"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness."- Mark Twain
The Whartons just got back home to Silicon Valley after a year abroad with their family, traveling the world to experience different cultures and gain fresh perspectives. Scott and Mariette visited 25 countries in 5 continents with their two sons, who were 13 (Dane) and 10 (Reid) at the start of the trip.
Mariette Wharton talks to Talking Cranes about their travel and what they learned along the way...
Mariette, first of all, what made you even plan this adventure? What was the tipping point to make you take this trip at this point in your life?
The idea was first hatched 8 years ago after Scott and I read Tim Ferriss’ book The Four-Hour Workweek and we were inspired to create a dreamscape, which for us included taking a trip around the globe with our family. We are both extraordinarily enthusiastic about travel. The two of us were on vacation alone in Greece and walked for hours together, discussing our dreams. We decided then we would take our sons on a globe trot before they were grown up and out of the house.
Scott and I had a natural break from work after we sold a high-tech company at the end of 2013 that we founded together in 2008. We felt our sons were the right age, old enough to participate in high-adventure activities and to understand other cultures and would miss 5th and 8th grade, but not high school. Several friends with older children warned us that once high school arrives, it can be much harder to take longer trips due to sports and school commitments, not to mention that the academic part is more important to fulfill.
How did you choose where in the world to go? What was your itinerary? Did you plan your whole trip before you left home?
As a family we had already traveled together to 10 countries before this adventure, including Japan and Egypt, so we felt comfortable taking our sons to far-flung locales. We wanted to start as far away as possible to be in very different cultures and in places that were harder to get to that would not be as suitable for a shorter family getaway. We saved South America for later adventures, since it would be relatively easier to get to later from California compared to Africa and Asia. We also set aside Antartica, simply because even though a year is a long time, the world is vast and we did not want to be spread too thin.
Before the trip, we sketched out a rough itinerary of 6 months in Asia, a couple of months in Australia and New Zealand, a month in the Middle East, a month in Africa and a couple of months in Europe. We added Laos, Palestine and Jordan, which we had not planning on but did not make it to India and Sri Lanka as we had hoped, since we spent more time in Nepal than anticipated. We had certain highlights in mind, such as summiting Mount Kilimanjaro and hiking in the Himalayas to Everest Base Camp as well as continuing French studies.
How much did you pack? What did you take with you? What stuff you miss on your year away from home?
We invested a great deal of time creating the shortest possible list of items to bring with us and selected one bag each (hence the blog title!) with wheels and a zip-off backpack, in total the size of one and a half carry-ons. For entertainment, we brought iPads, Kindles, a deck of cards and UNO, a hangman game and a set of dice, all of which we used a lot. We bought a few balls along the way. My son brought his camera and GoPro. We also carried iPhones and a small laptop for blogging and booking travel arrangements, which was essential. We each had a pair of shoes for walking and hiking and sandals. For clothing, we packed for summer weather and bought (and later donated) winter clothes in Nepal and Africa for our treks. We had a small first aid kit and a small supply of toiletries. Admittedly, I brought more than needed in this category but it was a comfort and luxury to have toxic-free items. We did not miss a thing and actually felt we had too much stuff, especially near the end.
How did you deal with currency changes? And any tips on staying within budget? How did the children handle all the local food?
ATMs are ubiquitous in the places we traveled to (Japan is oddly an exception and we did not visit Japan on this trip, unfortunately), so currency changes were never a problem except when we didn’t have time to exchange back currency at an airport. Not a problem if you have euros, but exchanging dong, kip or riel for example outside of the region is nearly impossible. In Tanzania, Scott had to visit many ATMs before our trek since the withdrawal limit was low and we needed to bring cash for tips for the team that supported our Kilimanjaro summit (14 people for the four of us, including a cook, a waiter!, porters and guides).
As for spending, part of the reason we spent half the trip in Asia is that many of the countries we visited there (Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Nepal) are less expensive. We spent shorter periods of time in more expensive parts of Asia, such as Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, less than a week in each as compared to 6 weeks in Thailand and a month in Indonesia, for example.
As for food, Dane loved trying new foods (even tarantula, silkworm and crickets in Cambodia) although our youngest, who was 10-11 years old at the time, was not happy with the often unfamiliar ingredients and spiciness typically found in Asian foods. He was dying for comfort foods, so to appease him we visited Pizza Hut in many countries, which interestingly has entirely different menus globally, including relatively sophisticated chicken entrees, soups, salads and intricate desserts and drinks. (Not that he ate anything but pizza there!)
How did you manage to keep your children abreast with their education and keep them on track for school when they got back home?
