Lately, I have been thinking about and discussing with friends, family, and colleagues, the delicate balance we seek when managing the many aspects of travel. By that, I mean stirring the sometimes bubbling pot of risk, reward, fear, preparation, knowledge and exploration.
Perhaps our formula is different when the situation involves our children.
Several years ago, I was in Hawaii with my sons, Alex and Ted, when word came of Japan's devastating tsunami. We watched the tragedy unfold on television as we prepared to evacuate our hotel rooms. We would sleep in the public spaces along with other uneasy guests as we awaited the incoming swells.
We've hiked, rafted, skied, and kayaked in places where wild animals roam and sheer cliffs threaten.
I've traveled extensively through countries considered a world away from the perceived safety net provided by chain hotels and English-speaking island resorts.
All too often a deadly virus, a terrorist attack or a mosquite-borne threat gives rise to a new conversation about travel and well-being.
What's more, I am often asked if I worry about my safety as a woman traveling solo in a city or after an adventure in the backcountry.
What really makes us feel safe?
How is it that one person's fear-inducing experience is another's source of exhiliration?
I don't have answers but believe that, in the end, it's about the personal attitudes we develop very early, layered with opportunity, choice and experience. It is among the reasons I feel so strongly about encouraging children and families to explore the world early and often.
And, the question always reminds me of a thought-provoking experience I shared with my sons Alex and Ted during and soon after, a trip to the Peruvian Amazon.
(Forewarned: this tale involves snakes!)
~ ~ ~
Eyes empty, sadness smudged her forehead. Then our guide told us the story and I understood.
We had come to her home on the secluded banks of the Peruvian Amazon to search for the elusive poison dart frog in the adjacent jungle. The woman before me, her husband and four children cooked, dined and slept beneath a thatched roof, covering a raised platform. There were no walls.
No doubt they received a small fee from our guide’s lodge to allow us to slide our canoes on to their riverside beach and to welcome us for a short visit in their home.
But it was not our presence that veiled her eyes. It was this: a few weeks prior, the couple’s oldest son was sent 100 yards down to the river to collect water for their cooking.
He did not return.
Soon they went searching for him and discovered he had been struck by the deadly fer-de-lance snake. This creature, deeply feared by the river people, is sometimes called the “three-step snake” – so deadly you can walk only three steps after its bite.
The family had no way to get their son to modern medical treatment. The local shaman was called, but the boy did not survive.
~ ~ ~
With this story thickening the already hot and humid air, we wandered into the jungle and located many small colorful frogs.
We were told their poison is still applied to the tips of darts used for hunting within the region. We returned on the path, crossing near the family’s home, climbed into our canoes and paddled back to our lodge.
During our stay at the jungle lodge, my sons and their friends were asked to join the local villagers in their soccer matches. The games took place at sunset. I, somewhat sheepishly, felt compelled to warn my sons not to venture into the jungle for the ball. We were told this was prime time for the deadly snakes to hunt.
With the grieving mother’s pained expression still haunting me, I studied the natural floor during our jungle hikes, determined to spot the mottled skin of the exotic, mysterious snake. It didn't happen. Within a few days, after fishing for piranha, visiting a native village and zip-lining through the canopy, we returned home to the States.
~ ~ ~
Within weeks after our return to our Scottsdale, AZ home, we were enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Teddy was watching a movie in the study. I was finishing some work at my desk. As my husband walked toward the hall powder room, he stopped to chat with me for just a moment. Fortunately, as he spoke, he put his hand on the door, moving it in slowly. In doing so, a loud noise erupted. Was it a water pipe? Some sort of electrical malfunction?
It was the rapid tail movement of an angry Diamondback rattlesnake. Stunned, we realized that the rattler had done his part. He had warned us with a surprisingly vigorous alarm, one designed to be heard in the desert. It now echoed strangely off thick, slate floors.
My husband and son wisely stuffed towels under the bathroom door so the snake would not disappear into the house. I called the fire department.
The firefighters arrived quickly, amazed that the snake had slithered into our home. Using their cleverly designed extraction tool, they removed the Diamondback to the natural desert beyond our patio.
