Halfway There Together: Surprises and Changes So Far
As you can guess from the photo, we’ve started the five-week Australian leg of our journey! This past week was a blur as I left Morgan and the kids for a short trip back to California. The three of them transitioned from New Zealand to here, and I rejoined them midweek.
At first I felt as bushed as a koala who looks drunk on eucalyptus midday. (Little-known fact from Friends of the Koalas: “Contrary to popular belief, eucalyptus leaves do not make koalas drunk. Koalas appear drunk or lazy because they have developed a low-energy lifestyle to compensate for their extremely low-energy diet.” What a bummer to discover — I liked the idea that this lovable species had evolved to be fat, lazy and perpetually buzzed.)
In the midst of the past week, each of us took time to mark the halfway point in our journey by doing the following exercise: write a letter to ourselves and the other family members. Reflect on the trip so far, making note of what memories stand out and our feelings about the past six months. Then imagine the second half of the journey (when we’ll go from Australia to Hong Kong, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey) and write down some hopes and expectations for those months. Don’t share the letter with anyone yet; seal it up and set it aside. Then, on the last night before returning home, open and take turns reading them to one another and reflecting further — not only about where we went and what we did, but also why we did it, how it affected us and what we’ll do next.
I have my friend Carolyn to thank (the one who hosted us in Queenstown, who’s an accomplished educator and world traveler) for suggesting this exercise, because it prompted me to think more deeply about how this trip has changed and surprised us. There’s no way I can fit all those ideas into a blog post, but I’d like to share some.
Here, then, are some surprises and revelations in no particular order:
I really like my family. This wasn’t obvious to me before. Of course I love them — but did I like their company so much that I could spend all day, every day with them? As we planned this trip in early 2009, I seriously worried we would get sick of each other. I braced for the inevitability that we would bicker and get in one another’s way. What happened instead is they became my closest friends. We do bicker (that really is inevitable), but nonetheless I am happiest when we are sharing small spaces, such as a car or a hotel room, and when they are in sight or earshot. This is one reason I don’t miss our big house with its separate areas. Back home I occasionally found myself thinking “I need my space” or “my kids are driving me crazy,” but those thoughts don’t enter my head now.
Colly and Kyle are de facto BFFs. They’re reluctant to admit it, but the kids have developed a bond and have more fun together than ever before (see the earlier post on how long-term travel affects play and sibling relationships).
We don’t need much stuff. Traveling has made us less materialistic, less cluttered and more frugal. We have pared down to the essentials, and we value every item in our bags. I swear to God, nobody needs more than three pairs of shoes (sandals, running shoes, and close-toed leather shoes that are dressy but still good for walking around). We have purchased almost nothing as souvenirs, preferring to spend money on experiences and eating rather than on stuff. I look at price tags like never before and try to take home leftovers to make two meals out of one. We have to shop here in Sydney to replace some worn-out grubbies and to get some decent outfits for places like Barcelona and Rome, and the trip to the mall looms like a chore on our to-do list.
Related to the point above: We really don’t need all those toiletries and expensive skin and hair care products. I packed a mini-pharmacy when we left and discovered we didn’t need half the things we brought, and if we did need something, then we could buy a comparable product wherever we are. Brand loyalty faded quickly. My must-have conditioner from a salon ran out, and I replaced it with a product I had never heard of, at a mini-mart in Mendoza, for about one-tenth the cost, and my hair looked and felt pretty much the same. The idea of spending money to get my eyebrows and toenails done monthly now seems crazy. I recently wrote to a friend that these months of roadtripping have revived a latent hippie streak in Morgan and me, and we’re all overdue for haircuts.
I’m bigger. I weighed myself for the first time in months, and the scale confirmed what my tighter clothes and mirror told me: I’m enjoying the regional cuisine a little too much. I’ve got saddlebags that look well stocked for the long ride ahead. Lo que sea (whatever).
Long-term travel has leveled the playing field in our marriage. Morgan and I have a twenty-five year relationship with all the peaks, valleys and rocky terrain of a good trail run. These months away have helped our marriage in ways I didn’t expect, mainly because we’re more collaborative and united — we have to be, because we’re stuck together and need each other in these utterly foreign environments. We now work together on the essential things that often determine the (im)balance of power in a marriage, such as who controls the money, who cares for the house and who keeps the all-important calendar. The kids now look to their dad for answers and direction every bit as much or more than they come to me. (One small example: Last night Colly asked me a question about makeup but went to Morgan for help with her hair.) Of course there’s still some division of labor — e.g. I do more than half of the homeschooling, he does more than half of the travel planning — but we trust one other to swap roles far more than we did before.
This notion hit me when I left them for my solo trip last week. I did not make multiple lists with endless reminders for Morgan about what he should do in my absence, and when he and the kids Skyped or emailed me details about their day, I did not second guess what they had or hadn’t done. I did not interrogate them about whether they were using sunscreen and flossing. I just felt happy for them and missed them. I trusted Morgan and respected him to a degree I know I wouldn’t have six months ago.
We’re reading books instead of the news. I’m guilty of political apathy. I’m not reading past many headlines. But I am reading — novels, memoirs, travel blogs — and savoring literature in a way I didn’t back home, where I had to deliberately make time to read just one book a month and my attention span shortened to article length. Morgan is reading about twice as much as I am, going off at least once during the day to read on his Kindle. And Colly and Kyle have become bookworms — they wander off and read, sometimes surreptitiously because they don’t want me to tell them to put away their books and get something else done. I truly doubt they would have discovered reading for pleasure back home, where reading is lumped together with homework and their time is so sliced and diced.
We’re not doing a lot of things we thought we’d do. Before we left, I had noble plans for various things we’d accomplish. I wanted to make a commitment to “voluntourism” — i.e., to volunteer for a worthy cause in each of our major destinations. I had images of the four of us pulling weeds in an organic farm in the countryside or handing out food at a soup kitchen in a city. None of that panned out. Volunteering takes time to set up, and takes time away from sightseeing, and quite frankly we have enough logistical wrinkles to iron out on a daily and weekly basis, so I let it go. I also wanted to attend a local church at least once a month, thinking it would be a good way to get a sense of the community we’re in, but we haven’t set foot in a church since we left the Bay Area (except to view the architecture). Like voluntourism, going to church felt like something we “should” do rather than really wanted to, so we let it go. Ditto with learning Italian (we started a “daily phrase” program but it petered out; I lost interest because it’s hard enough to study Spanish occasionally). And what about my fledgling career as a travel writer? Oh, yeah, I meant to get to that — I have all my notes from last year’s multimedia and travel writing seminars somewhere, along with ideas of stories to pitch to various websites and publications, and … well, this blog is about as far as I’ve gotten.
So far, no regrets. I wasn’t at all sure this trip would live up to the “no regrets” phrase in the blog’s tagline. The risks were huge: We jeopardized a career, strained relationships, risked our kids’ education and raided our savings. What if it all turned out to be a colossal mistake? What if we spent 11 months drifting around feeling homesick and anxious? What if we spent the whole time fighting? We had a long list of reasons not to leave home and go out on this longest of limbs. One thing that helped us make it happen was a refrain we heard from others who had taken time as a family for a similar trip: “It’s the best thing we ever did.” We heard it over and over, and now I’d say the same: It’s the best thing we ever did.