Ek-Balam

A Little Adventure… How I Survived 3 Weeks with 2 Boys on an Epic Mexican Road Trip

It was the accessibility of both fun and culture that convinced me Mexico was an ideal place to travel with my two nephews. Long-time readers will remember the epic homeschooling adventure I undertook with my niece Ana. Hard to believe that we left four years ago. Ana had just turned 11-years-old and instead of entering the 6th grade, she and I spent nearly seven months traveling Southeast Asia. As my two nephews neared that same age, it was time take them on adventures too. In fact, the day my nephew Eric turned 11 years-old, he informed me that it was “his turn” and so what did I have planned? He put me on the spot.

My two nephews, Vic and Eric, are 10- and 11-years-old. What would be a good trip for the three of us? I’m not brave enough to travel with them for seven months. But I wanted a place that would—like Asia did for Ana—inspire them to dream of other places and find interests outside of their tiny lives in Florida. Mexico has long been one of my favorite places. The Yucatán Peninsula in particular has a unique mix of Maya culture and ancient ruins. And the region’s miles of sandy beaches are also perfect for two active (and naughty) little boys. I won’t lie, having a lot of activities for them was a big consideration. I was a tad terrified to travel with them both solo. The plan took shape earlier this year; I passport-ed them both and secured their travel documents before I left for Japan in the spring.

In the weeks leading up to our trip, I used Google image searches to show them the possible adventures. They exclaimed over the Maya temples, begged to zip-line high over the Mexican jungle, loved the idea of seeing wild animals, and dreamed of swimming in the icy blue waters of the sunken cenotes.

With three weeks and a rental car, my nephews and I spent the bulk of July driving a winding route around the Yucatán Peninsula. We backtracked at points to visit family. We drove two extra hours to return for a beloved pair of forgotten swimming trunks. There were hairy moments when I knew I was crazy to travel alone with the two of them. But we also had adventures—man, did we have some adventures. A few months out from the trip and I still can’t imagine a better place to have road-tripped with my nephews. Readers often email me asking how I chose when and where to visit—they want to know the reasoning that goes into picking each new place. That question likely goes doubly so when traveling with kids, so here goes. Four main things factored into why I picked the Yucatán for traveling with the two boys:

  1. Everything is condensed and close. Driving days are never longer than three to four hours, and even that long is rare. (unless you backtrack for beloved swimming trunks… … …   :::facepalm::: )
  2. Spanish culture and language are accessible. They both loved practicing the new words and Eric is taking Spanish classes in school this year. Plus, two young boys are hard work and I speak Spanish, so I thought that would help ensure a smoother trip. Places like Japan are fascinating, but add an extra layer. I would have dealt with their culture shock and my inability to speak the language, on top of juggling two kids who have never left the country. Mexico, however, seemed like a solid first-trip adventure.
  3. A huge range of cultural and kid-friendly activities. The Yucatán has a well-developed tourism infrastructure. It’s safe, and has a diverse range of things to do in every area: swimming, beaches, ruins, wildlife, walkable towns, and even theme parks.
  4. It’s affordable. The boys live in Florida. It was a quick skip over the Gulf of Mexico, and once we arrived, I could afford to keep us flush in tacos and fun activities.

After my trip with Ana, many of you guys emailed me to say although seven months was too long, that you’d love to do something similar with your own nieces/nephews/kids. Here it is, an alternative adventure. Three weeks of family-style (mis)adventures all through Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. This is more of a photo-journey through our road-trip with stories—hover over each photo for more information. We started on the beaches, then wound our way inland to the cultural heart, and ended at a biosphere reserve.

For the nitty-gritty and how-tos, I posted detailed detailed Yucatan Road Trip planning resources on our driving route, the places we stayed, and the companies we used to make it all come together.

road trip yucatan mexico

Isla Mujeres

Before we left to Isla Mujeres, I’ll also own to a travel n00b mistake that I can only blame on being totally overwhelmed. It took hours to secure the rental car. It was a headache navigating into the city at rush hour. Once checked in, we headed out to a great park I knew from a previous trip, Parque de las Palapas. I was hungry, the boys were hungry, and they were also humming with excited energy. So we headed to the ATM and then planned on getting food. Sheer chaotic excitement is the only explanation I have for my nephew Vic. He grabbed the cash from the ATM, fanned it out and waved it around the glass booth (which faced the busy street), and exclaimed in sheer elation, “MONOPOLY MONEY.” I was so startled that I left my ATM card in the machine. And yeah, if you follow the site, I’ve done that gem before. I can look at this now and see the humor. Mexican pesos are colorful and he’s never seen them before. It’s funny, right? Right? Sob. Anyway, it set the tone for three weeks of shenanigans.

With only the pesos I had just withdrawn and a small safety stash of U.S. cash, I tried hard not to wig out. I was lucky my dad hadn’t yet left on his cruise. Since he’s on all my accounts (precisely for situations like this), he wired me money. Walmart wire transfer is fantastically cheap by the way (#thingsIwishIdidntknow). Schwab, my bank, which I love dearly, mailed me a new card asap and my parents brought it with them since we were meeting up six days later in Cozumel.

Crisis averted. And with an alarming amount of cash in my purse (and a stern conversation about ATM behavior), we began the adventure.

turtle shells on isla mujeres tortugranja farm mexico visiting isla mujeres turtle farm

The Isla Mujeres Turtle Farm was a highlight of the entire trip and it was the perfect way to start our travels. Isla Mujeres is a small island off the coast of Cancun, but it’s a world apart from the vibe of Cancun. Ferries run all day between Cancun and Isla so we ditched the frenetic party atmosphere and ritzy hotel boulevard in Cancun. Within an hour of leaving Cancun, we found ourselves in a great apartment just a block off of the shallow beach waters.

My Seattle-based aunt was jonesing for the tropics, so she joined us at the start of our trip. The four of us golf-carted around the sweet little island. We spent three days sipping coconuts and digging in the sand. We bought two pool noodles; they proved fun and useful as we moved from pools to shallow bays to sometimes more unpredictable waters. My aunt is a swim instructor and it was fun to watch both boys soak up her advice on how to better their strokes and become stronger swimmers. Although we’re from Florida, they don’t have a pool at their house and I’ve long worried about their weak skills. This trip was an invaluable chance for them to spend a lot of time practicing (and in a place where it doesn’t feel like forced practice!). This was an excellent way to start the trip because the town is small and navigable, and the waters in Playa Norte are shallow for a hundred meters at least.

Much to my amusement, Vic was a little entrepreneur on the island. He is convinced he could have launched a thriving coconut selling business and made millions if we had stayed—he talked one local hammock vendor into buying his coconut for an impressive 75 cents. It was endlessly cute.

Kids selling coconuts on Isla Mujeres The icy blue waters of Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

Cozumel

Cozumel was the island of fun coincidences and meetups. The boys and I timed our Cozumel trip to meet my parents the morning their cruise ship docked. Having already explored the island for two days, the boys and I took them to a hole-in-the-wall spot for Mexican street food. Together we all wandered through the town squares and capped it off with a snorkel. The time passed all too fast before we brought them back to their ship and waved goodbye. But the fun continued and I owe a big thanks to Tam from Travels with Tam. She is a friend, blogger, and A Little Adrift reader, and she welcomed my unruly gang to her home in Cozumel for the afternoon.

In our days on the island, it was the sea life that won out with the kids. Eric raved about his snorkel north of Money Bar; he saw all kinds of fish and sea-crawlies. In the evenings, we wandered the shores near downtown Cozumel; the boys skipped rocks and dug through all the tide pools looking for snails. I’ll likely never claim it’s my favorite spot in the region, but we found beautiful underwater sea life and had a wonderful time visiting friends and family. As my parents continued through the Caribbean, the boys and I journeyed back to the mainland—we had some Maya temples to find!

cozumel tide pools  

Xplor Theme Park and Playa del Carmen

But first, before the Maya temples, we had a theme park to explore. My nephews have spent their entire lives living in south-central Florida—they’re adrenaline junkies. We have a dozen parks within an hours driving distance of my hometown. They live and breathe theme parks. I don’t know where they get it from, I’m terrified of rollercoasters. Two things coincided though. They found out I took Ana zip-lining in Thailand years back. And they found images online of the dizzying number of adventure parks in the Yucatán. The folks at Olympus Tours offered to comp an experience for us, all I had to do was pick. I felt confident traveling the interior once we were poking around through Mexico’s small towns and community based organizations—that’s my thing—but I never neared the theme parks on my last trip to the region. Marhuata and Leo teamed up to take my nephews on a day that they continue to recount at speeds a mile a minute.

We headed out to Xplor early in the day, a theme park that plays off of the natural landscape. It’s actually built into underwater rivers and cenotes—with ziplining, of course, that was paramount to the boys. The park was beautiful, more than I was expecting. We paddled through the underground river, sped across the tree canopy on zip-lines, and generally got our thrills out. I’m usually that aunt. The who gives books and educational toys on holidays. So they were justifiably psyched that I agreed to a Mexican theme park. And as a plus, it also scored me a trade-off promise that they would each read age-appropriate information on Maya culture. Win. It was good fun; it’s a fantastic thing to do with kids and the other nearby parks have varying types of activities. I reviewed the park’s rides, pros, cons, etc at Xplor here.

Hidden bonus? They wolfed down dinner and then passed out cold that day. Who am I kidding, I did too. :)

Gorgeous underground river

Slide! The boys together zipping over the jungle!

At Xplor's Heart ATV Time!

Tulum

We began to shift the tone of our trip in Tulum. While we spent our early days on beaches and with family, Tulum marks the beginning of the history and culture part of the trip. We could have been on any white sandy beaches in the world in the first week of the road trip. We couldn’t help but know we were in Mexico once we reached the sprawling Maya temple complex at Tulum.

These Maya, they sure knew some prime real estate.

Tulum’s ruins run right up to the water’s edge. Grey stone temple complexes all but tumble into the Caribbean waters.

The boys’ fascination with the Yucatan’s iguanas continued here; but I’d be lying if I said the boys loved Tulum. It was a scorchingly sunny day at the ruins. While I wandered and read about Tulum, the boys camped out in the shade near several massive iguanas and soaked in the vibe. The beach waters were also too rough for them, so we passed through Tulum en route to the verdant heart of the region. Next up was Valladolid and the tiny Mexican towns awash in culture, food, and history. (Side note: Tulum is where we left those beloved swimming trunks I had to backtrack for… I am still doing a facepalm that I actually returned for a pair of shorts. I can only say that after the despair we had over losing a pair of beloved goggles, it just seemed easier).

Looking back now, I wish that I had slowed down one bit more and actually done the Akumal turtle swimming experience, which we would have done between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Instead, I thought we needed some history in our trip and skipped it. That was a #fail for me. Lesson learned. Perhaps they would have enjoyed the ruins more if we had started with some sea turtle interactions.

tulum beach

tulum ruins the boys exploring the ruins iguana at tulum

Valladolid

The vibe definitely changed when we reached Valladolid, a Spanish colonial town dating back to the 1500s. This is also when we got down with some serious street eats. I was able to find more of the informal food that I usually eat in Mexico. Before that, the beach towns tended to cater to tourists. The good street food was farther from the tourist areas than we could easily travel on foot. But here, we booked a place on the Plaza Central and used this as a base to go temple-hunting and cenote swimming. The biggest site is Chichén Itzá, and we marveled at the echoing acoustics built into the ball court. Vic fixated for ten minutes on mastering the clap that would travel down the expansive ball court and then bounce back as an echo. He was thoroughly impressed when finally managed to get the echo to sound out.

