Lots of people have asked us questions about our trip, so I thought I would devote an entire post to trying to answer some of those questions, in no particular order. It's kind of a long post and doesn't follow my normal "what we did today" format, but maybe some of you will still be interested. If you read through here and realize you still have questions for us, please feel free to comment directly to the blog post or on my Facebook page.
Q.Which essential oil has been most essential? Have you been hassled at airports about your oils?
A. I love my oils and brought along as many as my TSA approved liquids bag could hold, but there are two that we have used more than the others while traveling: Ginger and DigestZen. We use the ginger in the car, either diffused with my USB diffuser or rubbed into pulse points, to combat carsickness. Thankfully, we have not had any major tummy bugs, but we have used DigestZen, in oil form and in capsule form, to soothe occasional tummy upsets.
While I did have my nail scissors and a corkscrew (both TSA approved) taken away from me in a foreign airport, I have not had one person in any country even question me about my oils. As long as they fit in the requisite liquids bag, I don't think anyone cares what they are.
Q. Has anyone been sick? How have you handled that?
A. Fortunately, as a group, we are rarely ill, and essential oils and Advil tend to take care of most of the minor health irritations that come up. However, there have been a couple of things that have been a bit more serious that we have had to address. Weston developed a staph infection while we were in Bulgaria. Before we knew what was going on, we treated him with Correct X (the essential oil version of Neosporin). Then, we consulted with an English-speaking pharmacist and purchased some cream from her. Finally, we consulted our amazing pediatrician back home and figured out which combination of meds and spray would be our best bet for treatment. We were able to get those things at the pharmacy, and the infection cleared up soon after. About a week after we returned to Europe from Africa, Clay developed a fever. We normally wouldn't have thought a thing about it, but with the recent trip to Africa, we were on the alert for signs of malaria. We took him to a walk-in clinic in Florence, that was recommended by both our travel insurance company and the U.S. State Department. We spoke with a very knowledgeable, English-speaking doctor, who felt comfortable it wasn't malaria. But, she gave us contact info. for people at the Children's Hospital and advised us we could go there for further testing, if the fever persisted, which it didn't.
Q. How is the gear holding up?
A. Most of the gear is in great shape, which is fantastic considering that, even though we've been traveling full time for the last three months, some of us have been using our stuff at least somewhat regularly for about a year. A few things are starting to get a little worn, though there isn't really anything that has become unusable. Some of the Tortuga Backpacks have gotten a little frayed around the handles, but we have carried them everywhere and used them every single day. Even the best travel equipment isn't normally meant to be used nonstop, so we are extending some grace here, because we do truly like these bags. (I must admit that Jeff's Tom Bihn bag seems to be much tougher and hasn't shown any signs of wear.) Ruth and I have had zippers come off our toiletry bags. Max had to have some new socks, and his and Clay's tennis shoes are wearing out along the inside heel area, but little boys are always hard on footwear, and this is about how long their footwear would last even if we weren't traveling. My FitBit flat-out fell apart, and I lost an earring somewhere in South Africa, both of which made me very sad. My USB diffuser is on the brink of demise. Jeff has lost a screw out of his sunglasses twice. And, a few things have been unintentionally left behind with all our moving around. For the most part, though, we are happy with the way everything is performing.
Q. What is one thing you took with you that you haven't really needed? What has been more useful than you had originally suspected?
A. I have not used my money belt even once. I carry my daypack most of the time and/or my little wallet purse. If neither of those things seem like the right choice, most of my clothes have plenty of zippered pockets to stash whatever I need to carry around.
Just before we left, we were shopping in a travel store and bought these plastic fork/knife/spoons, as a complete impulse buy, thinking they were cute but probably not necessary. But, we have used those things so many times on picnics and even in some of the houses we've stayed in, where actual silverware was at a minimum.
Q. Do you feel like you truly have everything you need for different climates and occasions in just your carry-on bag? Are you bored with your limited selection of clothes?
A. The simple answer to the first question is yes. We have had appropriate clothing to visit an ice cave, as well as hang out at the swimming pool. We have been able to go to a very fancy restaurant where royalty have dined as easily as picking something up from a street vendor. We have hiked and biked and walked and swam, and we have visited museums and attended the theatre. All without feeling physically or emotionally uncomfortable. As to the second question, I would say that Ruth and I tend to crave a bit more variety, though we haven't been unhappy with our limited choices, and we compensate for the lack of variety in our own bags by sharing items with each other. The boys are all blissfully happy with their limited wardrobes.
Q. What if you run out of the toiletries you brought from home?
A. Well, we go buy more. We have never really been loyal to particular brands, so we kind of like the adventure of trying new products. (Shocker, right?!) And, many familiar American brands are available everywhere. We use what clues we can from pictures and whatever we know of the local language to pick something that seems like what we need, and usually, we guess correctly, though sometimes we get a little surprise, like when I thought I was getting lotion, and it turned out to be body wash. People from everywhere are surprisingly similar, as are the products they have available.
