A Travellerspoint blog

World Schooling -- The Messy Truth

What Did We REALLY Learn "On The Road"


What Did World Schooling Look Like For Our Family?

I started writing this entry when we were at the start of our travels. I'm glad I didn't publish it because I've just gone back and deleted most of what I wrote. I imagined myself fitting in a relevant homeschool curriculum as part of our journey. I had some good plans, excellent math materials, suggested books, journal prompts. . . I am a teacher by trade after all. Look how neat my early "lessons" were with the kids.


Shift Happens

Do you believe that certain people walk into your life at a certain moment for a reason? I do. For us, they were Lainie and Miro. Six weeks into our trip a mom and her 13-year-old son strolled into South American Explorers Club in Cusco, Peru. Always on the lookout for playmates for our kids, Noah noticed them in the courtyard. He thought the boy looked familiar so he went up to him and asked if he was Miro from one of the travel blogs we followed.

Why yes! Turns out they had recently arrived in Cusco and were renting an apartment only a few blocks away. The two of them had been traveling for the past 3 years together. The kids hit it off right away while I peppered Lainie with a barrage of “How do you . . . .?” questions. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of her “unschooling” approach to education. I had never even heard of unschooling, but she seemed happy and Miro an articulate, smart, thoughtful, well adjusted kid.

We were lucky enough to spend time together and we engaged in a number of subsequent adventures and conversations during the next two months. Getting to know people who truly live life to the fullest and trust themselves gave us confidence to do the same. Lainie's advice was a gift. The hardest to follow, “Let it go”.

I am thrilled to say that we did let it go. I use the word "messy" in the title not as a negative but as an apt description of what we found ourselves embracing in a real world environment. As Miss Frizzle from "The Magic School Bus" always says, "Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!"

Moving forward we decided to make the world our classroom instead of imposing some kind of classroom on the road.


Classes in our Unconventional Syllabus:


Do not judge your neighbor until you walk two moons in his moccasins.
– Cheyenne Teaching

The driving force behind our exit from the predictability and comfort of our “normal life” was the pursuit of perspective. Of course we were excited to see the world, but the specific places and experiences we chose were secondary. Looking back, it was the being away more than anything else that drove our learning. While traveling, our ever changing “normal” pushed us to prioritize and truly live in the moment. Our learning was often uncomfortable but unquestionably authentic.

Certain places naturally instilled perspective. In Mongolia we spent two weeks living with local nomadic families. On two occasions we had to drive around to try and find these families, since they had recently moved. There are miles and miles of literally wide-open spaces, no roads, or electricity, or fresh produce . . . The vastness of the land itself was humbling.

Every morning the entire Mongolian family would wake early and set to work caring for the animals, chopping wood, collecting water, and preparing food. The children were an integral part of family life and had specific and important responsibilities. Watching these small kids milking goats and carrying firewood (all with smiles on their faces) reminded us of the expectations we set for our own kids. In most of the places we visited, children had similar roles. This was something of a wake up call for Alex and Leah. Did they really used to complain about taking out the garbage once a week?


It is impossible not to notice that many people live happily with very few material possessions. We had some great conversations as a family about the nature of happiness, and work, and communities. Before this trip we knew in theory that most other people in the world did not share our lifestyle, but the opportunity to experience that reality first hand was priceless.


It is a happy talent to know how to play. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson


Our extended time together gave us daily opportunities for play. We carried a deck of cards everywhere, got into pillow fights, raced, had spontaneous dance parties, made up outrageous stories while people-watching, splashed in the waves, practiced hand stands in the pool, skipped stones, engaged in epic "Apples to Apples" games, took over fooz ball tables, jumped into soccer games, threw the frisbee . . . you get the idea.

I have always believed that children (all people, really) learn and grow naturally through play. I know some wonderful teachers who manage to engage their students in learning without making it all about "work". However, as children get older, the time allowed for unstructured play tends to shrink dramatically. The nature of our trip and our daily lives managed in many ways set us free of the "fit it in" lifestyle - and we reaffirm that play, work, and learning are far from mutually exclusive.

Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn. -- O. Fred Donaldson

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Communication becomes a REALLY BIG DEAL when you are traveling. Encountering new people and situations can be stressful - not to mention the importance of our family all being on the same page.

We started our trip in South America because I wanted for us to spend time living there and learning the language. Our first few weeks were really hard because sorting out the most basic daily tasks involved using our very beginning Spanish. We lived with a family for a month to avoid the temptations of seeking out other gringoes, and soon learned enough to read important signs, converse with taxi drivers, order from a menu, and arrange for laundry. The kids picked up many phrases and expressions that were NOT taught in our seven weeks of classes.


