Taking a Year Around the World with the Van Loens

17 Sep
Q: You have just started your traveling adventure – can you run through your timeline and destinations real quick?
We are taking a year off (July 2012 through August 2013) – we are starting with 4 months in Peru (Cusco specifically), Chile, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Tahiti (French Polynesia), New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China, Tibet, Mongolia, and Russia.  16 countries in all before we return to the United States.
Q: Why did you pick to travel to these places? How did you decide where to go?
Traveling as a family, we felt that we needed to be “realistic” about locations to travel to/through as a family that we would feel safe, but would provide us with a range of different experiences.  We also made decisions based on travel distances, visa requirements and availability of friends we could stay with. For example, we had to choose between India and China. China offered more free places to stay, so China it was. Europe and Scandanavia are too expensive right now while the Middle East and Africa are too far out of our way. We will save these places for another trip. Other considerations included wanting to go places that none of us had been before (new for all), wanting to engage in slow travel vs. sightseeing, finding some exciting volunteer opportunities, and (of course) budget considerations.
When we originally started planning our itinerary, we thought about doing an around-the-Pacific route, ending with some time in Hawaii (since that was somewhere that the kids really wanted to go), but through our airfare research we learned that most RTW tickets won’t allow you to cross the same ocean twice, so we decided to change it up and add the Trans-Mongolian railway piece.  Now it’s truely “around-the-world”. We ended up with a “hard / easy / hard / easy” mix – we decided to pick a “hard” place to start (Peru) where we didn’t speak the language, so we could learn new culture and language (that’s why we are spending a longer time in our first location).  Then we will move to “easier” locations (like New Zealand and Australia).  Repeat with SE Asia and China.
Q: Tell us a little about your decision to take these 13 months off – why travel in the first place and why not just for 3 or 6 months?
Great question(s) – perhaps we’ll split up our answers:
We decided to travel in the first place because we feel that we learn and grow the best when we are separated from our comfort zone – we can theorize how other people live, but nothing has the same impact as “being there” – that’s when the real growth occurs.  Plus, it’s a great life opportunity for perspective shift (as individuals, as a family, and as a couple/team).
Why did we decide to travel for 13 months and not less?  We got this question a lot from family and friends.  After asking ourselves this question, we think the original idea came from Anne’s year-abroad experience.  She realized that it took literally months to shake off the “comparing everything to what it was like at home” and embrace “being there” in the present / in the moment.  Not that you can’t learn and grow in a shorter time period, but a year seemed like a true commitment.  Short answer = because we could.  True, we made that happen, but it was made a bit easier that both Anne and Noah were able to make a CareerBreak happen – Anne as teacher, Noah in project-based IT work.
Q: What are your top five challenges regarding this trip? (In other words, what are you skeptical about or worried about?)
It’s tough to decide on just five, since there are so many challenges inherent in changing your life to allow for a year-long trip, especially with a family.  But here are the ones that are on the top of our list right now:
Kids and school – 
We are lucky that the US (and our home state of Washington) allows us to take our kids out of school for a year for homeschooling.  While on this trip, we’ve learned that what we’re doing just would not be possible in many other countries (e.g. Germany, Peru, Sweden, etc.).   For us, it was relatively simple to file the “Intent to Homeschool” paperwork with the school system.  However, we will need to reapply to the Seattle public school system when we get back in order to retain assignment to our preferred school.
Homeschooling – 
Just because we can homeschool doesn’t mean it’s easy.  Getting appropriate materials together, figuring out how to integrate the more “standard” lessons with our current culture and location, setting up some structure and fostering a learning environment even while the kids feel like they are “on vacation” can be challenging.  Luckily, travel itself provides a wealth of learning opportunities and all four of of us are learning and growing together every day. Expeditionary and experiential learning are Anne’s teaching philosophies of choice and the world is the perfect place for her current “classroom”.
