The Rich Family World Tour
|What happens when a family puts its everyday life on hold for a 15-month jaunt around the world? Jennifer Marble Rich ’70 explains why she and her family did it, how they did it, and what they saw along the way.
|By Jennifer Marble Rich ’70
In the spring of 2000, my husband, Dennis, 9-year-old daughter, Stephanie, and I did something many people considered extraordinary: We bought a 33-foot RV, which we promptly named Betty the Bounder, and left behind school, jobs, and the pressures of daily life to live (at least temporarily) in a bigger neighborhood. For nearly 15 months, we explored the world (from Denver, Colorado, to Jordan), its culture, its history, its wonders, and have returned infinitely richer for the experience. Instead of feeling as if we missed out on something while we were gone, we are closer than ever to our families and cultural heritage.
Upon embarking, we joined a small, but growing, cadre of families who venture out of their daily routines for a hiatus, leaving behind “real life” to discover the real world. Some people do it for spiritual reasons, others for the thrill of the open road. Our Odyssey, as we called it, had its roots in my love of travel and natural curiosity and appreciation for diversity, which grew out of my childhood in Iowa. My mother, a native New Zealander, reinforced the idea that we did not live in the cultural center of the universe. In fact, most everything happened somewhere else. We traveled regularly while I was growing up, nurturing my inclination to venture “away,” first to Smith, then farther from home. Throughout my twenties I managed to find someone to pay for my travels (parents, employers) until I had the resources to go out on my own, untethered by someone else’s itinerary.
When I married Dennis, I experienced a new style of traveling (with stepchildren), and a new pace (faster). By mid-career, I had traveled widely for work and pleasure in the United States and abroad, but the limitations of one- and occasional two-week vacations became frustrating. I was building a wish list of adventures and dreaming up big trips to far-flung places. Eventually, those big trips evolved into really big trips, and even living abroad. I began to wonder: When would I meet my mother’s family in New Zealand, or track down my Portuguese cousins, or hike England’s Lake District? Each year I echoed the same excuses for not going. But didn’t we have even more reasons to go?
The hardest part of any major lifestyle change, be it changing careers or traveling the world, is making the decision to go for it. In late 1997, with Dennis running his own business and I within sight of early retirement, we began to seriously consider taking time out to see the world. Luckily, we had a cheap mortgage and little debt. At the same time, though, we were tightly scheduled, overcommitted, and thoroughly absorbed in the hubbub of life in suburbia. It could have been easy for us to let go of our dream, but too many things were working in our favor: mainly, we had the financial resources and the benefits of being “older parents.” Plus, we realized that our then 7-year-old daughter Stephanie’s “portability” would be reduced once she was in middle school. With Stephanie in third grade, we had a couple of years to put a solid plan into place. It was time for us to put up or shut up.
Nothing gave our Odyssey substance like going public. We quietly introduced family and friends to our dream as soon as it looked like a plan might work. The announcement was greeted with incredulity. How can you afford it? What about school? What about the house? They were great questions that we knew we needed to answer before embarking. Since we had no models to follow, we sought out doctors, teachers, lawyers, financial planners, friends, anyone who could help us pull our plan together. We read everything we could find that remotely related to the idea. We put a map of the world on the wall, using color-coded pins to vote for destinations. We started our shots, updated health records, and caught up on preventive care. At work at IBM, I applied for a leave of absence, while Dennis brought in his sister as a partner in his business.
We laid out a financial plan, figuring out what we could afford and what overhead would continue while we were gone. We would be budget travelers, intent on keeping food and lodging expenses close to our at-home costs, with estimates for additional costs of transportation, tours, and communications.
Stephanie’s school enthusiastically supported us. “Don’t hesitate. Just GO!” they said as we researched core curricula, textbooks, competency standards, and testing requirements. In anticipation of our return a year later, we met with the middle-school counselor, who briefed us on expectations for incoming students. We scoured the Web for tips and tales, especially those focused on family travel and homeschooling, studying up on destinations, curricula, and teaching tools.