The real winner though, was Ek’ Balam. The site is far less touristed than nearby Chichén Itzá. There are ruins that you can climb up and see high views of the region. The relief work on one of the tombs is also impressive and the best in the entire region—among the best restored in all the known Maya temples. A huge jaguar mouth sits open with carvings on all sides—serpents, winged men, and hellish creatures. This was a hit with the kiddos. It’s been restored, which makes it easier to see and imagine what these temples might have looked like at the hey-day of the Maya kingdom. It was a small complex, so we headed to the sunken cenotes after, the water cool and refreshing in the heat of July in Mexico!

Ek’ Balam
ek balam archaeological park

jaguar relief at ek balam racing up the steps of ek balam

Chichén Itzá and Cenote Dzitnup

chichen itza pyramid cenote dzitnup

Izamal

All of us agree, there is just something special about Izamal and there’s no way to put our finger on it. If we had only used our guidebook, we might have skipped this tiny, sleepy, yellow Mexican town. But I turned to my friend Wandering Earl for travel planning advice—he lived in the region for years—and he said this was a must-do. We had planned to spend two days. We ended up settling in and spending four days doing little more than playing with new Dutch friends and eating street eats in the central plaza.

And yet.

The boys loved it. Horses clomped through the cobblestone streets, the boys understood the small town’s walkable layout, and they loved the nightly pork sandwiches. The photos perhaps say it better than I can express. It’s just a magical little spot in the heart of the Yucatán.

izamal parque central

  

 Parque central Izamal izamal dog show

sunset in Izamal horse cart in izamal

Cuzamá

En route to Celestún, we broke up the drive with a horse-drawn carriage ride out to a trio of cenotes. Cenotes are underground cave sinkholes. The limestone bedrock in the Yucatán Peninsula is so porous that all lakes and rivers are actually underground. They are the best way to cool off in the interior. A local community based organization operates the Cuzamá cenote. This CBO ensures that profit-sharing among the families near this rural and off-beat tourist attraction. Getting to Cuzamá is half the fun too. If you hadn’t yet woven through the pothole strewn back roads of Mexico, you will en route. Notable is that there is a scammy business just before you reach the CBO. If you’re driving, keep driving until you reach a sun-drenched and informal spot at the end of the road. Men will be waiting there ready to whisk you to the swimming holes. The horse ride was good fun, and the third swimming hole, Cenote Chacsinicche, was by far the best for the kids. They delighted in cannon-balling from the ledge into the cool, clear blue water.

horse cart cuzama Cuzamá cenote chacsinicche

blue waters of cenote chacsinicche cenote chacsinicche

Celestún

We came to Celestún for the flamingos and crocodiles—it was all about visiting the Celestún Biosphere Reserve. Eric loves animals, and his one big request for the trip was seeing crocodiles in the wild. We only saw one baby crocodile, but he was so distracted by the flamingos, birds, and swimming holes that he never noticed (I wondered after if we would have had more success at Río Lagartos :-/  ). The town of Celestún is low-key and tiny. I mean little. It’s a Mexican vacation spot more than a tourist spot, so there wasn’t much English spoken. Most of the families (umm, all of them) were Mexicans taking in the summer vibes. The kids had a blast digging deep holes in the sand, and their industriousness attracted the other kids who helped them dig and collect worms from the sand—an activity that apparently needs no spoken words.

The shenanigans continued here, too, lest I paint too rosy a picture of it all. The boys found a small, beached boat and attempted to drag it out to sea while I procured Gatorade for us all. I sent them back to the sand digging, pulled my sunhat lower, traded my Gatorade for a Sol, and was just glad they hadn’t gotten in the boat and headed for Cuba.

flamingos at celestun

mangrove tunnel celestun boys at sunset mangroves celestun mexico

celestun biosphere reserve Our tour group!

Mérida

One of the sweetest towns in Mexico, Mérida, has a vibe all its own. Each area of town boasts its own central park area, but the main one near the touristy areas is abuzz in activity every night of the week. There isn’t a lot to do in Mérida per se. My nephews were scarcely interested in the museums. They did, however, find the markets intriguing, the parks filled with other children, and plenty of street food and ice cream to keep them chugging along as we toured the various churches and architectural sites. They were little champs most of the time. The three weeks had passed in a blur and Mérida and Celestún were the last stops on our trip. By the third Saturday, we were wheels up on the airplane by 9am and I had them deposited back to my brother soon after. I welcomed the break. Traveling with them gave me a fresh perspective on all the work that goes into juggling two kiddos on the road. But it was a good tired too, for the most part.

sunset in merida

clown in merida streets of merida sunset merida

yucatan-mexicoOn the whole, I had long hoped to share a travel experience with my nephews, and this tripped served in that capacity. With the mix of food, culture, and beach-fun time, it was the perfect place to take two active little boys. Many of my readers have pondered taking a niece, nephew, or sibling overseas, but the logistics can seem overwhelming. In this case, I am so happy I had the chance to show those two kiddos a small part of why I love traveling the world. It wasn’t always easy—they were exceedingly naughty—but I wouldn’t take it back for the world.

For readers who have long followed this journey, you may wonder about where Ana was while her brother Vic and cousin Eric went on an adventure? While we road-tripped across Mexico, Ana met up with Dani, a friend Ana and I last traveled with in Cambodia. Dani and Ana have stayed in touch over the years, and since Ana continues to beg for the chance to explore other places, Dani invited her to NYC for a week. They palled around the city, sending me Snapchats and texts. I was so glad she had her own adventure, too. And I am happy to report that Ana, now in the 10th grade, has stayed interested and curious about the world. I hope, if nothing else, this trip ignited in my nephews a lasting curiosity about the people and places outside their home bubble, and that they continue to use that curiosity to finish school and travel more.

So, whatdya think? I felt crazy at times for going solo with them, but it was an adventure. Do you have any plans to travel with kids/siblings/nephews? 

And PS: If you’re planning a similar trip, the Road Trip Yucatan planning details page is here.

A Little Education… How I Homeschooled My Niece From Asia

baby elephant laos
Ana met a mother elephant and her tiny two month old baby elephant in Laos.

One of the tenets I live by is that life-long learning is something worthy of not only practicing, but of instilling a love of in others. And a love of learning was a core element I wanted my niece Ana to walk away with when she left my company after I homeschooled her throughout Southeast Asia.

And though I no longer homeschool my niece from the road, that adventure into a slightly non-mainstream choice made A Little Adrift (and me by default) a spokesperson of sorts for schooling on the road. One long-term traveler read my story and wanted to know how she could homeschool her little brother; a mom from Colorado was stressed by the dearth of information and wondered how I tackled the feat of figuring out curriculum. Dozens of others tell me they’re inspired to create their own niece/nephew project, if only they knew where to start. The sheer volume of email I get from others intrigued by the possibility of taking their kids out of school to travel surprised me, and it motivated me to share the nitty-gritties of that side of my travels.

And since my way was to essentially just school on the road (we followed the same type of teaching style mirrored in US public schools), I created a master traveling while schooling resource page with tons of links and alternative options—from homeschooling to unschooling and everything in between. This post lays out why and how we did, with the resources page providing alternatives for your research.

If this topic doesn’t interest you, why not read this post instead, it’s an oldie but a goodie and filled with pretty travel photos. Otherwise, onward!

Traveling with my niece Ana for six and a half months is one of those travel experiences I look back on as life-changing for us both. Though I had traveled solo for three years, life presented me with this amazing opportunity to take a then 11-year-old child and show her my version of the world. To share with her my style of local-level travel, to expose her to new languages, religions and cultures, and to learn from her as well—to learn over those months how to keep child-like joy and wonder.

It wasn’t always easy. Okay, it was very difficult for us both in the early days. Our travels meant re-prioritize my previously solo travels, and my life, so that I could take my niece on a journey while maintaining a learning atmosphere. And for her it meant leaving behind her friends and missing out on the 6th grade and her transition year into middle school. And through it all, it meant us both taking a step into a style of education that neither of us had ever experienced. I attended public school and it was always assumed Ana was on that same path. But circumstances changed, and my family and I jumped at the chance for Ana to travel with me, even if that meant leaping headfirst into uncharted territory: homeschooling.

jumping angkor wat
In the months leading up to our trip, when I pulled her out of traditional school and took on the responsibility for her education, I read heaps of books, watched documentaries, and emailed homeschool bloggers. I read about homeschooling, unschooling, and the methodologies behind each. I read books from former teachers and books about how people learn, all with the fear that one wrong move would ruin her chances college, life and a future. It was melodramatic stuff in the O’Donnell household for a while.

That being said, this wasn’t exactly a chore for me either! If you follow me on Twitter you know I often talk about our US education system. And last year I shared a huge resource of free ways to learn almost anything. I geek out on the topic. Add to that a close friend who braved the transition before me—while in college, I nannied for a family (who I now consider my family), and they pulled their children out of school in favor of homeschooling. With Joanne’s help and the research, I gained (rough) confidence that I could take my niece’s education on my shoulders.

Is it Affordable?

schoolwork
Laptop and smoothie time in Siem Reap, Cambodia as she had a treat while she did her schoolwork on our day off from exploring Angkor Wat.

Without fail, when I casually mention those months with Ana overseas I get a question about the costs, because other aunts, siblings, and parents always wonder if they’ll go broke considering traveling long-term with their kids. Budget is the number one question all travelers face, so I’ll start with that. Our situation is unique in that I have online consulting work I do from the road, which I have always used to afford my previous years of travel. With Ana, homeschooling actually only added some minor additional expenses—less than you’d think! The biggest expense isn’t education at all, it’s the travel itself. At this stage, the question you have to answer is if you can afford to travel, the education side does not have to cost much above that. Keep in mind too that after paying for the plane flights, traveling in less developed countries is truly not the equivalent to traveling the US for any length of time.

On the homeschooling front, we chose to take advantage of our state’s free online program (I get into that in the next section), and our core cost then became buying a small laptop for her to use on the road. Because she was just 11-years-old, we opted for one that did all the basics, but it wasn’t sophisticated, it just needed to work! We ended up with a Samsung that was about $400.

So, on the education front, we had just her laptop expense upfront, then the rest came down to what it costs to travel long-term, which is less than most people assume and there are heaps of families who have pulled their kids out of school for a year or two (or more!). Check out some of these posts for a quick look what a family travel budget means on the road:

If you’re looking at long-term travel, the homeschooling aspect does not have to add a huge expense. It’s doable, I promise.

How We Homeschooled

train
On our way to Bangkok, and Ana’s first train ride!

My ultimate education style with Ana can best be summarized as travel-led learning within a framework of the core traditional courses prescribed by international schooling standards. We focused on her education, but not solely in the “here memorize these facts” type of way. Instead, my goal was to teach my niece that curiosity is the root of education, that self-motivated curiosity will take her far beyond my “classroom” as she matures, that her life story is a series of choices, and that choice is a freedom and privilege that is not given equally to everyone in this world.

