A few days ago Cyrus asked, “Hey mom can you do a new job?” Confused, I replied, “What do you mean?” He explained: “I want to go back on the round-the-world adventure. So I need you to not do your normal job and become a scientist instead for a while so you can build us a time machine real quick so we can go back and do our adventures again. Can you do that? Please?”
I wrote this post (below) several weeks ago. I never posted the below (until now, obviously) mostly because it marked the end of our round-the-world adventure. I suppose I was sort of in denial that the trip was over – or, as much in denial as you can be when you have 4 days before school starts, and a summer’s worth of errands and shopping trips and doctor’s appointments has to squeeze into those handful of days. Also, of course, I wanted to make sure that the last post of our 80-ish day trip was perfect. Um. That was a dumb idea. Obviously, it’s not perfect, it can’t do the adventure justice, it still feels incomplete. But not posting anything, nothing at all, to make it official that we are back also feels terrible; everyday of not-posting has felt a little like something has been nagging at me. I’m over that. (I am not, however, over wishing for that time machine. Never will be.) So I reread this on another flight yesterday – I had to go to Colombia for a day for a lecture, and returning from a different continent, back on a plane, felt like the place to finalize this and move forward – and figured, it’s as done as it will ever be. And time keeps flying. So, here goes.
* * * * *
We are on our way home! We’re currently somewhere mid-air, mid-Pacific, between Kahului-LAX. Our adventure is just about complete. My mind is racing. As I look back at the path we’ve made, I see what I usually see in the wake of my family: a happy, harmless, well-earned mess. Our path is strewn with lessons and mysteries, slam-dunks and near-disasters, hard-earned victories and rookie mistakes. It’s littered with lost hats and sunglasses, dropped coins, drips from melting ice cream cones, lots of band-aids. We had breakthroughs, breakdowns, and everything in between. I look back at the last 80 days and see a gorgeous trail of chaos.
None of this is surprising I guess, but the thing is, I had maybe half a dozen different lists/outlines of goals for our trip – not just destinations to visit and sites to see, either, but ideas to discuss with the boys, truths to present and debate, discussions we’d have as a family. Amazingly, we made progress on all of those fronts and more. But every list is still only partially complete. I can’t check off all of the boxes, on any list.
Heck, I can’t even check off all of the destinations we had planned. Sure, we hit all the major countries on the itinerary, but the sites we sought and the goals we made for ourselves in each place evolved as we went along. For instance, one reason we went to Sharm el Sheikh in the first place was to make our way to Saint Catherine’s Monastery, said to be the place where the burning bush still grows – the likelihood of this is, of course, another (theoretical) post – and where God spoke to Moses, saying, “Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10). Anyway we wanted to go see it, and have a discussion with the kids about the life of Moses, but we never made it there. On the morning of, we dragged everyone out of bed just as the sun was rising, picked up boxed breakfasts from the hotel, met our guide and driver, and piled into a van. Half and hour later we had eaten our boxed breakfasts and pulled up to stop at a check point. After a few minutes, the van still stopped, other cars piling up behind us and beginning to honk their impatience, it was clear that something was wrong. Our driver informed us that the tour operator hadn’t gotten the correct permits. We could not pass the check point. And it would not be possible to get them in time and still make it to our destination in the same day. No way around it. (For all control freaks reading this, believe me, I did my best. I leaned across the driver and asked, and argued, and begged, obnoxiously forcing my iPhone screen right up to the faces of the guards so they could hear Google translate demanding passage and making my case in Arabic. It didn’t work.) So that was that. We made a slow U-turn, drove back to the hotel defeated, and flew out the next morning. Their mistake, our loss. It happens sometimes.
So here I am, reflecting on my incomplete lists, and all the un-checked boxes, thinking about questions like: What has changed? What did we learn? How will we honor this experience over coming months and years? There aren’t clean answers here. But I’m sifting through the chaos, and – oh, for the love of lists – here’s a hodge podge of thoughts, some deep and some just random travel or logistical hacks, that feel true to me as we wrap up our journey.
