We're leaving on a jet plane
The Van Loen family spent three years planning their trip
It’s an idea many families might fantasize about — packing your bags and taking extended leaves from work and school to travel the world, immersing yourselves in foreign cultures. But few are bold and resourceful enough to make that vision a reality.
Seattle’s Van Loen family is one of them.
For 13 months Anne and Noah Van Loen and their kids Leah, who was 10 when they left, and Alex, who was 12, went globetrotting through South America, Australia and Asia. They learned Spanish, volunteered and lived at a Thai elephant sanctuary and ate awful food in Mongolia.
For three years before that, the family planned, discussed and saved for the trip.
“We talked about wanting to share that kind of really alternative experience with the kids, and have them learn by doing and learn by being,” Anne said.
They felt the time was right when the kids were old enough to carry their own luggage, but not yet entangled in the obligations of high school.
So shortly after school let out in June 2012, they left their house to renters and embarked for Peru. They spent two weeks in an intensive Spanish language program, then lived for a month with a Peruvian family.
From there they did a five-day trek to and from Machu Picchu, visited their former exchange student in Chile, and went to Easter Island and Tahiti. They spent about a month each in New Zealand and Australia. Then it was off to Singapore, where Anne’s sister was living. With Singapore as a home base they made forays into Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia and Borneo. They went from there to Vietnam, Laos and China with stays in Shanghai and Beijing.
They took the Trans-Mongolian railway west with hopes of visiting St. Petersburg. But visa difficulties with the Russian government scuttled that goal, so they stayed in Mongolia a bit longer than planned. The trip ended with a few days in Germany before returning to the states in August 2013.
“We chose the less developed countries because the experiences are more of a contrast to day-to-day life [in America],” Anne said. In Mongolia, for example, her kids were surprised to see how hard young children worked, rising at dawn to split wood and milk the animals. “You learn by existing around that.”
Plus, the $40,000 budget for the trip went much further traveling that way. “We could not afford a year in Europe,” Anne said.
Initially Anne, an elementary school teacher, had planned structured educational experiences for her kids, such as researching places they were visiting and keeping elaborate journals.
“It didn’t really come down that way,” Anne said. “What was cool was just kind of being present and letting things happen. I moved away from trying to contrive experiences because the experiences were just there.”
That included simple things, like sending their son out with a sack of laundry to find the town’s washerwoman. He had to communicate with her in Spanish and pay with foreign currency.
Over the journey, the kids discovered how independent and resourceful they could be. No one in the immediate family had ever traveled to the countries they visited, so they worked as a team to solve problems and navigate.
“It was an equalizer,” Anne said. The kids “think we know everything and that we were keeping information from them. And we could say, ‘We have no idea what to do.’”
The Van Loens made sure they mixed difficult travel and experiences with more relaxed, pampered diversions. The kids loved their stay at a deluxe Bangkok hotel with a pool featuring a swim-up snack bar; two weeks before they stayed in a dorm room that slept eight.
The kids saw things that troubled them. Animal-loving Leah was traumatized by caged baby owls being sold in Burma. Traveling in developing nations meant being confronted by families living in extreme poverty.
“It was impossible to shelter them, because you didn’t know what you would encounter,” Anne said. But because they were traveling so closely together, there was plenty of time to talk through what they saw and experienced. Like with the poor families; they realized that while they had few material items, they seemed happy being together. ,
The Van Loens incorporated volunteer work into the trip, including time at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand and teaching English in multiple locations. Anne was surprised how hard it was to find options for volunteering that weren’t expensive volunteer tourism or extremely religious.
They were happy to discover the benefits of traveling as a family. It seemed to provide an easy connection to other families, and they made friends with other travelers and residents of the places they visited. They were never ripped off or robbed.
“Traveling as a family is really safe,” Anne said. “There’s a real respect for family. We had more people stumbling over each other to help us.”
When they returned to Seattle, Noah resumed his work as a computer program manager, but the kids weren’t ready for an immediate re-entry into normal life. Anne homeschooled them for a year, and this past fall they returned to school.
The family still speaks Spanish and has countless shared memories, both good and bad. So far, the kids aren’t begging for another big adventure and are happy to return to friends and follow predictable routines.
“They have enough on their plates,” Anne said. “They don’t have wanderlust at all.
“The effects of this trip,” she added, “are going to hit them later.”
WORLD TRAVEL TIPS
Pick a home base: It can be easier to stay in one place longer and do shorter trips of a week or two from a home base.
Reserve on the fly: If you can stomach the uncertainty, make short-term reservations for your destination, then pick a long-term town and house to stay in once you see a place and get a feel for it.
Make a time commitment: Decide how long you’re going to be gone before leaving. If you approach the trip with a see-how-it-goes attitude, the first bout of homesickness can derail you.
“There was never an option to give up early,” Anne said. “We were all aware that we had cut and run and couldn’t return.”
Mix it up: Make sure you balance hard travel and spare accommodations with fun, easy and fancier itineraries.
Resources: Check out the Van Loens’ travel blog and photos: anvl.travellerspoint.com. The websites Meet, Plan, Go! (meetplango.com) and Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding (vagabonding.net) for advice on taking travel sabbaticals.
Snapshots from the Van Loens’ 13 months abroad
Rode horses in Mongolia, Cambodia, Singapore and Peru
Swam at the Great Barrier Reef
Cared for elephants in Thailand
Learned Spanish, taught English
Hiked five days in Patagonia
Drank yaks’ milk in Mongolia
Spent nights in airports
Got very lost
Crossed death-defying streets in Hanoi, Vietnam