To make that theory more tangible, I’ll break down our education schedule over the six plus months we spent in Southeast Asia. Ana took five online classes through Florida Virtual School (FLVS), a free, state-run program for Florida residents that gives students access to virtual classrooms administered by registered state public school teachers. Many states have similar programs, you can check your state programs and options here at K12.com. Her five FLVS classes covered the most basic knowledge we wanted her to have at the end of her sixth grade year of school:

  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • English
  • Spanish (her choice)

These five classes are considered a full load by the state of Florida, but they took Ana about half the amount of time traditional students spend in school. This was my first experience with FLVS and we both generally liked that Ana could work at her own pace, and I was grateful to have her core curriculum planned out and taught—it was a bonus that we had no books or curriculum to carry, and the novels required for English were available on the Kindle.

In addition to FLVS, I integrated learning into the places we visited by adding country relevant books to her reading list. She wrote me essays about things we learned on the road, and she collected her experiences on her own travel site, A Little Adrift Jr, where she didn’t know it, but she practiced creative writing, storytelling, and she learned how to illustrate stories with her own photography. Each time she expressed an interest in something specific, I would then research ways to incorporate that aspect into our trip.

thai school kids
We visited a 7th grade class in Chiang Mai, Thailand to see what it was like!

I am a fan of formal learning, I think it rounds out interest-led learning and that’s partly why we went this route. With that in mind, FLVS was really perfect for us. Ana’s teachers accommodated our schedule (we were on a 12 hour time difference) and were understanding when we had flukes that prevented internet access. That was really one of the few obstacles to online classes, they are completely internet based and work was due on a weekly basis—we had to have a fast internet connection for at least two days every week. That was easy enough in Thailand, a lot harder in Laos, and impossible in Myanmar (which we knew ahead of time so we front-loaded her school work, warned her teachers, and took a full month off from the internet while we enjoyed Myanmar).

Also, she had her own laptop and a Kindle. The Kindle was invaluable at keeping her occupied on buses, trains, planes and when I had meetings or some such. And yes, I could have given her real books to read, but because she cruised through eight books in two months alone—the Percy Jackson series and the Hunger Games trilogy—it was so worth it not to carry those books in our bags.

Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand
We handmade our krathongs, little rafts to set free on the river in Chiang Mai during the Loy Krathong lantern festival.

And that was really it. The resource page goes into picking curriculum if you go that route, or going more world-led learning, but for us I needed a way to ensure she had a full year equivalent so that she could easily transition back into public school, and the online program did that perfectly. But it was only one part of our learning, because in making the travel experience engaging, I had to learn how to shift our activities to better include a child in the experience, that touches more on interest-led learning, which we spent the bulk of our time doing.

Other Lessons in Learning on the Road

My biggest lessons about teaching Ana beyond the classroom came from a friend, Naomi Duguid, who had traveled extensively through Asia with her children when they were young. When we first landed in Chiang Mai, I was overwhelmed by the realities of making the entire thing interesting beyond the first few weeks—we had nearly seven months of culture and history to fill and I feared she’d get bored and wish she could go home. Naomi talked me down from those fears and offered feedback that really grounded our travels. She suggested that I do two main things to keep Ana fascinated and interested in our travel experiences:

  • Keep her fingers busy doing things.
  • Find a common thread in our travels and task her with investigating it.

stencil class in Luang Prabang

Keep ‘Em Busy

weaving loom laos
Ana learned to use a huge loom in Laos.

To the first suggestion, she was so, so spot on. We visited many, many temples all over Southeast Asia, and while Ana found them visually appealing in the beginning, her interest waned somewhere around Buddhist temple visit number 126. So, there we are in Laos, and I can see I’ve lost her. She’s a good kid, so she went to these temples with me, but temple fatigue had set in, and the learning-fascination-wonder that I had dreamed would take root in her was flickering like a candle in the rain.

My first thought was, “Oh man, it’s going to be a long trip if she’s already burnt out on temples.” Which was patently unfair of me, since I remember my own temple fatigue set in around the eight week mark on my first trip to Southeast Asia. Taking Naomi’s advice, I hunted down a stencil making class in Luang Prabang. Ana had a personal lesson and a former monk handed Ana a full set of chisels and taught her the traditional techniques Monks use to make the stencils used to paint patterns on the temple walls.

Our next temple visit became a chance to look for these patterns and themes the monk had discussed.

In the subsequent weeks and months we learned how to die and weave silk, took a Thai cooking class, ran a 10K on Christmas, and learned how to make Burmese sugar candies. Each experience gave us a lens through which to view that culture or experience; it gave us a framework to discuss the new things we were learning but without the dry guide-book feel. She loved it all and the various classes gave us some neat souvenirs for her to mail home as well.

Find a Common Thread to Investigate

Ana applies gold leaf to a Buddha in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)
Ana applies gold leaf to a Buddha in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)

Our temple visits in Myanmar had their own theme, we jointly tasked ourselves with finding as many Buddha positions as possible, and then researched what they all mean by asking locals. Buddha is pictured in various poses throughout his life, and each pose and hand position (called mudras) means something different. Our goal was to find and photograph a Buddha in every position. It took us months to find each one, and Ana was better than I at spotting the slight variances. It was a neat mission and it created a common thread; it gave her an activity and task for each temple visit and a focus beyond, “hey kid, look at that and be awed.”

Other threads we used to connect each place included beads; Ana was crafty and made bracelets for all the passing travelers we met, so each time we passed small markets we looked for interesting coins, beads, and other things to use in jewelry. That task got her talking with the locals, too! I gave her an allowance in local currency each week with the only rule being that she had to spend it on her own, with no help from me in communicating and bargaining. By the end of our months in Asia, she was a pro. :)

Appeal to Current Interests

When the Hunger Games craze seized us both in early January, I used some of the book’s core dystopian themes (government control, oppression, and a revolutionary society) to teach my niece about Myanmar’s modern history. Though a bit of a stretch at times, the conversations and questions had us both spending weeks digging into research about other revolutionaries in history, and about different governments and the core ideas behind communism, democracy, and theocracy.

Ana learned and understood the significance of us traveling freely throughout Myanmar. She pointed out the images of Aung San Suu Kyi that openly hung on vendor’s stalls in the country, and she understood that this signified a turning point in the country’s history. And the best part was, she willingly learned all of this history because she was keenly interested in Katniss’ trials and tribulations throughout the Hunger Games trilogy, and I found a way to relate interest to our upcoming travels in Burma.

Consider Volunteering

Service is a fundamental theme within my own travels and something Ana and I integrated into our time in Southeast Asia as well. Beyond curriculum, I wanted her to have access to other opportunities to grow as a person. Over our months in Asia, Ana and I supported social enterprises, volunteered teaching English in Laos and Thailand, and talked a lot about how we could be more responsible travelers. Traveling can grow your capacity for compassion; we integrated service and little projects over the months into each new place to foster this experience.

Allow Time for Play and Downtime Too

tiny dog
Teacup dogs are all the rage in Thailand.

There is a time and place for questioning and actively seeking learning experiences, but learning takes place in every moment and in ways I could never control. Ana and I often spent the last hours of the day at a local park kicking a ball around, reading in the grass, or playing with the many tiny dogs rocketing through the park. We integrated with the locals and took time to just enjoy the day. I’m sure if I pressed her I could make her actively realize the commonalities between parks near our home in Florida and the one in Chiang Mai. We could talk about the family interactions, the kissing couples under a tree. Instead, we played, she saw whatever she saw, and I allowed her downtime to assimilate and observe whatever she wanted and to play to her heart’s content.

Life on the road these past five years has challenged me, humbled me, and taught me more than I could ever have predicted when I first planned to travel long term back in 2008.

Travel itself is an education.

Learning never ends.

These are the lessons I wanted to inspire in Ana. Yes, we covered the basic maths and sciences, but beyond that I wanted to teach her how to take an interest and find out more. How to use a personal interest as a gateway to learning more.

I challenged her to look up anything and everything online. I gave her permission to ask any question that ever occurred to her.

I hope I ignited her curiosity and wonder for the world. My philosophy for that year became: anything tangible I might have missed teaching her can be taught at some point in the future as long as she has a lifelong interest in learning about the world.

Mandalay

***

That’s about the whole of our approach to learning that year! I homeschooled Ana through sixth grade and half of seventh grade, and she was 11 and 12 years old during our time together. Our second year included a lot more free-form learning in some subjects until I eventually re-enrolled her in public school for personal reasons. This is the approach we took for many reasons, including: our goals as a family, her need to re-enter public school, and the availability of a free online curriculum.

If you’re thinking about going this route yourself with your own niece, brother, sister, or child, please check out my Traveling Homeschool Resource page so you can learn more about other traveling parents and different approaches!

Cheers and thanks, this was a long one! :)

~S

A Little Story… The Origins of Chocolate and Effects of Responsible Tourism in Panama

A cacao fruit hanging from a tree at Silico Creek, Panama.
A cacao fruit hanging from a tree at Silico Creek, Panama.

Rain pelted darts of moisture into my skin as we stumbled off the bus into a huddle of quizzical faces. Their complete bafflement signaled a slice of doubt in my mind as the bus handler hurled our luggage under the shelter and sped down the road, leaving Ana, my dad, and me at mile marker 25: Silico Creek.

Barely on the maps, Silico Creek is a blip on the tourist radar between Bocas del Toro and Boquete, but my dad discovered this indigenous community in his research and decided we three would kick off our Panama adventure learning about the origins of chocolate through Urari, a small rural tourism organization at Silico Creek, which lies within the Ngöbe Buglé Conmarca, a demarcated area similar in function to the Native American reservations in the US.

From the start, our adventure echoed of the coffee journey Ana and I visited in rural Thailand to learn about fair-trade, sustainable coffee production. If there is one thing I love more than coffee, it’d be chocolate, so this journey with my dad and Ana would round out my understanding of two of the world’s biggest food commodities. Like coffee, eco-tourism circles bandy about buzz-ish words like “local,” “organic,” and “fair-trade.” A trip to the designer chocolate aisle at the grocery store is a veritable test of each company’s ability to find marketable synonyms of these words. But I wanted to know the human story behind the chocolate and Urari’s small tourism organization, self-started and run entirely by the community, seemed like the perfect place to delve into my two great loves: supporting social enterprises and consuming chocolate.

In short, our weekend held promise and we were all intrigued by the chance to live within the community … but first, I had to find the place.

I hesitantly questioned the group in Spanish, and big smiles bloomed on their faces as they gave encouraging gestures toward the gravel path behind us, nodding as we set off into the drizzling rain.

Two hours later, we had settled into our modest wooden hilltop bungalows, consumed hot chocolate, and found ourselves surrounded by members of the community—everyone asking and answering questions in tandem.

Sunrise from Urari's bungalows at Silico Creek, Panama.
The rain cleared for part of our stay and our first sunrise welcomed a gorgeous, crisp day of blue skies and chirping birds.

About the Silico Creek Community

A gorgeous and bright morning for our waterfall hike from Silico Creek, Panama.
Modest wooden houses line the hilltops with gorgeous views all the way to the Caribbean Sea.

Right away, our biggest hurdle was language … only a few members of the community speak basic English, so as the guides and members of the community learned that each of us had varying levels of Spanish, mine being passable to communicate, we defaulted to Spanish and spent three days in full immersion, with me acting as translator for Ana and my dad.

Immediately digging into the immersion, we learned of the community’s history. Silico Creek is a settlement of indigenous people who moved to a fertile northeastern region of the Ngöbe Buglé Conmarca in the 1960s—that first family expanded and the 500-person village now includes all the children, grandchildren, and extended relatives.

