Why, When, and How to Take One Year Off Abroad
Why take a year off?
It is important to know your own reasons for taking a sabbatical—not just the obvious reasons but also the hidden ones. For example, do you have some difficulties at home, at work, with family or friends, and want to create distance from them? Are you looking for a personal challenge? Do you need time to think, to mend some parts of your life? Knowing your reasons and therefore your needs will help you recognize the expectations that are often behind disappointments that will inevitably arise along the way.
When and where to go?
This of course depends on your preferences and budget. Include your children in the decision-making and sit down with them to read books and view videos on the different countries you will visit along the way. We decided to see only a few countries but stay longer in each one. We chose family-friendly countries with a warm climate, thereby limiting some hassles of independent travel as well as luggage.
The type of travel you choose depends greatly on the interests of your family members. Will you camp or stay in hotels? Will you have your own wheels, or will you take buses and trains? We decided to break the trip into two parts: six months backpacking around the world and six months in a small trailer driving from Western Canada to Guatemala and back. Many around-the-world travelers find that after six months everyone gets tired of adventure and is ready to go home. We were happy to change to a "home on wheels" which had more amenities, toys, and books than one can stuff in a packsack. We also took along our bikes and had wonderful rides on deserted beaches and in amazing out-of-the-way parks.
What about health issues?
Some inoculations need to be done months in advance. Seeing a doctor for prescriptions for potential diseases and getting your teeth fixed are also good ideas. We also chose countries that were not too "dangerous" in terms of potential diseases: drier southern Africa rather than tropical Africa and medically advanced Malaysia and Thailand rather than the less advanced Asian countries. It is also advisable to have extra medical insurance.
What to pack?
Take the advice of all travelers and pack as lightly as possible, a difficult task when children are involved! Here are a few tips:
- Read Bonnie Michaels' "Planning Your Sabbatical," and Susan Griffith's "Planning a Career Break: Radical Sabbaticals" for more.
- Take a few small made-for-travel games.
- Bring many books that you can exchange along the way.
- Don't forget the addresses of your children's friends.
- Talk to their teacher about work to do, notebooks and books to borrow (we decided on only English and math).
- Think about emailing excerpts from your kids' diary regularly to their class back home. Home schooling?
Schooling was the most difficult part of our trip because it was hard to be motivated to work when others were having fun or seemed idle, and when external conditions seemed so different from back home, sometimes without a table to work on. One piece of advice: start early in the trip and get into a routine. We worked almost every day for two hours in the morning, when everybody was still fresh. There were no free weekends because there was always days when it was impossible to work. Each day the boys wrote three or four sentences in their journal. Since they were trying to work on style, they would take a small part of the day and expand on it, trying to add verbs of action, details, thoughts, and feelings.
Will your children get homesick?
Everyone will likely feel homesick at some point during the trip. This is normal and should be acknowledged. There are many ways to help your children feel less lonely: take along photographs of their friends and talk about them often; pretend your kids' friends are also traveling and discuss how they would react to seeing the same things; make sure that your children get news from their friends and classmates via email. Encourage sending or bringing back small items to their friends. If you know of a place where you will spend longer than usual, have friends and family members send cards and a few toys or books from home. Celebrate the same holidays as you would back home.
What to expect?
Traveling with children automatically puts you in a different category in terms of how locals will perceive you. They will tend to trust you and take you in more easily than if you were traveling alone as adults.
Traveling together for such a long time will open your eyes to each other in ways that might be more difficult at home. Our children showed an incredible ability to voice their feelings, yet adapt and take the best of what was offered at any time. We rejoiced from watching them interact with others regardless of their age, race, or wealth. We also had time to revise our own priorities and review the values of our way of life back home. We learned to live more in the present, a luxury often forgotten at home.
The Good and the Bad
Being stranded in a strange town, home schooling our children, being unable to learn Thai, not having enough privacy, being away from friends and family, feeling lonely at times, finding that time went by too slowly or too fast, being almost constantly in dirty surroundings, seeing so many dogs almost dying, feeling helpless in the face of poverty.
Hiking and river rafting in the wild jungles of Thailand, strolling in a small street in France and biting into a fresh croissant, being surrounded by millions of butterflies in Mexico, horseback riding up a volcano, spending halloween in the midst of an African elephant herd, revisiting old cherished places, spending time with people from so many countries, looking into the bright smiling face of an African child, being invited to a Thai family's home, witnessing the colorful processions of Antigua's Semana Santa, walking in puddles under torrential rain and not caring, watching our children play, realizing the time we had together and the love we felt.