Reflecting on 1 year off after two weeks at home (written July 1, 2002)

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Reflections on 1 year off
After two weeks

The world changed a lot in our year off: the September 11th disaster and resulting war on terrorism, airline bankruptcies, Pakistan/ India problems, insurgency in Nepal, and terrorists in the Philippines near Borneo. These all affected our travel plans, but there were no major difficulties. We managed to more or less stick with our original itinerary with a substitution of Malaysian Borneo for Indonesia, and Qantas for the extinct Ansett.

My wife and I would jump on the next plane and keep going if we had the chance. I'm not sure if the kids would want to join us. They definitely missed friends and 'routine', and also disliked most cultural activities (temples, museums, gardens, cathedrals etc). However, we had some wonderful times together and I look forward to seeing how it affects our children's lives. 

Highlights and low points
What worked and what didn't work?
Money matters - cash, ATM, traveler's cheques
How much did it cost?
What did you do with everything you bought?
How did the kid's education work?
What did we pack, and what was it packed in?
Technical gadgets and internet

Highlights and low points

For David & Sarah 
Everything except schooling the kids was a highlight. Working at Deep Griha was particularly satisfying. We'd do the whole trip all over again.

For the kids
Temples, museums, and school work were low points (although Heather thought many of the museums were OK). Rock climbing in Thailand, snorkeling/ scuba diving in Bali and Cairns, Borneo Rainforest, and Christmas in New Zealand were highlights.  New Zealand and Australia ranked highest, and India ranked lowest on the countries they'd like to return to. They found India too hot and not 'kid friendly' - i.e. there were not a lot of children's activities. 

What worked and what didn't work?

  • I think our major mistake was not appointing someone to look after investments (RSP's etc) while we were gone. We had thought we would do it via internet, but the farther we got from Canada, the more we lost interest. This was a bad year to not follow your investments.  
  • The "round the world" airfare on Star Alliance worked. There were problems because Ansett went bankrupt, but overall it gave us lots of flexibility to change dates and we felt we got good value for money. However, we never compared prices for the 'round the world' fare to buying a series of one way tickets. 
  • not planning anything far in advance (hotels, trains, planes) worked well most of the time. One result of Sept 11 was that there were vacancies everywhere for everything. The few times we did book in advance, we were disappointed in the rooms or services we got, so we got into the habit of showing up and doing an inspection of a number of places first. Vacancies started being a problem again in India, and then it was a big problem in England and France as we were getting back into prime tourist season in these countries. I think next time, I'd try and book the first night or two in a new country and then venture off on our own after that. When you're traveling for a year, it is hard to plan too much in advance, but there is certainly an incentive to try and do so: trains and planes can be quite a bit cheaper if you book in advance.
  • staying away from package tours worked very well. The odd time, we would join a tour (for a trek or cruise) but we much preferred the independence of doing our own thing.
  • traveling with 5 is a bit awkward. We did not fit easily into many hotel rooms or taxis. Many family rates were only for two children. I'm not sure which family member we'd do without though  ;-)
  • taking time off from our trip worked well. We did not try to fill every day with activities - some days we'd stop and do nothing, letting the kids determine the agenda. We did not  try to rush the trip - with one year off, we weren't in a hurry to go anywhere or do anything.  
  • we also took larger 'holidays' from the trip. For example, a week in the 5 star resort in Borneo and the two weeks over Christmas in New Zealand. These periods really were needed to recharge and regroup. 
  • getting involved with Locals was very interesting. The Girl Guides organization was particularly good for our girls - they went to camp in Australia and visited some meetings in New Zealand. 
  • Changing plans to travel with another compatible family for a few days or more was terrific. It gives the kids (and parents) time to play with kids their own age who are going through the same experiences.  See Bali and Yangshuo
  • We used the Lonely Planet series of guide books for every country. We really enjoyed their Japan and China guidebooks, and then just kept buying them for the other countries. The India book was a bit disappointing, but the other countries were great. Don't leave home without a guide book - they are readily available at most bookstores while you travel, so don't buy too many in advance. 
  • public transportation worked well in 'non-western' countries. China, Malaysia, Thailand and India all have excellent public transportation. We made extensive use of buses and trains, with a few plane trips thrown in to speed things up. Buses were sometimes a little scary, but we had no major mishaps - only a minor one in China which, while agonizing at the time, is now just a good story.
  • car rental worked well in Australia and New Zealand. It was expensive but necessary in rural France and England and it's cheaper if you book in advance. I really did get better at driving on the left side of the road even in manual transmission cars... although I find myself moving to the wrong side of the road now what I'm back at home. 
  • in many countries, we would establish a 'base' where we could leave excess luggage. For example, in Thailand, we left a few bags in our hotel in Bangkok while we traveled around the rest of the country. We'd return to that hotel for a night to retrieve our bags just before leaving the country. This worked well in Bali, New Zealand, India and England. It certainly made traveling on public transportation easier. 
  • take as little as possible (see the 'what we packed' section below)

Money matters - cash, ATM, traveler's cheques

ATM's ( i.e. bank or money machines) are very widespread, and we would get cash from machines when we needed it. China and India were the two countries where we had to plan ahead a bit as ATM's were difficult to find. In other countries, ATM's were always close at hand. 