Urari, I learned, is primarily set up to become the community’s home-grown solution to tourism and income. Much like reservations in the United States, the indigenous population is given land and the right to operate freely, but in contrast to reservations in the US, demarcated regions of Panama are given almost full autonomy and therefore lack government support. This was not always the case though, and after years (decades … centuries) of politics and land issues, modern tourism and the development of a thriving economy is tough for rural communities. Many indigenous peoples operate on a barter system and internal economy within the community, but the world encroaches on the edges of the reservation land, and land within the demarcation has become a commodity for the Ngöbe Buglé.

As we learned more, I related it back to my time in Thailand studying coffee. Many issues I found in coffee production Thailand are similarly present in Silico Creek’s cacao plantations. Cacao is the primary crop grown by nearly every family, but they sell their beans to a cooperative nearby that, while paying “fairly,”  does not generate enough income to support the community. In short, the current avenue for selling their cacao outside of the reservation isn’t livable wages even within their communal living system.

Hence their focus on tourism.

And in this case, it’s home-grown tourism that Ana, my dad, and I were taking part in as Silico Creek formed Urari, which operates the several tours and overnight stays for foreigners interested in learning more about the Ngöbe culture as well as organic agriculture and cacao production.


Responsible Grassroots Tourism in Panama

The largest initiative at Silico Creek of interest to outsiders is organic farming and the production of cacao—the plant at the beginning of all the world’s delicious chocolate.

We spent our first afternoon at Urari learning about the culture and people within the settlement, but as dark settled over the hilltop bungalows we were given a cheery wave as the community descended to their homes just below, navigating with cell phones as flashlights since the community does not have electricity.

And then it was an hour of the small pleasures—my dad and I talked on the our dark balcony, looking out of the moon-washed treetops and discussed the day. Ana hunkered under the mosquito net and read a book inside, at least, she read until I ousted her at top speed to see the flickering tapestry of fireflies breaking up the dark near our bungalows. Until traveling I had never seen a firefly, so I knew that was Ana’s fate as well. She and I did a lively rendition of Owl City’s “Firefly” before we all turned in for an early nights sleep.

Gorgeous rolling hills and land we trekked over for our waterfall hike from Silico Creek, Panama.

Our group making our way through the mud to the waterfalls near Silico Creek, Panama. Hiking through the mud to the waterfall near Silico Creek, Panama. Ana and me enjoying the cold waterfalls near Silico Creek after a very long and hard hike.

We woke to the chatter of birds the next morning and the smiling faces of Eduardo and his family as they laid out a full breakfast spread—traditional bread, eggs, and fruit—a meal hearty enough to get us through the strenuous waterfall hike on the docket for the day.

And boy did we earn that breakfast; the hike was muddy and fun and gave us the chance to grill Arnoldo—our guide and brother to Eduardo—about the backstory of the Ngöbe Buglé people, the community’s ultimate goal for Urari, and the impact of Panama’s varied political past.

Oh yes, and there was gorgeous untouched forest, small villages, rushing rivers, and a waterfall too.  :)

Our second day with the Silico Creek community ended as had the previous day, many members of the community came to our hilltop bungalows to visit and answer questions (and to look at us, Ana was a minor celebrity with some of the children). Urari’s emphasis is on fostering a connection between the tourists and the local community and we found friends and faces always nearby to talk with us throughout the day.

A gorgeous day for the waterfall hike at Silico Creek, Panama.


The Humble Origins of Chocolate

Cocoa has a relevant importance in our people, it is used to make traditional medicines and when used during spiritual evening ceremonies it serves to purify our soul. Special consumption overnight is an ancestral practice Silico Creek.

A steady rain drummed on our wooden bungalows our last morning at Silico Creek, and the wet earth created a deep mud through which we would trek to learn about Silico Creek’s primary cash crop: cacao.

Throughout our visit, our meals included two traditional concoctions of this delicious bean—hot chocolate and chocolate coffee—and I was eager to visit the plantation and learn more about the cultural significance of cacao in the Ngöbe Buglé culture.

The plight facing Urari again reminded me of the days I spent in the Akha Ama coffee collective in Northern Thailand … it’s a tale of farming, but also one of continually striving to meet international standards, keep the crops healthy, and find a fair outlet for the commodity. And while Akha Ama created a collective to directly connect their coffee to consumers, Urari sells the cacao to a cooperative, taking a small cut of the deep profits made from the global chocolate trade. Instead of relying on selling their chocolate solely through the cooperative, which they have done since the 1950s, the families of Silico Creek plan to grow their tourism project and create a direct connection to tourists.

Ripening cacao hulked from the tree branches on one of the cacao plantations at Silico Creek, Panama.

We slogged through the dense overgrowth in our borrowed rain boots and dodged the heavy cacao fruit hanging low from the trees. Arnoldo was our guide again, as well as the local farmer whose farm we were visiting. Between the two men, we learned the history of the crop and the core processes and challenges of growing cacao; we even tasted the ripe cacao fruit—syrupy sweet like candy.

From there we walked back to the village and found shelter in the home of a woman who processes chocolate throughout the day. Most of the community’s adults, children, and artisans collectively run Urari, and 75 percent of the Silico Creek families are directly involved in producing and processing chocolate.

Our guides led us through the roasting process, grinding the beans, and finally a taste of the freshly pressed cacao—nose-flinchingly bitter. That liquid is then packed into bars and sold to tourists; anything not sold directly to visitors is instead sold to the nearby cooperative. This is Urari’s long-term goal, to diversify their chocolate products for direct sale to tourists while maintaining their high-quality organic chocolate. (We bought two bars and I hope to make a raw cacao dessert in the next few weeks!)

Raw cacao seeds

pressing cacao into chocolate

Tasting raw cacao

The Realities of Sustainable Tourism

I often talk about the benefits of local-level tourism, of supporting the communities working to support themselves and this is one of the clearest illustrations I have of the concept. And for that, I love Urari. But my threshold for basic is different from the average tourist because of my years on the road. Those three days at Urari were really my dad’s first venture into rural tourism, so I looked to his reactions with interest. Silico Creek hopes to continue expanding their initiative, and they are in the early stages. Right now school groups come en masse several times a year to study agriculture and farming, but the casual tourism from guidebooks and word of mouth is still in the early stages.

The basic wooden bungalows provided by Urari at Silico Creek, Panama. A delicious lunch of coconut rice, fresh avocado, and hearts of palm (and chicken for the meat eaters).

And to an extent, you can tell. Western amenities are on the basic end. The outdoor bathrooms are spotless, but there is no electricity, mosquito nets adorn the beds, and you basically drop off the face of the earth while you’re staying at Urari—meals and activities are all arranged through the community and there is no easy access to the nearby towns.

Full immersion.

And it was great. My dad loved the three days. Although he was very glad for the hot shower in Boquete once we left, he loved having such direct access to the locals—a clear venue to ask questions and investigate his curiosity. This is what I have long loved about local-level travel and it was a success with all three generations of us on this trip—my niece (12 years old), me (29), and my dad (late 50s).

Our group takes a photo all together.
The three of us and our guides for the three days!

In stepping off the path a bit, comes the insights, stories and interactions that shape my most prominent travel memories. In addition to meeting locals at the markets, and striking up conversations with strangers in parks, it’s often by finding sustainable enterprises that I am able to meet people and learn their story. I travel with a specific interest in social enterprise and non-profit work, and by seeking out these conversations I find the other side of the tourist track.

And for those with just a week or two in a region, grassroots initiatives run by locals allow locals to invite tourists into their communities on their terms and share their cultural, language, and customs. Sometimes travel to indigenous communities borders on zoo-like experiences (notably the Karen in Northern Thailand), but the face of modern tourism does not have to look like that. In fact, helping it not look like that is one of my missions throughout my travels and I strongly believe the interactions from grassroots, local-level travel had the strongest effect on shaping my own ethics and perspective.

I asked the community the best way they would like support; Arcadio, one of the brothers noted:

Come meet Ngobe Bugle, our culture, and see the importance of growing cacao organically. Visit the surrounding nature and tranquility to enjoy the company of a large family in rural area.

Through three days of full immersion I found new friendships, connected on a personal level with a culture so different from my own, and I did it on terms set by the people directly affected by my tourism—the families that make up Silico Creek, Panama. And that, well, that’s the heart of why I love social enterprise.

A thanks to Mariane from AIME, a French organization working with Silico Creek to amplify and support their grassroots projects; she clarified many of the smaller details about the community, culture, and organization that I lost in translation. And a fond thanks and warm thoughts to all the members of the Aguilar family who opened their homes and allowed us a glimpse into their lives and their culture. 

Quick Tips: How to Visit Silico Creek

Where: On the road between David and Changinola at kilometer 25. Full directions on their site; they would be best visited in conjunction with a Bocas del Toro trip as they are in that region, within the Ngöbe Buglé conmarca.

How: Their website is pretty basic and great for research, but for the smoothest experience book the a bungalow on Booking.com (ALA readers get a discount if it’s your first time using the site!), then reach out to the Urari community directly to pre-arrange tours and such during your stay.

When: Urari is open to tourism throughout the year, though they have limited capacity to house tourists if a school group is in residence. We were there in June, which is off-season because of the rains, but that did not ruin the adventure by any means. Book via email ahead of time and they will arrange your stay, prepare for the activities you want (waterfall hike, cacao tour, cultural dance, farm-stay, etc).  We arrived five hours before they expected us, so of note is that they will try to meet you at the bus stop if you tell them of your arrival time.

Why: Urari represents Silico Creek’s self-started initiative to create opportunities and revenue to sustain their community. Grassroots, sustainable projects are a passion of mine and all three of us loved the chance to immerse in the culture, ask questions, and learn more about the people while funneling money directly to the people.

Tips: The accommodations are basic but very clean wooden bungalows, the bulk of the reservation does not have electricity (there is a small solar-powered station I heard about but never saw, so don’t count on using it). Bring flashlights, mosquito repellant, warm clothes, rain gear in the off-season, and a sense of adventure. Only a bit of English is spoken at Silico Creek (the man on the other side of the email address speaks fluent English), so you should have at least basic Spanish language skills.

A Little Cheers …To Unexpected Changes and Amazing Possibilities

I turn 29-years-old today. This birthday is already going a lot better than last year … last year my lovely friends in Chiang Mai came out to celebrate with me at a Mexican restaurant and instead of enjoying it, I spent much of the night sick in the bathroom (that was the first day of what became a three month battle with Giardia parasites … fun times). The illness made me slow down at the start of 2012, but it didn’t put a damper on the plans, because it was early 2012 when I began writing my book, which was such a hard but positive part of my life for majority of 2012.

So, anyway, 29 today. You know, I don’t feel very old, and yet I have an acute memory from ten years ago of thinking how “ancient” the nearly-30s seemed. I had lots of ideas and few clear plans at 19—college and acting amounted to most of my tangible goals at the time. And yet now, at 29, I am much more willing to look into the New Year with an eye for unexpected gifts and amazing possibilities than with plans and specific goals. I had so many plans and definite ideas (comes with the territory of being a young adult) and now most of those are gone, and I often feel a little lost, but I feel like I am more on the right track now than I ever was before.

My fifth birthday with my brother Brucey nearby
A photo of my fifth birthday with my brother Brucey nearby.