Later, we discussed how easy it would have been to have an unpleasant encounter with the poisonous rattler as he meandered within a few feet of each of us. We spoke of our rigorous planning and preparation and the safety measures exercised in the wild places we explored.
And how ironic it was that our closest call came within the “safety” of our own home.
How and why one Colorado family left it all behind and found what mattered most.
All while traveling "Children Class".
There are two classes of travel: First class, and with children.
- Robert Benchley
He's right, you know; there is no posh, no pamper, no true relaxation when traveling with children.
When we grownups travel or walk into an office or a sit in a pew or stand in an elevator looking anywhere but at someone else, it is because we have been trained how to behave in certain situations or settings. Children, haven't a clue. And so when traveling they are as exasperating, frustrating, entertaining, and exhausting as any other day of their lives.
What is different with travel is that we grownups finally have the time to be properly trained by them. For example, when children take a break from study or chores or other responsibilities, they do not seek out a hammock with a Mai Tai Kool-Aid with a wee umbrella sitting close by. No, they seek play, which is really just work with a different purpose. We grownups tend to think that proper relaxing is the complete cessation of all physical exertion (save for waving down the pool boy for just one more Mai Tai). Relaxation, our children continually try to teach us, is not rest but the freedom to pursue your own purpose.
Children couldn't care less about physical rest, and when they do, they usually settle down to something calm yet mentally engaging and creative, like drawing or building (or for boys, wrecking). And when children are active, there is no relaxing for parents (until after that second Mai Tai).
In order to put into practice, then, what our children have been trying to teach us all these years, my wife, Diana, and I decided to take a 14-month family sabbatical in Ecuador, to travel Children Class. We quit our jobs, stored our stuff, rented our house, and moved to Cuenca, Ecuador. The kids attended local school, we all learned Spanish, and we spent much of our non-school time traveling and discovering Ecuador and its people. We played and learned. We engaged and studied (Salsa lessons, Internet marketing, Ecuadorian cooking).
That's the short version.
We have since returned home but have not returned to our old jobs. Diana is now an independent marketing and communications consultant. I am writing and have also started a website to inspire and help other families to take their own sabbaticals. Everything we do now is designed to remain independent, flexible, and mobile. Our time away not only inspired that life change, it gave us the time to learn how to do it. (By the way, here's how to do it—just do it! We've discovered all the important learning comes after you've begun anyway. Everything before that is just to give you the confidence to do it.)
So here are 10 reasons to take your own family sabbatical:
1. Spend more and better time together as a family.
2. Get to know yourself and your world by leaving the life you know for a bit and viewing it from the outside.
3. Give your children a rare and valuable education beyond the school walls and their usual borders.
4. The chance to reinvent yourself. Find a new and better career, income, or skill. Learn guitar, painting, or cooking.
5. Looks great on a resume (if you ever need one again). Creatively reference the skills you needed or learned—creativity, improvisation, bold action, planning, budgeting and financial management, independence, self-sufficiency, flexibility, list making.
6. It's a down economy; why struggle to make money? Go live somewhere less expensive and come back when the money hose turns back on.
7. Learn another language.
9. Liberate your life from stuff.
There is no perfect age for the kids to do this. It will not get easier if you wait. It is not as difficult as you imagine. But, it is more amazing than you imagine.
And the Buddhists might be wrong—this may be the only life you get.
Matt Scherr is the editor of Radical Family Sabbatical and is married to Diana Scherr.
Together, they parent two world wanderers, Piper and Duncan.
Summer is a time for exploration.
Check out these five places to uncover grand, new adventures:
1 Learn about life in Cuba.
With a strong focus on lifelong learning, Road Scholar educational adventures provide multigenerational travel opportunities in 50 states and 150 countries around the world. Now, you can travel to Cuba, where you’ll have the opportunity to meet with local community leaders, artists and local families to discuss the changes under way. Crafted for children 9 and older, and their adult family members, you’ll also visit local landmarks and sample local dance, music and cuisine.