There really is value in breadth.
This was our hypothesis at the beginning: that seeing a little in a lot of places would be as valuable, if not more valuable, than immersing ourselves in one spot for 3 months. This adventure was our best attempt to teach our kids about religions and belief around the world, one after the other after the other; we intentionally made it more like a survey course, an overview, as opposed to these with a single focus. We wanted to show the boys a lot – and we did – because we believed there was value in showing them how big and how wide the world is, all at once. Our theory was/is that they can know their own convictions and their own culture so much better if they are exposed to so many others from the onset. They’ll know who they are and who they are not. So here we are at the end of this experiment and, you know what, no regrets about this choice. Heck if we could spend a month in each country on the planet, then yeah, that’d be even better. But given the parameters I’m glad we packed as much in as we could and chose breadth over depth.
Traveling light = freedom.
I’m not a minimalist. I wish I was, but there’s too much working against me in normal life to keep up with the constant shedding of things. (Of course this is an excuse, but it’s how it feels. Anti-accumulation is an uphill battle for me.) So I’m only an aspirational minimalist in real life.
But the last three months… ! Oh my. I was sort of an actual, practicing, uncluttered, sort-of-minimalist and it was glorious! Ah the joy of living out of one suitcase. I felt addicted to it, and next time (any trip, not just a big one) I want to challenge us to travel even lighter. Hopping around the world carrying so little was liberating. It focused us. It helped us be more present. It literally gave us greater freedom of movement. It forced us to create our own fun (toys and games made from paper, cardboard, other scraps) or to find it along the way.
Caveat for anyone wanting to do a gigantic trip like this w kids: I was not a minimalist in one respect, and that was in terms of medical supplies. One entire backpack (mine) was filled with first aid stuff, bug spray, sunblock, kid-sized emergency medicines. It was basically a small pharmacy. Incredibly, we used *everything* in that bag at least once, and overall we used up about half of the total contents. Very glad we didn’t skimp on that stuff. The only real mistake we made in this department was in blowing a fuse in a nebulizer we had brought (on day 2!! ugh!) because apparently we plugged it into an outlet with the wrong voltage. We didn’t attempt to replace it, and shipping it back was more expensive than it had cost in the first place, so we just wrote that off as a loss. Also, I unapologetically packed 5 tubes of the particular toothpaste that my kids love, which was just enough for the entire trip. We ran out yesterday. ! Yep, I’m patting myself on the back for that one.
Plan for spontaneity!
I tend to over-schedule, but while on the trip we really tried to be disciplined and override this tendency. Thank God. We were all at our best when we had committed to only one activity per day. And, the single activity went the smoothest if it was only for a few hours, and ideally before lunch. It gave us most afternoons to create space for whatever was needed that day, whether just to rest, to linger at lunch or have a long early dinner, to reflect, to draw or read, or to do something else impromptu that we discovered along the way. Sometimes the impromptu activities were chosen from a list I’d make in advance, full of easy, last-minute things we might want to consider if there was space and energy for them, but others were completely off the cuff. One day we filled the “extra” unplanned time with a visit to an indoor waterpark; another afternoon we added an extra hour to our road trip to see an amazing rock formation; another time we wandered around a street fair – these made for some of the best memories of the whole darn trip, and because it wasn’t forced, and instead it was an option we all agreed on in the moment, nothing felt like a struggle.
Skip the kids’ menus.
Our kids – all of them, but particularly the six-year-olds – continually step up when we ask them to when it comes to trying new foods. They deserve lots of credit for this, for their great attitudes and willingness to branch out, but I also know that they won’t always do it unless they are asked to, and encouraged to, and celebrated for doing so. As some people reading this will have heard me complain about before (sorry! broken record!), I get infuriated at the assumptions most kids’ menus make. I wasn’t sure if this was just a problem in the U.S., and even though I only have a few dozen new data points after this trip, I feel pretty confident concluding that the majority of kids’ menus are universally lame. They are a unified declaration of defeat. God forbid we offer children anything beyond pasta or chicken fingers.