Living in Peru and interacting with the community in Cusco was by far the best natural teacher. We decided to volunteer two days a week at an after school program. We learned specific language skills while volunteering because we were in charge of a large group of children. Important statements such as: siéntate! (sit down!) tranquilo!(quiet!) despacio! (slow down!) dame eso! (give me that!) buen trabajo (great job!) maravilloso! (wonderful!) will stay with us! Both Alex and Leah were involved in teaching our English lessons and helped write and execute our bi-weekly plans. The local kids adored them and it was an even bigger learning experience for our kids to be in the teacher role.


Talking to Each Other
When we left Cusco after four months and continued to travel for another six weeks in South America it was with considerably more confidence than when we arrived. Our family communication continued to improve as well. There is nothing like sharing a single room to ensure the hammering out of misunderstandings in a timely manner. We had family meetings when there was a specific upcoming event or situation to discuss but we found that more often than not there is nothing competing with opportunities to talk - so we just did. I can't remember another time when I've had the luxury of listening to the long version of Alex or Leah's dreams on a random Tuesday morning. We continued to stay focused on trying to give each other affirmations and stayed away from the negative as much as possible. There were still challenging moments and personality style issues, but overall we found our groove.



“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them.”
― George Bernard Shaw


We asked a great deal from our kids, and they delivered. Oh sure, there was some complaining and eye rolling for sure - but when it counted they rose to the occasion. Admittedly, sometimes it takes other people to point out that our kids are cool and that we aren't crazy parents. Along our journey we have been blessed by meeting people who change our perspective and inspire us. We met Jessica during our trek in Torres del Paine and she wrote a great blog post about her adventure and even mentions meeting us as a highlight. The post is HERE and well worth reading. Here is a short excerpt about us:

"My favorite encounter by far was with the Van Loens. Alex,12 and Leah, 10 are two of the most well behaved and good spirited kids I have ever met. They're out here trekking with the best of us, enduring rain, cold, wind, and never once complaining. I doubt they realize it now, but they are the two luckiest people in the park. This is my favorite part about traveling; these encounters with people who truly stimulate the imagination and demonstrate what is takes to turn dreams into reality. The Van Loen's are proof that life is what you make it- the world is their playground and their classroom, and home is where the heart is."


As expected, we faced some hardships as we traveled. I won't chronicle them here - that would be a post in itself! I do know that with every night spent sleeping on the floor, encounter with strangers, longer than expected hike, or mysterious food item - we have grown. My worrying child now has lots of examples of how she made it through. We found that laughing about what seemed so dark at the time moved the incident quickly into part of family lore. For us, newfound resilience and confidence have come from dealing with disappointment, overcoming obstacles, and finding the joy (or at least the humor) in each day.


"We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures." - Thornton Wilder

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People are our treasures. We have been blessed by both the support of friends and family at home and by the generosity of new friends we have met during our journey. The willingness of others to take us in to their homes and hearts has been humbling and inspiring.


Did we learn any Math or Science or Writing skills? Absolutely! Was it what they would learned if we had stayed at home? No way! We are grateful that we had the freedom to teach our own kids by taking them out of school. We discovered that this is a privilege not afforded to most families around the world. Yes, it was messy, but we wouldn't change it for the world.


Posted by annevl 11:46 Tagged education peru kids family teaching world_trip writing homeschooling home_school Comments (12)

Deep Blue Mongolia

Tales from Two Weeks Trekking Mongolia

We spent two weeks trekking around Mongolia, and had an amazing time. In a country of just under 3 million people, of which almost half live in the capital of Ulan-Bator (aka "UB"), and (with the exception of Greenland) has the honor of being the largest country with the smallest population density, there are a lot of wide-open views. It was easy to see why Mongolia has the nickname of the "Land of the Blue Sky".


We took the Trans-Mongolian train (otherwise known as the K23), from Beijing to Ulan-Bator (30 hours), which was a great adventure, and probably deserves its own post. This train has only sleeper cars, a small dining car, and hot water. We passed the time reading, playing cards, chatting with fellow passengers, enjoying the scenery, and sleeping. Sunset was especially cool.

It was an interesting journey, but we were glad that we had changed our itinerary to spent more time exploring Mongolia, and less time on the train going all the way across Russia. That would have been a LOT of time on the train.


We had a day to get ready for our trip. We spent that day buying snacks at the "State Department Store", and trying to figure out a way to get the cash to pay the tour company (No, they wouldn't take a credit card, and No, they had forgotten to mention that when we confirmed our trip a week or so earlier). Of course, you can only take so much cash out of the ATM per day, but we managed to do a cash-out from our credit card to pay for it. Mongolian money only has denominations up to 20,000 Tugriks (about $13.82USD), we ended up with a huge stack of cash. It was a bit stressful to walk across town carrying a couple of thousand dollars to pay for the trip, but we got it done with no worries.

We had chosen to head down to the Gobi desert and Central Mongolia, since this had the most to see in the time that we had. Here's a quick map of where we went...

Of course, when booking a tour through a company (which we usually choose not to do, but sometimes have to), the written itinerary (theory) differs from what actually happens (reality). Here's the writeup from the tour company, along with our pictures and notes about how it really went.