As we connected the colored pins on the wall map with red yarn, we saw the limitations of our schedule. We had to make compromises and set priorities. Should we go places we had already been? Was the Galapagos too far? Should we spend so long in New Zealand? Where do we go in Asia? Is it safe? Is it affordable? Can it wait? We culled dozens of destinations, wistfully deferring them for another day.
We hadn’t intended to seek out World Heritage Sites, but that’s where we found ourselves gravitating, backing into the same criteria the United Nations had spent years determining. We would learn about the physical and natural world, and study what made cultures unique. We would expand Stephanie’s fifth-grade curriculum by seeing for ourselves the shape of the land, its history, economics and language, math and mechanics, and the engines of social change.
Breaking up the world
We decided to break our Odyssey into two segments: North America and Round the World. We hoped to hone our vagabonding skills on familiar turf and examine our own culture before tackling the world. We outfitted Betty the Bounder with enough high-tech gadgets to keep us connected to family in case of emergencies, and on Mother’s Day 2000 we headed out from our home in Denver. Our first stop was my 30th Reunion at Smith. After that, we spent the next six months wandering down the East Coast, then up the Appalachians, across southeastern Canada, into the Midwest, and finally circling the West in a giant loop. We loved the flexibility of being able to choose among campsites, from primitive national parks to well-equipped resorts, or hanging out with relatives and friends, camping in their driveways. Daily field trips made learning about the geography and culture a great hands-on adventure. We followed the trails of the great migrations and traced the development of our history from the earliest settlers to the 21st-century pioneers at Space Camp. When all the togetherness became too much, we took walks, sometimes long walks.
After returning home for Thanksgiving to repack and reorganize, we embarked on our Round the World Tour. We would head west from the Panama Canal, whisking between the six continents via our American Airlines OneWorld tickets. In the next eight months we would visit the Galapagos, New Zealand and Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand, East Africa, Egypt, Jordan, and most of Western Europe.
Where we had been citizens of North America, we were foreigners in the rest of the world. Once “in country,” we attempted to travel like the locals: by train, car, and land cruiser; by subway and bus, ferry and boat, and the occasional elephant or camel. We lived out of suitcases and mastered logistical planning, nimbly finding our way in new surroundings nearly every day. We settled into a daily rhythm of dropping the bags, heading out to explore, and falling into bed. We were thrilled with the adventures each day would bring, but exhausted, too.
Along the way, we plotted tactics to maximize each day’s educational value. We tried to find out what made each place unique. We explored physical, environmental, and cultural influences, and as we learned about each new destination, we stretched our perceptions in ways we couldn’t have imagined. We compared Europe’s Alpine scenery with New Zealand’s Southern Alps and learned the differences between fjords and sounds. We forded glacial streams and contrasted their milky turquoise with the brilliant azure waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Floating on our backs in rafts, we slipped silently into underground glowworm caverns and into hidden Thai grottoes. We measured Canada’s legendary Bay of Fundy tides by how often the fisherman moved his chair during our picnic lunch and explored Australia’s geologic anomalies, hiking around the Uluru and Olgas rock formations as sunrise revealed their vibrant colors. Barely two weeks out of the United States, Stephanie remarked that the world didn’t seem so big anymore.
We took the world’s cultures as we found them, and appreciated the diversity and the struggles common to all cultures. We witnessed the effects of Europeans on native cultures everywhere, yet delighted in the examples of Cherokee, Navajo, Inuit, Maori, Aborigine, Masai, and Bedouin peoples who have somehow managed to preserve their culture and maintain skills, language, and crafts hundreds of years old.
One of our goals was to trace our family’s history and heritage. At family reunions in New Zealand and Portugal, we were welcomed by dozens of wonderful—and a few wildly eccentric— relatives. We soaked up family legends, and were thrilled to spend Christmas and Easter with delightful second and third cousins on two continents. More dots on the map were connected when we uncovered family lore in museums from Wilmington, DE, to Dunedin, New Zealand, to Edinburgh, Scotland. Seemingly overnight, Stephanie’s perception of our family became multinational and multigenerational.
