Here it is. The final blog post from the travelling phase of our journey. I’m hitting the publish button once we’ve landed in the USA, having completed 1,891 days of Worldschooling. But fear not, dear reader. I’ll still keep up the blog. We’ll travel again, we’ll have things to say about our new life, and we’ll share things that
we think might interest you I want to say. But this day marks the end of “The Big Trip”. As we’ve done at the end of all stays, I will sum it up with a Happy and Crappy post.
But first, a disclaimer. This isn’t my favorite type of blog post. If you haven’t noticed, I prefer to tell stories. I don’t really like to go all esoteric and talk about big emotions and overall learnings and stuff that didn’t have a beginning, middle and an end. I find that boring to read and even more boring to write about. I’m more of a do-er, not so much a reflect-er. But I will push through because I think it’s important to give you the big picture of how we are feeling about our experience as a whole. It’s hard to simplify such an intense journey into bullet points of “good” vs “bad” but I will do so for the sake of those of you who like categories and might appreciate the whole reflecting thing. And bullet points. Because who doesn’t love bullet points!?
Happy #1: Familial Closeness
We left the USA with the goal of Spanish language fluency for the girls. We got that, but it wasn’t the #1 benefit. We didn’t realize it when we left, but the main advantage of this lifestyle is the relationship you develop with your fellow family members. We became closer than we ever would have if we had stayed in the USA. It’s like you are on a deserted island and your family members are all you have, so you rely on them with an intensity that can’t quite be described. Imagine spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with 3 other people. For 5 years. Sure, there were stints of school time, but neither parent “went to work” so every waking moment outside of the short periods they went to a school in Colombia and Panama, they spent with us. And the vast majority of the 5 years, they didn’t attend a school outside the home. So it was family time, ALL the time.
This inevitably leads to more shared memories and experiences – that are hugely impactful in your future life – that you don’t share with anyone else. So the closeness continues long after the experience is over, just due to having gone through these experiences together. Dan and I credit Worldschooling with the close relationship we have with our teens. That and a helluva lot of hard work along the way. Don’t misunderstand: of course we had our ups and downs while raising these beasts we call teens. Because having such close quarters for 5 straight years isn’t a picnic. But we believe we have a stronger relationship than many have with their teens at this stage of their lives. And I’m positive it’s a direct result of choosing this Worldschooling journey.
If any of you loyal readers know about bunnies, you might know one way to attempt to bond two bunnies together is “stress bonding” – whereas you put them together in a stressful situation (like in a car) and they end up bonding because they had a shared stressful experience. Worldschooling is kinda like that.
Happy #2: Knowing Me, Knowing You, Ahaaaa
Tell me you got the ABBA reference of this section’s title…? Anyway, it’s not just the family you get to know, but you get to know yourself, too. Your strengths become stronger and you figure out how to overcome more of your weaknesses, just through the sheer will to survive. Spending so much time with your family members, it’s easy to get on each other’s nerves more. So we tried to talk about our strengths and weaknesses a lot so they weren’t the elephant in the room. And we emphasized that everyone in the family had things they brought to the table as well as things that drove the rest of us crazy. No one is exempt from that. Just having it out in the open made it a lot easier to tolerate, and easier for the offending individual to try and work on it.
Happy #3: Education Via Travel
Many people would have thought this benefit would be at the top of the list. It’s pretty high up there because, of course, the education part is key. We all learned a huge amount from the trip. But a lot of it is hard to quantify. Yes the girls learned about Apartheid in South Africa, and the Mayans in Mexico and Guatemala, and World War 2 in Europe, Mourning Kings in Thailand and Narcotrafficking in Colombia. But we also just learned a whole lot about life that just bleeds into every day. You know stuff and yet you don’t even know how you learned it. It’s very intangible and yet invasive. In a good way. If you think about it, it’s an inevitable consequence of waking up every day in one of 18 different countries in dozens and dozens of different cities and towns in over 100 rooms/houses/apartments/huts/hotel rooms over the course of 1,891 days. Contrast that to waking up in the same country, state, city and room for 1,891 days. The opportunity for learning and growing your sphere of observation and interaction is greatly expanded. Exponentially.