Contact: 1-800-454-5768; www.roadscholar.org
2 Head south to ski.
Consider trading ho-hum summer heat for the thrill of South American high country. From June through October, you can access premier powder in Chile and Argentina. The pros from U.S.-based Powder Quest can help you choose from snow ski tours, instruction-based outings and snowboard adventures in pristine mountain environments. There are also cat-skiing and heli-skiing options to provide a dual altitude and adrenaline fix.
Contact: 1-888-565-7158; www.powderquest.com
3 Dive the Great Blue Hole, Ambergris Caye, Belize.
Scuba enthusiasts are eager to dive this large submarine sinkhole once explored by Jacques Cousteau. Located near the center of Lighthouse Reef, the Great Blue Hole is part of the large Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, a World Heritage site.
Experienced divers have the opportunity to see remarkable limestone formations as well as several species of shark in the crystal waters. The dive destination is 60 miles from Ambergris Caye; working with an experienced and reputable outfitter is essential. Las Terrazas Resort is a family-friendly condo-style hotel adjacent to the White Sands Dive Shop, where Professional Association of Diving Instructors-certified owner Elbert Greer will ensure your dive experience is top-notch.
4 Visit a castle, County Mayo, Ireland.
Ashford Castle, built in the 13th century on the banks of the Lough Corrib and the River Cong, was once a monastery and later served as the Guinness family home.
Check in with children 2 and younger and you’ll find a teddy bear and a full supply of baby care items waiting. Older children have their own bathrobes to get cozy after a day spent exploring the spacious grounds. Go for a private Hawk Walk, ride horses or learn the history of falconry with on-site experts. Plan to fly-fish for brown trout and salmon with Orvis-endorsed guides.
Contact: ashford.ie; www.discoverireland.com
5 Relax on the Long Beach Peninsula, Wash. A longtime favorite family beach destination, Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula is known for its lodging options, great birding, digging for razor clams, fishing and kite-flying.
It’s also known for beach-driving. You can ride horses on the beach, go whale watching, enjoy area festivals and hike nearby trails.
Contact: 1-800-451-2542; funbeach.com
Visit an eco lodge where adventure is encouraged, eco-friendly practices are in place and community support is essential.
Here are six to consider:
Patagonia Wildlife Safari -
Visit southern Chile to experience a thrilling combo of wildlife and scenery in one of the most isolated regions of South America. Check out an expansive penguin colony near the town of Punta Arenas before exploring the jaw-dropping beauty of Torres del Paine National Park.
Wear yourself out exploring the park, then return to your EcoCamp. You’ll chill in large igloo-shaped tents built to minimize environmental impact while providing a comfortable setting. You’ll be cozy as you plan for your next adventure via candlelight, snug beneath feather comforters.
Rosalie Forest Eco Lodge. Dominica, West Indies.
Explore the volcanic island on foot or on the back of a local donkey. Hike to secluded waterfalls, spend the day surfing or go turtle or whale watching. Later return to your tree house, cabin or cottage, tucked into the rainforest and surrounded by organic gardens. Learn how British owner Jem Winston, uses wind power to provide light and how his reliance on community resources enriches both locals and guests.
Playa Viva. Juluchuca, MX.
Stay in this family friendly, all inclusive, coastal lodge near Ixtapa, where the owners operate an onsite Turtle Sanctuary. Last year, guests helped save and release more than 100,000 baby turtles. The solar powered lodge was constructed with the help of local craftspeople, using indigenous materials. Your family is invited to join the chef for a visit to the nearby farmer’s market. Later, learn how to craft local specialties. Contact: www.PlayaViva.com.
Rosalie eco lodge family travelNature Inn at Bald Eagle. Howard, PA.
Through their every day practices, which include geothermal heating and cooling, solar hot water heat generation, rainwater harvesting, native habitat restoration and the use of rain gardens, guests can look forward to an eco-friendly retreat. The entire family will enjoy the beauty and wealth of activity and wildlife in the area. Look forward to hundreds of miles of trails, paths and trout streams in the Pennsylvania Wilds. You’ll also find a large elk refuge, local artisans and pristine natural beauty. Contact: (814)625-2879; http://natureinnatbaldeagle.com/; www.pawilds.com
The Borneo Rainforest Lodge.
