When Nancy Harper and her husband decided to go on vacation in 2006 with their two daughters, aged 7 and 8, Disneyland wasn’t going to cut it.
The travel junkies took their desire for adventure to the extreme, deciding to leave their home in Elora, Ont., for a year-long trek across Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and South Africa.
There are many parents who would consider undertaking that kind of trip with two children foolish, if not slightly insane. And looking back, Ms. Harper admits that there were times when the “adventure” was even a bit too much for her (like camping in Australia during monsoon season – it’s a wonder, she says, that she didn’t start smoking again). She documented the ups, downs and way, way downs of their odyssey in her recently released book, Travellin’ Mama: A Parent’s Guide to Ditching the Routine, Seeing the World and Taking the Kids Along for the Ride.
We tracked down Ms. Harper to talk about how she managed to pull off the ultimate family vacation. It didn’t come as a surprise to hear that she’s preparing for a two-month backpacking trip through Central America. Yes, the kids are going, too.
A lot of parents find a two-week vacation with kids this age exhausting. Why did you decide on such a big undertaking?
I do actually enjoy travelling with them. As they get older, you find that routine makes the time fly so fast. You want to try and slow that time down a bit. So being on the road, just the four of us for such a long time, it really did do that.
Didn’t they drive you crazy?
I think what a lot people [focus on] is those times when it is irritating as hell. But over all, when you look back, you forget all that stuff. What shines through is the amazing stuff you did together.
In the book, you describe some of your worst mother moments. What stands out?
Camping in a tent in Northern Australia, when it was monsoon season and there was lightning. I seriously thought, “What am I doing here?” When the rivers flood, the [threat of] crocodiles is a little bit more ominous. I just kept thinking that if we don’t get hit by lightning and die in this tent, a crocodile is going to come and eat us.
And definitely in Malaysia, when my youngest was out on a parasailing boat with a guy we’d never met and no life jacket and neither one of us was out there with her. That was brutal.
What was the low point?
Probably when we all had food poisoning in Malaysia. We ate something that, I think, wasn’t fresh. Within 12 hours or so, we were all on a ferry, throwing up. I just remember there were hundreds of Saudi Arabians on this ferry, and the women, all dressed in full black abayas, were staring at me as I puked over the side of the ferry into the South China sea, and my kids puked inside. And this ferry was so overcrowded. I thought it was going to sink and we were going to die and it was all going to be my fault.
Everyone survived, though. So lets talk about the good times – what’s your fondest memory?
The highlight was our time in South Africa. That was a huge cultural gift for me – to be able to immerse the kids and have them talk to people from other places.
What did you learn about your family?
I learned that being together is everything. I love being with them, and it’s fun.
Do you have any advice for parents who are fearful of doing a trip like this with their children?
Very few parents that I know would want to do to a Disney World trip, if it was up to them. We should perhaps give our kids a little more credit that they can handle something more adult and more interesting. Rather than look at the Disney-style vacation as being the only option, look at what you as an adult would like to do and then work out ways your kids can fit into that. You can take them out of their comfort zone and you can take yourself out of your comfort zone, and have some experiences that are much more interesting.
You must have pulled your kids from school – did they have any trouble reintegrating?
I home-schooled for a few months, and then for a few months they were enrolled in an Australian public school, which they loved. Reintegrating seems easy because the other kids and the teachers are always interested in what they’ve been doing.
For the Central America trip, they will probably only miss about seven weeks of school. My biggest challenge will be making sure I understand the units they’ll be missing in math. I’ll get them to work on those, write in a journal and read – that’s about it. I’m not at all concerned that they’ll be missing out on other parts of the curriculum. I think that learning as they go about geography, nature, the people, language, is the best kind of classroom they could ever hope for.
What have your kids said was their favourite part of the trip?
Seeing the animals – elephants, leopards, lions, giraffes – on safari in South Africa, and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef.
How did you afford this? (Ms. Harper is a marketing writer, and her husband is self-employed as a handyman and gardener.)
We’re not wealthy, but we do live pretty frugally day to day. That’s key. We rarely go out for dinner. Much of the stuff we have in our house is second-hand.
When you got back home, were your friends with kids inspired to try something similar?
Yeah, I think many are, but most don’t think that they can. A year away is definitely unusual. But what I would say is you don’t have to do what we did. Focus on what do you want to do, and how can you make that happen.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
How to survive a long-haul flight
The secrets to surviving a long-haul flight with young children, according to Nancy Harper:
Take them shopping beforehand and let them pick out their own carry-on bag: Choosing their own, preferably one with wheels, can really make a child feel grown up – and the more grown up they feel, the more well behaved they’re likely to be.
Let them pack their carry-on themselves: It’s amazing to see how much care and precision they’ll put into it. Add some colouring books, markers, and crayons, and a goodie bag full of sweet treats.
Let them buy a kid-themed neck pillow at the airport and bring along at least one favourite teddy bear.
Bring little games: playing cards, brain teasers, word searches.
Let them watch as much TV as they want … and when all else fails, let them go to town on those hand-held video games. After all, long-haul flights demand a new set of rules.