Happy #4: Stretching Your Comfort Zone
It looks glamorous in photos but you know how sometimes you feel you need a vacation when you get back from your vacation? Yeah, it’s hard work! Especially when you’re not on any kind of guided tour, but you’re doing the Figure Sh!t Out method. We all stretched our comfort zones well beyond where we ever thought possible. You push yourself past where you are comfortable, so now you have a new, expanded zone of where you can exist. The new comfort zone quickly becomes comfortable and then you expand it some more. That’s partly why Worldschooling country #2 was so much easier than #1. You have a sense for what can (and will) be different and you’re (more) ready for it.
Happy #5: Building The FSO Muscle
We coined a family phrase of FSO: Figure Sh!t Out. Basically it means that we don’t really know how to do what we want to do, but there’s got to be a way and we just need to figure it out. Whether it’s baking in metric units or celebrating a holiday in a different way or trying to do a science experiment or hunting down school uniform pieces, the list is endless. You just find new ways of doing things. Despite 5 years of working at it, we still don’t know how to convert a stick of butter in grams to cups other than through Google. But we have become creative problem solvers simply out of sheer necessity.
Happy #6: A New Outlook On STUFF
We quickly learned the importance (or lack thereof) of STUFF once we had to haul it around from place to place. Our luggage became like an oversized dog, or more like a pack of dogs. It had to be accommodated at every move – baggage weight limitations, fees, bigger cars, where to store it. We got much better at packing light but still not great compared to some of our Worldschooling friends (looking at you, carry-on-only peeps). But we became much better at making some important choices on what’s worth it to carry around and subsequently understanding just how much we DO NOT NEED stuff. Of course, there’s a downside to this too, coming up later.
Happy #7: Cost (Sometimes)
Worldschooling can be cheaper than living in the USA. Or it can be more expensive. It’s all about your choices. Our cheapest country was Thailand, with a big, lovely house for $1,200 a month and dinner for 4 for $12. Our most expensive country was Spain, with a dated but functional apartment for $3,000 a month and high food costs for small portions. At the time you arrive you don’t always know what you’re going to find, but it worked out well enough for us in every single country. Even the ones we didn’t like became good memories after enough time had passed (looking at you, France).
Happy #8: Housing Tour
Living in so many different houses, places that other people deem comfortable, you get to know what you really want in your own home. You feel like your choices are on pointe when you finally get to set up your own place. Sometimes we agreed with other people’s choices of furniture, bedding, kitchen supplies and home layout. But most of the time we had to do some adjusting to make it our own. After 5 years we got really tired of adjusting. It was one of the reasons we stopped when we did: we needed our own space again, with our own choices. But at least now we are much better at knowing what those are.
Happy #9: Worldschooling is Just Plain Awesome
I mean, who can argue with the joy of travel? Seeing new places, learning about how other cultures do things, what people eat, how they communicate, what they sell, their history, it’s all really just incredibly interesting and a great way to spend 5 years. There was also an energy that came with landing in a new place and discovering what they had that was connected to what we knew from another place. We made the most connections between countries, not necessarily to those countries and the USA. Grocery stores (when we were not rushed or hungry) were fascinating and hilarious at the same time. I don’t really know how else to sum it up: Worldschooling really is amazing and we are so lucky that Dan’s location independent business allowed us to do it.
Crappy #1: Missing or Limited Friendships
This is definitely the #1 downside to this life. Sure, you meet some amazing people while you gallivant from place to place. But then you have to leave them, too. It’s hard to maintain friendships when you are leaving them all the time, and sometimes it’s hard to even have the energy to nurture new friendships when you know you are leaving. It’s a push and pull: you want to have the benefit of friends while you are there, it makes the time you are spending there more enjoyable. But making new friends inevitably leads to leaving them. And then the cycle starts all over again in the next country. Towards the end of our time in our last country, the kids flat-out refused to meet new people. They just didn’t have the energy for it when they knew they were leaving soon.
But of course some friendships withstand the test of time and space and we expect to see some of our Worldschooler friends again. We’ve managed to connect with several of them multiple times during the journey so far and we are sure we’ll continue to. As the girls get older and can travel independently, they are excited to choose where to go and who to see.
