With three kids in tow, Tsh Oxenreider and her husband, Kyle, set out on a global adventure — a year of traveling the world from China and Thailand to Australia and New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Morocco, France and Croatia.
The world became the classroom for the 2014-2015 school year for 9-year-old Tate, 6-year-old Reed and 4-year-old Finn. “There’s no comparison to being somewhere,” she says. “They can read about the history of the Great Wall and what it’s like, but they don’t know what it smells like or feels like.” She compares their trip to one giant field trip. “We remember the field trips,” she says about her time in school. “We learned so much more in field trips than we did in the classroom. It’s the same idea.”
Cafes and kitchen tables became the Kyle and Tsh Oxenreiders’ offices.
Now the Georgetown mom has written about their adventures in “At Home in the World: Recollections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe.” She’ll be at BookPeople April 21.
When they first set out, they had to figure out how to make everything they would bring with them fit into the backpacks they each would carry and how would they make their wardrobe make sense for very different climates and very different cultures. It meant that each kid could only choose one important thing to bring with them, not a whole backpack of stuffed animals.
They would bring with them journals and Kindles loaded up with schoolwork as well as laptops for the grownup work.
They had a long history of living in other parts of the world. Kyle and Tsh met in Kosovo, Croatia, and had lived in Turkey when the kids were younger, but they had never been on the move for a whole year. They had never packed up everything they owned, put it in storage, sold their house and been without a permanent address.
Instead of starting in Europe, they started at the other end of the world, in China. “In some ways, we were ripping the Band-Aid off,” she says.
The jet lag and adjusting to the different sights and sounds was rough as well as being surrounded by the communist mindset and the air pollution. They settled in a small guest house in Beijing and begin to acclimate to sharing tight quarters. They gave themselves time to adjust, see the Great Wall, navigate transportation and ordering food, before moving on to Xi’an, China. There they reconnect with friends they knew when they lived in Portland, Ore. Their kids played together and they had moments of normalcy before moving onto Hong Kong, then Thailand.
The Oxenreiders planned this trip for short bursts of covering a lot of territory then longer times when they went “low and slow,” as Tsh Oxenreider calls it. Thailand is one of those places, where they hunkered down for a bit, caught up on schoolwork and work. They also picked Australia and France as places where they will take some time away from the road to relax.
When the kids reminisce about that year, they don’t talk as much about the adventures in China or Africa, as they do about the time they spent Christmas in Australia in a house in a subdivision where there were chickens and it was summer, or the time their backyard was an olive farm in France. “They love the small, simple, slow parts,” Oxenreider says.
Along the way the Oxenreiders were purposeful about how they spent their money. They reconnected with friends all around the world or were given tours by locals who were friends of friends. This saved on expenses, but it also gave them a perspective that a tourist couldn’t get.
So many cultures saw the kids as part of society, Oxenreider says. “They didn’t try to shush them,” she says. “They would invite them in.” In Thailand, they were invited into the kitchen of a local restaurant to watch them cook.
They only bought plane tickets three months at a time rather than planning the whole adventure up front. They didn’t want to get locked into a plan.
The countries that surprised them the most was their love of New Zealand, which reminded them of the Oregon they had just left, and Croatia, a country they actually thought about moving to permanently.
Africa was hard, not because of the people — they found them to be amazingly friendly. They are the examples to the rest of the world of how to be welcoming, Oxenreider says. No, what was hard about Africa was the lack of infrastructure, especially around finding internet to run a business, and the surprising expensiveness of it.
They wouldn’t go back to China or Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, though, they did love going to where tea comes from. Some countries like Austria, Slovenia and Hong Kong, they wished they had had more time to explore.
The were always aware that they couldn’t do it all, so they didn’t try to. They picked quality rather than quantity. She remembers that the first time they went to Paris, she was pregnant with Finn, and they bought a 24-hour museum pass. “That was insane,” she says. “They don’t care about great art,” she says of the kids. “I knew this time not to go that route. I’d much rather not do something, but to do things we did do well.”
They tried to not stand out so much like Americans, which meant understanding some of the culture’s social mores, but it was hard, especially with a limited wardrobe.
Tsh Oxenreider says she tried hard not to be the American wearing the running shoes with every outfit, but it was hard to not look out of fashion in places like Italy, Eastern Africa and Hong Kong, when you have a windbreaker instead of a proper jacket. That’s one thing Oxenreider will bring the next time they go on a global adventure.
While Oxenreider thought the lack of stuff and different wardrobe items would be the hardest part, it really wasn’t. She thought of it like having a uniform and most of the time, they could wash clothes in a laundry bag pretty easily. Sometimes, though, they did feel a bit grungy and the kids’ shoes stank.
Oxenreider actually found that she didn’t need everything they brought with them and could have packed less. “Whatever you need, you can get,” she says. “Usually, you’re so glad for the backpack to be lighter.”
Many of the things she worried about never really happened. They expected more sickness, but aside from the occasional cold or vomiting, they were pretty healthy. They never struggled to find clean water, but sometimes, they were limited on what they could eat because they weren’t in a country long enough to adjust to the bacteria in the water to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. They also went several months without a good cup of coffee.
The language barriers also weren’t that difficult. Either people spoke English or the Oxenreiders used some Spanish or French or they used Google Translate.
“Usually the stressful things are the fear of the unknown,” Oxenreider says.
The hardest part was being together all the time and in very close quarters. “You have to re-ordinate what it means to have a date,” she says. A good date could be hanging out in the living room after the kids go to bed. They spent their anniversary in Thailand, where they all went to their anniversary dinner.
Sometimes they also struggled because they were in very tight spaces, especially traveling in some of the vehicles. Reed is on the autism spectrum and has sensory processing differences. That means that he needs to move constantly, and his siblings would get frustrated with him about how much he needed to move. “I felt more like a referee,” Oxenreider says.
The other struggle was finding enough outlets to keep electronics charged, but then that gave the kids practice on dealing with boredom and finding other ways to entertain themselves. For Tate, the experienced helped her become very self-aware about avoiding sensory overload and needing time alone. It also made her more thoughtful about what it meant to be lonely. At first, it seemed that all the other families they would run into only had boys, which was great for Reed and Finn. “The few times she had a girl friend, she just soaked it up and loved it,” Oxenreider says.
The Oxenreiders would love to go again. They’d love to see Japan, Central America and Scandinavia.
“I feel like travel will always be part of our lives,” she says. They just got back from Hawaii and reflected on how fun it was. “We feel like ourselves again traveling.”
Oxenreider’s best advice for people considering doing something like this is to start off slow and try something smaller. “See what it’s like,” she says. “Kids become better travelers the more they travel.”
One thing you can do to get ready is to try to use the public transportation in your own city to get around. “See how you fare,” she says. “See the personalities,” especially when you’re dealing with uncertain schedules. Then try going a little bit farther before trying it on a global level.
“You’re never going to be ready,” she says. “Take a leap of faith and do it. It’s like a wedding or having a baby, you’re never going to be ready.”
“At Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe” by Tsh Oxenreider
$22.99, Nelson Books
Reading and signing
7 p.m. April 21
BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.