Around the World in 300 Days
A Silver Spring family chronicles their around-the-world travels and adventures.
The fortune cookie was the final sign.
Months earlier I had casually raised the subject with my wife over lunch at a local Latin American restaurant.
“Would you think I was crazy if I said we should take a year off, pull the kids out of school and travel around the world?” I couldn’t tell if Dani meant it when she said, “Sounds interesting. Could we really do it?”
Once I had voiced the thought, the signs began to appear. Out of the blue one day, our 10-year-old son, Conor, said, “Dad, I know what I want to do when I grow up.”
“I want to travel around the world, talk to people, listen to their stories, then use what they tell me to make up new stories.”
It was clear Conor would be on board. But I wasn’t so sure about our 13-year-old daughter, who was never one to enjoy change. When I raised the possibility of the trip, though, Caroline was willing to listen.
As the weeks passed, we talked about the trip each night over dinner, swearing each other to secrecy. The idea seemed so crazy we didn’t dare tell anyone else.
Then one night we got Chinese takeout, and as I passed around the fortune cookies, I asked Caroline how she felt. She would be heading to high school, and the trip would affect her more than anyone else. “Dad,” she said, “I’ve thought a lot about this, and the way I feel right now, I’m scared to go. But I also know I’ll be really disappointed if we don’t.”
Then Caroline broke open her fortune cookie. It said: “You will step on the soil of many countries.”
We passed the fortune around the table and I called for a family vote.
“All in favor of taking a year off to travel around the world, raise your hand.”
Four hands shot up.
Here’s the thing about traveling around the world with your family: You can’t just fill a backpack and walk out the door. There are dozens of obstacles: what to do about school, your house, cars, bills, pets and the not-so-small matter of how to pay for it. Each argued for staying home. But there were equally compelling reasons for going.
I had been working for myself for more than a decade, and Dani had been home with the kids since our eldest was born. There were no bosses to worry about or jobs to lose. Like many parents, we could see our lives with our children slipping away. In a few short years, they would be deep into high school, then college, then young adulthood—and before we knew it, they would be parents themselves. We could sleepwalk through the years of parent-teacher conferences, school plays, sports practices and two-week vacations. Or we could puncture this dream and do something real that would define us as individuals and as a family.
And so, in the months that followed we researched Montgomery County policies on home schooling, struck a deal with a divorcing neighbor who needed a home to rent, sold one car and loaned out the other, voted on where to go and bought round-the-world airline tickets that would take us to 20 destinations and cover more than 45,000 miles. Using Web sites and blogs of other world travelers, we calculated the cost (including airfares, hotels, rental cars, tours and food) at roughly $250 a day for the four of us. And finally, we told family and friends. Sharing our plans proved to be the hardest.
While many friends were supportive, others were skeptical and unsure how we would pull this off—or why we would want to. Our parents were deeply concerned, fearful we would be exposing our children to a dangerous world. And as our departure approached, I spent sleepless nights grappling with all that could go wrong, from being caught in an earthquake or tsunami to being separated from the kids in a foreign city. I shared my fears with a friend. “Those fears that come at night,” he said, “it’s like a cold hand in the dark.”
Ultimately, the desire to step away from the rat race for a year outweighed our fears. And before dawn one morning in July 2008, a dozen friends gathered on our porch to see us off. Ten hours later we landed at Mariscal Sucre International Airport in Quito, Ecuador, and our year of adventure began.
Aboard the GAP Adventure II, off the Galápagos Islands
On the 17th day of our trip, that cold hand of fear reached out for me once again when Conor was nearly swept from the deck of the GAP Adventure IIand into the Pacific Ocean.
The day had been bright and clear as we made our way from North Seymour Island to Chinese Hat Island in the Galápagos. The captain had the boat near top speed—7 knots—as we covered the open ocean between the two islands. The boat was headed into the wind and the prevailing current, and there was a light chop on the water. We were 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador and five miles from the nearest land.
Friends from home had joined us with their families on this leg of our journey, and we were enjoying the sunny day on deck. Hanzel, our tour guide, was napping. The captain was on the bridge and the crew, below deck. Most of the kids were sitting on the metal benches at the bow of the boat, holding on to the rails and dangling their legs over the edge.
As the boat powered through the chop, ocean spray flew over the bow, giving the kids a light shower. With every wave, the kids squealed with delight. Conor was inside the main cabin, missing the fun, when his friend Meg ran to get him. I helped position him on the bench and told him to hold on tight, then rejoined the adults.
Within moments, a large wave headed toward the boat—the biggest so far. “Hang on,” I said to the kids. “Here comes a big one.” The wave hit the bow with such force it sent the kids flying. The metal bench was suddenly slick as ice, making it hard to hold on. Conor was knocked flat on the bench and was perilously close to slipping through the railing and into the ocean. Chris, a 12-year-old sitting next to Conor, was thrown offthe deck and was clinging to the outside railing, calling for help.
Dani and I dashed across the deck. I threw myself on Conor, who was lying semiconscious on the bench after hitting his head on the metal railing. Dani grabbed Chris and, with our friend’s help, pulled him into the boat. In less than 30 seconds, both kids were safe. I staggered into the bathroom and threw up.
The arc of your life can turn on just a few inches. If Conor had been sitting one foot to the right—where Chris was—he would have been thrown out of the boat. I don’t know if he would have been able to hold on to the railing long enough to have been pulled back. And here’s the thought I couldn’t shake: Conor should have been sitting one foot to the right. When he joined the other kids on the bench, that seat was empty. I had moved Chris over—to the spot that was hit by the full force of the wave just moments later.
The incident left us deeply shaken. I found myself compulsively monitoring Caroline and Conor, afraid to let them out of my sight. And Dani and I discussed whether we should head back home after the Galápagos tour.
Two days later we pulled into Sante Fe Island. When we dived into the water there, we were surrounded by dozens of playful sea lions that tugged on our flippers and blew bubbles at our masks. As Dani and I watched Caroline and Conor chase the sea lions around the cove, we knew the right thing to do: We would continue on.
Later that day the kids wanted to jump from the boat into the water. First they jumped from the lower level, no more than five or six feet from the water. But Hanzel encouraged them to go to the roof of the boat and jump—from a height of about 20 feet. Conor wanted to go right away. And Caroline soon followed. They jumped again and again and again. Fearless.
The Bucket List
Sally, a 67-year-old grandmother from Michigan, arrived at the SAS travel office a few minutes after we did. Soon there were a dozen more people there, ready to join the Sacred Valley tour before heading on to Machu Picchu. Dani and I had more than two decades on most of our fellow travelers, but Sally had two decades on us.
“I’m doing the Sacred Valley tour today, but tomorrow I’m off on the four-day trek along the Inca trail to Machu Picchu,” she told us. “It’s one of the things on my bucket list.” It was a difficult hike that would challenge people a third of her age.
“I’m a traveler,” Sally told us later that day as we hiked to the ruins of Pisac. “If I want to go somewhere or do something and I can’t find a friend to come along, I just go. I’ve got my list, and I’m checking things off.”
We came to a fork in the path. To the left, the path rose at a steady grade to the parking area. To the right, the path remained level until the final 50 yards, where it rose steeply. We chose the path to the right and continued on.
As we walked, Dani told Sally our story. “I would have loved to have done a round-the-world trip with my kids,” Sally said.
Soon we reached the steep incline to the parking area. As we made the difficult climb, Dani said, “I’m not sure we chose the right path.” Thinking Dani was still talking about our travels, Sally said, “Honey, all you can do in life is make your choices and keep moving forward.”