Friendships while Worldschooling often take on full-family socialization, along with rapid progression towards closeness. Because you usually don’t have room or anything entertaining to do in your Airbnb, it’s best to meet somewhere else instead. So that usually involves the whole family. And when Worldschoolers meet, we tend to escalate the friendship more quickly because we know our time together is limited. Full-family socializing means there’s more opportunity for one or more members to not connect with one or more members of the other family. It got complicated sometimes. There was a lot of “take one for the team” when it came to social events. And there was a lot of times when we got lucky and every member connected.
One final note about friendships is about those we left behind at home. We were lucky to have visitors multiple times, including my sister, my mom, Dan’s sister and our BFFs from Oregon. To all of our surprise, Zoe maintained her friendships from 3rd grade in Arizona the entire time we were gone. They were able to see each other a few times while we were gone, and now Zoe is headed right back into their circle, to pick up where she left off. They were nothing if not persistent. We say that we needed good internet in order for Dan to work, but we really needed it for Zoe to Skype with her friends.
Crappy #2: Cost (Sometimes)
This is the crappy side of the same issue: money. Sometimes it can be more expensive to Worldschool than live in the USA. Especially when things come up unexpectedly like having to show an exit ticket when flying to a new country, or having to leave on a visa run, or showing up just as high season is getting started and wanting a much bigger house than anyone normally rents.
And when you are staying somewhere short term and need to rent the house furnished, sometimes your options are only the expensive ones. You probably can tell that we aren’t really into roughing it. We felt like the 1-bedroom flat in London was pretty rough and could barely tolerate it for a week. So we aren’t so good at saving money on housing. Your mileage may vary.
It also was difficult to manage food costs in every country. If we were there for just a short time we were content to eat out, although that got old after only a few days (and expensive too). But if we tried to eat in our apartment or Airbnb, it invariably led to wasted food that we had to leave behind, not to mention not the healthiest options. If the housekeepers knew what they were going to find when they cleaned after we left, they would compete for the job.
Crappy #3: Mental and Physical Health
It’s hard to maintain consistent health checkups when you are always just arriving or just about to leave. In some cases when we were moving a lot it became a “put out fires” approach to health care. A few places we were able to stay long enough to have a relationship with a doctor and have more than one appointment with the same one. This was particularly hard with mental health, but we made it work for the most part. We were lucky to have no major medical illnesses or accidents during our 5 years. Zoe gets the prize for most doctor visits, with Haley a close second. It was just normal stuff, other than a few accidents, but it was still a lot more work to figure out (although a lot cheaper) outside the USA.
Crappy #4: A Life of Grief and Loss
Haley’s therapist in Medellin called our Worldschooling “A life of grief and loss”. She insists that it’s not necessarily a negative connotation, but just a perspective that has to be taken into account. It sure felt that way sometimes. Arriving, setting up house and routine and friendships, living, enjoying, then leaving. Lather, rinse, repeat. We got good at the routine but it still really took a toll on us mentally. But if you think about it, what life does NOT have unique challenges that end up being a spark that leads to growth in our personality and provides lessons about life? You don’t have to be a traveler for this to happen in your own life.
This also applies to STUFF. We would acquire things that we needed, be it clothes or household goods, and then we’d usually have to leave them behind if they didn’t fit the next climate or the suitcase. Haley became very attached to many of her favorite items of clothing. She managed to get a lot of them back to the storage unit to greet her when she comes home. I miss a lot of the kitchen and household things I bought in various places. Often I became confused in my current kitchen: “Where’s the mixer? Oh yeah, that was in another country.”.
Crappy #5: Inability to Pursue Interests
We all had interests that we had to put on hold while we travelled. Dan suffered from this the most, as he loves to create new businesses and due to our tourist visas, it was impossible for him to do. Haley discovered a love of plants that didn’t really work with our lifestyle. She missed ice skating, learning how to drive and being able to make money like many of her peers were doing.
I fared the best. I managed to do my puzzles in a lot of countries, which is crazy for such a non-travel-friendly hobby. And Pilates was actually not so hard to find if we were staying anywhere for longer than a month. I was able to do Pilates in Panama, Mexico, Spain, Colombia and Dominican Republic. When I do Pilates again in the USA I’ll probably seek it out in Spanish. But the flip (happy) side of this is that we discovered new interests while we traveled.