Our traveler's cheques became solely a backup if we could not find an ATM. As a Canadian, I should have just got cheques in $Cdn - $Cdn were accepted everywhere.  (It used to be wise to get them in $US - but this does not seem the case now).  I think we cashed less than $1000US in travelers cheques. 

How much did it cost?

There is probably no limit to what you can spend on a trip. There is certainly a 'bottom line' that you cannot go under - airfares, meals and hotels all have a minimum cost.  

At 13, our older son was also just at the borderline for fares - sometimes he would be charged as an adult, and sometimes as a child.

Our expectation for hotels changed over the year. By the end of our trip, we were comfortable in rooms that might have made us move on if we had seen them earlier in the trip. As long as they were they were clean and quiet and big enough, we were happy. I think our cheapest room was in Delhi ($14/night for the five of us for a room that was the same size but slightly more run down than the $330/night Tokyo room), but we had many others in the $30 to $50 range.

I've given up working on the details. We spent about $110k Cdn for the whole trip (all inclusive - airfares & other travel, insurance, accommodation, food, local purchases etc. )

What did you do with everything you bought?

We would save up our purchases until all we had taken up all the room in our bags. Then we would mail a package home. In total, we mailed 9 packages. Unfortunately, one statue mailed from New Zealand arrived as a pile of rubble. Everything else arrived with no problems. We used the slowest regular mail service in each country.  

How did the kid's education work?

This was the most difficult part of the trip. We are not teachers and the kids saw themselves as being on holiday. Our major concern was for Mark, who at age 13 could not afford to miss math and science. His school provided us with a full curriculum, but he still has exams and projects to do this summer in order to return to school with his old classmates in September. He did do a lot of work on our travels, but it did involve a lot of nagging on our part - which was not pleasant for any of us. 

The girls (8 &11) did less work - a tiny bit of math. They read constantly, and seemed to soak  in a lot of what we were seeing so I know they learned a lot of 'non-school' knowledge. They are both very good students, and I assume they will catch up on anything they missed in the first few months back at school. Time will tell. One thing they lost was their ability to speak French. They had been at French school but their French seemed to disappear by the time we reached France. It did come partially back after a while, so I don't think they'll be starting from basics again. 

I don't think I can write more about this section without the benefit of time - i.e. how will the kids do in school in the future. 

Suffice to say that getting your kids to do schoolwork on a year off is difficult for both parents and kids alike. I have no suggestions on how to make this easy.

What we packed and what we packed it in. 

How many times have you heard someone say to bring as little as possible? We thought we packed very frugally, yet we sent about 20 kg of stuff home in a box from our first stop in Japan. Bring as little as possible! Really!  If you do not bring enough, it is easy to buy what you need. If you bring too much, you either carry it around for your entire trip, throw it out,  give it away, or mail it home.

This is what we came home with, so it is representative of what was useful. Some of the things we bought en route, but most made the full circumnavigation.  

