’s letter. In the meantime, we hope you have a wonderful holiday wherever you are and know that even though this trip takes us far away it makes us value our relationships more.
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