Q. Do you miss sleeping in your own bed? Do you wake up confused about where you are?
A. Before we left, I had a mattress that I really loved and my little nest of pillows was just right. I really worried that my nights of decent sleep would end with our departure but have been pleasantly surprised that that has not been the case. Certainly, all beds (and pillows!) are not created equal, and there have definitely been times when I've woken up stiff in the morning, but for the most part, we have all slept well and have not woken up dazed and confused about where we are.
(For about a week or two after we first left, Clay had a few bedwetting incidents, which we attributed to him being in unfamiliar places. Since then, we have made a point every night of reminding him where the bathroom is right before bed and leaving the light on in there so he can easily find his way in the middle of the night, and we haven't had any more problems.)
Q. What is the most expensive country you've visited? Least expensive?
A. There are different ways of approaching this topic, but, generally, the most expensive country has been Switzerland (in terms of general cost of living expenses). The least expensive countries have been Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.
Q. What has been your favorite place you have visited?
A. Our time in Africa was really special to everyone, especially the time we spent at Victoria Falls and Kruger National Park. Our favorite city, so far, was probably Venice.
Q. Have you felt unsafe?
A. We have not. We try to be very smart about where we stay and when we move around. We generally don't go out after dark, and we keep a close eye on our children and possessions. Jeff and I always err on the side of caution, and if we even get an inkling of an uncomfortable feeling, we stop what we're doing and do something else.
Q. How do you get your mail?
A. We use a service called Scan Mailboxes. They scan the outside envelope and send us an email with the image. We then decide if we want them to open it or discard it. If we want them to open it, they scan the contents and send us another email and we take whatever action is necessary. If there happens to be a check, we can give them permission to do the deposit for us in our stateside bank. It is a fabulous service, and we will likely never go back to the old way of getting mail.
Q. What do you do about work/school?
A. While an RTW trip may seem like all vacation all the time, we are still serious about getting our work done. Jeff hired a general manager for his Web marketing business before we left, and she handles most of the day to day details of the business. Once a month, she and Jeff chat by phone to make sure everything is still running smoothly. Jeff is also able to check email and make/receive phone calls from pretty much everywhere, so he can stay in touch with his staff and clients pretty easily. He is also always working on new business ideas. I am working on a few pet writing projects, when time allows, while still maintaining my full time mom/teacher status.
We are doing plenty of sightseeing and having lots of fun, but we are also inserting some school days here and there. Our school year looks different this year, as we are schooling around our traveling, which means we are working a little in the summer and sometimes on weekends. We have divided our school year into sessions this year, rather than days, and we have calculated how many sessions we need to get done to complete a whole school year, in order to meet our particular academic goals. One session is approximately a half a day of work. We work in a session when it makes sense. This means we sometimes work a full day (2 sessions) and sometimes a half day (1 session); sometimes several days in a row and sometimes with longish breaks between school days. All of our textbooks have been converted to PDFs, and we utilize tablets for reading and the Internet, when it's available, for all kinds of things. This part of our schooling isn't significantly different than the way we did school last year, as we were practicing for the trip. We also have many more natural opportunities for field trips and learning through experience.
Q. How do you afford a trip like this?
A. We sold or got rid of most of our possessions before we left. We don't have a mortgage or a car payment or any debt. Jeff is also still working and making a regular wage, and we are frugal with our spending. We spend a lot of time searching for good deals on lodging, transportation and pretty much everything else, and since we can be flexible with our travel schedule, we can travel at the times when it is least expensive to do so. We take advantage of free and inexpensive entertainment opportunities when we can. We cook most of our own meals and don't buy many souvenirs. And, since we all only use a carry-on bag, we don't have the space for frivolous items, so shopping is not a real temptation. Additionally, we have been diligently saving and investing for years, so that if everything goes awry, we are not left in a lurch.
Q. You seem to be moving around pretty often. Do you get tired of changing locations so often? Does the pace seem grueling?
A. Right now, we are moving around a lot, and occasionally, it does get a little tiring, but I would not say "grueling." But we notice it more when we are in a place we really like and want to stay longer. We are usually more than happy to leave a place if it is just sort of so-so. Since we are traveling minimalistically, the packing up and moving around doesn't seem particularly burdensome, and the reward is getting to visit so many more places. I think everyone in the family would agree that when we've been able to stay a week in a place, we have enjoyed it more than just staying two days. Our pace will slow down in the fall, and we will be staying in places for three or four weeks at a time, so after the new year, we will be able to say more definitively which option we like better .
Q. If you could pick one city and stay for a month, which one would you pick?
A. I think at this point, and if money were no object, we would pick Venice. It was an expensive place to visit, but it was absolutely enchanting.
Q. Do you have a hard time communicating or reading signs/labels/menus? Are you trying to learn the languages of the places you are visiting?