We will start with a full day trip out to the Baga Gazriin Chuluu Ruins. A picturesque Mountain Baga Gazriin Chuluu is one of the most attractive areas of the Gobi desert. With at an elevation of 1.768m, it is located in the granite belt. The ruins of a small monastery are on the south east part of the mountain. The area has got many species of wild animals and birds, such as ibex, argali, vultures, hawks and eagles. At the ruins, there are some mineral water springs and trees a top the many beautiful rocky hills. On the way we will stop for a lunch at Zorgol Khairkhan Mountain, and then we will continue to drive to the first campsite of our trip. Once we get there, we will have free time to wander around the mountains and do some hiking. We will camp overnight in this area.

The van picked us up at 9 in the morning, and we loaded up our gear and met our guide/cook Enkhay and our driver Batra. Unfortunately, the picture we snapped only has Enkhay in the background; Batra will remain anonymous. Both turned out to be fantastic travel companions.

The van that was to be our ride for the next two weeks is a common variety around Mongolia. Originally from Russia, the UAZ-452 is pretty comfortable to ride in, and can pretty much go anywhere (as we were to learn). We also learned that the engine vents hot air into the cab at all times (no A/C), which is nice when it's cold outside, but not so nice in the middle of the Gobi. We had the windows open a lot.

Off we went, dealing with the infamously bad UB traffic on the way out of town. Once we cleared the main part of the city, Batra pulled off the asphalt road onto a dirt track. We thought this was temporary - little did we know that we wouldn't see another paved road until we headed back to UB 12 days later. Here's what it looks like from the backseat - if this makes you a bit queasy, think of how we felt...

Here's a view from our first stop - there's UB in the background, and the dirt track leading up to our first pass (marked with the ubiquitous ovoo). After we went around the cairn three times and added our rock for good luck, we continued our drive.

After a couple of hours of bumping along, we stopped next to the Zorgol Khairkhan mountain. We made a bush bio-break and then climbed around for a while while Enkhay made lunch.

  • NB: Our meal (which would be repeated in various incarnations as both lunch and dinner) was a combination of pasta, mutton, and some vegetables (usually carrots, cucumber, and cabbage). Sometimes there were potatoes. Sometimes it was soup. It pretty much all tasted the same. Not bad, but the repetition started to verge on monotonous by the end of the trip.

We reached our destination mid-afternoon. There was a cave to explore, rocks to climb (and jump off of), and an abandoned monastery. We had our first encounter with the local cow mouse (zuram in mongolian). Cute!

Our first evening staying with a nomadic family in one of their gers was an interesting experience. It was bigger inside than we expected, and pretty cozy with the wall coverings, although we were all calling for the chiropractor after a night sleeping on the thin mattresses. We had a quick dinner, watched the goats getting milked (they were tied together by their heads, which made for the funny picture below), and watched our first sunset in the desert. We slept well, although the goats were LOUD!


After having breakfast at the campsite we will drive to Tsagaan Suvarga /White Stupa/. In the afternoon, we will reach the Tsagaan Suvarga and explore to see white stupa and go for hiking around. Tsagaan Suvarga, an amazing series of cliffs, white and pink limestone rock formations taking the appearance of stalagmites up to 30 meters high. It is an excellent site for taking photography of the beautiful panoramic views. Stay overnight in family ger.

Day 2 started with the same breakfast that we would see for the remainder of the trip - bread, butter, jam, instant coffee with powdered milk, tea, and (perhaps) a thin pancake or bread dipped in egg and fried. Filling, but not so great for someone who's trying to avoid gluten (sorry Anne!).

We then set off to visit the "White Stupa". We should have realized that something was up with the quotes, since there was no actual stupa (a type of temple). These were actually very brightly colored cliffs, formed by erosion and layers of colored stones. Pretty beautiful.

What was even more exciting was the drive to the cliffs. Enkhay told us that this road was nicknamed "Crazy Mouse" after a Mongolian kids game, and it was certainly crazy. We didn't get to take any video during this section (we were too busy trying to hang on), but there were a couple of sections where we thought we were going to tip the whole van over. Luckily, we made it through intact, but it was certainly CRAZY!

Once we found our ger camp for the night (nomadic families have a tendency to move around, and Batra had his hands full trying to locate them), we met the family, which included a daughter about Leah's age. She was very nice, and we spent some time playing volleyball, soccer, hopscotch, and visiting the local camels. She showed us their baby white camel too! (BTW, camels are really loud at night!)

In the morning, we left her with a bracelet and a new hair band. Little things, but she really liked them!