Anyway look. Like all parents, we’re learning as we go along, but one thing that seems more and more true to us is this: the main limiting factor in our own kids’ growth – in any area – is more often than not about whether we are taking the initiative to offer, challenge, encourage them to try something new. They’re happy to choose among a few better, healthier, more adventurous options if we present them. (Note: I know there are gigantic caveats here. Food is a touchy subject. And I don’t have picky eaters. And we’re really lucky to be able to afford health food. Apologies to anyone I’ve offended.)
Let kids fail – and don’t be afraid to fail together.
It’s worth risking a little inconvenience or embarrassment to give kids a chance to wow you. I read a lot about the importance of letting our kids fail, and learn how to deal with the feelings that can accompany failure – disappointment, embarrassment, anger, etc. But I haven’t encountered much talking about the importance of failing together as a family. I believe developing that resilience, as a family unit, is significant too.
In Istanbul, we were privileged to attend a zikr, a kind of Sufi ritual, in the home of a friend. Each zikr is different, but all have the goal of creating an environment of transcendent worship, and most involve music and movement and the meditative recitation of the Qu’ran. Usually, just the devotees participate; it was rare for me (as a woman) and even rarer for our whole family (notably, there young kids) to be allowed to sit along the edge of the room and observe. For over two hours, our boys sat silently and respectfully, watching a group of two dozen men chant and rock back and forth, trancelike, in a language they did not understand. They did this even while tired (the zikr took place at night, after dinner, after their usual bedtime) and while physically uncomfortable (the AC was broken, and it was one of the hottest days of the summer; we all sat there, sweating straight through our clothes). Afterwards, we got myriad compliments on how well they behaved, often accompanied with a “…my kids would never do that.”
Here’s the thing. I didn’t know my kids could do that. I wasn’t totally sure that we could avoid a meltdown, or that they would be interested and disciplined enough to observe respectfully. Don’t get me wrong, we took ample time and energy to set them up for success by framing the experience, describing what would happen, setting clear expectations for their behavior. But I was a little nervous about what would happen in the middle of this sacred ceremony, and knew I couldn’t control how they’d choose to behave. But I didn’t tell them that – I acted as if of course they would be able to step up. Of course they were going to make us so proud. Of course they would appreciate that this was a real, special, grown-up opportunity. We made them feel trusted. Believed in. Safe. And they rose to the occasion.
Thoughts on souvenirs.
We got pretty good at saying “no” to requests to buy lots and lots of useless, silly souvenirs. I’ve realized often we arrived at that “no” by asking a lot of questions, together.
Many of the souvenir-related conversations went something like: Oh wow so you want to get that. Is this something we need, or want? Why do you want it? What do you like about it? Just because you like [XYZ] about it, does that mean you need to own it and take it home to appreciate it? What if we take a picture to remember it? What if we make/build/sew something like this ourselves? What if we see if, once we’re home, we still want something like this? What if we write it down as an idea for a birthday/holiday gift? Can we hold it in our hands right now, while we’re in the store, for a few min and just enjoy that time with it? What if we go talk to the salesperson about it, or go learn more about it, or read a book about it, etc. and experience it that way? What if we draw a picture of it? Etc.
Look, maybe the kids just got tired of my questions (!) but usually their insistence would melt away at some point and we’d be able to keep walking. !
Street skills on new streets.
