In hindsight, your vision is always 20/20, amirite? It’s no different in Worldschooling. When you look back, you can see really clearly when you made some pretty significant decisions, whereas at the time you had no idea how significant they would be.
As our travelling time is coming to an end (this phase anyway), I have been reflecting on some of the major decisions we made that had a really large impact on us, or our journey. We didn’t necessarily make the decisions for that reason, but in hindsight they became game-changers. Here they are.
1. The Decision To Actually Do This
This is an obvious one, but I have to start there. What we did was not normal. It was not the traditional path. So to make the decision to pack our life into a storage unit or suitcase, leave the country and make a new life for ourselves somewhere else… well, it really felt like swimming upstream. But it was worth it 1000 times over. What started out as a kind of crazy idea: “Hey, we should go to Panama for while, wouldn’t that be fun?” ended up as an even crazier one: “Hey, let’s just keep travelling and see where we end up.” But the most important decision was the first one. After that, it got easier. Worldschooling newbies typically focus a lot on what they will experience when they get to their destination, but honestly the “deciding to do it” and exiting out of your traditional life is one of the hardest parts.
2. The Girls Learning Spanish
This was a true game-changer, and a decision that we benefited from for the rest of our journey. The girls will benefit from this for the rest of their lives. We plopped ourselves down in Panama, showed up at the school and elbowed our way into a traditional Panamanian existence for a year (if you can call a large air-conditioned block house “traditional” – which you can’t). In addition to public school, the girls did homeschool and Spanish lessons. Looking back, I’m shocked I did not get more push-back from them on how much work they were doing. It’s a good thing there was not a whole lot else to do in town.
The girls accepted all the studying as part of life and dutifully went to all their Spanish classes, although the vast majority of their language learning happened at school. It was drudgery, let’s not wax poetic. But they did it and it formed a base that was instrumental in their continued language learning. Due to their time at school in Panama, continued Spanish lessons in Mexico and their year in Colombia, they can now exist in either language. That means we have had double the opportunity for tours, workshops, classes and social events as we have traveled. It will be interesting to see how else they use their language skills as they navigate growing up. I used the language skills I gained as a teen to Worldschool. I can only imagine what they will do.
3. South Africa
We were pretty naive in planning our South Africa trip. It literally went like this:
Allison: “We have to leave Europe from January to April due to visa restrictions. But we want to go back in April. Where can we go during that time that will be warm while it’s cold in Europe?”
Dan: “South Africa”
Allison: “Ok let’s go!”
So we showed up! It was probably the country and experience where we had the most culture shock, and subsequent learning. We didn’t learn from the homeschool classes we found, although it was nice to have them in English, but just simply living there was education enough. It was one of our most-hated living choices (the windy house with the smoking grandma and barking dogs and so.many.cockroaches) but some of the best experiences. We loved all the experiences with animals (except those mentioned above), the wonderfully kind and generous people and we found some great food (looking at you, biltong). The prices were also quite reasonable, so it became a bit of a trifecta of a great experience.
The kids learned about racism in a way that they never could have any where else, and saw some of the worst living conditions we’ve ever seen in our entire journey. They thoroughly enjoyed participating in the South African tradition of going barefoot in public places (even in malls and movie theaters) and ate all kinds of meat from unknown animals thanks to the hospitality of strangers (they weren’t strangers for long) who invited us over for dinner.
I experienced the most anxiety-related stress of any country due to the heightened potential for crime there. I cried myself to sleep on our first night in our first Airbnb. It was a beautiful house but with more layered security than Fort Knox. What people have to do there to keep themselves safe is truly mind boggling. Although we were never victims of a crime, it always felt like it was just a matter of time. Three months was enough and although I was happy to leave, the learning we experienced there was unparalleled and I would choose to do it all again, under the same circumstances. However, in the time that has passed since we were there, the politics have deteriorated to a point that today, we would not return. So it felt like we had a moment in time when everything worked and we are eternally grateful for the off-the-cuff decision to do a visa run to South Africa.
3. Iconic Sights
We spent three different phases in Europe, alternating between having a home base (Spain, Netherlands, and France) and travelling fast. At the time, we were only moderately excited about seeing all the famous places. It was the “we really should do this” kind of decisions that you know are good but you kind of dread them at the time due to all the other people who are also there doing them. But now that we’ve seen so many of these places, we bump into references to them everywhere. Iconic castles and cathedrals and churches and artwork and monuments and ruins and city landscapes, it’s fun to go to the movies with the girls and we get excited when we see something familiar. It’s exciting even when Zoe can’t remember the exact name of it. (We saw The Last Supper painting in Milan. Zoe refers to it as “Jesus’ Party At Lunch”). Sometimes you just need to check the box of very popular destinations to keep up your enthusiasm for the lifestyle long after you’ve left that place.
4. Haley’s Retreat in Thailand
Haley met some Worldschooling teens while at a conference in South Africa, which planted the idea of participating in a retreat the following fall in Thailand. Being the non-planners that we are, we were able to work that into our schedule with ease and we sent her off for a month when she was only 15. It felt like summer camp on steroids, as she navigated a more independent life, with more peers than she’d had in 3 years, while still living outside the USA. She returned to us more independent, flexible, mature and a little bit more sassy. Oh and she was anemic and covered with bug bites. But I digress.
I’ll be honest, we no longer recommend the organization who ran the retreat but we cannot deny that the experience for Haley was really instrumental in her development as a well-traveled teen.
5. Zoe’s Music
In our second country, Mexico, Zoe decided to start classes in singing and ukulele. Since she was not in any traditional school at that time, this was an excellent way to round out her homeschooling. She jumped in with both feet and after only 6 weeks of ukulele lessons, she participated in her first recital. Looping back to #2 of this list, she did her ukulele lessons and recital entirely in Spanish.