After having breakfast at the family, we will start driving to Yoliin Am, which is a deep narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains of the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, covering 70 sq.kms. There is a small natural museum at the entrance of the National park which exhibits a collection of dinosaur eggs, bones, stuffed birds and snow leopard. This place is also very rich by the rare plants.
After we seeing the museum at the entrance we will drive about 10kms to get to the car parking where we leave our car there and walk a head to the ice gorge and stream for a several kms. In the winter time, the stream freezes several kms into the gorge. It remains frozen for most of the year, except late summer. We will see the ice gorge until end of the July. The ice remains usually disappear around early August.
On the way we get to the Yoliin Am we will stop for a lunch in a huge flat steppe. Once we wandering around the gorge, we will get back to our car and drive to the next family we will stay there for tonight.

Today we would go to the "ice gorge". Back in the van (we started calling it "Wally") and a couple more hours bumping around. We stopped for lunch in THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. Seriously.

It was a sunny afternoon, and the gorge was a beautiful place to hike through. Unfortunately, although the description said that there would be ice until August, when we visited it was mostly all gone (we saw one or two spots remaining). Nevertheless, it was a wonderful place to explore and climb around. We saw more "cow mice" and ground squirrels. Since this area of Mongolia has so few trees, most animals nest on the ground. When walking or driving around we were constantly sending them scurrying or flying off in all directions.

That night, we met a couple of other Westerners that lived in UB and were visiting. We had a great time playing cards and hanging out with them, as well as celebrating Canada Day the next morning!


After having breakfast, we will drive to the sand dunes called Khongoriin Els. The Khongoriin Els sand dunes lie north of the Baruunsaikhan Mountain in the northern part of the Sevrei and Zuulun Mountains. The Khongoriin Els is one of the largest and most spectacular sand dunes in Mongolia and they are up to 200m high, 12km wide and about 100km long. The largest dunes are at the northwest corner of the range. You can climb to the top of the sand dunes and then slide back down on the plastic bags. The views of the desert from the top are wonderful. Climbing to the top of the dunes during the sunset gives you an amazing panoramic view of the surrounding desert, to the north lies the Khongoriin River. We will stay overnight in a family ger.

It was a long drive to the Khongor sand dunes, made a bit longer by a flat tire and pitstop for a distributor cap replacement. Luckily, Batra is as good of a repair mechanic as he is a driver, and the stops were pretty quick. We had lunch in a gorgeous canyon,

and the rolled up to the sand dunes in the late afternoon.

It was very hot during the day, so we laid low until it cooled off a bit in the evening, and then hiked up the dunes to take some pictures of the sunset. It was a hard climb, but well worth it for the views.

On the way down, we learned why they call these the "Singing Dunes". As the sand moves down the hill, it generates a low rumble and vibration much like a truck or an airplane. We wish we had gotten some audio/video, but (thanks to the magic of YouTube) you can hear it here. It was pretty amazing.


Today after breakfast, we can possibly arrange some optional camelback riding around the sand dunes before the lunch time. After having lunch at the family we will climb and hike to the top of the biggest sand dunes. We will stay overnight in a family ger tonight.

The day dawned HOT, and we grabbed a quick breakfast and went out for our camel ride before it got any hotter. Camel riding was a neat experience, although it really consisted of the camel walking around for an hour while being led by one of the local kids. However, we can validate that camels are quite tall, the humps are kind of floppy, and they do sneeze quite a bit.

After camel riding/walking, we hid in our ger for the rest of the day to stay out of the 40C degree weather (>100F!). At least it was easy to dry our laundry. When it got cooler again in the evening, we went for another adventure to the sand dunes.

We all enjoyed playing with the local dogs there too - this one had the hugest head we've ever seen!


After having breakfast this morning, we will drive to the Bayanzag which is an important fossil finds have been made. It was given name by American paleontologist Roy Chapman who visited there in the 1920s. The area is the most famous place for finding the first discovery of dinosaur fossils. There is a picturesque saxaul forest the place is named after and colorful rocks which is brilliantly colorful. We will visit Mongolian family there and will staying overnight with their ger.

Another long day of driving to get to our next stop at the Flaming Cliffs. They had another pack (gang?) of camels there, large_DSC05605.jpg
and we got settled into our ger and met some other other travelers before it was cool enough to go to the cliffs (did we mention that this was the desert?).

The Flaming Cliffs are well known for their beauty and for their location as one of the early dinosaur fossil finds (so Enkhay told us), but we had fun just climbing around and exploring. BUT, we were sad when we got to the little shop there and learned that they had just run out of ice cream. TEASE!


After having breakfast in the family at the Bayanzag, we will head off to Saikhan Ovoo which is a small village in the Middle Gobi province. The bend in the river marks, the remains of two ruined monasteries, the Barlim Khiid on the north bank and the Khutagt Khiid on the south. The monastery used to have about 500 monks and built in the late 18th century for dedicating the first visit to Mongolia by a Dalai Lama. The monastery was reopened in 1990 and current Dalai Lama visited in 1992.