Stay in one of 31 individual chalets, amidst a pristine rainforest that is part of the Danum Valley Conservation Area. From eco-savvy quarters, families can plan for outings that include scouting 300 species of birds, 120 species of mammals and 200 species of plants per hectare. Animals roam freely so be prepared to spot orangutans, pygmy elephants and Bornean hornbills. View the pristine environment from a 1,000 foot long, multi-tiered canopy walk, suspended 85 feet above the ground. Contact: www.tourismmalaysiany.com/
U Shakti 360¢ª Leti . Himalayas, India.
Unplug and soak in the stunning views from your cabin in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. A strong commitment to the local community includes employment of local guides, chefs and porters as well a determination to use traditional building techniques. The company has introduced solar heating and lighting, water reuse programs and created a foundation to foster local renewable energy, education and cultural projects in the community. Hike to your heart’s content and learn about the culture of this spectacular mountainous region.
Contact: 1 (866 )401-3705; www.shaktihimalaya.com.
Irene Lane, founder of Greenloons, offers her picks for ten compelling eco destinations:
1. Jordan’s eco-lodges combine local heritage and educational experiences while exploring a mix of modernity, ancient wonders and nature. Think horse or camel safaris, Bedouins, the endangered Arabia oryx, Petra, the Dead Sea and trekking through Dana Nature Reserve.
2. Borneo’s jungles, beaches, caves, exotic wildlife and more than 5,000 diverse and endemic plant species are revealed by, among others, trekking the relatively untouched Mt. Kinabalu and exploring the Kinabatangang River, home to wild boar, orangutans, elephants, king fishers, macaque and proboscis monkeys. Award-winning eco-lodges harvest rainwater, use solar power and manage wildlife rehabilitation.
3. The Philippines is among National Geographic’s 20 Best Destinations and Palawan Island its top eco-destination. Among 7,000 islands guests swim with whale sharks, discover endangered sea turtles, spy on the rare Philippine eagle and discover the mountain-to-sea ecosystem of the Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park. Eco-lodges serve locally sourced food and wildlife education.
4. Belize offers more than 87 distinct types of ecosystems, making ecotourism the lifeblood of its economy. Along with 150 identified species of mammals are rainforests, Mayan temples, the world’s second longest barrier reef and an abundance of eco-lodges educating travelers about the fragility of its ecosystem.
5. Botswana favors low volume, high quality, environmentally conscious safari travel into the Okavango Delta and Kalahari Desert, the savannahs of the Moremi Reserve and the forests of Chobe and Linyanta Game Reserves. Guests enjoy game drives, walking, elephant/horseback/bicycle safaris and boating, plus youth explorer programs emphasizing conservation and bush survival skills. Tented bush camps are environmentally friendly.
6. Poland has mountains, rivers and wetlands and is a haven for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds as well as avid hiking enthusiasts. With 23 National Parks and forests covering nearly 30 percent of the country, Poland has its own Big Game: the European bison, lynx, stoats, martens and red deer. Guests can enjoy eco-ranch lodges.
7. Croatia’s eco/agritourism focuses on culinary tours with locally sourced organic produce and family farm stays. Activities can include hiking, biking, rafting and canoeing.
8. Guyana’s mountain ranges, savannahs and jungle canopy walks combine with river and rainforest eco-lodges for close-up views of exotic birds, jaguars, red howler monkeys, giant river otters and other wildlife. The famed Karanambu Ranch rehabilitates orphaned giant river otters so they can be released back into the wild.
9. Argentina is home to Glacier National Park and the active Perito Moreno, one of the world’s only advancing glaciers, as well as the tropical rain forests of Iguazu Falls near Brazil, the Antarctic environment of Tierra del Fuego, the Andean mountains, the wind-swept Patagonian steppe and the coastal marine habitat of the Valdes Peninsula. Eco-lodges are crafted from local materials to integrate with the environment.
