One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with Our Childrenby David Elliot Cohen
A year off from work. A meandering, serendipitous journey around the globe with the people you love most. No mortgage, no car payments, no pressure. Though it sounds like an impossible dream for most people, one day David Cohen and his family decide to make it a reality. With his wife and three children, Cohen sets off on a rollicking journey, full of… See more details below
A year off from work. A meandering, serendipitous journey around the globe with the people you love most. No mortgage, no car payments, no pressure. Though it sounds like an impossible dream for most people, one day David Cohen and his family decide to make it a reality. With his wife and three children, Cohen sets off on a rollicking journey, full of laugh-out-loud mishaps, heart-pounding adventures, and unforeseen epiphanies. Readers join the Cohen family and trek up a Costa Rican volcano, roam the Burgundy canals by houseboat, traverse the vast Australian desert, and discover Istanbul by night. Through it all, the family gets the rare opportunity to get to know each other without the mundane distractions of television and video games, discovering the world through new eyes and gaining fresh perspective on life and priorities.
The Christian Science Monitor
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One Year Off
Leaving It All Behind for A Round-the-World Journey With Our Children
By David Elliot Cohen
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2011 David Elliot Cohen
All rights reserved.
What Have We Done?
Tiburon, California June 15
In December, Devi and I announced that we were trading in our quiet suburban life for a long rambling trip round the world. Well, I'm sorry to report that this transition has taken much longer than we expected. I thought we'd be sipping vin rouge on the rive gauche by now — but we haven't managed to leave town yet. Put it this way: Disengaging from your normal routine and establishing an entirely new way of life is a full-time job for months on end.
That being said, I think we're nearing the end of the process. We closed the business, sold our house and cars, and the rest of our possessions have been given away, put in storage, or thrown in the trash. Our telephones, televisions, and stereo are all gone — ditto, the mortgage, the water bill, and the property tax notices. In fact, our lives have now been simplified to the point where each of us is left with only one suitcase, a backpack, an economy-class round-the-world ticket, and a passport.
I thought we might have second thoughts about shedding our possessions, but it has turned out to be a very liberating act. I'm not saying that we're all going to become Buddhist monks or move to Walden Pond when we get back. But I now realize how much time, money, and mental energy we've invested in acquiring and maintaining material goods. When we finally emptied our closets, drawers, and storage spaces, I was frankly shocked to see how much pure crap we have accumulated over the years. In fact, my favorite part of this whole disengagement process was filling a dumpster the size of a swimming pool with all the flotsam and jetsam of our lives, then dispatching it into the sunset.
Planning this trip has been far more complex than I anticipated. When I first came up with this mad scheme, I thought we could just buy some open, round-the-world tickets and make up the trip up as we went along. But then Devi — the voice of reason here — convinced me that showing up in a foreign country in the middle of the night with three small children and no fixed place to sleep might be too footloose. Devi said we should have a basic plan — as a fallback position — even if we eventually changed things along the way.
That made sense, so we consulted a travel agency. Again, I thought we could just stroll up, tell the agent our plans and two weeks later, she would send us a fat envelope full of tickets, itineraries, and colorful brochures. Not even close. Our usual travel agency was okay for cheap business travel, but a year-long trip around the world put them completely out of their depth. A month after we first called, they still hadn't organized our air tickets. We finally fired them and called the airline ourselves. It took three or four hours on the phone, but we eventually got some cheapish round-the-world tickets — and enough frequent flyer miles for a free trip on the space shuttle.
After striking out with the low-end travel agency, we bounced to the other extreme, and engaged a very tony adventure travel boutique. We met with some of their expert travel planners over a pot of Earl Grey in a well-appointed conference room. They all seemed competent and knowledgeable, so we asked them to organize one of the most logistically difficult portions of our trip — a month-long passage through southern Africa. At that first meeting — and at least three times afterwards — I asked for an estimate, even a ballpark estimate of what something like this might cost us. But the woman in charge kept saying that she couldn't possibly quote any prices until all the arrangements were tied down.
Three weeks later, she got back to us with a very exciting, beautifully crafted itinerary. We'd be met at every airport and escorted to each hotel. We'd never have to drive a car, confirm a flight, or carry our own luggage. And, of course, we'd only visit the best possible game-viewing sites. That was the good news. The bad news was that this extravaganza was going to set us back somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000. Once I regained consciousness, I sheepishly asked her to scale back the expedition. She got back to me the following week cheerfully announcing that she'd sharpened her pencil and worked up a modest $31,000 program. These folks were obviously used to working with the carriage trade — and it was with some degree of embarrassment that I was compelled to inform them that their ends were well beyond our means.
