When Travelling Kids Hit Their Teens

When Travelling Kids Hit Their Teens PopularI’d heard that something happened to travelling kids when they hit their teens – that they became averse to longterm travel, unwilling to make new friends and desirous of (eek!) settling down.

It happened to the Vogel family, who cycled from Alaska to Argentina. It appears to be happening now to my online friend Talon and his son. It’s a topic of fervent discussion among the small and sometimes fractious community of travelling families.

Because of this law, I’d thought we’d stop when Zac turned 13. But he agreed to carry on another year, so I hoped we’d beaten the jinx.

In fact, as Zac signed up less willingly for a voyage down and along the Blue Nile, and willingly for a year exploring South America, I was fairly sure we could extend the travel lifestyle for just one more year.

And yet, in Egypt….

My friend, the Whore of Babylon (henceforth, for brevity’s sake, simply The Whore), is in town, and cutting a swathe through both denizens and visitors with awe-inspiring energy.

Dahab sucks us in, as it always does. Fresh seafood and cold beer on the waterfront, pearlescent Red Sea sunsets, dazzling diving, tricks in the underwater playground, and….. freedom. Children can run insanely free in Dahab – riding bikes along the front, chasing kittens, ATV-ing, snorkelling, racking up restaurant bills across town – and that makes it, frankly, quite addictive.

My friend, the Whore of Babylon (henceforth, for brevity’s sake, simply The Whore), is in town, and cutting a swathe through both denizens and visitors with awe-inspiring energy. Like Margaret Thatcher, she only needs four hours sleep…

Zac and The Whore’s daughter are getting on great. We have our old house back, and our old rooms too. I’m rebuilding our funds after the decimation that was Eataly. Sudan, admittedly, is looking, even by Sudanese standards, especially ropy – rather like that fall of Jerusalem scene in World War Z – but we’re still geared up to go.

And yet… Zac and I are sitting, chatting in a restaurant one evening, and I say, “Why haven’t you looked up L? You got on so well last time you were here.”

Zac looks at me, instantly, agonisingly full of sorrow, and replies, “I just don’t want to make new friends and leave them all the time, that’s all.”

Ulp. I can spit out whatever platitudes about Skype and Steam I want, but the boy has a point.

“You know, we can always stop travelling if you want to,” I say, weakly.
“No, Mum,” he lies. “It’s fine. We can do another year.”

This is, for the record, something new. You’d think, from the outside, that travelling children would miss fixed friendships, and find the moving-on process tough. Historically, Zac hasn’t – though leaving Harbin was more of a wrench for both of us than expected.

But now he does. I’m at a loss for what to say.

“You know, we can always stop travelling if you want to,” I say, weakly.

“No, Mum,” he lies. “It’s fine. We can do another year.”

But I realise, in my heart, that it isn’t fine. What my son wants and what I want, and, more importantly, what is best for my son and what I want, are different.

This is the stage at which a good and dutiful mother would unselfishly leap into the void and abandon travel, stat. I’m afraid I’m not that good a mother. Soz.

I let the situation brew and sit for a while. Zac doesn’t seem unhappy, day in, day out. He hooks up with L. We’re not travelling, but we’re not not travelling, either.

“You know,” I say. “I’m starting to worry a bit about exams, and high school. Because we’re not really doing very much school stuff, are we?”

We are ambling back from the lovely Doctor Sadek, who has diagnosed and prescribed for Zac’s diving ear problem in under 60 seconds, when the subject of school raises its ugly head.

World schooling worked wonderfully for us at primary level. But, as I’ve observed, it’s working less well as he approaches his teens. He’s keeping up his Chinese, he’s doing a little desultory maths, albeit only under pressure, he’s learning from what’s around him, but he’s been “working” on his current English project (comparing Fahrenheit 451 and 1984) for a short geological era.

And he’s almost 13. So secondary school age.

“You know,” I say. “I’m starting to worry a bit about exams. Because we’re not really doing very much school stuff, are we?”

“Mm,” he says, a concerned frown shading his freckles. “Yeah, I was thinking about that as well.”

“You’ll need good grades at GCSE if you want to go to a good university,” I say. “You know that, right?”

“Mm,” he says again.

Neither of us are, it appears, worried enough about Zac’s education to do anything concrete about it – I do the odd bit of yelling, he does the odd bit of maths, he learns to make sand art and takes some pictures, and starts a YouTube channel. But even with an able child, the academic clock is ticking, and I know it. Teens are high school years, and they are almost upon us.