10. Ethiopia may be a trek across the Roof of Africa through the virtually untouched Simien Mountains, home of the Gelada baboon, Walia ibex and endangered Ethiopian wolf. Or it may be Rift Valley Lakes and Blue Nile Falls or Lalibela, considered to be one of the greatest spiritual-historical sites of the world. Eco-lodgings are built in the traditional “tikka” style and solar-powered.
Photo: Petra, Jordan
Learn to sail or relax and let the wind ( and your ship’s captain ) set your course. Spending time on the water gives family travelers a chance to reconnect and see the world from a different point of view.
Here are seven ways to set sail with your family on board:
1.Out The Front Door.
Beautiful resorts like the Palau Pacific Resort, in Micronesia, offer colorful sailboats for the use of their guests. Relax on the beach, then invite one of your family members to share time on the water. (Go ahead. Race! ) This enchanting 160-room resort opened in 1984 on the site of a WW2 Japanese Seaplane base. Abiding by Palauan law, it was constructed no higher than the tallest coconut tree on the property and provides a picturesque, natural setting for a family holiday. Plan to spend time at the spa, snorkel, dive, kayak, hike nature trails and of course, sail!
2. Hop on a Maine Schooner.
Uniting their passion for historic windjammers with delectable food and top side fun, this “mom and pop” entrepreneurial pair (mom is the gourmet chef, pop is on deck) will share their love for the Maine coast with you and your family aboard the J&E Riggin. Book three, four or six day outings. Pitch in or chill out – the choice is yours.
Contact: 1-800-869-0604; www.MaineWindJammer.com.
3. Darwin’s Destination.
Have you seen the blue-footed boobies? If not, set sail through the Galapagos Islands where the water and islands are teeming with exotic and colorful wildlife. It’s a trip of a lifetime.
Contact: 1-800-941-8010; www.BoundlessJourneys.com
4. Turkish Delight.
Wander through small coastal villages. Explore hidden rock coves, wooded inlets and magnificent ruins from the Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Guests explore the coast and learn from local guides. This 15-day adventure is hand-crafted by ROW founder, Peter Grubb, and provides active exploration on the Aegean Sea and Lycian Shore. Departures: June, September, October.
Contact: 800-451-6034; www.RowInternational.com
5. On Your Own.
Sail from Tortola , St. Martin , St. Lucia , Canouan , Belize , Baja or the Bahamas and enjoy relaxing days on tranquil seas. The Moorings provides sea worthy vessels, enabling families to sail on their own or hire a crew.
Contact: 1-888-952-8420; www.moorings.com.
6.Small ship. Big luxury.
Board a small ship and set sail for the Mediterranean, Greek Isles, Caribbean, Costa Rica, Polynesia
or through the Panama Canal. Windstar Cruises operates three sailing yachts known for their pampering without pretense and their ability to visit the hidden harbors and secluded coves of the world’s most treasured destinations. Best for older children.
Contact: 1-800-258-7245; www.windstarcruises.com.
7. Great Lakes Getaway.
Spend a few hours or a few days aboard a charming, but floating “bed and breakfast”. Sailing from Traverse City, Michigan, you’ll enjoy the grandeur of the Great Lakes from a majestic sailing vessel.
Contact: 1-800-678-0383; www.TallShipSailing.com
Adding a culinary twist to your cultural exploration, can provide the whole family with a fulfilling experience. Here is a sampling of mouth-watering ideas to consider:
Learning about a food’s origin and the many ways it can be prepared, can turn a curious green vegetable into something of grand interest. Visit this northern California town to discover all things asparagus . The annual festival offers music, amusement rides for kids, Tyson the skateboarding bulldog, a full lineup of canine entertainers performing amazing dog tricks and of course recipes, competitions, tastings and talk about the vegetable of honor. Check web site for dates.
Contact: 209-644-3740; www.AsparagusFest.com.
New Orleans, LA.