So at that point we'd pretty well struck out with a cheap, not-so-competent travel agency on the one hand, and a very competent, wildly expensive one on the other. But just when things looked bad, Devi stepped into the breach and just started making the bookings herself. She found out rather quickly that she could put together a very good African itinerary for a small fraction of what the travel boutique would charge us. From that point forward, we steered clear of the professionals, and Devi became our in-house travel agent. For a few esoteric bookings — like a canal boat in Burgundy or a villa apartment in Tuscany — she used a service, Hideaways International, that specializes in international vacation rentals. But other than that, Devi usually found it quicker, cheaper, and easier to make reservations herself.
Devi's indispensable tools in this effort were a three-foot shelf of good, up-to-date guidebooks and a fax machine. With these, she was able to book rooms at a Botswana game lodge, a cheap pensione in Rome, and even a tent at the Pushkar camel festival in Rajasthan. Every night, after the kids went to bed, Devi pored over her Fodor's and Lonely Planet guides and cast faxes into the ether. Each morning at the crack of dawn, she leapt out of bed to see what she caught. On good days, Devi rushed back into the bedroom clutching a sheath of faxes from around the globe. On bad days, when no one wrote back, she fretted. But slowly over the course of several months, Devi cobbled together an itinerary with a workable balance of cost, convenience, and adventure.
So here's our plan — at least the one we're heading out the door with: We're going to visit fourteen countries on five continents. These include — in chronological order — Costa Rica, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Switzerland, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India, Thailand, Australia, Hong Kong, and China (whew!). We've booked accommodations in advance for about half the trip. Almost all of these bookings can be changed on twenty-four-hours' notice. When we don't have bookings, it's usually because we have insufficient information or we're doing something unusual — like taking local ferries from Venice across the Aegean Sea to the coast of Turkey. This will inevitably cause the journey to unfold in unexpected ways. But that's fine with us, because the whole purpose of this journey is to leave ourselves open to new experiences and genuine adventures.
That being so bravely said, do we still have concerns about this expedition? In a word, yes. As we get closer to the departure date, each member of the family has an updated list of fears and phobias. Devi is very well traveled, but she has almost always roamed around by herself. So she has genuine concerns about too much family togetherness. She's spoken to, or heard of, six other families that have attempted this sort of journey. Four of them had a marvelous time, and the trip brought them closer together. The other two couples got divorced — though it's not clear whether this was a direct result of their travels.
Devi is also concerned that she and I won't find any private time away from the kids. Apparently, there are very few reasonably priced "family suites"-type hotels outside North America and Australia, and few European hotels of any kind allow five people to stay in a single room. The kids are too young to sleep by themselves. So that means that Devi and I would usually have to sleep in different rooms for most of the trip. That's okay for a few weeks — but not for a year or more — so in a bow to realism, we've asked our regular baby-sitter, Beatriz Oliva, a.k.a. Betty, to join us for at least the first part of the trip. Betty, who's single and in her mid-thirties, loves to travel, and she's thrilled by the prospect of a round-the-world journey. Fortunately, she's willing to work for room, board, air tickets, and pocket money, so that makes it practical for us to bring her along. It does feel a bit like cheating, but we've decided not to be doctrinaire about this — especially if it means giving up intimate relations for a year.
Devi's other major fear is that two-year-old Lucas will fall off something — like an Italian balcony or a French canal boat. To mitigate this hazard, she bought a toddler leash and forty feet of nylon netting. Devi honestly believes that she can childproof our shifting environment as we travel around the world. I have my doubts, and I'm only glad that Lucas isn't old enough to be humiliated by the leash.
Eight-year-old Kara's two main concerns are losing contact with her friends and being devoured by a wild animal. The other day she greeted me at the breakfast table with a stern expression and a copy of The San Francisco Chronicle. The headline read "Marin Girl Mauled by Hyena," and it described a local eleven-year-old who was attacked while camping in Kenya. Kara pointed at the story, and said accusingly, "And you still want to go to Africa?" I assured her that we'd do everything in our power to protect her, but Kara remained stubbornly skeptical until Devi found a place in Western Australia where we could swim with wild dolphins. In Kara's mind, that made up for a multitude of sins.
Willie, as usual, is gung ho for any adventure that might come his way. Being seven years old and male, his social life is less developed than Kara's, and he's genuinely delighted to miss a year of school. If anything, Willie helps reassure Kara that this madness will all end well. I think at this point, if we told Willie that we were all going to the backwoods of Borneo for the rest of our lives, he'd say, "Okay, let's do it." Lucas, who is now speaking in full sentences, also seems comfortable with the trip — at least to the extent he understands it. He'll have his mommy, his daddy, his siblings, and his blankie with him twenty-four hours a day. So for him, this may be the best of worlds.