And I’m worrying about all sorts of other stuff, too. Primarily the internal question: “Am I being selfish in continuing to travel?” To which the internal answer echoes back: “Yes.”

You can, quite literally, wake up in the morning and decide that you’re moving to X country or Y spot that sounds nice today, or find a place you like and stop there for weeks.

Nomading, or vagabonding, or whatever you want to call it, is a lifestyle that’s hard to give up. It’s difficult to express the sheer freedom that is going where you want, when you want. You can, quite literally, wake up in the morning and decide that you’re moving to X country or Y spot that sounds nice today, or find a place you like and stop there for weeks.

You have no fixed costs, no home, no commitments other than the moment that you’re in – typically not even a flight to catch. If you’ve got wheels, you can just get on the bike, or in the car, and go. And go wherever!

There’s no need to get up on time, though I tend to. No need to cook unless you feel like it. No school commute. No morning alarm. Notwithstanding the odd mishap and ropy hotel, it’s a fan-fucking-tastic way to live.

Deadlines, of course, impinge (one of the things anyone should know about being a freelance writer is that it’s not as easy an option as it sounds). But, fundamentally, we’ve been doing this rising four years, and, although our stops are getting progressively longer, I continue to love it.

And it’s also a vast part of my identity – less so, I think, of Zac’s, who self-defines as nerd, as gamer, and only thirdly as adventurer.

I’m a travelling mother. We have adventures. I write about them. That’s been my schtick, my life, my modus operandi, a great swathe of who I am, for almost four years.

After the year from hell, I took a year out to do something we’d always talked about doing, and work out what to do next, set up a blog on the fly, and that year out became what I did next.

I figured out I could work on the road, and there was no reason to stop, and I became that thing I’d never heard of, a location independent digital nomad (though I loathe both terms).

I’m a travelling mother. We have adventures. I write about them. That’s been my schtick, my life, my modus operandi, a great swathe of who I am, for almost four years. Although the person that you are is, as Heraclitus observed about the river, always changing yet always the same, when people ask me what I live, or where I do, travelling is in the answer.

“I don’t live anywhere – we’re travelling. But I’m originally from London.”

“Well, we’re travelling, really. I work as a writer as we go along, and Zac learns from what’s around him.”

And when we stop travelling, I have to build a whole new identity. I’m no longer someone who’s travelling and writes about it. I’ll have to be someone else, something else, have a whole new set of answers to those questions.

I’ll have to settle, build a life, be a grownup that meets commitments like rent and school fees, and stays in one place much of the time – goddam it, LIVES SOMEWHERE — and likely owns more than the contents of two backpacks and a ‘puter bag.

Being a grownup, as I see it, is hugely over-rated. I did it before and have no desire to do it again.

But it’s what Zac needs. And I know that what I should do as a good parent, is to probe deeper into his discontent, and get the answer I know is lurking there. But I don’t, immediately.

I let things drift, and niggle. I go with the flow. When he lobbies to stay in Dahab longer, I extend another month, though when he pushes to spend his thirteenth birthday here, I hum and ha and maybe.

And then… Oh sweet Jesus… THIS happens.

22 Responses

  1. jason says:

    You write what’s on my mind, as well. My oldest is 11, but it’s already begun. I’m not nearly ready to settle, but I want to do right by my kids, as well. We stationed ourselves in Penang for a year on account of this, and I’m afraid of what happens once we pull up stakes next year.

    • Theodora says:

      Blimey, Jason – pulling up stakes after four months in Harbin was quite a challenge for us, and Zac enjoyed travel for three full years prior to that. I guess the key thing is to see where he’s at next year — and remember you can always travel post-children, as well as with them. And also squeeze in some long, big adventures while you’re based in Penang, to keep him in the travel groove.

  2. Jeez, I get this. We’re in the exact same boat right now…kid’s 13, she needs a community, we’re not traveling but not not-traveling. Lots of circular conversations about where to base. (The fam know they have to say to use the word “base,” because I’ll freak if they use the word “live.”)

    We’ve been in Mexico for the kid to learn Spanish, but she’s functionally fluent now. All kinds of options and locations are under discussion, but I know the kid misses Canada and libraries and writers workshops. Yet over the course of a week, she’ll also mention living in Amsterdam, France, Italy, and roadtripping through South America, which makes planning rather difficult.