When we pulled into our next location, we were ecstatic. We had been promised that the next ger camp would have a shower (it had been days since our last one), and we saw a big luxury ger camp laid out in front of us. Unfortunately, we were on the "budget" tour, and passed by the fancy place to a decidedly less fancy place. It was okay - they actually had electricity where we could recharge our camera batteries and various electronics while we took a shower (lukewarm and drippy, but it got us mostly clean...) We learned later that it was $70 per person per night at the fancy place, vs. $5 pp at the place we were at. We made it up to ourselves by walking over to the fancy place and crashing the restaurant for cold drinks and chips while using their electricity. WooHoo - rebels us.

There was also a trip to the monastery next door, but since every building had been razed by the Communists in the 1930's, and the river had all dried up. But the one reconstructed building that we visited was very interesting (although they didn't allow for pictures inside...you can use your imagination).


This morning after breakfast, we will drive to the Orkhon waterfall. In the afternoon, we will arrive to the waterfall called Ulaan Tsutgalan /Orkhon Waterfall/, enjoy spectacular view of the waterfall and surrounding area, where we will have chance to take some beautiful photo shots of Orkhon Waterfall. The Orkhon river drops into 20 kms volcanic crack thus forming the 24 meter high waterfall of Ulaan Tsutgalan, highlight of the area. We are having dinner and stay overnight in a ger.

We're moving north now, heading out of the desert into the cooler, more forested areas of Mongolia. The scenery is fantastic no matter where you look, with big mixed herds of goats and sheep, bands of free-range horses, and the first yaks we've seen. These goats watched us closely as we clambered around camp.

Unfortunately, there was no water for the waterfall, so that was a bit of a bust. We had a good time playing with the local dogs (and goats), and we did get to see a smaller waterfall the next morning.


We drive to Tsenkher hot spring, a sulphur spring that emerges from the ground at a sizzing 89C. Facilities include outdoor and indoor baths, showers and accommodations.

This day had the shortest description, but was by far our least favorite. The "baths" were dirty (and filled with big Mongolian men), the changing rooms were full of flies (see video), and the showers reeked of sulpher. Here's Leah's opinion of the baths:

The place that we were staying was beautiful though. About 15 minutes away from the "resort", on the banks of a pretty river, with lots of hills and horses and dogs. No end of good photo ops...


After having breakfast at the family we stayed, we will drive to Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (White lake) and Khorgo volcano. The Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur is also known as White Lake in the Khangai Mountain range in central Mongolia with relatively pure fresh water. The lake is 16 km wide, about 4-10m deep with its deepest point at 28m and over 20kms in a length. It is flooded 61sq.km and the lake has pike and other fishes. Rare birds are found here as well. This volcanic lake was created thousands of years ago by lava flows from the nearby Khorgo Mountain volcano. Khorgo Mountain is an extinct volcano, which lies east of the White lake. This area has been protected since 1965, fully in 1997. Once we arrive to the White Lake, we will visiting nomadic family there and walk around the lake. We can go for fishing and swimming before the dinner. We are going to staying in a Mongolian family ger.

This was probably the longest drive day that we had. Over mountain passes and across rivers, we finally made it to Tsesterleg, the city center of the aymag (province) that we were in. A quick stop to replenish food and snacks, and we headed into the national park / protected area.

After a close call of possibly staying in the coldest/dirtiest ger we had seen so far, we switched to the next camp and crowded into the family's kitchen ger for some warm yaks milk and cookies. Once we had been properly welcomed, they showed us to our cozy and warm ger. Good thing, because we were here for two nights, and it was pretty cold (and rainy!). The White Lake area is very pretty, and we spent the afternoon climbing around and exploring the area (and playing with the local dog - sense a theme here?)

Noah and Alex even had a close encounter with a yak!


Today after breakfast, we possibly arrange an optional horseback riding trek to the Khorgo volcano. Once we get there we will climb to a volcanic crater, the Khorgo at 2100m. From the summit there opens a splendid views over the landscape and the lake. We will ride back to the same family and stay overnight there.

Horseback riding day - and we got a good one. While the previous day had been cold and rainy, today was much warmer, although still a little cloudy. Our ride today would be 90 minutes to the crater, then a hike up, followed by lunch, and then the ride back. We got saddled up on our Mongolian horses, and set off.

We had a great time, even though we got a bit rained on during the return. Our horses were all pretty well behaved, and we even got a bit of a canter in! A very good time, but we were all walking funny by the end (sore!). We spent the evening playing soccer with the local kids, and snuggling next to the stove in the ger (a far cry from the heat of the Gobi!).


After breakfast, we will drive to Kharkhorin which was a capital city of Mongolia in 13th century for about 30 years, located in northwestern part of Uvurkhangai province of Mongolia. On the way to get to the Kharkhorin we will have a lunch on the open space of Mongolian countryside. We will drive forward to Kharkhorin after the lunch. One of the Mongolian most attractive monasteries Erdenezuu locates in Kharkhorin City. The Erdenezuu monastery is the most ancient survived Buddist monastery in Kharkhorin, Mongolia. The Erdenezuu monastery was built in 1585 by Abtai Sain Khan and the monastery was allowed to exist as a museum, the only functioning monastery was Gandan monastery in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. However after the fall of communism in Mongolia in 1990, the monastery was turned over the lamas and Erdenezuu again became a place of worship. Once we get there, we will accommodate in a town ger hostel. After having dinner in a hostel, we will have a free time hiking or wandering around the town.