So, on the few occasions when we did shop, when we’d actually let the kids choose souvenirs, we tried to teach them something in the process. For instance, they’d have to earn some spending money by doing extra-helpful travel-related chores. Or, they’d have to do the math related to the purchase. One of our favorite teachable moment was coaching the kids on how to haggle in a marketplace where negotiating is the norm. For example, we spent an hour at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul looking at tiny spice grinders, and checking the prices on them so we got an idea of what the range ought to be. Because for some reason, the twins wanted spice grinders to be their souvenirs. Long story short, we found out the average price was around 40 Turkish lira, so we gave each boy 20 and told them they could buy the spice grinders if they could get the seller to cut the price in half. Then we spent all of lunch coaching them on how to negotiate, role playing, etc. Well, as soon as he finished eating, Jaspar jumped up from the table and walked right up to the nearest shop, right across the hall from us, to ask the price of the spice grinder there. It was 40. Jaspar got a disappointed look on this face, so then the owner amended, “But for you, 35.” Then Jaspar, without flinching, holds out his hand with his 20 in it and says, “Well sir, I’m sorry but all I have is 20.” Doesn’t blink. Doesn’t move. The owner of the shop looks at my little 6 year old, looks up at me with a smirk, and then stares back down at Jaspar. He shook his head and after a long minute said, “OK fine fine fine. For you, 20. Just this once.” Jaspar was so excited he yelped and started jumping up and down and yelled back to us, “IT WORKED! IT WORKED!” Cyrus had been looking at some things in the shop next door, but when he heard the commotion, he ran back and asked what had happened. As the shop keeper was putting Jaspar’s new treasure in a bag, we explained to Cyrus how Jaspar had negotiated and gotten the price to 20. Without missing a beat – and I swear, this happened – Cyrus goes up to the guy and says, “I’d like one too. But,” and then he pulls out what’s remaining of his money, “all I have is 15.” The shop keeper started cracking up and said, “OK, fine, just for you guys, just this once. Again.”
CYA re: laundry (or you won’t be able to CYA, literally).
Looking back, easy access to a washer/dryer would have been much higher on my priority list when choosing lodging options. Our little travel washing machine was great in a pinch, but holy mackerel it takes a long time to do five people’s laundry by hand. We slacked off these last few days and barely made it over the finish line. Two people in our family are flying commando right now. I won’t name names, but one of them is a kid, and the other one is an adult, and neither of them is 7 years old and neither is me.
Record everything. Also don’t.
We had some spurts of super-focused video recording, audio recording, picture-taking, journaling, and in all other ways documenting the trip.. These were great. And then some afternoons, or some whole days, we recorded absolutely nothing.
Some people may feel more present when they are recording. For me, this is only true when writing. Otherwise I feel less present, more distracted. I recommend balancing the two. There were sweet moments that I’ll always remember, perhaps more so because I was completely in the moment, vs. behind some recording device.
Breakfast in FTW.
We almost always had breakfast in our room. Each new place we went, we grabbed some fruit and yogurt and cereal (AND COFFEE) and ate breakfast in. Small and silly but probably saved us hundreds of dollars. Also, my kids need food almost immediately after they wake up to stay sane. Sometimes they’d wake up, walk right over to the food, and start eating before speaking a word.
Sometimes you have to go to the Cheesecake Factory (ugh)
Yes. I am bewildered by people who choose to go to McDonald’s in, say, Paris. Or in LA, for that matter. (Kidding! Sort of.) So it was humbling for us to confront moments on this trip when my kids just needed an easy out. Just one meal where they didn’t have to try yet another new food. This feeling hit us hard in China, where we did not find a grocery store close by to have breakfast foods handy, and where breakfasts are so drastically different than they are at home. So yes, we gave in, and went to the Cheesecake Factory once during our week in Beijing. And even though they didn’t serve pancakes during weekdays, I begged, and may or may not have cried a tiny bit because everyone was at their wits’ end that morning, and they made an exception. It was a glorious occasion.
So, sometimes you do need to let yourself go to the Cheesecake Factory.
OK WE WENT TWICE.
Let the kids lead.