She continued her lessons in all the countries where we stayed long enough to set up a schedule. Voice lessons and a music video in Spain, singing and playing at a talent show in South Africa, lessons and a new ukulele in Amsterdam, attending a music school in Thailand, and voice, ukulele and guitar lessons plus another talent show in Medellin. She had a lot of opportunities to showcase her talent among her peers at her school in Colombia, and even recorded an original song she wrote for her sister’s completion of high school. She added to her musical repertoire at the end of our Worldschooling journey in Mexico with drum lessons in preparation for joining the marching band when returning to the USA.
Having this common interest across all these countries really allowed us to see a different part of the culture and get involved a little more locally. It was never too difficult to find someone to teach her and we met some amazing people along the way.
6. No Home Base
This was not a conscious decision per se, but more of a natural consequence of our living situation. We moved to Arizona from Oregon in 2011. We actually talked about taking off on an international journey then, but I felt like I needed to know where we would go back to before we left. And indeed the transition from Oregon to Arizona gave me additional skills and confidence on how to build a new life in a new area. I could probably teach a masters-degree level class on that now. I am a professional re-locator.
Living in Arizona only 3 years, we had not purchased a house and were only renting. This really was instrumental in allowing us to go. We did not have to worry about selling the house or renting it out and tending to it while we were gone. We simply gave our notice, packed our stuff and off we went. When we left we had a few storage units with (too many) household items. We had no car and no house. This made it much more economical to travel, because the only rent we were paying was wherever we were sleeping that night. It was nice to have no ties that forced us back to the USA, only those emotional ones that we chose to return for.
7. Rehoming Phinny
This was probably the saddest decision we had to make as part of our Worldschooling journey. Under the original plan of living in Panama for 2 years and returning, it was easy (albeit expensive due to transportation and regulations) to have our beloved dog, Phinny, join us in Panama. It wasn’t so easy when he lived there, however. Pananamian dogs have more street smarts than Suburban Arizona Dogs. Phinny didn’t really know what to do with these aggressive dogs that roamed the streets, digging in the trash. He didn’t have a very good window to look out of (a very important feature of any house for Phinny) and walking him was stressful due to my fear of dog attacks. Phinny also contracted a few illnesses while we were there but thankfully his immune system allowed him to fight it off, while other dogs died from the same disease. It was too close for comfort, however.
But once we decided to travel indefinitely and on a faster schedule, we knew we had to find another option for Phinny. Some people do travel with their pets but we affectionately call those people “crazy” because it adds an infinite number of complex layers to traveling.
So before we left Panama we found him a new home in Oregon, with a family that knew him when we lived there. They were so happy to take him, but only if they could keep him permanently. They knew Phinny and they knew that they would not want to give him up when we made our way back to the USA, whenever that ended up being. And so, we reluctantly agreed and said our goodbyes.
We get regular Phinny updates and we have visited him in Oregon several times. We know he’s doing well so we never really regretted our decision, as it would have been impossible to travel the way we did with him. But often as we settled in a new place, I evaluated how it would have worked for his walks and his potty breaks. Some of the places we’ve lived would have been just perfect for him. Other places would have been that incredibly complicated scenario we were trying to avoid.
We got our animal fix by taking care of others’ pets from time to time. But we will always miss our best dog Phin.
Medellin was a game changer. After our year in Panama we were ready for new scenery and less humidity. We lived for 8 months in Mexico, then we had a lot of movement for the next 15 months, staying no longer than 4 months in each place, sometimes only a few days. After that we were ready again for something stable and the girls asked to go to school again, mainly for the social aspect. We set our sights on Medellin to see if it would work.
And it did. Really, really well.
We had to pay to get a long term visa, but it was worth it after finding a sweet apartment, Worldschooling neighbors who became our second family, and an amazing school that was the cherry on top of the whole experience. Haley considers Medellin her second home and we all have a soft spot for Colombia and the amazing people we met there. Medellin was one of our very best experiences and it came at exactly the right time. Medellin was just what we needed.
Returning to the USA when we did was the right thing to do. These last few months before we go back have been a little bit hard due to all the waiting, not gonna lie. But the timing is right. We are ready to stop the shenanigans of travelling, of hauling suitcases and always sleeping in someone else’s house, of setting up a new life over and over again, and leaving the people who have become our lifeline for friendships.
We promised Zoe that we would return in time for her to go to high school and that decision was firm. In fact we are getting back a little earlier than planned, which will allow her to enter the second half of 8th grade. That’ll give her a good transitional period to adjust back to traditional school, and leave the ad hoc homeschooling in her wake. That’s just how she wants it.
We know it won’t be exactly like we left it. Nothing ever is. It will be different. WE are different, and it will take some adjustment even to go back to the comfort and familiarity of home. Dan’s dad is now living with us as we care for him, we have friends scattered all over the world and we are simultaneously envious of their travels and relieved to not be doing it any more. And of course we are lonely for all the people that we left behind in all of those countries.
And yet, we will start over, build a life again and put one foot in front of the other like we know how to do. That in itself is familiar.
A Word of Advice to Future Worldschoolers
If you’re reading this as part of your own journey to Worldschooling, I have just a wee bit of advice for you: choose your own path. There’s no right way to Worldschool. This is our story and it’s the way we like it. But it may not be your story. Part of the journey is learning more about yourself and your family and paving your own way. Don’t let other people’s experiences dictate how you make your way, and don’t succumb to the pressure of “the best way” to Worldschool. It’s easy to look at other people’s highlight reel and feel like you’re doing it wrong, but I’m here to tell you, there is no wrong. And what might feel wrong at first (because a LOT of things feel wrong at first!) could end up being your biggest game changer.