A. Most of the people in most of the places we have visited have had at least some ability to communicate in English. Pointing and hand gestures also go a long way toward getting a point across. Many of the Romance languages are similar enough to Spanish and Portuguese, which we have a passable understanding of, for us to be able to read them. The first time we encountered German, we were really at a loss, but now that we've seen it several times, it doesn't seem quite as mind boggling. The cyrillic languages are, by far, the most challenging. We have definitely picked up a few words and phrases wherever we've been, partly out of necessity and partly out of curiosity. As far as our school time goes, we are focusing our language learning efforts on Spanish, as we feel that will serve us the best longer term.
Q. Where have you found the places where you are staying? Have they been what you expected?
A. We are mostly staying in homes and apartments that we have found on vacation rental sites, such as Airbnb, Booking.com, VRBO and Home Away. By far, our favorite of those companies is Airbnb. They are great to work with and have pretty excellent customer service, and most of the places we have stayed had been well represented there, so we have pretty much known what we were getting into ahead of time. We have found that these types of places are generally cheaper and more comfortable for a group of our size. Plus, many of them have kitchens and yards or playgrounds, which give more of a homey feel. A small portion of the places have been less clean when we arrived than we would have liked or have not been as well equipped as we had hoped, but mostly our experiences in these places have been fantastic.
Q. How do you handle currency?
A. We pay for pretty much everything with cash and a few things, like fuel, with our credit card. In Europe, within the EU, currency has been pretty easy, as they all use Euros. When we enter a new country, we just make a point of finding an ATM (using our powers of observation or the GPS or MapsMe app) as soon as possible and getting a quantity of cash that seems appropriate for our needs. When we know we will be staying in more remote areas, where ATMs might not be plentiful or even existent, we plan ahead to get cash in a larger city on our way. If we know or suspect we will need more than our daily draw amount, we plan ahead for that as well. U.S. dollars are not generally accepted, but there are a few places (like the African countries) where U.S. dollars were actually required to purchase certain visas, so we had to plan ahead for that, as well. We pay attention to current exchange rates and try to educate ourselves about reasonable prices of things, like cab rides, so as to avoid getting ripped off. We try to spend all of the money (with the exception of the coins the boys are collecting) in a particular currency before we leave the country, if we know we will not be needing it again. This might mean a stop at the grocery store for necessities or a splurge on a meal or snacks before we go. But, we try to come out pretty even whenever possible.
Q. What about friends/socialization?
A. We are homeschoolers, so this is a question we have been answering for years. :) Many of the places we have stayed have had swimming pools, playgrounds and even Kids Clubs, and our kids aren't shy about meeting and interacting with other kids wherever they are. And, unlike adults, kids don't have so many hang-ups about speaking the same language or having particular things in common or any of the other millions of things adults tend to dwell on when meeting new people. They simply want to have fun. Our kids (along with Jeff and I) have also had several great opportunities to get to know some fine adults, as well, mostly in the form of our various landlords. We are also in frequent contact with friends and family back home. Finally, we truly enjoy the company of our own family, and we are large enough to make our own party.
Q. How have you decided where to go?
A. When we first started planning the trip, over a year ago, we picked a few points that were priorities for us and then filled in the gaps around that. All along, all plans have been subject to the counsel of the whole family. Since we are flexible with our travel plans, we have made many of our decisions based on price, availability, the likelihood of avoiding the worst of the crowds, and reasonable drive/travel times. Not everything was planned out in advance, and sometimes we employ the wait-and-see approach. And, sometimes our plans change, out of necessity or desire, and we just go with it. Some of the places we have enjoyed tremendously were only meant as stops between Point A and Point B.
Q. Is it really like vacation all the time?
A. Real life is real life, no matter where you go. There are still groceries to be purchased, meals to be prepared, dishes to be washed, clothes to be cleaned, kids to be disciplined, and work/school to be done, often in less convenient ways than we would do them at home. We don't go out sightseeing everyday or eat out for every meal. We have plenty of normal days--days where we sit around reading or play at the playground or do school. So, no, it's not exactly like being on vacation all the time.
Q. How do you stay in touch with people back home?
A. Fortunately, the world is a fairly small place these days, and it isn't difficult to stay in touch. We utilize Skype and FaceTime for video calls, when we have a decent Internet connection, and our good, old-fashioned cell phone, when we don't. We use the OnePlus One global phones and the One SIM card, which allows us to use the same phones and phones numbers no matter where we are in the world. One of our phones is even set up with a U.S. number, so our families can call and text us at no cost to themselves. We also use email, social media and this blog to stay connected with our friends and family back home. And, for sending snail mail, we employ Postable.com.
Q. Have you ever been treated badly because you are an American?
A. We have not really been treated badly, whether because we are Americans or not, though certainly we have encountered rudeness from time to time, like you do when you are interacting with people from anywhere. For our part, we do take care to try to be polite and conscientious wherever we go.
Q. Are you ready to come home?
A. We are definitely not ready to return to the States and settle down just yet. But, we have always held that "home" is where our people are, and since we are all here together, it feels very much like home to us.