Extended time together –
Since we are spending a lot of time in close proximity – sharing the same room, the stresses of travelling, etc. – can we survive a year together without killing each other?  As much as we all get along normally, there’s much more limited “alone time” (both as individuals and as a couple…)  Finding ways to get some time alone is going to be critical to our sanity.
Getting out of the house –
This is a whole set of challenges unto itself that it seems almost unfair to generalize it.  However, the process of getting out of Seattle included finding renters for our house, storing (or otherwise selling and donating) 14 years of accumulated “stuff”, and finding a (temp) home for our dog were some of the larger challenges we faced.
Health –
Now that we’re on the trip, our major challenge is staying healthy.  We bought travel insurance along with our airfare, so we have coverage if/when something goes wrong (from small injuries to major medical evacuation needs).  We’ve also spent a lot of time figuring out how to retain continuing creditable coverage (“real” insurance, which our travel insurance doesn’t count as).
We also have to accept that there will be times on the trip where we will be sick; medicines won’t be the same, the quality of care will be different, physicians networks are much different.  All this comes with a certain level of anxiety and worry that if/when we get sick  will we be able to get the treatment we need?  This is a big concern as parents – it might be a bit different if we were travelling as individuals without kids.
Q: Your children left their friends, school and routines behind. How did you convince them to leave?
According to our kids, there was not a lot of “convincing”.  🙂  We have been talking about this for a number of years (5+), so this has always been something that we were “going to do”, less so “might do”. Alex and Leah were involved in the planning process and have had a voice in our decisions.  Luckily, our kids really enjoy each other (good friends) so it’s easy to travel together.  Plus, our kids friends all said “that is so cool!” – so that helps.  It also helps knowing that the plan is for them to return back to schools and friends after a year.
Q: What are some of the things you hope traveling will teach your children?  
The big thing we hope the kids walk away from this trip with is perspective. There are some things that must be experienced and/or observed first hand to shift a person’s sense of reality. Kids are especially open to observation and are naturally inquisitive. They notice the everyday things and norms we take for granted and how people live in different ways and with different priorities and beliefs.
We want them to learn to respect other cultures by participating in them, to try new foods, struggle with a foreign language, take risks, and overcome obstacles. We hope they grow in self confidence and discover that happiness is not about how much stuff you have.
Q: What’s your basic philosophy on traveling with kids?
Our philosophy is that we are traveling as a family. We are trying to make the experience successful for all four of us. In order to do that we have to work hard on communication and compromise. Oh, and always bring snacks.
Q: Why did you set up volunteer legs of the trip? 
Volunteering gives us a unique way to meet people, interact in a different language, expereince local customs and learn about a new culture. We feel that it’s important to interface with people in a “non-touristy” manner whenever possible, and believe that these experiences are the ones that will stick with us the most. We hope that our kids will experience first hand the joy of  volunteering and choose to make it an important part of their future lives.
Q: How long did it take you to plan this trip out? What are some points of advice for others who want to plan a similar adventure?
Our best advice is the hardest to follow – just do it. Set a date and work towards departure. The trip itself can be an organic thing. It is the getting out of town that feels daunting. Know that you don’t have to have everything planned out and that there are lots of resources once you are on the road.
Don’t try to do it all. There are so many things to experience in the world. Consider taking it slow and allowing for flexibility.
We started talking about this trip a number of years back, but started really planning about a year before our departure.  Luckily, there are lots of good sites out there that have pieces of information that you need and we’re working now on a comprehensive checklist based on our own experiences.  We would recommend doing a lot of research, as well as connecting with other folks who are doing / have done similiar trips.  Meet, Plan, Go! was a group that was especially helpful for us.
Q: What have you missed so far from home?
Funny, originally we thought that this would be a long list, but really, there aren’t many things.  We miss our family and friends and the dog we left behind. Hot showers with good water pressure is also on the top of the list right now.  Also having our own washer/dryer, instead of having to wash out our clothes in the sink or take them to the local laundrymat.
Thank you to Anne and Noah for sharing the first leg of their adventure with us! If you would like to follow along on their adventure follow them on their blog or their Facebook page.
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