Our last big day (and night). We actually got to drive on a paved road for the majority of the day, which was a very welcome change. It took us until mid-afternoon to make it to Kharkhorin, where we spent an hour visiting the monastery. Noah even got to hold a giant eagle - pretty amazing!

An early night prepared us for our final day's return to UB.


After having breakfast at the hostel, we will visit Erdenezuu monastery. After visiting the monastery, we will drive back to Ulaanbaatar. On the way back to Ulaanbaatar we will stop by the sand dunes of Elsen Tasarkhai. When we arrive to Ulaanbaatar, we will be transferred to a hostel or hotel for tonight.


This was a wonderful time. We saw (and experienced) so much, it's tough to write it all down. Suffice to say that for everything that we wrote here, there's another story (or two) behind it. Mongolia is a fantastic place - the people were all very kind and hospitable, and the landscapes are stunning. We look forward to returning to explore more of this country (but we were very happy to be out of the van!).

Posted by noahv 02:29 Archived in Mongolia Comments (5)

Kid Interviews III

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand


Alex and Leah Interview Each Other About their Experiences at The Elephant Nature Park
(May 6-19, 2013)

" When I went to the zoo and saw an elephant I was like, I will never be close to an elephant, I'll never feed an elephant, I'll never pet an elephant, I'll never wash an elephant. Now I have and it is really really cool" - Alex

"Sitting in the shade you are still sweating!" - Leah

"The first time I took a cucumber and stuck it on a elephant's trunk and then she ate it - I was just like - I FED AN ELEPHANT! It was magical!" - Alex

"I like Jokia, one of the blind elephants . . . she is really gentle . . . When Jokia first came to the sanctuary another elephant (Mae Perm) went to help her. It's like the other elephant is her eyes, helping her. They are always together and never leave each other. They are best friends forever." - Leah


You can learn more about the elephants in the ENP herd, and How You Can Help.
Be Sure to "Like" Save Elephant Foundation on Facebook!


We have a hard time imagining how our remaining adventures will top this one!

Posted by annevl 20:12 Archived in Thailand Tagged nature education elephant thailand kids world family school volunteer video interview homeschool Comments (3)

Selective Memory: What Will Our Kids Remember?

There Was This Adorable Puppy at Some Temple . . .


Eye Witness Testimony

Eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable. If you talk to ten people who were all present at the same event, chances are no two versions will be identical. As time passes the recounting tends to take on even more of the personality of the teller. I have found that individuals notice different things and take away with them distinct feelings and impressions. This is certainly true for our family.

As four eye witnesses to the same world travel experience, you would need to talk to all of us in order to piece together the real story. Combining our individual memories is like layering transparent images on top of each other. Each sheet can stand alone, but the layered image has a depth and flavor that speaks to the bonds forged by shared experience.

Keeping it Real

There are times when I am listening to my kids describe their version of a shared family experience that doesn't come close to jogging my own memory, although I KNOW we were there together! As adults I think we sometimes pick and choose what we remember - filtering out the more unpleasant aspects. Our tween and teenager apply no such filter, so traveling with them full time absolutely keeps it real.

For Example:
Adult - Remember when we were driving from De Nang to Hoi An and first saw the swarms of motorbikes?
Child - Yeah! That driver had the worst BO ever!

Adult - Wasn't it amazing spending the day learning to weave with that family in Chinchero?
Child - Guess so. It was hot and there was no bathroom.

Unique Perspectives


Leah (age 11) is our intuitive nature girl. She is an experiential learner who cares about animals and identifies places we have been based on the creatures we encountered there. Leah is also part fish and is her absolute happiest in the water. Her memories will most likely be strongest for experiences involving one or both of these factors.

Leah's compassion for animals can make an experience wonderfully enriching or terribly upsetting. When we did a farm stay in New Zealand she woke early every day so she could help milk the goats and feed the chickens. She was perfectly happy and by the end of the week she knew all their names and personalities. In Burma, on the other hand, she spent an entire day on the verge of tears after seeing caged baby owls. We couldn't console her and it really didn't matter what other cool things we did that day - the poor baby owls will be what she remembers.

I see Leah taking what she has seen and learned in the world and becoming something of an activist. She has grown in confidence and is much less afraid to share her opinions with others. After spending two weeks volunteering with elephants and dogs at Elephant Nature Park, she will never let us buy a dog from a breeder, attend a circus, or ride a "trekking" elephant.


Alex (age 13) is our fearless hands-on boy. He wants the chance to master the ropes course, brave the rapids, jump waves, ride a camel, and drive a scooter (we said "NO" to that one). For him, participating in activities (he has been LOVING cooking classes) and the added freedom of a travel lifestyle makes the temple and market visits bearable.

