Travel Talk: Travelling around the world with kids

Meet the Globetrotting Mama and her family!

Just this past summer, a few short months ago, Toronto-based writer Heather Greenwood Davis set off on a year-long voyage around the world with her husband, Ish, and two boys, Ethan and Cameron. She’s chronicling her journey on The Globetrotting Mama.

On top of the world (Courtesy: Heather Greenwood Davis)

Globetrotting Mama Heather could easily have done what many moms do and take her kids out of school for a half-day trip to the local zoo. Instead, she took them out of school for a year and is travelling with them around the world. Few in-class curriculums could equal the education Heather’s kids are going to get as they travel the globe.

We caught up to Heather and her family just after they arrived in China, after stints in South America and the United States.

Around the world with Heather Greenwood Davis and family (Courtesy: Heather Greenwood Davis)

Around the world with Heather Greenwood Davis and family (Courtesy: Heather Greenwood Davis)

#1. Did you meet any resistance or have any second thoughts about taking your kids on this trip?

I’m a mom. Some guilt about something is always present. And so although my husband, Ish and I have known for years that we wanted to do this trip, in the days and weeks before we left I had nerves. What if this was a mistake? What if something happened while we were away?

In those moments I tried to focus on what I know to be true: This is the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s true for Ish and I as parents and it’s true for the kids. Our decision to take this trip will affect the rest of our lives.

There were some naysayers before we left home but no one that truly mattered in our lives. Those who know and love us were all on board – worried for our safety, unsure if we had lost our minds – but supportive all the same.

Since we left home there have been rare moments when an inkling of uncertainty might creep in but then we see our boys learning something new or growing as individuals and it wipes the uncertainly out of our minds.

#2. How did you explain to your kids that you’d be travelling for a year?

At 6 and 8 my kids had bigger issues on their minds than traveling the world! There were new episode of Phineus and Ferb to watch and Beyblade battles to be waged! We had been talking about this trip for about a year before we left. They showed a little interest about three weeks before our departure. They were used to traveling with us. I’ve been writing travel since before they were born and to them it was just another trip.

It was only about a month after we left home that my youngest asked “So when do we go home again?” When we told him it wouldn’t be until next summer, he thought about it and continued on with his day. Since then I’ve asked them from time to time if they’d like to go home. The answer is always a resounding “no way!” (This has been particularly true since school term started again in September.)

At their age home is where their parents are and as long as we tell them where we’re going next and listen to their constant requests for a hotel with a pool they’ve been fine.

Travelling with kids: school on wheels (Courtesy: Heather Greenwood Davis)

#3. What do you hope they’ll get out of it? Do you have any idea how this amazing journey will shape or impact your family?

It sounds trite to say but I truly believe this is going to change their lives. I believed that before we left home but after watching them cross three continents now I know it as a fact.

A few things I’ve observed so far:

I’ve watched them figure out how to communicate when language isn’t an option. I’ve watched them transform and adapt to changes in their routine, diet and lifestyle without blinking an eye.

They’ve grown more patient. They seem less stressed. And while the traveling and the things that traveling has exposed them to are incredible, the simple gift of having infinite amounts of time together – more than we’ve ever had as a family – has changed our family dynamic. I feel like I understand the kids a little more. I’m not as rushed to get dinner together or get someone to Karate practice.

Our days together are as long or short as we make them. We have quality time all day long. There is more time to answer the “but why” and “how come” questions that drive us nuts at home. And we rely on each other. Literally.

Sometimes I need space and Ish takes the kids for a walk or vice versa. We hold all the answers for them. They turn to us with questions that range from where we’re going to how we’re getting there and they trust our answers. I can’t help but think that this time together will have a positive impact on how we relate to each other once we’re back home.

Cultural differences - another life lesson (Courtesy: Heather Greenwood Davis)

Cultural differences - another life lesson (Courtesy: Heather Greenwood Davis)

#4. What’s the biggest practical or logistical challenge on a daily basis so far?

Language. No doubt about it. We’ve already decided that the entire family is taking Mandarin lessons when we get home. At least in Spain we had a fighting chance with a mix of words we’d learned from Dora and our knowledge of French.

In China, we’ve got nothing and it has severely impacted the way we’ve been able to travel. We lucked into a great guide in Winser Zhao at ChinaTravel2.0 which has helped but it was ambitious of me to think I could get beyond the surface in China without the language.