The fact is, I couldn’t have planned out these last few years in my wildest dreams, and I still can’t figure out the key moments that led me here. Perhaps at a time in the future I will look back and see those pivotal moments where a butterfly beating its wings rippled change throughout the course of my life … but for now I can merely go along with the events and hope that changes, obstacles, and decisions have a deeper purpose. Because some of what happened this year hurt, and it was hard. The book was a personal challenge, but beyond that there was dysfunctional family drama, hurdles, changes, and new directions for myself and many of the people in my life who I love.

mango sticky rice street food
Ana and I enjoy one last mango and sweet sticky rice at a street food stall in Bangkok before we headed back home to the US. The kid is so cute–she waxes poetic to her friends here about the food we ate in Thailand :)

For my niece, I hope and believe that a Butterfly Effect moment in her life was our decision to travel to Asia last summer. And now, another change as she returns to life back home while I continue traveling. Plans shifted over the past few months and Ana is re-enrolled in public school. My dreams for her haven’t changed, and though I am her aunt—and it would seem to many that me even taking her to Asia for nearly seven months was strange—I can only say that I have been a very strong part of her life since birth. And so … it’s hard to let her go. It’s hard for me to let her integrate back into a school system, friends, and a life that only includes me on the periphery.

It was harder than I imagined to watch her again embrace life in my hometown … a town I intentionally and very methodically plotted my exit from at 18-years-old; a place I do not want to live.

laos
Ana frames her photo and snaps some shots of the cows outside of Hongsa, Laos.

My rambling stream of consciousness now turns back toward 2013, and the 30th year of my life. Ana will not be with me on my next trip, which is to Mexico in January (though she will join me again in the future to be sure!), and I am back to the solo traveler I started as in 2008. But not the same at all, there were choices along the way that have changed who I am and changed my perspectives.

I like to use the end of a year and beginning of the next as a way to both reflect and look forward, so here are both, intertwined!

To New Countries …

Myanmar (Burma) was a new country in 2012—I loved the fun of exploring a new culture and sites with my niece. Ana and I also traveled back to one of my favorites, Laos, but it was a very different experience in Myanmar, to spend three weeks immersed in an unfamiliar country with little internet and connectivity. I loved my break from the online world and used the time to talk and really pay attention to friends during our adventures in some of the prettiest places on earth, like Bagan and Inle Lake.

Sunset in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)
As the day ends the sun drenched the ocher temples of Bagan in a warm, comforting light.

I also hope to explore a new place in 2013; though plans are unsure, I may travel with friends to Peru (I haven’t stepped foot in South America yet!) and if not, I have a very deep interest in taking several months in the fall to travel to Kenya or other parts of Africa (also an unexplored continent for me!). Africa is the dream right now, I like the world better knowing that I might make it there this coming year, so I mention it here, even though it’s the more distant possibility of the two. Looking closer to home though, immediate travel plans are to as-yet unexplored regions of Mexico, where I will hunker down for a few months to work on new projects. I need a place to hunker–more pointedly a place to hunker in solitude I think, I am ready to feel a part of a city again and have fast food and fast friends on hand, which happens most when I find a new place I want to call home.

To New Projects …

My book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, launched in October at an event where I spoke on a panel at Housing Works in New York City. Writing, publishing and launching my book was a wonderful and scary learning process and it’s more rewarding than I imagined to have it out now. Perhaps the best part? I loved hearing feedback from the wild—and by this I mean people completely unconnected from me and this blog—from people who read the book and have reviewed the book online, or emailed to share how it’s helped them solidify plans to volunteer or visit social enterprises. That’s the point, when I saw that I could actually have this sort of positive effect, it has motivated me in a way the idea of it never did. I want to help people travel, and all the better if they volunteer or give back when they do that traveling.

travel speaker volunteering
Speaking on a panel about travel at the Housing Works Bookstore in NYC for the launch of my book, alongside the authors of the Food and Solo travel handbooks.

In the coming weeks I will share more about the book and my journey in 2013 to support it out there in the world—podcasts, guest-posts, and giveaways are in the works. I often fear criticism, and equally fear looking like a braggart which keeps me quiet and silent as I hesitate to post any real-time updates—neither the successes nor the failures. I intend to do better on that in 2013.

And speaking of 2013, I have lightly mentioned my other projects, but my volunteer site will formally launch next month, and that is exciting; it’s been in beta form for well over a year, so I will share more on that in January. Then, throughout the year I intend to speak more often and about volunteering and travel when possible. I spoke with an 8th grade class in the United States last month  about following passions and how—for me—that has been travel these past few years. Those kids were so bright, inquisitive, and fascinated by the idea of long-term travel that it’s further inspired me to work with youth and college students in that capacity as a goal this year, and into the future.

To New Ideologies …

In summer 2011, I wrote a post that detailed my desire to travel for the better part of each year, and to weave that travel with time at home. This is how I have balanced old friends and family with my wish to travel for years on end. And that worked well as I bounced around between continents at roughly five-six month intervals.

sunset in yangon
A man on the commuter docks in Yangon, Myanmar takes in a quiet sunset as the last of the boats zip across the river, bring the workers back to their homes and to nearby cities.

Now though, I am shifting that a bit to take the lessons I have learned through travel and channel them into other passions like speaking, more writing, and creative projects. To do these things though, I want to settle somewhere more permanent and with a home-base that isn’t well, home. I haven’t found “the place” yet. It’s not the United States. I think it might be Mexico because I like the country’s proximity to the US (and thus Ana), I already speak the language, and the food is pretty great. But I’m not sure. Four years of travel wore me out some; perhaps it’s the solo travel aspect of it weighing on me lately. I rarely mention (um … never) my relationships, but that could be factoring into things too. I want to be closer to friends, while keeping the joys that travel brings to my life.

2013 is a conundrum for me. I have many professional goals I’d like to see happen in regards to my book. I am looking for a home—anyone, anywhere want to adopt me?! I still have many travel plans in the works. And I will miss my niece when I leave for Mexico. I am in a state of change right now. I know that what I’ve had for the past four years is not the pattern that will make me happy long-term, but I don’t know where I am headed precisely. And this is where the amazing possibilities comes into play. I never thought I would write a book, I never predicted my niece and I would explore Southeast Asia together, and traveling the world was a mere pipe dream at one point. And so, though I feel lost sometimes, I am willing to believe that the possibilities out there may bring some great changes.

tbex speakers spain
Hanging out with my bestie Jodi after we both spoke at the TBEX travel conference in Girona, Spain.

To What I Know …

For all the uncertainty I just laid out there, here is what I do know:

… I was blessed with finding a smart, sweet, funny friend in my niece as we traveled, and that is a gift I will cherish.

… I wrote a book, and I think it’s great. I want to help people and I want to see my book help people. So I know I will make that happen in 2013.

… None of us died during the Mayan apocalypse (had to add a dash of humor here folks).

… I am deeply grateful for the community and people who have supported me through this site, and throughout my travels.

… A new year means so many possibilities for each of us and when we stay open to potential, great things can happen and wonderful people come into our lives.

… I am 29-years-old today and this will be a kick-ass year!

Happy New Year!  :-)

akha ama coffee

A Little Story… A Journey to Find What Sustainable Coffee Really Means

There is a textbook definition of the word “journey”: an act or instance of traveling from one place to another. Within the framework of our collective consciousness as people, however,  the true meaning of a journey lies within ourselves. The word can imply the growth of very specific ideas and understanding within a set time frame; or perhaps a long and hard-earned internal challenge, met through overcoming emotional obstacles and hurdles. There is always a change on a journey. More than the simple act of moving from one place to another, the journey morphs the journeyer throughout that move into a different place—either mental or physical, and occasionally both.

Mountains around Chiang Rai, Thailand
Panoramic views from the back of the bumpy pickup truck as we headed to Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Two years ago I met Lee, a coffee shop owner living in Chiang Mai, Thailand but originally from a small hill-tribe village about four hours away. Lee is on a long journey, but it’s not a voyage of distance. He runs Akha Ama Coffee, a fair trade coffee shop. It wasn’t until I met Lee, and went on a Coffee Journey with him that I came to a deeper understanding of  what it means when something is sustainably produced with a mind toward fair prices paid to the people producing the coffee, ie., fair trade.

Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world.

Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy today, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people tend to feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world. That’s the assumption, right? I use these words in my blogging and with regards to my volunteering, and have heretofore felt confident in my apt usage and understanding of the concepts.  During my travels I looked for ways to support social enterprises, or rather for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission: businesses like Lee’s. On the trade winds of my physical journey, I gained a deeper, more profound understanding of what these catchphrases mean—both literally and to the people affected by the “fair” part of “fair trade.”

Through my friendship with Lee over the past two years, I began to look more closely at how Westerners perceive the impact of our actions when we consume something innocuously labeled as sustainable and fair trade. What does that mean? As a writer who has ever emphasized the need for each traveler to begin understanding how intrinsically linked we are on this planet, I found myself humbled by where I myself was apparently situated on that continuum.

coffee
From organically grown coffee plants to a hand-brewed cup of coffee, Akha Ama Coffee takes the beans on a sustainable journey the entire way. That’s the Akha Ama logo replicated in latte art!

In 2011, I first came to Chiang Mai, Thailand and took up residence as a nomadic expat—I lived there, but for just five months. I landed in Chiang Mai knowing other travelers and expats living in the city, but I was acquainted with few locals. After finding a place to live and dispensing with other practical matters, my first order of business in any new place is tracking down a decent coffee shop—not only because locating caffeine and fast wi-fi are integral parts of me feathering my nest, but because I’ve found with experience that this is the best way to meet new people.

This is how I initially found myself at Lee’s Akha Ama coffee shop. His name is known in the local expat community, and with good reason: he is young, charming, and the kind of character who seems to attract a bevy of fast friends. To no surprise, I bonded quickly with Lee. Getting to know him better, and experiencing that gradual break with sonder that tends to happen in new acquaintanceship, however, was how I discovered that Lee’s story—the unspoken history underpinning his actions—is what really makes his personal journey stand out.

Lee is the face of Akha Ama Coffee, and organizes a biannual trip that takes a dozen people to his family’s remote village, where the coffee Lee sells and markets at his shop is grown. Lee calls these trips a “coffee journey.” That’s not hubris, either—the technical basics of making coffee are rather simple and can be covered with a quick overview (such as the two-hour trip through the Finca Filidefia plantation in Guatemala I took a few years ago). Lee’s trip, on the other hand, is a three-day journey toward understanding just what goes into a cup of sustainably grown coffee. It’s about the journey his village is taking toward operating as a sustainable, fair trade farming cooperative, and the human story and struggles behind each cup of coffee.

Lee Akha Ama
Lee explained how the high-quality Arabica coffee beans are grown, and how crop rotation promotes higher crop yields without the use of pesticides.

I took my first Coffee Journey with Lee during those initial five months I lived in Chiang Mai. Having cherished the experience and come to call Lee a friend, I returned with my niece Ana in tow to again make the journey over New Year’s weekend as we welcomed 2012. Ana knew Lee only as the nice guy from the coffee shop at that point. I shared with her his powerful story, and by the time we departed, she knew that Lee not only sold coffee, but was the front-end funnel for a community coffee production collective.