He also thrives on sharing facts with us, for example:

  • "Did you know that in New Zealand the bat is the only known native land mammal?"
  • "Peru has over 3000 different types of potatoes!"
  • "You know, the Great Wall of China really CAN'T be seen from space. China probably made that up."

We aren't exactly sure where he picks these up since he rarely seems to be paying attention - but there are many more where those came from...and he is entertaining.

Alex will probably remember experiences with a few place names thrown in for good measure. I imagine him describing our "big trip" in a list form, like a brochure.

Holding on to Memories

Memories you capture on purpose are always more vivid than the ones you pick up by accident.
- Isaac Marion

As we travel we find ourselves trying to do four things at once:

  • Live in the Moment
  • Share our Experiences
  • Plan the Next Step
  • Keep Memories Alive

The last one is the most likely to get pushed off the agenda, especially during busy times. So, here are some ways we have been attempting to capture our experiences for the future.



A good snapshot keeps a memory from running away.
- Eudora Welty

We travel with two water-proof shock-proof cameras and two iPhones. Needless to say, we take lots of pictures.

Whenever possible we hand off the cameras to the kids and let them chose their subjects. Each of them brings a perspective that is a joy to see and their photos reflect their personalities and vision. Leah's photos are usually of animals, interesting artwork, or nature. Alex takes wonderful landscape shots and videos of himself jumping off boats, waterfalls, etc. Can you guess who the photographer was for each of these shots?

For us, the challenge with photos isn't taking them. It is managing them. We may have 4 cameras, but only one computer. Uploading, editing, and organizing photos is no small task and grows more daunting if it is put off for a few weeks.

One thing we found that really helps make the process smoother is making sure each camera is set for the correct date and time. iPhoto automatically groups photos into "events" based on date and we can then add a specific tag describing that group of photos. One of us then goes through the photos, picks the a selection, and exports them to a desktop folder. From there we upload to Facebook, Shutterfly and our Travellerspoint blog photo gallery.

When we have a chance for a little down time and internet connectivity, I put together photo books on Shutterfly. Then when there is a sale I order a few shipped to my parents. Of course there is a major time delay -I just put a book together of photos from December - but It feels good knowing that we have some physical reminder of our experiences. It will be especially lovely to look through them when we return.

We're also looking forward to an experiment that we're going to make using YearlyLeaf to convert our Facebook page into a physical book. That should be a fun way to keep the memories alive...


My original idea was to have the four of us keep written journals describing our daily life as we travelled. We chose notebooks together and set aside time when we would all write. I have to admit that it just didn't fly. Each writing time would leave us frustrated and angry at each other. I would never even get a chance to write anything because I would be nagging the kids the whole time.

Taking a step back, we decided that if the primary goal of keeping journals was to allow the kids to practice expressing themselves, we could try something different. Introducing - Video Journals!

Alex and Leah work together to come up with a basic script, practice, and then ACTION!
The result is an authentic capturing of their personalities and insight into a specific place and time.


By sharing our trip in "real time" with family and friends we are also helping to preserve memories. Both children contribute to our blog entries and often help choose our Facebook updates. True to form, Leah wrote "Cool Animals" and Alex, "Favorite Places"
One of my favorite blog entries was a family writing project about our trek to Machu Picchu. Keeping current on the blog is not always possible and we'll have some catching up to do on a number of places and topics we keep meaning to write about!

What Will We Remember?

Our individual memories may indeed be selective, and we will each walk away changed in different ways. However, we have done this together and together we will treasure our long lasting family memories.



This post was written as part of group writing project on the subject of what our kids may remember and take away from the long term travel experience.

Check out these fabulous posts by other traveling families of all shapes and sizes!

Nancy from Family on Bikes

Catherine Forest from Catherine et les fées

Alisa from Living Outside of the Box

Melissa from Break Out of Bushwick

Bethaney from Flashpacker Family

Jenn Miller from Edventure Project

Heather Costaras from Living Differently

Kalli from Portable Professionals

Kirsty from Barts go Adventuring

Sharon from Where's Sharon

Lainie from Raising Miro on the Road of Life (and Aimee from Suitcases and Strollers)

Nichola from We Travel Countries

CoreyAnn Khan from Adventure Bee

Tracey from The Expat Experience

Mary from Bohemian Travelers

Kris from Simon Says

Posted by annevl 17:14 Tagged dog education elephant family volunteering teaching memories family_travel homeschool worldschool Comments (7)

Elephant Nature Park Volunteering

The Mostly Messy Jobs that Keep us Busy

sunny 90 °F

P1070692.jpg DSC04297.jpg
We have been living in an elephant sanctuary. We wake to their trumpeting, feed them bananas. play with them in the river, and watch them behave like elephants. Our two weeks at the Elephant Nature Park have been packed with once in a lifetime experiences and plenty of hard work.
Turns out - it takes a great deal of effort by many people EVERY day to feed and nurture 35 elephants!