    • Theodora says:

      Hahahahahaha! Not laughing at the conundrum, which is horrid, but the use of “base” for “live” — which is at least more honest than the use of “slow travel” for “live”. Our conundrum was slightly easier, because we’d decided that we’d live in Bali in 2011, though I do have a wee yen for Barcelona. “Community” is a term that came up with Lainie, as well. A community is a good thing, in all honesty. The advantage of Canada is you have a ready-made one, I guess. But there’s a lot to be said for ending a journey somewhere other than where you started. And both French and Italian will be a walk in the park with Spanish under her belt. If she’s up for a roadtrip, though, seize the day.

  3. Sharon McEachen says:

    I travelled with a boyfriend but mostly and better alone from 23 to 33. When I had my daughter I packed second smaller backpack and took my daughter to Morocco when she was two (disaster), we had three months in Thailand and Malaysia when she was four and another three months travelling Mexico, Guatemala and Belize when she was five. SE Asia was good because there were enough kids for her to play with. Central America was dreadful because the kids were either sleeping in doorways or being driven around in blacked out land cruisers. We had another RTW three months when she was seven (took the grandmother too that time). Three months was her maximum, she’s very sociable, missed her friends and her life (travelling was my life not hers). So we stopped, I worked,commuted she finished A levels, took a gap year in Switzerland saying one night ‘y’know mum you could take a gap year too’. So I did. She got back into travelling with her boyfriend, her degree is in modern languages and she works for an adventure travel company and moves at the drop of a (bobble) hat. Is there a moral in this ramble? err well for me it is that travel was my gig, she had to find her own. Good luck kiddo. An enjoyable read as ever. PS: once she was at uni I contracted half the year and travelled the other.

    • Theodora says:

      Gosh, how fantastic to hear from someone on the other end of it. Sniggering at your spot-on précis of the childhood situation in Central America. And… I’m bloody lucky mine enjoyed it for four years. I’ll be fascinated to see what his path is when he’s a man, truly fascinated. He currently wants to make an absolute fucktonne of money and be a philanthropist. So go figure.

  4. Powell says:

    Nice piece. Well stated. My two are both teens, and we know the conflict well. We’ve been home — back in Hawaii — for the past year, but are now thinking of venturing out again. Being in Paris this month is rekindling the spirit. It’s a life balance, and being the grown up is definitely way over-rated. Best to you both!

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you, Powell. I’m still hoping to avoid being a grown-up. Within the UK education system, sadly, we have exams at 16 and at 18, which means big adventures are likely going to have to wait. Mind you, I bet it helps living somewhere with the adventure potential of Hawaii. I know I’d be going stir crazy if I didn’t live somewhere a bit adventurous…

  5. Yvette says:

    Good read. And to be honest I’m not terribly surprised stuff like that kicks in as a teenager, because honestly it’s an angsty enough age without having to wonder about forming new friends and the like.

    Just wondering though, looking back on things is there an age before which you wouldn’t have been nomadic? Obviously it depends on the family, but I have friends just starting their own families and most seem to find a spot to live for a few years. To quote a friend, he just doesn’t want to find himself in a 3rd world hospital with a sick child too young to describe what hurts.

    • Theodora says:

      Particularly as a first-time parent – where you don’t necessarily recognise a child is sick until they’re very sick (you just think they’re whiny/bad-tempered) – I’d be highly cautious where I went with children under 3. It’s not just that they can’t describe what hurts, it’s that they get sick faster: grumpy to a 40+ fever in the space of an afternoon. That said, I took Zac to Egypt when he was 18 months, and Mexico when he was 2ish, and Sri Lanka when he was three, and Guatemala when he was 5, and Kenya when he was 6, and it was the Mexico trip that made me realise I wanted to do a year out travelling with him at some point. But we didn’t go wildly far off the beaten track in those destinations: we were never more than a few hours from a reasonable doctor and hospital.

      I also can’t imagine managing working nomadism in even first-world destinations with a child that didn’t yet sleep through the night and had to be watched like a hawk to stop it falling off high things / into watery things — though with two of you, that becomes a whole lot more doable. The Burnses – http://www.ourtravellifestyle.com — were nomadic with two very littlies (3 and 5, I think), although, again, they started, I think, in safer destinations. And of course there were two of them, and only Col was working, and Tracy’s one of those uber-patient angel mothers.

