When we first set out on our sabbatical, we thought of it as a once-in-a-lifetime kind of journey. I sort of expected we’d take our six months away, learn some pat little lessons about life, show the kids some sights, and then slide right back into our house, school, church, community, friends, and activities.
I didn’t expect the lessons to come at me with such velocity and variety. I didn’t expect to change so much.
Now that our six month journey is over, I want to share some of the things I’ve learned. If any of you are thinking of taking your family on a family sabbatical in the future, maybe these insights will help you in your planning.
1. Six Months Is Not A Long Time
When the idea to take this travel break with our family first occurred to my husband and me, we both laughed at the idea. Yes, it would be wonderful. But, of course, it was impossible. Six months felt like an eternity. No sane, responsible parents would uproot their children’s lives (not to mention their own) for something as inconsequential as travel.
(In the interest of time, I won’t get into the wrongness of that statement but will only say we obviously decided otherwise.)
But the idea wouldn’t go away. We decided to pay attention to it. Finally, we decided we’d try it – not for the year we first thought – but only for six months. And we agreed: If something happened, either at home or abroad, we could always cut it short and head back to our regular life. The “something” could be anything: our business was flailing, we felt threatened in some way, the kids weren’t thriving in school, or we just didn’t like it and felt like we were wasting time.
As it turns out, none of these things happened. As it turns out, six months is not long at all. It went by in a brief blip of unique activities and stimulating conversations. The whole thing felt like a dream. I was shocked when it was time to wake up.
Nothing too urgent happened at home. We’d made plans as well as we could to wrap up work, school, home, and personal issues. And our plans worked. Although some small bad things happened, the larger picture got brighter: a stronger “stress-tested” business for my husband, a new fledgling business for me, enlightened views about education, many new friendships, and a different perspective about the stuff we owned.
Now that we realize it was possible to take this break away, we wish we had planned for longer. The reason? We found that most real change cannot happen in six months. Now that we’re almost done with our sabbatical, I’m finding that I wish I’d had more time to answer the questions presented to me while away. Instead, it seems I’ve only uncovered more questions than I started with.
2. Every Detail Does Not Need To Be Planned Out
When we first decided to take time out of our lives, my perfectionism kicked in hard-core. I thought, “If we’re going to take time out of our lives to travel, I have to get it exactly right.” I suppose I felt goals and plans were the only way to make this seemingly flaky and irresponsible plan fit into my action-oriented, Type-A life.
I love to plan. I make lists of lists. So, for an adventure of this magnitude, I planned everything. I researched incessantly. I asked everyone I could think to ask for their advice. I weighed all of the evidence and, together with my husband, planned the heck out of this journey.
But as the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”
No matter how much I planned, Belize had its own ideas for how our trip would go. So our six months became more about the journey and less about the destination. It became about flexibility rather than sticking to a plan. And it became about the deep gifts of patience, discovery, self-awareness, and appreciation for the present moment.
3. Attitude Is Everything
Letting go of expectations is important. So is realizing that a positive attitude – to include a healthy sense of humor – is everything in life.
As Buddha said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”
Quotes from the Buddha usually put things into perspective for me. When you think of everything in terms of “at least I’m alive!” it sort of makes the little annoyances and moods easier to handle.
When I have a positive attitude, things like broken-down trucks, late flights, upset stomachs, and stormy weather don’t seem so bad at all.
This trip has been all about keeping our cool and going with the flow. We’ve learned to smile through long waits and hard-to-understand people. Belize, with its slow pace of 50 years ago, is a great place to learn this lesson.
4. I Didn’t Miss Any Of My Material Things
The weekend before we left, I was busy packing precious goods into suitcases. I looked around at the items I wasn’t taking, thinking, “Oh, how I’ll miss my books and kitchen stuff and kids’ toys.”
When we returned after six months, I was completely and utterly overwhelmed by the amount of things I have in my house. I barely remembered any of it. I wouldn’t say we’re hoarders – just regular Americans with a regular appetite for buying stuff. But it adds up over the years. Sort of breeds in dark closets. We had the contents of five suitcases for six months (half of which was clothes that are now too small, stained, torn, or otherwise bedraggled). And we were perfectly happy.
Freedom comes from not tripping over stuff, having to clean and take care of stuff, organizing stuff, and worrying about stuff.
5. I Didn’t Need To Pack Toothpaste
I read somewhere on someone’s travel blog that you never have to pack extra toothpaste, no matter where you are going in the world. Everyone brushes their teeth. This is common sense to me now. But back in October, when I was packing? Well, let’s just say I brought extras of everything “just in case I couldn’t get it easily in Belize.”
I had extra diapers, baby wipes, toothpaste, shampoo, lotion, soap (SOAP!), saline solution, and deodorant.
Some things are difficult-to-come-by in a developing nation like Belize. But, from what I’ve heard, the availability of items is improving every year. I didn’t need to bring extra diapers – they have babies there, the babies poop there, so… of COURSE they have diapers there. I didn’t need to bring soap, or toothpaste.
Saline solution wasn’t a bad idea, though, and I should have brought more. It was very expensive there.
Anyway, overpacking was probably my way to hold on to as much control as I could. If I knew I had a month’s supply of diapers, I could conquer the world! Next time I travel abroad, I’ll know several things: 1) I’ll be able to find most items in most places; 2) I should loosen up and realize people live just fine without all the products I’m used to; and 3) if I can’t find something in any given country, maybe – just maybe! – I don’t even need it.
6. Variety Is Good
When in the comfort zone of home, I know where to shop, what to buy, how to prepare food, who to call if the kids get sick, what to call the different veggies available, how to get everywhere, where to get a haircut, what the gestures and body language of my people mean, what time church is, and where to buy a case of beer.
In Belize, everything was different. But different is not bad. In having to figure out the tasks of daily living, I felt sharper than I had in a long time.
Being too close to my routine at home caused me to stagnate. I now realize I had to break out of my normal life to 1) sharpen my senses and 2) appreciate the comfort of knowing how it works, at least in one part of the world.
7. The Path Less Traveled Might Just Be A One-Way Street
As I said above, when we first decided to take a family sabbatical, we thought of it as a one-time thing. We thought we’d weave six months off into the tapestry of our regular life. We’d come back at the end of the trip recharged. But, essentially, we would not change. We’d simply slip back into our old lives with a lot of good memories of Belize.
But something unexpected happened. We changed.
We grew and expanded during this sabbatical more than we could have known. Now we’re not sure if our new selves will fit back into the confining box of this old “regular life.”
The connections we made with people on the road stimulated us, as did the constant stream of variety and challenge. We had our appetite whetted for these things, as well as the freedom of being on the road, seeing new sights. At home, we are often mired down in material things and have a lot to do to take care of everything. While traveling, we are free of all that stuff, free of taking care of stuff, free to simply be.
Now that we realize how much we’ve changed, how can we go back to normal life?