What have we been DOING during our time at the Elephant Nature Park?

Volunteers are divided into work teams and assigned morning and afternoon jobs for each day. An ENP Volunteer Coordinator (VC) is "in charge" of each group. Some jobs, such as cutting corn and picking lychee are off site and lunch is brought along.
Here is a somewhat abbreviated description of some of those jobs.

Elephant Kitchen

The Elephant Kitchen job starts with gathering many baskets of pumpkins and watermelon from the shelves, washing them in a big basin of water magnesium permanganate, and chopping them into quarters.
There are also a few baskets of watermelon that need to be peeled for the older elephants as well as bananas that need to be sorted into very ripe, ripe, almost ripe, and green. A great job for sensory relaxation is the peeling and mashing of bananas by hand for "banana balls", a special elephant treat. We also spent time extricating the seeds from tamarinds. Overall, a pretty light assignment and a great way to chat with fellow volunteers.

ALEX- Elephant Kitchen was my favorite job because it is cool to chop melons and pumpkins with a machete. It was hard unloading the watermelon truck but felt really good when the truck was empty. Mom says I can't play with my food so squishing bananas with my hands was awesome!

Cutting Corn

Elephants eat lots of corn! Every day, volunteers and staff harvest 300 bundles (stalks and all), load them in a truck, and deliver to the always hungry ENP residents. IMG_5259.jpgIMG_5252.jpgIMG_5247.jpgIMG_5245.jpgIMG_5254.jpgIMG_5265.jpgIMG_5251.jpgIMG_5238.jpgIMG_5153.jpgIMG_5143.jpgDSC04004.jpgDSC04005.jpg

Corn cutting was definitely our most physically demanding day. Our group left the park and were driven in the back of a truck about 45 minutes to a farm. We were all decked out in long sleeves and long pants as instructed. By 9am it was sweltering and there was no shade to be found.

We were handed machetes and set to work chopping down the stalks and making bundles. After about an hour we were told to gather up the bundles and bring them to the truck. The hardest part was carrying the bundles over 400 yards along a narrow strip of land in the middle of an irrigation ditch.
Fifteen trips back and forth gave me a brand new appreciation for folks who do this every day!

After loading the bundles in the truck we drove to yet another field, and after a break for lunch, started all over again.
The truck was filled to the brim with corn stalks and we all climbed on top for the journey home. Along the way we had to duck low branches and hold on tight over bumps but we made it back.

After we had showered off the grime, it was satisfying to watch the truck go around delivering corn to the elephants. I think they appreciated our efforts.

Poop Patrol

Well, what goes in must come out - so elephants poop quite a bit. Fortunately, their vegetarian diet means it is not nearly as smelly as one might think. It does, however require an army of shovel and wheelbarrow wielding volunteers to keep the place clean.
A bonus of this job is that while on poop patrol opportunities abound for elephant encounters.

Collecting Lychee

Lychee are in season here and a big favorite of the elephants. Our job - collect them by the basket full and return to ENP. This was another adventure in the truck day and we had a grand time climbing trees and pulling down the fruit. We had lunch with a local family and played with an assortment of dogs. Overall, aside from dodging some wasps, it was a lovely day.

We also got to see a very unusual rainbow. IMG_5356.jpg

LEAH - It was really fun because I got to go up a ladder and climb into trees and drop the fruit into the basket. The lychee is delicious. I just wish the insects didn't like them too.

Mud Pit

Elephants LOVE the mud! They use the mud pit as a way to cool down and as a natural sunscreen. Once a week, volunteers help maintain the water/mud level by getting in there with hoes and buckets. Our group heard the call of the mud and ended up in an all out extravaganza! Needless to say, Alex and Leah were part of the first wave of mud slingers!

We also planted banana trees, gathered rocks for making stone walls, cut bamboo poles, and an assortment of other odd jobs around the park.

Our Optional Jobs

The Elephant Nature Park is also home to 450 rescued dogs and about 200 cats. We especially loved playing with the kittens and puppies! There was always need for extra help with the dogs and cats so we tried to pitch in when we could.

An old residence is in the process of being turned into a home for some of the cats and we were told we could make whatever improvements we wanted. Other volunteers had already made great progress and we were inspired by some of their ideas. Noah took the ceiling down and we cleared away some of existing debris. Foraging through the scrap pile, we put together some cat friendly surfaces and activities. It feels good to have left something of ourselves behind.

Most of the dogs in the dog sanctuary were rescued from the floods a few years ago. There is a clinic on site and full time volunteers to feed and care for them. We were welcomed to go there any time to walk and play with the furry residents.

We have had an amazing experience here!!
If you are interested in learning more you can go to www.saveelephant.org

Posted by annevl 18:55 Archived in Thailand Tagged animals elephant thailand volunteering family_travel enp www.saveelephant.org Comments (4)

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