      So would I do it with a littlie? Possibly, yes — and you do meet families happily dragging a ragbag of kids all over Africa – but I wouldn’t do some of the more extreme stuff we did, to put it very mildly. There’s a nesting phenomenon that happens around childbirth time, as well, and I think that’s a big part of it: not to mention dealing with a newborn is quite hard enough when you have a fixed abode without throwing finding new accom every night into the mix.

      I’m not surprised it’s kicked in either. Though he doesn’t seem particularly angsty, I have to say. But… early days.

  6. Barbara says:

    I hope you’re doing OK with the new plan.

    I have nine years until the teenage years and I’d love to spend some of those years nomading. But there’s the unwilling-to-travel husband that I have to consider. Hey-ho, lucky for me he’s so easy-going he’ll give in eventually. Hehehehe.

    Will be following your new adventures with interest. And patiently waiting a visa run to Vietnam. 😉

    • Theodora says:

      Ahahahahaha – yes, VN is definitely on the cards. BUT your own visas are on the exxy side, so I want to make it longer than a visa run, which will require a pause and some planning…

  7. Heather says:

    I am a casual reader of your blog and trying to pick up ideas for when my son is a little older (he is three now). Your travels are very inspiring. In regards to the question of schooling, I think it’s great that you are both thinking of the future. It made me think of the movie “Surfwise” about a family that took their large group of kids on the road in an RV for their entire childhood/teen years and the kids were not schooled at all. One of the adult kids was very sad that because he wanted to be a doctor but had never completed any significant schooling so the idea of going back and finishing high school, then college, then med school while already in his 30s was daunting, if not impossible(?). Allowing kids to finish the basic levels of official schooling gives them a launch pad for whatever they want to do in the future, whether it’s a doctor, human right lawyer, nomad, writer, etc.

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you for mentioning that movie, Heather – I’d never heard of it, and just looked it up. It does sound as though several of the kids carry a degree of anger about the absence of schooling, which is a surprising choice for a medical doctor. Zac’s always been fairly clear that he wants school and university, and I think both are really important today – although, of course, if he has something else he wants to pursue when he’s 18, I’ll support that.

  8. Jenn says:

    I’ve bee reading you blog for a few years but just had a baby in April and stopped reading blogs all together for the past few months. I was shocked to come back and find you are settling for the time being. I also have a 14 year old (and 11 year old) and he did show signs of wanting to settle. (We’ve been traveling by rv for 3 years in the US and Canada.) After spending the past year getting used to the idea of settling he suddenly wants to stay on the road and gets annoyed at me when I talk of settling. It may have something to do with his girlfriend who also lives on the road with her family. 🙂 I’m just terribly torn. As you know we just want what’s best for our kids but to be honest I just don’t know. Anyway best wishes on this new adventure. I look forward to watching it unfold.

    • Theodora says:

      Hello – and welcome back! I’d suspect the girlfriend would be at the heart of it — so what a dilemma for you all. Ours is slightly easier, as we were always going to settle at some point, which didn’t make the actual act of it any more fun. How does he feel about school? Is he anti-school? Or would he like formal qualifications etc.? That’s another factor that becomes increasingly important as children grow…

  9. Lily Lau says:

    Now that I read this I remind back in the day when I used to travel with my parents and I was more or less Zac’s age…and all I wanted is to travel everyday, to move from home! Sadly we always want what we don’t have and the other does…

    • Theodora says:

      Yes, indeed. And – children change! More so, and faster, than adults do. I feel very privileged to have had the experiences we have had together, in all honesty. And I think Zac feels privileged for it too.

  10. Selma says:

    Tough call … I think it would be a good thing to slow down for a year or two and see where your son is at after that time. Everybody gets travel fatigue after a while, kids/teens included.

  11. Kay Taylor says:

    You are so amazingly talented. This post made me cry… Not so much because of any extreme feelings or emotions that normally make us cry, as because of its utterly everyday truth about small and big sacrifices we make to keep our families together and to make sure our kids are happy…I think, you are way more mother to your son than you realize.

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Kay! I love him dearly. But, of course, he’s entering the stage where he’s growing away from me, which is healthy…

  1. November 25, 2014

    […] becomes more important to many kids as they get older. It happened to Talon at 1Dad1Kid, and to Theodora at Escape Artistes and other traveling families we’ve met along the way. It’ll probably happen with us, […]