Inevitably, there were moments (sometimes entire days) of rushing around, to catch trains, to make a flight, to keep up with a tour group. So, we made a point to go slow any time we possibly could and let the boys take charge. As soon as we were in a situation where we didn’t have to rush, we’d intentionally start moving at the kids’ pace. We’d let them lead. If they wanted to stop and play in a puddle for an hour, so be it. Not only were the kids able to step up when we needed them to, we were able to learn from them when they were in control of what to dwell on, what to skip, where to turn next, how to get around, and on and on. Paper maps helped a lot for this, btw. (I knew there was a reason not to toss those Lonely Planet guides from college!)
Get ready to make exceptions.
There was a lot of rule-breaking on this trip. It’s OK. Here’s how some of it went down.
We always wear seatbelts!!
…Unless there are no seatbelts in this taxi and it’s raining and this is the first taxi you’ve seen in 10 minutes and oh by the way it’s the third one and so far the only one that will take a credit card and you don’t have cash because the ATM rejected all your cards and you’re on the phone with the bank but they put you on hold. So, boys, we’re not going to wear seatbelts just this once. Yes, it’s an exception. Yes, the rule is still very important. Yes, we still always have to wear seat belts at home. We’re just making an exception this once.
We only cross at crosswalks!!
…Unless we’re in Cairo and the crosswalks are pretty much the most dangerous places to cross anyway and the nearest one is a half mile away and it’s nearly midnight because our flight got in late but we had to eat dinner because everyone was starving and our hotel is right across the street and Asa spilled water all over his shorts so we’re going to carry all of you across the street in the dark at night and you’ll think it’s fun and we will all scream and laugh but mostly my scream was me being terrified and regretting the entire situation. No, we can never ever do that again. Yes, we still cross at crosswalks. It’s different here than it is at home.
We don’t drink soda!!
…Unless literally the only beverage offered at the restaurant where we waited 30 minutes to sit down are alcohol or soft drinks, and they literally do not have water, unless it’s boiling hot, which makes no sense to us but that’s apparently a thing that happens in China, there’s only boiling hot water available for tea, ostensibly. So just this once you can order a random soda. Your first. (And to our delight you will hate it and spit it out.) I’m sorry you didn’t get/want to drink anything for another hour until we got home and found some bottled water.
Start audio touring.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but looking back at quite a number of different types of tours (some self-led, some with an audio guide, some with a private tour guide, some with a group tour guide), I can’t think of one where the tour guide was really, truly outstanding. True, some tour guides helped us save some time to skip lines or know where there were shortcuts in museums or recommended a good restaurant, but in terms of actually teaching our family about the actual thing we came to see, none blew us away.
We were happiest when a) we led ourselves on own little tours – which definitely meant doing some homework beforehand – OR b) when we did audio tours. I was surprised by this. It’s the opposite of how I usually go about things. I mean, if there’s an option to work with a real, live human being, to interact with a person, I’m basically always going to choose that option. But again and again on our adventure, we experienced tour guides who were bored, boring, ill-informed, inflexible, or downright inappropriate. We had guides literally give us the wrong historical information about sites we were visiting. Others spoke at length about gruesome deaths or sultry affairs or other historical facts without any kind of awareness that our children were tugging on our shirts to ask us what “suicide” or “decapitation” or “torture” meant. Other times, especially if it was for a group tour – and this is obviously much less of an egregious issue than the aforementioned faults – we almost never felt like the tour would move at the right pace for our family. We broke off of more than one tour that moved too fast, too slow, or just went on much longer than our little kiddos were able. Audio tours consistently offered us the best of all worlds. And they were way less expensive. So for once, on the issue of how to tour and who to tour with, I recommend technology over humans. Sad, but true.
If you’re going to watch a movie anyway….
… Or read a new bedtime story, or sing a new song, or anything else, make it about the country you’re in. We had some rainy nights while we stayed in a tiny cabin on a lake in Nagano, Japan, with no transportation and nothing else to do in the cabin, so we made up a little Japanese film festival. Our kids got to experience Totoro and Ponyo for the first time while we were in Japan. We watched Moana on the way to Hawaii, saw Prince of Egypt on the plane to Cairo, and Monkey King one evening in China. Matching the content to the place was a small and easy thing to do, but it had a big impact in helping to bring some aspects of the culture alive for the kids.