Crappy #6: Homeschool Isn’t For Everyone
We homeschooled the girls because it was the only consistent way they could get their essentials (reading, writing and math) while we changed countries. But I’m not gonna lie: homeschooling is not a natural fit for me nor Zoe. Haley did pretty well with her own work, especially when she had her eye on the prize of getting her GED and being done with her high school education altogether at the tender age of 16.
Zoe prefers to be in a class of peers, where she can make herself stand out by excelling above them when possible. When it’s just your mom in your class, I guess you lose that enthusiasm. She just didn’t like homeschool and I didn’t like teaching it to her. I’m more of a “get up, make a checklist, get it done, do it all” kind of person. Zoe is more of a “maybe get it done later, if at all, lack any interest whatsoever unless it’s with a friend or a topic that I’m personally interested in” kind of person. She did become more alive when we were doing some of our major treks through Europe on our homeschooling “field trips” and she insists that Germany is her favorite country due to all the history. But she just does not like being told (by her mom) what to study.
Zoe and I limped to the finish line still speaking to each other…. barely! We’ll see if public school is all that she remembers it to be – I’m sure there will be downsides there too – but for both of our sanity, we are just really glad to be done with the homeschool phase.
Crappy #7: Holidays
Celebrating holidays and birthday abroad were some of the hardest days. Most of the time they were laden with traditions that we could not duplicate where we were. Expectations were high and a lot of times they just could not be met. And holidays that involved gifts made it even more challenging (see above for the STUFF factor). It got easier over the years, and we had some very memorable days. But they were still hard. Halloween was the hardest, when we missed trick or treating with friends.
Crappy #8: Resettling in the USA
It can be hard to get back, to set up your life again. You need to reacquire “stuff” – but not too much (there’s a balance there somewhere between necessary things and useless crap) – get back into the school and community, build your world while still missing pieces of your old life. You’re back “where you belong” and yet it’s never going be the same and YOU are never going to be the same. It’s unsettling but familiar. And no two people experience it equally. I can only speak to this from my two experiences in the past, when I lived in Spain with my parents and when I studied in Ecuador as a college student. I know that re-entry will be filled with mixed emotions and pros and cons, just like Worldschooling and just like life. You can expect to hear more about our resettling soon, after we’ve had a chance to take a breath and get unpacked. And eat at In n Out.
Neither Happy Nor Crappy: Seasons
Dan likes to talk about seasons. Throughout our short 80 or 90 or 100 years on this planet, we go through seasons. Each one is important to the other, in order to complement a full life. But most people really don’t choose their seasons. They just allow them to happen because that’s what our culture tells us is normal. So although we knew we were going to suffer in some areas like stability, friendships, and having roots in one place, we decided the upside of seeing the world was worth the downside. We chose a less-traveled path in order for our kids to understand that THEY control their lives. Not society. Not government. Not teachers. Not their prevailing culture. We like to think we gave them the gift of experiencing an unusual season so they can know, as they become adults, that THEY and they alone should choose their seasons in life. We are watching the girls grow up having been influenced by our season of travel, and we observe their knowledge of the world and how connected they are with it. What we see in them tells us we did the right thing 5 years ago. And we would do it again in a heartbeat.
A Thank You
I’d like to thank you, loyal readers, for coming along on this journey by being an audience for my blog posts. I know you didn’t read every word of every blog post over the last 5 years (except for probably my mom and Joann M. in Florida… who is, without a doubt, our #1 fan) but you were there for us when we needed you. I loved readers’ comments, when you laughed along with us, when you commiserated when we were grumpy and continually cheered us on. Believe it or not, the Worldschooling lifestyle is filled with doubts. But when you all commented that you thought we were doing something amazing, well, it helped us believe it. So thank you for being our support team. We hope you won’t go far. We won’t be travelling as much, but we will still experience the impact from our Worldschooling years for years to come. I’ll keep writing about it, and I hope you’ll keep reading.
Allison, I do hope you keep us updated on how the transition back home goes. I have read each and every blog you have posted (although I didn’t discover your blog until you were just leaving Mexico the first time). I hope you and your family have a wonderful Holiday season. Jamie
I’ve been following for years in my RSS reader (I use The Old Reader) – so I rarely/never comment. But I’ve loved following every part of your journey, and I thank you so much for sharing it with us. I look very forward to hearing about your re-entry, reverse culture shock, and how you find the US after 5 years (mostly) away. All the best to you and your family on this new part of your journey.