We considered hiring a teacher and interviewed several excellent candidates experienced but ultimately decided to favor experiential over book learning. Our sons followed their school’s math curriculum with an iPad app in the case of Dane and the textbook’s website for Reid with printable homework. Before our travels, we met with each of our sons’ teachers and got the outline of the curriculum for French, science and grammar. I worked with Reid on math, and a little bit on grammar and French. They both wrote a handful of blog posts and read a few books and Dane read extensively on technology and science, following his own interests. We also enrolled Dane in an international French school in France for 5 weeks, which allowed him to move up a level in French when he returned. Reid attended his school’s summer school to get up to speed on math and grammar. For world culture, we spoke to locals daily in every country and visited temples, churches and museums in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Singapore, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, South Africa, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey and the U.K.
What was the best part of your travel experience? Would you do it again? Or would you do anything different if you were to do it again?
The best part of the travel experience was having the time to be together without the stresses of work and school impinging on relaxing and enjoying each other. (Most of the worst moments were also when we were all together: imagine four cranky, exhausted, hungry jetlagged family members arriving in an airport at midnight after hours of travel. Not pretty.) If I were to do it again, I would plan to visit friends and family around the holidays and other times. We did synch up with friends and family in Nepal, Australia, France and the UK but we did not see any friends or family for the first 5 months and that was difficult.
What did you miss most on your trip?
Absolutely missed our friends and family and we missed being part of a community and having a social life.
What do your kids think about this adventure? Do you think that this trip changed them fundamentally and how they see the world?
Our kids think the trip was amazing and they know they are fortunate, even if it took them away from friends, sports and a predictable routine. When we arrived in Australia after spending a few months in Southeast Asia and Nepal, the first thing Reid said was, “Clean air. Clean water. Traffic laws. I can walk across the street without risking my life!” He truly appreciated the basic essentials of life and knows firsthand that most of the world does not enjoy even the fundamental privilege of clean air and water, not to mention a lawful society. Both kids were affected by living in Buddhist cultures for 6-7 months. No one raises their voice, demands or expects anything, and people are gracious and generous the world over way beyond their means. We see the world as a beautiful, giving, resilient place despite atrocities and daily suffering.
Not to mention that if our sons were dropped by helicopter in the middle of any city, they could find their way without getting too flustered and would not get ripped off in the process! More importantly, they have proven to themselves that they have the strength and endurance to face what might seem like an insurmountable challenge and succeed.
Any fun stories to share? Quirky incidents?
The adventure was full of mishaps including getting locked out of an apartment in Paris, losing and accidentally taking keys with us and sometimes being chased down, missing a flight and spending an extra 10-12 hours in the Nairobi Airport, carrying our luggage overhead as we exited a boat in Thailand in a monsoon, accidentally taking a pocket knife onboard a flight (New Zealand is more lax?), and getting terribly lost for hours on the island of Bali as the sun was going down on motorbikes.
One of the funniest episodes was when we rented a Balinese villa for a few days. For the life of him, the driver could not find the location. We had pulled the address from the website and found the villa name on Google maps but it was sending us in circles for over an hour. Somehow we finally found it but it was not exactly where it seemed like it was showing on the map. (Google maps is totally unpredictable in Southeast Asia so we didn’t give it a second thought.) We had to wait for the property representative to bring us the key as they were unprepared for our arrival. Once we finally entered, we were thrilled as it was significantly more luxurious than expected with a long lap pool and three separate beautiful buildings in the complex. The next day, the property manager came over, puzzled, as he thought the property was vacant that week. Eventually, we figured out that we had actually booked an entirely different property, one with almost the same name and address. We ended up staying anyway!
What did you learn most about yourself or the world? Have you returned with a fresh perspective and new ideas?
This year was the first time in my adult life that I was relaxed for many months consecutively (fleeting moments notwithstanding), so when I got back I really examined where my time and energy was going once I felt the stress level rising again. One of the solutions is to just not plan activities on the weekend and just be. Another is to identify where physically the stress is building and release it. It’s also a shift in daily mindset, more of a meditative approach to just let whatever stressful moment pass. Studying and Buddhism and living in a predominantly Buddhist culture for over 6 months profoundly changed the way I view everything. In most of the world, people lack the economic opportunities that we enjoy but the pressure for work also brings stress and can lead to diminishment of daily joy. It takes a lot of conscious effort not to let even good sources of stress rob us of contentment.
One reality we witnessed frequently throughout the world is the many people who desperately seek a better education, even a stronger grasp of English, to escape a life of eking out an existence. We had a lot of conversations about what we could do to help, how to leverage existing resources and how to work within societal constraints. The upshot is that a non-profit is in the conception phase with an app that Dane has started to noodle.
If nothing else, I think we have given our children the gift from this world of seeing resilience overcome catastrophe, generosity among the impoverished, acceptance after loss, forgiveness for oppressors, patience amidst chaos, and peace within oneself.