The kids will learn about more than just local cuisine when the family ventures to this coastal city that continues to survive against the odds. Snack on tasty beignets for breakfast. Savor po’boys or gumbo for lunch. Stroll through the French Quarter or visit the Children’s Museum to restore your appetite for dinner. Then sample from the wealth of Cajun or creole-style seafood that will be served with a smile in this friendly southern city. The adventuresome in your group might opt for alligator on a stick. Enjoy the flavorful food with the sound of local jazz as your backdrop.
Teach the kids about super foods while sharing the amazing history of the Andes people. This country is home to grain-like and nutrient-rich quinoa and purple spuds, both considered sacred and said to have been cultivated for Incan royalty. The color in the anti-oxidant laden potatoes comes from the same enzyme that gives blueberries their healthy hue. Mix these Peruvian diet staples in to your menu when planning a trek on the Inca trail enroute to Machu Piccu.
Artichokes in Albuquerque, NM.
Some go straight for the heart. Others enjoy dipping the leaves in tasty sauces. Learn how to eat artichokes every which way at the Artichoke Cafe, a charming dining spot set in this southwestern city’s historic east downtown neighborhood. Gather additional local intel by visiting the National Hispanic Cultural Center as well as the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. Taste the local New Mexican cuisine, combining native chiles, corn, beans and squash, at one of many restaurants you’ll find in Old Town, Albuquerque’s 300 year old city center.
Eat Local. Experience Global.
Large U.S. cities are often home to cultural enclaves where small, family owned restaurants dish up healthy servings of authentic favorites, combined with a bit of history from the homeland. When traveling to cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Miami seek out dining options in Little Italy, Chinatown or Little Havana. There you can introduce the family to more than just a good meal.
Editor's Note: Teddy Hayes took a break from collegiate studies to spend six months in Ecuador learning Spanish, salsa dancing, volunteering and traveling. He spent time bunking with family friends who were in the midst of a year long Ecuadoran adventure. Their goal: to provide their two young children the taste of another culture.
With opportunities from Montana to Malawi, there is a volunteer vacation to suit every family. Here are five organizations to consider when planning your next family voluntourism trip.
Help build a house in Mexico, save the turtles in Costa Rica or teach young children to read in Malawi. More than 61 million Americans dedicated 8.1 billion hours to volunteerism, according to a recent report from the Corporation for National & Community Service. And now Americans are increasingly taking their charity on the road.
Voluntourism, the concept of doing good while having a good time, is one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry.During a recent trip to the Peruvian Amazon region, my school-aged sons and I, along with two family friends, traveled 90 miles by speedboat deep within the jungle. There we delivered much-needed school supplies to several communities along the river. In return, we enjoyed the students’ songs, dances and original poetry. Their creativity and energy were among the most memorable aspects of our adventure.
I-to-I offers volunteer vacation experiences in Honduras, India and Costa Rica working with sustainable, locally run community, educational and environmental projects. Its travel advisors will provide specific information about each country and project so that you can make the best decision for your family. Tel. 800-985-4852, www.i-to-i.com.
Founded in 1984, Global Volunteers offers short- and long-term opportunities in more than 20 countries. Popular family projects include working with the Blackfeet Indians in Montana, teaching conversational English, assisting in orphanages and working on building projects in Costa Rica. www.globalvolunteers.org
Craft your own family volunteer vacation from hundreds of opportunities provided on this Web site. You’ll find connections to projects and causes around the world. www.GiveSpot.com
Students gather for a group picture with their host families from the Tanzanian village of Itete.
American Hiking Society
On an American Hiking Society volunteer vacation, family members visit stunning backcountry locations to construct or rebuild footpaths, cabins and shelters. You’ll meet other volunteers while exploring and restoring some of the most beautiful outdoor places in America. American Hiking Society members qualify for discounts. www.americanhiking.org
Amazonia Expeditions subscribes to the philosophy that tourism companies have an obligation to invest in the well-being of the environment as well as native people. Dolores Arevalo Shapiama de Beaver, a native of the Amazon and the owner of a wilderness lodge, has worked to identify individuals with special needs who could benefit from medical or educational intervention. Visitors can provide and help distribute school and medical supplies, as well as clothing, while learning about the native people, conservation and the rainforest habitat.