The Akha Ama Coffee Collective represents 14 families from the Maejantai village area that have joined together under one brand to increase their ability to control, market, and command fair prices for the coffee they grow. They formed the collective so each family could bring in more money and thus assure themselves fair wages with which to obtain education for their children and modern conveniences.

akha coffee beans
Lee’s mother spread the recently husked, wet coffee beans in the sunlight so the beans were thoroughly dry before villagers bagged them and trucked the beans to Chiang Mai for roasting.

The coffee journey to Maejantai village is not a cushy, high-end tour, nor is it intended to be. Participants sleep in homes graciously offered by one of the 14 families,  and they eat family-style meals replete with hand-picked greens grown on the surrounding farms. For Ana, I knew this trip would be unlike anything else she’s experienced. Going into it, I hoped her existing friendship with Lee would give her a unique window through which she could view and understand the paths and choices people make to change their lives when they are given far different circumstances than the ones Ana experienced in her suburban American life.

Our journey began in Chiang Mai, early on a Friday morning during coffee harvesting season. Participants arrived at the coffee shop with enough gear for a weekend, and piled into the back of the yellow songthaews (covered pickup trucks). With our thighs squished tight and shoulders wedged against one another, sheer proximity made a surprisingly effective safety harness against the bumpy ride outside of town and eventually into the mountains surrounding Chiang Rai. Hours later, with just a quarter-mile of jolting progress up the mountain remaining, children from Lee’s village began chasing after our truck. Seeing Ana’s young(er) face among the coffee journey participants excited and fascinated the kids, and their huge smiles and waves were our first welcome to Maejantai.

Shaking the pervasive red dust from my hair, face, teeth and eyes, I trooped upstairs with Ana to introduce Lee’s mother, the business’s namesake. (Lee belongs to the Akha people. In the Akha language, “ama” means mother.) Lee’s mother reserved a special hug for me, one of the few participants making a repeat journey. It touched me that she remembered my face from last year.

Woman returning from a day at work, Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand. The sweet faces of children in the Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Lee’s Back Story

Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture.

As his mother welcomed us and prepared tea for the group, Lee launched into his back story: the tale of  how Akha Ama came into existence. The Akha people, who share a common language, have nonetheless been scattered throughout Thailand, China, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar) over the past several hundred years as the result of civil wars and demarcation disagreements. These hill-tribe groups have largely been separated from rapid Westernization, owing to both the isolation of the regions in which they’ve settled and the fact that they generally don’t speak the main language of the countries in which they live.

When Lee grew up, his mother urged him to leave his village and gain a formal education in nearby Chiang Rai. He became the first and, to date, only villager to obtain higher education. Lee studied Thai and learned English from passing tourists. Gradually, as he discovered the value in community-sourced projects, he began plotting a way to help the Akha farmers and villages in his region. Lee’s mother supported his idea and was the catalyst in bringing together the 14 families that today make up the Akha Ama collective.

There is always strength in numbers, but the collective succeeds also because the 14 families are working together toward sustainable agriculture that not only produces an organic crop, but avoids the use of expensive, harmful pesticides as well. New methods of crop rotation are the key to sustaining these eco-friendly products in the long-term, and the collective has implemented processes that will take years to fully bear out. This is the foundation on which the families formed Akha Ama, and out of necessity, it is a gross simplification of Lee’s story.

Before the farmers in Maejantai village formed the collective, they had only one means of making money—sell their coffee beans at the going rate to whomever was buying. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture, however, and at that point Lee and his family saw an opportunity to see the beans completely through the process. Consequently, farmers could see more monetary returns on their time and effort. Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap.

Lee’s village may be remote, but the influence of Western culture and advancement has taken root even in Maejantai. Villagers must pay for their children to attend a nearby school, and the demand for conveniences like cell phones have necessitated a move toward a more monetary-based system in the villages. Akha Ama’s goals are both social and economic: to not only grant villagers control over what they produce, but to funnel the money back into the community as well.

akha ama coffee
Lee’s sister displayed traditional Akha clothing in the coffee fields nearby.
The small Akha Ama coffee village in the mountains near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
A beautiful sunset over Maejantai village high in the mountains north of Chiang Rai, Thailand.

The Coffee Process

The fields are about a 45 minute walk from the village at a slow pace. On the last turn, the path opens up to this beautiful valley filled with coffee and tea plants.

Understanding the political side of Akha Ama is just one part of the Coffee Journey. Hands-on participation in the labor-intensive process of making coffee is just as much a component of the experience, and was no small part of why I wanted to bring Ana along. Throughout the three days, Lee took us through each stage of the coffee process—from picking the beans out in the fields all day, to drying, husking, processing, bagging, storing, and transporting them. Once Lee is back in Chiang Mai, he roasts the beans, packages them, and sells them through Akha Ama and a handful of other coffee shops in Thailand.

On the second day of our Coffee Journey, Ana and I walked for 45 minutes to Lee’s family’s coffee fields, where he explained how the plants are grown and harvested. Then he handed us each baskets and instructed us on how to properly twist and pluck the ripe coffee cherries. Ana enthusiastically joined in the picking, and by lunchtime our baskets were filled with shining red and yellow cherries.

At lunchtime, we ate a plentiful lunch on huge banana leaves. Right after, we headed back into fields for round two. It’s hard to say at which point, for Ana, that the fun of plucking and twisting gave way to an understanding and appreciation of the work that it really is. As our baskets filled, Lee and other villagers eagerly replaced them and encouraged us to continue picking. After several hours, my hands and arms cramped with the small, repetitive tasks. Ana continued to work respectfully, but it was clear that the “game” aspect of this all was gone.

Ripe red and yellow coffee cherries.  Serving up rice for the coffee journey participants. A family-style lunch with delicious vegetables and rice.

Ana listens closely as only a child can as Lee explains our task. Maejantai village, Thailand.  Picking coffee ripe coffee cherries.  How cute is she?! Ana is pretty proud of her basket of bright red coffee cherries from the Akha Ama coffee fields.

Mind you, none of this was exactly miserable—far from it, since the weather was a perfect mix of cool breeze and warm sunshine. The reality of the task, however, of picking all day for your survival and livelihood, had sunk in for our rag-tag group of 20 or so participants. While we worked, Lee’s family gathered vegetables and prepared dinner for our group. Feeding twenty ravenous people is no small task, either!

And as it happened, on this second Coffee Journey, at the end of our long day in the fields, Ana and I joined the group around a large bonfire under a sky filled with more stars than Ana had ever seen in her life and welcomed in the New Year with new friends, new realizations, and perspective shifts on what it takes to live and enjoy life.

The realities of processing coffee continued unabated the next day as we watched Lee’s sister sort through the coffee berries, discarding the under-ripe berries we unknowingly plucked. A machine then separated the beans from the husks, after which the families took these wet coffee beans to huge tarp-covered pallets so to dry out in the cool mountain air.

Dry beans are then bagged and stored until they are ready for the journey to Chiang Mai, where Lee roasts the beans, bags them, and either sells them or grinds them for coffee.

Lee's sister sorts the coffee cherries.  The machine used to remove the soft outer layer from the coffee beans.  Lee processing coffee cherries.

coffee beans drying

The Realities of Sustainable Crops

At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process — the community growing your coffee, chocolate, cotton — have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay.

Lee’s village is beautiful. The people and smiles were open and welcoming from the moment our feet hit the compact, dusty red earth. Our welcome was genuine and each villager we met was willing to open up to a group of strangers in the hopes that we would take away an understanding of all that lies behind the Akha Ama brand.

There are people behind that logo. A community of children, mothers, and fathers exist behind each package of coffee Lee sells in his shop. The money from each sale is a tangible investment in a remote community living on a faraway hill-side. Ana watched the young children in Maejantai play games around her, using their imaginations to fuel epic staged battles between good and evil that echoed the games her little brother regularly plays back home. I didn’t have to point out the similarities. Anyone can see that they exist—our common humanity is as clear as day.

Our Coffee Journey lasted three days; Lee’s coffee journey is ongoing.  As the face and front-end of Akha Ama, Lee is actively working to promote the brand as a sustainable, fair trade, organic coffee brand. Only through talking with Lee and then visiting his village’s collective did I realize the lengthy and expensive process that goes into legally using many of these buzzwords. When he conceived of Akha Ama, Lee embarked on a process that could secure the future of his village for generations. Beyond farming, there are few viable economic opportunities for such a remote community. In recent years, the lure of modernization has taken much of the youth out of the village and into the big cities. But with money, an operation, and something to back and believe in, Akha Ama is changing opportunities for each family of the Maejantai collective.

Over the years, news stories have indicted the idea of fair trade as flawed and unable to substantiate on a large-scale. We hear discouraging stories like the scandal that came out of Victoria’s Secret in late 2011 when one of their suppliers of certified fair trade cotton in Burkina Faso used child labor to pick and plant, contravening established fair trade rules. It’s easy to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and give up on the whole idea, given the negative press.

Through meeting Lee, and visiting Akha Ama, however, I was able to put a face and an experience on the entire process. At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process—the community growing your coffee/chocolate/cotton—have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay. Too often, that means selling below costs just for the sake of having some money in pocket.

Maejantai village; the children and their families work towards a lasting future for their community.
Motorcycles ferry the heavy bags of coffee cherries back to the village.

This is not to say that the process is without flaws; far from it, actually. At the end of the line, we consumers remain completely removed from the true back story and from the people and lives involved in the products we buy and use. But Akha Ama’s story, with Lee as the charismatic and affable face of this operation, is but one example of social enterprises and fair businesses operating around the world so communities can better themselves—create a future for their children. It may not be perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.

What does Fair Trade Coffee really mean?Further, Lee’s story opened my eyes to the human effect our purchasing habits have on the entire global community. By lifting the common consciousness, by seeking out the simple ways to support and give back in everyday life, we will be able begin lifting up the global community. It’s usually a small thing to tweak our buying habits. For myself, a habitual purchaser of coffee and chocolate, my new-found awareness has led me to seek the chance to support companies making an extra effort. I will spend more to ensure that the root communities behind our goods are treated with respect. Stemming from my physical journey to understand coffee came a new journey to match my actions to my belief in our shared humanity and the common good.

To Lee, thank you. The Akha Ama Coffee shop was my refuge in Chiang Mai, and the community of expats and locals you have assembled in the coffee shop are a testament to the goodness and possibilities that are out there if you look for them.

This post blends time and space and represents the sum of the two Coffee Journeys I took with Akha Ama; the photos from each journey are interspersed. For more photos, enjoy the additional photo gallery and Quick Tips information.

Quick Tips for Visiting Akha Ama Coffee

Where: 9/1 Mata Apartment, Hassadhisawee Rd, Soi 3. The coffee shop is in the Santitham are, just off the Northwest corner of the moat in Chiang Mai, Thailand: directions.

When: The Coffee Journeys take place twice annually and sell out months in advance. Lee is open with his story, however, and you can support Akha Ama Coffee by visiting the shop, buying coffee as souvenirs for family,  and supporting their efforts to grow the Akha Ama brand.

Why:  Because Akha Ama is a social enterprise (a for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission) worth supporting–it’s a community grown initiative and empowers the Akha villagers to support themselves and their families for years to come.

sunset bagan burma

A Little Thanks… For the Lessons We Learned from the People We Met

Traveling with my niece last year through Southeast Asia has taken on a surreal quality over the past several months since we returned home. Intellectually I know that it was not so long ago that she and I were side-by-side on an airplane, a grin on her face mixed with equal slices of fear and enthusiasm for her first plane ride . . . and a doozy it was. It took us nearly two days to get to Chiang Mai, Thailand, but once there, it felt like a return to home for me—it is a city I know quite well—and for my niece Ana, it was a safe spot for a new adventure.