We traced the earliest roots of Christianity in Egypt and Jordan, learned about Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism, and felt the power of these beliefs in temples, mosques, graveyards, and churches around the world. We explored religious sites from Thai wats to Cairo’s Muhammad Ali Mosque, from St. Emilion’s cave hermitage (which surely inspired the local vintners) to St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s magnificent cathedrals, each of us finding inspiration in his or her own way.
Our Odyssey was not problem free. Both Dennis and I had emergency medical procedures shortly before departure. Dennis had to retool critical business partnerships on the road. Our aging mothers survived some dramatic ups and downs, necessitating unscheduled trips home and significant changes in their situations. Things broke and got fixed. We got lost, and found. We got sick and recovered. We got discouraged, then inspired. Just when Stephanie was most lonely, we’d meet new children or a friend would call. We were in touch with “home”—parents, siblings, and friends—by phone and e-mail several times a week. On the road, family and friends pitched in to help us. When I became ill in Portugal, cousins pointed us to a nearby clinic that catered to English-speaking retirees. Denny chronicled the trip, and Steph posted her homework on our Web page [www.etrippers.com], getting instant feedback from supportive readers. We were able to communicate and adapt, almost as if we had been at home; to figure things out and move on.
The toughest challenge of extended travel is pacing. Fifteen months had seemed like a very long time, but it is a very big world. The texture and depth of virtually every destination tempted us to stay longer than we could. Even the most innocuous-sounding places provided more of interest than we could exploit. We struggled with how long we would stay in each place and came up with a compromise, somewhere between attempting too much and assimilating too little. We continually adjusted our schedule to devote more time to fewer places, making the best of each day’s opportunity. We tried to keep things in perspective, venting our daily hassles and revelations in our journals. We were a close, interdependent team. We got tired, crabby, excited, and euphoric by turns, and realized that sharing the experience as a family made it more intense and more rewarding for each of us.
Back to reality
Returning home has been a seemingly endless list of to-do’s related to moving back into the house, selling the RV, resuming school and work, and catching up with issues that somehow were suspended for 15 months. Stephanie reentered public school happily and with no major setbacks, and Dennis and I are gradually reentering our busy and structured daily lives. Opinion changes daily on whether it’s good to be done. It is, for sure, nice to sleep in our own beds. But memories of our remarkable experiences flash back often, giving us a reason to smile and laugh and relate what we’ve learned to the “real life” we’ve resumed.
Before our departure in 2000, my mother worried about how being away for so long would affect Stephanie. “Whatever will happen to that little girl while she’s gone?” she asked. There was no way to anticipate how extraordinarily rewarding taking this major step would be for us all. The perspectives of our stable, busy suburban lifestyle changed dramatically, and fundamentally. Stephanie is eager to master French, consciously aware of how language is a valuable key to engaging new cultures. Dennis has caught my wanderlust and has permanently added “good on you,” “car park,” and other colloquialisms to his vocabulary. Our tastes have become more inclusive. Our search for international news is as spontaneous as our empathy. As we read of continuing conflicts in Israel, we reflect on our view from Mount Nebo, where Moses first glimpsed the promised land. We wonder anxiously how the news of instability in East Africa will seep into the lives of individuals we met. I consider making an artistic collage to use up sandwich bags full of odd currency, made obsolete by the Euro. Our hearts and minds are bigger now, fuller, embracing so much more experience of our world.
We also appreciate the risks of being tourists, anywhere. September 11 underscored the stark reality that no amount of planning can anticipate everything. We hope we’ve learned to assess risk, seek out safe options, have a Plan B, and to decide when our plans must change. We hope it’s second nature to keep our eyes open and be aware of what’s going on around us.
We’ve begun and rekindled friendships all over the world. We’ve all gained an appreciation for how much more there is to do and see than we can hope to accomplish in a lifetime. The fabric of our family relationships has also become richer, stronger, and more variegated. We were a team, working every day to make our Odyssey a treasure, uniquely our own. We still are.
Jennifer Marble Rich ’70 is a senior consultant for IBM Global Services. She lives in Denver, Colorado.