The other challenge has been working from abroad. Wifi limitations (access in some places in South America and now Chinese restrictions) have made it tougher for me to get stories out and keep up with social media through my laptop.

My iPhone has helped tremendously. Being able to use the maps, currency calculators, Google and more have meant that we can feel more secure about where we are, where we’re going for the day and how much it all costs. Also the fact that I’ve been testing out some Rogers roaming packages means that in places like China I can still get on to sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook where I’d be otherwise locked out.

#5. How do you prepare your kids and yourselves as your family leaps from the familiarity of North America to a country so vastly different such as China?

Outside of learning the language and reading up on the history – neither of which we had done – you really can’t prepare for China. Our stop in Los Angeles in between Colombia and China was a calculated one. We wanted to balance out our travels a bit so that the kids weren’t going from unfamiliar to unfamiliar.

In South America we all struggled with our basic Spanish and it was a bit exhausting by the end of it. The few days in California meant that they could have a bit of familiarity back in their lives: Cartoons in English and speaking in English, pancakes for breakfast, music they like and remember, eating their favourite foods. We had no real itinerary in LA because we could see they needed that. Interestingly enough, they haven’t really been that fazed by China.

We draw a bit of a crowd and some stares – due to our skin colour, inability to speak the language and the fact the boys in matching hats and jackets are often mistaken for twins – and that seemed to wear on them from time to time. But generally they have adapted much more easily than Ish and me and both of the boys easily recount stories we’ve learned at some of the sites and favourite moments from our travels.

Kid-friendly entertainment in unexpected places (Courtesy Heather Greenwood Davis)

Kid-friendly entertainment in unexpected places (Courtesy Heather Greenwood Davis)

#6. Do you make a point of incorporating kid-friendly activities into each day?

Ish and I don’t really believe in “kid-friendly” travel. Sure, there will be times when we’ll go to places because there’s something that specifically appeals to the kids, such as Disneyland in Paris or Wild Wadi Water Park in Dubai. But for the most part we take them to places that offer interesting stories and aren’t particularly dangerous.

In China, we went to The Great Wall and while Ish and I loved the views, the kids, who are doing Karate at home, were most interested in doing their moves on it just like they’d seen in The Karate Kid movie. We also went down to the Muslim Quarter in Xian and they ate dumplings in a tiny curtained restaurant on the busy main street.

In the Galapagos islands they swam with sea lions and in Colombia we all had a mud bath in the crater of a volcano. Kid-friendly? Maybe. But mostly just great fun for all of us.

#7. What has been your most surprising moment so far?

Right now we’re in week #6. Ethan, 9, is my picky eater. At home he’d keep his food groups apart on his plate. We had to fight him to take a bite of anything and his tastes ranged from hot dogs to the ever exotic mac and cheese (Kraft only). Parent fatigue gave in and we lost the spunk in our fight – we’d put something in front of him and expect the long drawn out dinner process.

When we talked to both kids before we left about the fact that the food in some places would be different we made them promise that they’d have to be willing to try new things at least once before rejecting it. They agreed but we didn’t hold out much hope.

A few weeks earlier we were in the Galapagos Islands on a G Adventure (formerly Gap Adventure) family trip. When the time came for us to order off the menu, I got nervous. What would Ethan choose from a menu where kids’ options were slim? His answer: “Grilled octopus please.” He ordered it and he ate it and he loved it. You could’ve knocked his dad and I over with a feather. The next night he ordered a lobster tail with seafood sauce.

We have since let him order all his meals and he’s chosen dumplings, Chinese noodles, spicy shrimp, fried rice… Picky eater no more.

Kids are fascinated by the darndest things (Courtesy: Heather Greenwood Davis)

Kids are fascinated by the darndest things (Courtesy: Heather Greenwood Davis)

I am constanly fighting the urge to “show them everything.” The kids are always gung ho and need my husband and me to regulate the excitement so that they also get moments of “normal” along the way. It means we’ve spent more days in McDonalds and hotel swimming pools than I’d intended but it’s also been eye-opening in that our two little boys have met kids and families from around the world and developed friendships that they continue through email and this blog.

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You can follow the journey of Heather and her family on The Globetrotting Mama.
Would you take your children on a longterm trip?