We have had a blast using many of our adventures over the last few months as excuses to tell our kids our own stories. Our boys marveled at the fact that we’d be somewhere brand new to them, but that we had been to before. We really got to take lots of walks down memory lane, and this let us show our kids other sides of ourselves – younger, crazier, maybe more adventurous sides. Actually, there were times the stories came tumbling out and we actually wished we would have saved them or amended them – like, the ones involving hitchhiking, sneaking out in the middle of the night, riding motorcycles with strangers, that sort of stuff – but all in all it was nice to introduce our kids to a few different versions of our former selves (even when those former selves were slightly bad influences).
Remember to remember.
Almost every night at dinner, we’d ask the kids about their favorite parts of the day, their least favorite parts, what they learned, etc. We’d do this even on slow days or travel days, and we kept building on their experiences even weeks after they’d happened. We quiz them on the names of cities and rivers and mountain ranges. We ask them to tell us the story of why various religious sites are important. We ask them to make “Top 10” lists of, say, favorite pieces of art they’ve seen, best music they’ve heard, most beautiful buildings they’ve visited, etc. They’ve retained a crazy amount of information this way, and we hope they will continue to.
God made everything.
There were a few spiritual themes – thanks to one of my early, still-incomplete lists! – that anchored the trip for us, and that our all of our boys (even the littlest) have come to know as truths. One is, God made everything.
We made a note to remind our family of this each time we were staring at some spectacular natural wonder – Wow, God made that!
We reminded ourselves when we encountered something strange and unusual – God made that too!
We reminded ourselves of this when we crossed paths with difficult people – God made them, too.
(There are lots of other themes that emerged but I’m saving those for hopeful future posts!)
“Not home” is a place too (sort of).
For the first half of the trip, we were all so focused on being in some particular new place that we forgot to honor the very real experience – happening at exactly the same time – of simply not being home. But halfway-ish, when we realized this, we also realized that acknowledging this was helpful to all of us. Appreciating that we were asking our kids to first and foremost be “not home,” and then on top of that, we were also asking them to be present in a new country, allowed us to help them identify more of their feelings (like being a little homesick) and to meet their needs better. Sometimes, if they weren’t totally enthused to be a new spot, it wasn’t because they were unimpressed or apathetic about that new place, it was because they were missing some aspect of home. It’s plain as day to see this in retrospect, but at the time, it felt like a big discovery. Theoretically, even if we had been five minutes away from our hosue, not halfway around the world, being “not home” would have been a significant experience for them.
The best part was each other.
Every morning, waking up, we were together. Every meal, together. Every day, every activity, every car ride or train ride or flight or walk or ferry, together. Every night, falling asleep together, not just in the same room but often all piled up in the same bed, everyone snoring their own particular snore (except me of course), together. And let’s be super honest, most showers everyone just crammed in together too.
I don’t know that that will ever happen again for 80-ish days in a row. It was the closest we’ve ever been – maybe ever will be – and it was the most intense, beautiful, difficult, heart-filling, joyful, hilarious, loud, crazy experience of my life. Never mind that we were checking of bucket list item after bucket list item, country after country, mile after mile. The togetherness was the biggest thing, hands down.
It should not have come as a surprise. But this, the significance of the togetherness, the weight of it, the depth of its importance in this journey, it still strikes me. It still moves me.
And so coming home feels less like coming home than returning to a place. A beloved place, a special place, a deeply familiar place, our favorite place, but simply a place that we make home by being here, together. I guess I already knew that, but what a gift to re-learn it as a family.
Home is togetherness. Home is us.
author of #claywaterbrick. cofounder of @kiva. instructor at @USC. investor at @collabfund. in love w @rezaaslan + our three boys.