The adventure turned out so much better than I could have hoped for when we decided homeschool and travel. That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges—we had no idea the adjustments that were in store for both of us—but over the course of the months we grew closer as we found activities and interests that coincided and helped us explore together. And we met new friends. Many, many new friends from all walks of life and each one with a lesson to share that went far beyond what I alone could ever teach her.

And for each of those people who came into our lives in Southeast Asia with a lesson, a friendship, and a shared idea—well, to each of them I owe a sincere thank you. It is with the influence of the community of people we met along the way that our more than six months abroad were so successful. Though this list is not exhaustive of the lessons learned and friends met, it is more a sample of the nature of friends on the road and the value I found in exposing my niece to people from all walks of life. It’s a thank you through the lessons and ideas each person has inspired in Ana and me:

Ambition and Action Cause Real Change

The friends at the Akha Ama coffee shop in Chiang Mai were the very first faces we saw when arrived in town and they set the tone for the many new types of people we would meet over our six and a half months on the road.

Lee, your inspiring story of how you worked to bring a better income and future to your community of Akha villages is a clear example of how much a single person can accomplish. After visiting your rural village, it struck Ana as remarkable that you purposefully and passionately pursued your education, and then took that education and built a business that catalyzed lasting change for your community. Whenever we visited the Akha Ama coffee shop in town, I knew you and Jenny, your assistant, would have a quick smile and friendly humor to greet us.

Lee, Ana, and Sean ride in a pickup truck to Lee’s village in the hills around Chiang Rai, Thailand to learn about coffee production and how Lee’s village produces the coffee used at the coffee shop Ana and I loved to visit.

Embrace Joy and Lifelong Learning

With the responsibility for my niece’s welfare, I sometimes forgot to enjoy the simplicity of pausing for the moments of joy in our days.

Jodi, thank you for bringing the silly, the fun, and the occasionally absurd into our lives. We laughed. A lot. And you made us both think. Thank you for always asking Ana thoughtful questions about each new experience. Education is a life-long journey to be lived outside of the classroom and you are a living example of the curiosity I hope Ana shows for learning throughout her life.

I believe the top one is Jodi explaining the Bangkok riots to Ana, and the rest are the two of them being goofy all over the city . . . a fact that baffled many of the people who saw us bowled over laughing on a daily basis. :)

A fun gif of Monique, Jodi, Ana and me on a street corner in Bangkok trying to simultaneously jump. We failed, but had a blast doing it (and thoroughly entertained a whole lot of passing Thais!).

Generosity Comes in All Sizes

Having friends was a major concern for my niece before we left, and I had hopes that Ana and Em, the nine year-old from the GotPassport family, would hit it off. And they did.

Em, your vibrancy and imagination made every day trip and outing an adventure for us. I love looking back at the many imaginative ways you two found to interact with the world we explored together (jumping, sliding, digging, coloring, tasting . . . you name and you two found a way to do it somewhere along the lines). Thank you to A and J, both of you take a very hands-on role in educating your daughter, and I was so grateful to spend time with you on the road in both Thailand and Myanmar and for your generosity every moment of our time together.

Ana and M were fast friends and they enjoyed taking in the sunset together in Bagan, Burma

New Friends Inspire New Goals

When we left the United States, Ana had a very specific framework for her dreams – her life experiences up until that point influenced who she thought she could become.

To Dani and Jess, I say thank you. You both were such a positive influence on Ana, and she looked forward to each time our paths crossed throughout Southeast Asia (first in Chiang Mai, then Laos, then Chiang Mai again, and we capped it off with a week in Cambodia). Dani, you have truly inspired Ana to learn your native language, German. And then French, Spanish, Mandarin . . . well, once she discovered how great you were, she realized that learning other languages opens up the world to so many new possible friends, ideas, and opportunities. Jess, you are so much “cooler” than me in teen terms . . . which made you an idol of sorts and a confidante when life on the road became overwhelming for Ana. You both have opened her mind to friendships and opportunities that span cultures, languages, ages, and lifestyles.

Dani, Jess, Ana and I goofed around as we visited the baby tigers at Tiger Kingdom in just outside of Chiang Mai.

Children Learn Through Doing

Naomi, thank you for your unique understanding of how children work, and for your guidance in those first few weeks of our trip. The ideas and projects you suggested on ways to engage my niece with the world were spot on. We hunted down beads for bracelet-making projects, and took in artists and workshops throughout our trip to keep Ana’s hands actively doing, which in turn engaged her mind every day. Ana made traditional stencils in Laos and learned first hand how the monks paint the intricate designs on the Buddhist temples. We learned how to dye and weave silk, we made traditional crafts to match the local holidays, we hiked, we rode bikes down bumpy roads. Each activity was an adventure in its own right and we both thank you for your many kindnesses and your friendship.

Ana used a set of chisels, and, under the instruction of a former monk, she learned how to cut out a set of stencils that monks traditionally use to decorate the temples.

Kids Can Impact the World Too

The time we spent regularly volunteering with the We Women Foundation in Chiang Mai impacted Ana in ways I am still witnessing months later. Twice a week for several months Ana and I taught a Burmese refugee how to speak English. Ana and I planned our lessons together, came up with games and activities and spent five hours a week teaching English to a twenty-something Shan refugee. We didn’t change the world, I was honest with Ana and upfront about how each person can only take tiny steps to cause positive change. What Ana left with though, was the knowledge that one person in this world now has more job opportunities and the ability to perhaps earn money for her family because we started her down the road of learning the English language. It was a small act, but tangible. So to We Women, and to our motivated and eager student, thank you.

Ana and I tutored a Burmese student from the We Women foundation twice a week while we lived in Chiang Mai.

People are Inherently Kind

Our media in the United States is quick to paint the rest of the world with twin brush strokes labeled: dangerous and strange. Thailand is a wonderful country for a first-time adventure, I chose Thailand specifically because I wanted my niece to see that warmth and kindness are traits offered freely by people all over the world. Ana laughed daily with the street vendors who patiently corrected her beginner Thai and delighted they delighted in the fact that she was learning their language. And in Burma we found a sweetness of nature and hospitality that belied the only stories that seem to make international headlines. Ana played games of kick the ball with children all over Southeast Asia who shared a common love for play; a language far more important than spoken language.

Ana and the children in Tha Suang bonded over a box of colored pencils and some paper while we whittled away a six hour wait for our tuk-tuk in Laos.

There is Always Time for Gratitude

My life got busy this summer, and though I wrote pieces of this story months ago I somehow never quite finished it. But gratitude is important. And so, thanks goes to the many other people in our lives over the past year.

Sean and Eva, thank you for the conversations and friendships. And doubly thank you for taking Ana to the movies and bringing me young coconuts for rehydration when I was sick. 

Paddy, thank you for running the Christmas 10K with us; being accountable to you helped us stay motivated to train for the run and wake up at the ungodly hour of 4 am. 

Monique and Steve, your joy was infectious and we loved having friends with whom we could wander and explore the busy streets of Bangkok. 

Dustin from Skinny Backpacker, thank you for always asking about Ana’s school classes each time we met up, it drew her into even the most adult-centric of our gatherings and made her feel welcomed.

And thanks to Catherine Bodry, Dan and Lindsay, Chais and Shawna, James, and Anna in Phnom Penh.

Impermanence and Change are a Part of Life

Life on the road is a series of ever-changing circumstances, and I’d go so far as to say that’s a quality of life as well. I know I am not alone in a desire to cling to structure and fear change. But change is natural and many experiences in Ana’s life will be impermanent. Although children thrive on structure and routine, there is a time and place for everything.

We had our routines in place while we traveled, our patterns for eating, school-work, and exploring. But beyond those guidelines, life is messy.

We had to say goodbye to good friends and people Ana may never meet again. We found tiny towns we loved deeply, and left knowing even if we returned, we would never fully return to this moment in time.

This is far more philosophical than the rest of the lessons, but I value adaptability and I think life on the road has given Ana resilience, adaptability, and an acceptance of change that we learned through each person we met and each lesson they taught us.

~Shannon

rice paddies and caves hpa-an burma

A Little Musing… On Small Towns and Small Adventures in Hpa-An, Burma

Ana and I planned out much of our travels in Burma around the ability to meet up with friends in the country and based on timing issues, we had four extra days and needed to stick  close to Yangon, Burma’s capital city. Based on the recommendation of fellow travelers, Ana and I pointed our noses toward Hpa-an, a small and sleepy town about seven hours southwest of Yangon (Rangoon for those who prefer the alternate spelling).

Hpa-An hit on each of my anticipations: small, rural, markets, people and countryside hikes. I wish I could write this post with a sentiment that shouts out “wow, look at this place, it’s amazing, it’s wonderful, awe-inspiring you’ll be jealous I’m here!” That would sell people on the town and probably convince a few people to steer their backpacks and wheelie suitcases in that direction.

monk alms hpa-an burma
A monk takes alms in the early morning sunshine at the market in Hpa-An, Burma.

And I do often visit places with the “wow-factor.” Saying adieu to the temples of Bagan at sunset, sitting on a soft green lawn as the Taj Mahal changed colors in the sunlight, breathing deeply the scent of dense forest around Tikal’s Mayan ruins…these are all such locations. My hike through the Annapurna range in Nepal was feat I had long dreamed about and if I had a bucket-list,that would have been high on it.

But the tiny town of Hpa-An, Burma?

Well, I can’t sell you on it as an adventure junkie location, and this petite town may never find its way into a travel brochure. Instead, the town is sweet and light; it’s a place with friendly faces and days spent chatting with Ana on long hikes through rice paddies and painted caves.

rural hpa-an burma
A beautiful bridge through the rice paddies and karst rocks links several rural villages outside of Hpa-An.

Small towns are windows into a country’s soul; this is the case in every country I’ve ever visited, my own included. People are more accessible in small towns, it’s easy to walk through the tiny neighborhoods, the cadence of life slows down and locals have the time and inclination for a friendly wave, even a spot of conversation if they speak English.

Mornings are my personal time when I travel with my niece Ana. I spend time reflecting, writing, and planning, usually over a quiet coffee. In Hpa-An, with no internet in the hotel (sometimes that is a real blessing), and a hankering for fresh coffee (as opposed to the instant variety offered freely in the hotel), I headed out at sunrise to visit the busy morning market visible out the window of my guesthouse.

morning market hpa-an
These men loaded their truck from an even more densely packed truck, they stuffed it to the gills with veggies and they will now likely be transported to more rural areas for re-sale.

A trishaw driver fills his bike with lettuce cargo for transport in Hpa-An, Burma.

Early morning market stalls in Hpa-An, Burma.

Morning air is fresher than any other time in the day. The nighttime breezes clear out the scents and sounds. Sunrise wipes the slate clean and shoppers and vendors at the dawn market in Hpa-An buzzed with delighted chatter. Locals truck, bicycle, and walk in fresh vegetables from the countryside and by dawn the veggies and fruits are stacked and ready for purchase. Women wield their cleavers and freshly dice up the day’s meat supply for the town.