As for me, I do have this strange fear that the kids will contract some vile disease in India. It may be coincidence, but almost everyone I know who has traveled there has come down with some sort of illness, from dysentery to malaria. To avert this, Devi faxed the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. They sent back some advisories saying if we went to India — or Botswana, for that matter — we should be inoculated against polio, tetanus, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and typhoid. Plus we should take the anti-malarial drug Larium. According to the CDC, Larium's side effects can include psychotic behavior. That sounded worrisome, so when we went to get our shots, I mentioned it to the doctor. He said not to worry, that full-blown psychosis occurs only in a tiny minority of cases.
As you might expect, Willie took the vaccinations like a trooper. No tears — just a stoic grin and an immediate demand for compensation from Dr. Joe's treasure chest of ten-cent toys. Lucas, on the other hand, was stunned and offended that we would just stand by and allow him to be violated. Then he burst into tears. As for our eldest, I'm chagrined to say that she threw herself into a full-scale panic. She started crying even before the doctor came into the examination room. Then she bolted from the office and ran screaming down the hallway. I actually had to drag her back into the examination room and hold her down while she got her shots. Other children in the waiting room looked concerned.
Aside from my disease phobia, I also have to admit that being homeless and out of work — even by choice — is somewhat disorienting. It's odd to realize that from now on, wherever we happen to be on a given day will be our home, and that there's no single safe haven to which we can return. It's also strange to suddenly relinquish all your structures and schedules — all the chores, routines, and rituals that define and organize your life. When you follow these routines, it's possible to live most of your life on autopilot. It's like driving to work without even thinking about the route. But when your routines are disrupted — especially this radically — you become very conscious of your actions, your surroundings, and your relationships. Everything seems new and unsettled. But again, that's one of the goals of our trip — to disrupt our usual patterns so thoroughly that we'll be receptive to new options and possibilities.
In order to do that fully, we have to let this transformation from conventional to nomadic life take place on its own terms. We have to observe the changes and be conscious of them, but we can't limit the outcome or cling to old routines and old ways of thinking. Sometimes that's difficult, because all of our friends and acquaintances constantly ask us about the future. They ask, "How long will you be gone? Where will you live when you get back? Will you go back to the same job?"
I try tell them that the purpose of this journey is to see new possibilities, and if we predetermine the outcome of this journey at its beginning, that goal will be defeated. But most people are uncomfortable with that answer. They seem to crave certainty in their own lives, and they consider it imprudent to place one's family in such an ambiguous position. To that I can only reply that any sense of certainty we have in life is ephemeral at best. That was revealed to us this month with savage clarity.
Devi and I have two friends, Curt and Alma. They don't know each other. Curt was my roommate at Yale, and Alma was Devi's friend at Stanford. Curt has been HIV-positive for nearly twelve years, and two of his former lovers have died from AIDS. His doctors, his friends, his parents, and everyone else have always assumed that it was only a matter of time, and probably a short time at that. Alma, on the other hand, was a happy, healthy, vibrant woman who participated in two very successful Silicon Valley startups. She recently married the man she loved. They were in the process of building their dream house, and she was eight months pregnant with twins.
Curt and Alma were each on their own fast tracks, moving in opposite directions. Then, all of a sudden, Curt starts responding to a new cocktail of AIDS drugs and his "virus-load" drops off the chart. For all intents and purposes, after waiting twelve years to die, Curt is "cured." Alma, on the other hand, is riding home from work with her husband, seat belt stretched over her big belly when a guy in a pickup truck falls asleep at the wheel, crashes across the median strip, and hits their Mercedes head-on. Alma is killed instantly. The emergency room doctors try to deliver the twins, but they die too. Alma's husband was sitting behind an air bag, and he walked away without a scratch.
Here's another twist. Alma's funeral, which should have been the saddest event on the face of the earth, was attended by more than a thousand people, and it was one of the warmest, sweetest, most life-affirming events Devi and I have ever attended. Her husband, her father, and her brother all delivered eulogies that made us realize that this woman, cut down in the fullness of life, was actually blessed. Her life was important to so many people. Curt, on the other hand, has gone into therapy. He didn't think he would live very long, so for the last twelve years, he's led his life accordingly. Now that he's "cured," he's not sure what to do.
So if you ask me about certainty, I'd have to say it's a cruel illusion. And if you ask us how this trip is going to turn out, and what we're going to do when we get back, I'd say the purpose of this journey is to open ourselves individually, and as a family, to a world of possibilities, because tomorrow ... well, who knows about tomorrow.
P.S. About the only thing we did more quickly than anticipated was sell our house. We still have about a month before we leave the country, so we're driving down to L.A. to visit friends, then over to Arizona to see Devi's mom. We'll come back via the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and Yosemite. It'll be sort of a trial run for the big trip. Besides, I hear that the weather in Arizona is lovely in July.
Excerpted from One Year Off by David Elliot Cohen. Copyright © 2011 David Elliot Cohen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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