  • 1 pair running shoes or walking shoes, and 1 pair sandals each. No hiking boots or formal shoes. 
  • Clothes for a week or two. The kids definitely seemed to change clothes more than the adults (or maybe it was the girls changed more often than the boys). We were traveling in a warm climate, so we brought only t-shirts and golf shirts as well as the usual socks and underwear. Long pants that zipped off into shorts were particularly useful - we had two pairs each as the only pants we brought. We did not bring formal clothes - people we met understood we were traveling and did not expect us to show up in a jacket and tie. 
  • one warm shirt (fleece) and one lightweight rain jacket each. On really cold days, we would wear everything we owned: t-shirts, fleeces and rain jackets. 
  • a few sarongs for the 5 of us (useful as sheet or towel, and as a wrap for temples in some countries).
  • toiletries. You can find vaguely familiar brands of most things in any country. 
  • a standard first aid kit to which we added bandaids, Bactroban, disinfectant, headache pills (for both kids and adults), Kaopectate tablets and pills for food poisoning (ask your doctor). Note: Many things that are prescribed in North America are available over the counter in Asia and are cheap. 
  • book lights/ small flashlights
  • bowls, spoons, forks for all. In some countries, we would eat our own breakfasts. In Australia and New Zealand, most motel rooms have kitchenettes so we could eat lots of meals in.  
  • potato peeler (for peeling fruit etc), swiss army knife
  • lightweight sleeping bags for the kids & double sheets for us. This was useful in cheaper hotels (many do not provide sheets), and also when we visited friends. We bought these in Australia as we preferred to stay in Holiday Parks that had cabins and kitchens but no linen.
  • beach towels for all.
  • binoculars (ours are 8*40). A necessity for wildlife and landscape viewing.
  • a few extra passport pictures. These are useful for visas, some travel cards, rail passes and who knows what. 
  • wide brim hats for everyone. Sunglasses for those who wanted them.
  • boogie boards and beach toys. We would buy these when we needed them and then ditch them/ give them away when we left 'beach countries".
  • fishing rods (two of our kids are avid fisherpersons) & tackle
  • soccer ball, tennis balls, baseball gloves & a miniature air pump to blow up the ball.
  • playing cards & a magnetic chess board
  • travel alarm clock
  • books. Our kids are avid readers - we minimized the books we carried through frequent stops at second hand bookstores. We'd go through entire series - Dune, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Lord of the Rings, Famous Five, Nancy Drew & others. 
  • educational materials (see the schooling section). We had lots. 
  • masks (we are all avid swimmers)
  • electric plug converters to go from North American to foreign plugs. It would have been handy to also have an 'octopus' or small power bar so that I could plug my camera and computer in at the same time to one foreign adapter. 
  • The kids had pocket gameboys and Mark had a CD player. 
  • luggage locks. It would have been handy (particularly in India) to have a small piece of wire so we could lock the bags together when sleeping on trains. However, we had no problems with theft. 

That is a lot of stuff. We carried it in two duffel bags, one large backpack, and one smaller shoulder bag. The kids each had mini backpacks with their own essentials (beanie babies, game boys). I had a video camera bag and my computer bag. Sarah had an excellent but small Lowe Pro camera backpack for the SLR camera, lenses, and binoculars.  Mark carried fishing rods in a plastic plumbing pipe with a handle that we put together in New Zealand.

Everything either fit on our back or was pulled on wheels. Both duffel bags had wheels (one was internal and one had an external frame with wheels). We had too much stuff, but I wouldn't know what to get rid of except clothes and books. I wish they had school books on CD ROM!.

Technical Gadgets and Internet

I'm a technical nut, so we had lots of gadgets. 
  • The kids each had disposable cameras. We also bought a number of underwater disposable cameras (try to get them with flash). These are all available relatively cheaply while traveling.
  • We had a Canon SLR camera with two lenses (28-80 and 80-300mm). The camera had a built in flash, so we left our large flash at home. This was the right decision. We probably took 800 photos in total. Film was purchased locally - Fuji and Kodak are available everywhere. 
  • we also had a SONY TRV 30. This is a combination digital still & digital video camera. We took over 1200 digital pictures (only a few of which are on this web site) and about 20 hours of video. Typical of Sony, the camera came requiring extras. We just got the basics in Canada, and then bought extra memory, tape, and batteries in Hong Kong. It was cheaper in Hong Kong than Singapore, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur.  The camera was terrific except for flash problems in Australia. SONY Australia fixed it, but charged us because we have a SONY North America warranty which is not valid in Australia. I wish SONY would get its act together - annoying warranty and poor option selection get in the way of enjoying an otherwise excellent product. 
  • we brought a SONY laptop computer along for two main reasons - internet connection (e-mail and web site updating); and storing digital pictures. We used the Roam International version of iPass Connect as an internet connection, and that worked well. iPass allowed local dialup access from most places we stopped. However, if we were going to be surfing on the internet for any amount of time, we would use an internet café and leave the computer in the hotel - iPass is not as cheap as internet cafés. I chose the SONY laptop because it came with a lot of video editing software that was compatible with the camera, and we could write our own CD-ROM's.  As a result, I was able to regularly back up the photos and send the CD's home. As an added bonus, we could watch DVD movies on the computer when we needed to see 'Western movies' again. As much as it was an anchor around my neck (both the weight and the worry of theft when traveling with another expensive toy), I would certainly do it again - we needed to store digital pictures and e-mail is much more useable when it is on a local machine.
  • We bought a pair of 8*40 binoculars in Singapore. Make sure you bring binoculars. You'll be surprised how frequently you use them if you keep them handy. 
  • We had organized web site hosting in advance. There are many companies that do this - we used www.usisp.com. I used Windows Front Page to update the web site. As an internet junkie, I'm afraid to admit that... but it was very convenient and easy to use for this simple web site.