A Family Field Trip Around the World
The school bus can wait. So can the PTA and soccer practice. How one family put “normal” life on hold for a year and let adventure take center stage, traveling to four continents and learning which way the toilet really flushes south of the equator (among other things).
The proof came in the Serengeti, at the end of two weeks in Africa. My husband and I were hanging out of the top of a Jeep with our two sons, squinting into the early sun at a couple of lionesses returning from the hunt. As the big cats leapt onto a rock outcropping, Gus, 13, asked Jeb, 11, which animal he'd want to be. Jeb paused thoughtfully. "Well, it depends on whether you're talking about predator or prey and which habitat," he said. "Here in the grassland or up in the Ngorongoro Crater? In different environments, different animals have a better chance of staying alive."
As they compared notes on ecosystems, I remembered those food-chain diagrams that I'd been forced to memorize in biology, and I wondered how much time the boys would've had to fritter away in a classroom to internalize what had come to them so powerfully out on the savannah. This was the kind of moment my husband, Robb, and I had hoped for when we launched one unconventional year of homeschooling—using the world as our classroom.
Admittedly, travel plays an unusually important part of our lives. Robb shoots photos for National Geographic, and before we had kids, he'd been on the road maybe 300 days a year. I went with him as much as possible—Morocco, Cuba, Switzerland, Nepal, Bali, Thailand. We both grew up in small towns—he's from the Texas Panhandle, I'm from East Tennessee—and seeing cultural and natural wonders together gave us a bigger window on global events and led us to commit to following adventure wherever we could find it.
We're not rich by any means. We just live carefully, and Robb has always been a saver. Since the boys were little, we've socked away money to send them to private high school, if need be. Our ideas for that money changed when we met a couple from Louisiana whose online jobs freed them to travel from country to country with their two sons, homeschooling along the way. "You can do that?" I asked, hearing a door creak open in my brain.
Inspired, we diverted some of our nest egg to a smaller version of that experience—one school year of traveling, based where we could live cheaply: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. We felt we could get more for our educational buck on the road than even in an elite private school classroom. Plus, the boys were at a golden age-old enough to understand what they were experiencing but young enough to like hanging out with Mom and Dad. We wanted to keep them close as long as possible.
After standardized tests revealed that they were above grade level in key areas, we decided a year away from "proper" school wouldn't hurt, especially if we kept up on fundamentals like math and English. We tackled South America first, so the boys could use the Spanish they'd been learning since they were little. We sketched out where we wanted to go—the Galápagos and Machu Picchu topped the list. Robb asked me to come up with a budget, to see how much territory we could cover without being extravagant but also without resorting to camping.
I spent hours scouring the Internet for bargains and experiences that were authentic, not expensive. I loved the challenge; it felt like a logistics version of Rubik's Cube, getting all the pieces to fit as cheaply as possible. If my projections came in high, Robb would suggest that three nights on a boat without a bathroom would be exciting. That motivated me to find more cuts. I began by reading through TripAdvisor forums and casting a wide net on Google, going beyond the first few pages since I might find blog mentions or lesser-known sites deeper in. Sometimes, searches yielded just what I'd find in guidebooks, but frequently I'd uncover a gem like andeantravelweb.com, run by a nonprofit to give independent recommendations on travel in Peru.
Fortunately, we had Robb's frequent-flier miles and some hotel points from my dad. It also helped that we could travel in the cheaper off-season, since we weren't locked into jaunts on school holidays. Our mentors, the Internet couple who did this as a lifestyle, advised us to rent apartments where possible. Renting saved money, and apartments usually came with creature comforts (DVD players, washing machines, etc.). The occasional trekker's hostel or overnight train helped keep the lodging line-item under control.
We started with a two-week trial run to Ecuador—we wanted to see how much learning would actually take place on the road. The trip was filled with scientific and geographic aha moments: swimming in a lagoon in the Ecuadorian rain forest and discovering that piranha won't eat people; seeing for ourselves that toilet water does flush in the same direction north and south of the equator. In a letter to my parents in Tennessee, Gus—who like all of us had prepped with documentaries on Charles Darwin—said that seeing finches, tortoises, and blue-footed boobies in the Galápagos "makes me understand Darwin's ideas about evolution on a different level."