And being the lone tourist around, a grin split my face while juicy fresh watermelon dripped from my hand as I watched the locals in Hpa-An greet the morning with smiles, enthusiasm, and the rhythms of long-established routine that plays out like an exquisitely timed ballet.

Flower vendors line the streets in Hpa-An, Burma.
Flower vendors chit-chat amiably on the streets of the early morning market in Hpa-An, Burma.

hpa-an town and market
The town of Hpa-An, Burma from the balcony at the Soe Brothers Guesthouse, looking out toward the market.

Hours later, one of the helpful owners of the Soe Brothers Guesthouse dropped Ana and me off at a wooden hut plopped near a field deep in the countryside with a grinning old woman selling bits and bots of soda and snacks to anyone making a pilgrimage to the cave shrines. He gave us clear instructions on getting back to town, a good call on his part because for the rest of the day, the only clear English we spoke was to each other! With a jaunty wave and a “see ya later,” Ana and I were left with a hand-drawn map in our hands showing a path through rice paddies to various caves and temples awash with paintings and Buddha statues, and a nearby swimming hole popular with the locals.

I handed the reins over to Ana; at 11 she’s quite old enough to lead us around our map to the various spots and it’s more fun for her if she has some control, particularly on a day of exploring paths, caves, temples, nooks, and crannies.

Kawkathaung Cave near Hpa-An, Burma
Buddha statues in the Kawkathaung Cave near Hpa-An, Burma on a daytrip from the Soe Brothers guesthouse.

Buddha wrapped in saffron cloth in the Kaw Ka Taung Cave near Hpa-An, Burma.

Buddha face, one of many lining the Kaw Ka Taung Cave in Hpa-An, Burma.

A reclining Buddha near in Hpa-An, Burma.

Dozens and dozens of monk statues line the rocks outside the Kaw Ka Taung Cave in Hpa-An, Burma.
Dozens and dozens of monk statues line the rocks outside the Kaw Ka Taung Cave in Hpa-An, Burma.

We found the Kawkathaung and Ruby caves filled to overflowing with Buddhas. Paintings and signs carved into the rock. Small statues filled naturally formed rock crevices.

We found a small artificial pool of clear water diverted from the surrounding rice paddies, and floating restaurants popular with local teens who arrived three to a motor-bike and they flowed into the inlet with the giggling enthusiasm, jostling and joking common to just about any gathering of 16 to 20 year-olds the world over. We opted to dip our feet instead of swimming because we would have had to swim fully clothed… and not because I forgot to pack swimsuits, but rather because jumping around in a western-style bathing suit would have prompted jaws dropping, uncomfortable stares and basically would have been a great big taboo in modest Myanmar. Local women swim in their longyi skirts and maintain a lot of skin coverage!

And by sitting on the edge with some of the teens, they were able to pepper us with questions spoken in an enthusiastic version of English, augmented with charades, and the ensuing antics as we attempted to communicate left us all in giggles.

Local teenagers wave goodbye to us after some cheerful conversation at the swimming hole near the caves.

swimming hole hpa-an
Ana tests out the cool waters at the swimming hole near Hpa-An, Burma.

Beautiful expanses of bridges panned the flooded rice paddies, and huge grins split the faces of locals when as we got ourselves lost in the small dirt streets weaving through villages.

workers, myanmar
Hearty greetings as we wandered the very rural countryside in Hpa-An, Burma.

in Hpa-An, Burma.
These children made my day! They were so sweet and enthusiastic in pointing us onward through the path, while posing and hamming it up at the same time!

As the day ended, Ana spied a staircase near the wooden hut that began our adventures. Like modern-day explorers, she set off with enthusiasm and a breakneck pace up the winding stone staircase.

At the top, we looked out from a crumbling temple.

We sat and chatted about our day, our plans, and life as we watched late afternoon sunlight spill over the hills and valleys around Hpa-An. For Ana, I thought maybe she would be disappointed by the slow pace and small adventures. She surprised me though, because she felt the day was a win all around because she was able to 1) sleep in, 2) help plan/navigate throughout the day, 3) see some things without time pressures and rushing, and 4) she was back to the hotel early enough to read her book (she was reading the first Hunger Games book and, understandably, addicted). Some days, we’d wake up early, have a full day of sightseeing, other days of marathon 12 hour bus rides. So, I get it. She wanted a casual day, with some sightseeing but framed by downtime and sleep, and Hpa-An was the perfect spot for all of these things.

It looks like a camel in the rock near Hpa-An, Burma.
What animal do you see in the rock shape? Ana spotted this on our hike up the side of the rock and exclaimed that it is a camel! She has good eyes, because once she said it, it’s all I can see now. :)

Mount Zwegabin Hpa-An, Burma.
Looking toward Mount Zwegabin and the countryside around Hpa-An.

in Hpa-An, Burma.
Ana looks out over the rice paddies and villages we spent the day wandering.

So, without a lot of fanfare we walked back down those well-worn stone steps, followed the dirt path back to the main road, and hailed a passing truck willing to drop us in town.

It’s not the most remarkable of days. But it stands out in my memory for its simplicity. The company couldn’t have been better, and it’s one of those days I really only discovered once I slowed down and savored cadence of life in each new town.


Quick Travel Tips for Hpa-An

Where to stay: Hpa-An is about five hours south of Yangon, and budget travelers can’t go wrong with the Soe Brothers Guesthouse (it’s one of the few guesthouses in town, so it was easy to get dropped directly here!). If you’re looking for something budget but a bit nicer, opt for Thanlwin Pyar Guest House.

How to get to Hpa-An: Buses run to Hpa-An from Yangon (perhaps seven hours on a good day), to get to Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock, you ride in the back of a truck for a very optimistic five to seven hours. I’ve heard lovely things about the boat to and from Mawlamyine.

What to do: Book your tours through the Soe Brothers Guesthouse. They speak great English and can organize tours to Mount Zwegabin, any of the surrounding caves, and everything there is to do in town. Even if you stay at the mid-range hotel 10k outside of town, book your activities through Soe Brothers. The morning market is great and a great place to grab a street-food breakfast if you eat meat (vegetarians are better off at the restaurant/shop just near the Soe Brothers).

What to read: I used the Lonely Planet Myanmar throughout our month in the country and it was, at times, the only way I could figure out English language information on logistics. If you plan to explore off-the-path, having a guidebook is invaluable when figuring out whether a train, bus, or pickup truck is your best transport option. You should also bring one of the fascinating books about Myanmar to read as you travel there—it will lend you insight into the culture and people. I recommend The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma and Finding George Orwell in Burma—each on offers a different but needed perspective on such a contradictory country.

Backpacking-with-Ana-in-bangkok

A Little Disturbing … No Officials Ask for My Minor’s Travel Documents

Now that Ana and I are firmly back from our six months in Southeast Asia, I feel compelled to reflect back on some of the technicalities of traveling. There will be more stories, but some aspects preparing for our trip were far more stressful for me than needed…and once on the road a bit more disturbing. You see, in the weeks leading up to the big trip with my niece Ana, I was a nervous ball of energy rocketing around St. Petersburg. Ana had never left the country before, so I orchestrated all the paperwork for her passport and arranged the documents to leave the country with a minor who is not my child.

I stressed, I worried with my friends at weekly dinners about glitches we might encounter, and I planned out my speech to the immigration officials about our six month adventure homeschooling throughout Southeast Asia. I had it all scripted at the passport counter: They would raise an eyebrow at how very unconventional we are by leaving on this trip. I would laugh and talk about my years of traveling and writing. Ana would pitch in a happy “yay!” for good measure. The officials would look at the paperwork signed by her parents, ask her a few questions, then stamp us on our way.

traveling with a minor documents
The documents I took with us to legally travel around the world with my niece Ana, a minor child not my own.

The reality?

No one ever questioned us. Not one single question. I flew out of the United States on an international flight to Thailand, via South Korea, and no one blinked an eye when I passed over the passport for a child who:

  • Does not share my last name.
  • Is quite obviously a minor at just 11 years-old.
  • Has a passing resemblance to me (eye color and race is about it).
  • Is leaving her country of residence.
  • Was sullen and pretty unhappy when we first left.
  • Is not my child.

I have crossed international borders and entered and exited five countries with my niece (the US, Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia), and never once did anyone check to make sure I had the right to travel with her.

This fact disturbs me. A lot. So much, in fact, I will likely keep her passport locked up in my parent’s bank safe once we return because if I can so easily leave with her, what’s to stop anyone else from leaving the US with her?

I remember reading about some new laws in the US, about both parents having to show consent for a minor to leave the country as a way to stop custody disputes from ending poorly. I never paid much attention to this sort of news, since it had little relevancy to me, but I always assumed those people traveling with children were at least lightly questioned, particularly if they were not traveling as a happy little nuclear family, with mom, dad, kids and perfectly matching last names.

Clearly I was wrong though, because no one gives two hoots.

Okay, to be fair, the very last month, when we crossed into Cambodia overland from Thailand, one official working on our Cambodian visas walked over and asked if Ana was my daughter. I thought, “thank god!” but responded, “no, she’s my niece.”

And with that he turned and walked away, then came back moments later with our passports (and our shiny new Cambodian visas inside), and gave us a large smile as he shooed us on our way.

Air Bagan plane on tarmac
Ana and the GotPassport.org family get ready to board our Air Bagan flight from Chiang Mai to Yangon, Burma.

When we sent away to the Burmese embassy for our visas, I even tried to give them my paperwork, and the woman said “we just need your passports, nothing else.”

Here’s the thing, I’m not much of an alarmist, so when we first left the US and immigration gave us surly, uncurious permission to board our international flight, I chalked it up to a fluke. And honestly I was still recovering from the final days of packing stress, so it didn’t phase me much. Then, as we began crossing borders via bus, boat, plane, and train…it hit me that no one is asking questions and caring about the situation. I printed out paperwork in triplicate and stashed it in three different bags, yet just yesterday I unpacked it here at home, and it is still as crisp and unused as the day I pulled it from my printer seven months ago.

Frankly, I don’t know if this is normal. I had assumptions going into this trip that crossing borders would be a chore, but a necessary one to ensure the safety of our children. I wanted this to be the case to justify my faith in our system.

backpacking in bangkok
After 6 months on the road, my niece and I packed and ready for the airport after a delicious street food pit-stop in Bangkok, just before our final flight home-ward bound!

Before I left, I had planned to write a post along the lines of “here’s what you need to travel with a minor not your own.” Instead, I’ll note that this is what I brought with me and have never once used:

In case you also feel a need for over preparedness, those are links to view blank versions of the files I used, linked to a shared Google document; I modified the documents from other sources I found online and tweaked for them international travel and my unique situation. I am not a lawyer, nor do I have any superpowers to create official documents. In fact, I designed these for my specifics, so use at your own risk, ask your lawyer to look over them, and all that jazz. In other news, I had each of the notarized ones done twice, one for each parent, and the Guardianship document in particular is unique because of the length of our travels, and how young my niece was during our trip. I felt better for having it, but might not have done one for a shorter trip…really comes down to a personal judgment call and research on the current laws before you leave!

As for the rest of it, I just had to blog about it because even now as I try to adjust my expectations and assumptions, it still strikes me as odd that if I have a kid’s passport in my hand it’s that easy to simply disappear off the grid.

What’s your take on this? All I have is my experience to hold this against, but have you ever been questioned when traveling with your own minors or someone elses’ ? Do you think the border controls are too lax? Am I overreacting here?