An Interview With Barbara of The Dropout Diaries (the Traveling Families Series)

This is the first in a series of interviews with traveling families. For this starting point, we’re happy to share one of our very favorite family travel websites, DropoutDiaries. Penned by the very funny and astute expat Barbara, Dropout Diaries focuses on the challenges of dropping out of the rat race, the joys of family travel, and deep cultural details of wherever this lovely family is in the world at the moment. It’s a joy to read (especially the International Street Food series!), full of color and humor and realism about traveling the world with a toddler, living life as a digital nomad. We caught up with Barbara and asked her about travel, dropping out, favorite places, meeting locals, and more. Here’s what she had to say…

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family [Darling Man and Miss M.]

I met Darling Man in Vietnam in early 2008, about a year after I dropped out of the rat race to have adventures in Asia. I met him at the office Tet party — a colleague brought him along to cover the fact that he was late. (A Tet party is kind of like the Vietnamese equivalent of a Christmas party.) He chatted to me only briefly, and I think he was only trying to show off his English. My colleague continued to invite Darling Man along to things, which was nice. And eventually Darling Man and I decided to hang out without all the others. And the rest is history!

We decided to try for a family in 2009 and by the end of that year we were welcoming Miss M into the world. Not long after that we decided to try the expat life in Singapore. After 15 months we decided to drop out again and we moved to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand for seven months so I could set up a location independent business. But 17 days after we moved to Thailand my dad died and that unexpected and earth-shattering event left me too fuddle-headed to pursue my business idea.

We are now back in Vietnam. Darling Man was incredibly homesick and worriedabout his career, so we came back. We’ve got some fun ideas for our new adventure, including food tours and a book about street food. And we are trying to work out (again) how to balance work, family and fun while we explore our new home.

What inspired you to leave the 9 to 5 behind and pursue a life of travel?

To be honest, it wasn’t inspiration that fueled my first dropout. It was burnout and a touch of disillusionment. I’d poured my heart and soul into my career for more than 15 years and I had a great job. But the job just consumed my life. And when I looked around at my “successful” friends, they were similarly consumed by their jobs. I just couldn’t see how I could keep going and I definitely couldn’t see how to fit children into this consumed life. So I just pulled the plug… sold my car, put my stuff in storage, sent my dog to my parents and enrolled in a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) course in Ho Chi Minh City.

My second dropout was an inspired dropout. I was back in the corporate world, in Singapore. Instead of having a wonderfully exotic life of work and play, I was spending too many hours on the bus, I was missing my baby while I was at work but too tired to play with her when I got home…. I knew life could be better than that. I found a copy of Tim Ferriss’ Four-Hour Work Week, devoured it and then started finding blogs of people (with kids) who were out there traveling, blogs like Family On Bikes. I just started with the thought “if they can do it, then surely I can do it” and went from there. I was lucky enough to be offered a part-time remote editing job just as we were getting ready to leave Singapore. Without that job, I think I would be teaching English again, a job I didn’t particularly enjoy.

In what ways does traveling with a toddler enrich your experience of a destination?

Having a toddler gives me a free pass to start conversations with other parents. It’s almost an extension of how dog-owners can strike up conversations in the park with other dog-owners without seeming creepy. Miss M, who is two-and-a-half, is also a very social little human. She will run up to other kids and try to play. She will smile cheekily at shop owners and she will tell long involved stories with lots of hand gestures to complete strangers. As her “handler” I often have no choice but to interact with the locals.

On our most recent trip to France and Switzerland, I met so many people through Miss M. I was amazed by how many people heard Miss M speaking English and so started talking to me in English. The language skills of Europeans are incredible!

So far, what has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in traveling with a little one in tow?

The biggest travel challenge has not actually been the baby. It’s been Darling Man’s Vietnamese passport. The French government refused his application for a Schengen visa, which completely destroyed our long-planned cycling and camping tour of Europe that was supposed to start in April. Even though we supplied all the documents the French government asked for – bank account details, flight bookings, hotel bookings, insurance details and a letter from me explaining we were traveling as a family – it was decided that it was too risky to let him into Europe. The baby and I have Australian passports, so we didn’t need a visa at all.

Because we had booked everything … in order to get his visa … I set off for Europe with Miss M anyway. (Canceling the trip would have cost nearly as much as taking it!) I didn’t think it was safe or logistically possible to cycle and camp without Darling Man, so we didn’t try that. We spent two weeks in a home exchange house in Provence, four days “glamping” in a very fancy two-bedroom tent, we stayed with a friend in Switzerland and then stayed with other friends in Paris. It was an amazing trip and Miss M and I had a lot of fun together. But it was hard work without a co-parent. The nights were lonely and getting sick without a co-parent was just horrendous.

Did it ever get lonely as you traveled about from place to place for so many months?

It was only lonely when we were traveling without Darling Man! The rest of the time we have each other, and we have met a lot of people through my blog, which has been an amazing and unexpected benefit of having a blog.

What has been your favorite experience interacting with local people?

My favourite experience was stumbling across not one but two monk initiation ceremonies in Chiang Mai. The first one as a complete accident. I wanted to take some photos of a temple that we drove past often. So we went to that temple. Then I decided to take some photos of the temple next door. (Chiang Mai has A LOT of temples). Then I decided we may as well cross the road and look at THAT temple. And inside that third temple a novice monk initiation ceremony was underway. We watched for a bit to make sure it was OK to take photos, then we started taking photos. While I was taking photos, Miss M was wandering through the crowd, fanning the old ladies with a fan someone had given her.

The next day we mentioned our discovery while we were chatting with a lady who runs a not-for-profit coffee shop. And she mentioned that another temple was having a novice monk initiation ceremony that very night. This was a different ceremony, at a Shan temple. (The Shan are an ethnic group from Burma/Myanmar). At this ceremony, the novice monks are dressed up like princes and paraded around. It was amazing! My favourite part of that incredible experience was seeing Darling Man and Miss M play with remote controlled cars right alongside some of the novice monks.

Which destination you’ve visited has surprised you most?

I would have to say Vietnam. I wasn’t actually all that interested in visiting Vietnam the first time. I wanted to do a cycle tour of Cambodia, but the longest tour I could find was only a week and I wanted to spend a few weeks cycling. The tour company I wanted to go with had the option of joining a Vietnam cycling tour up to a Cambodian cycling tour, so I decided to do that.

My Dad, who’s number never came up in the conscription ballot they had in Australia for the Vietnam War, wanted to come along and see Vietnam. So off we set. Dad and I did the Vietnam part together, then he went home and I did the Cambodia part without him. It was Dad’s 60th birthday present to himself.  I’m so glad we did that Vietnam trip. I fell in love with the country and decided it was the perfect place to reset my life. And I had a fun holiday with my Dad, who despite his fitness and vitality only had another four years to live.

So Vietnam surprised me by being an amazing, vibrant, buzzing, exotic and fascinating country. Vietnam surprised me by giving me Darling Man, and then Miss M. And now Vietnam is surprising me all over again with its energy and colour.

What would be your advice for anyone considering ‘dropping out’?

My advice is definitely “go for it”. But I think a dropout can only work if you have some means of support, either a way to make money on the go or enough savings to cover your expenses, your flights home and something extra to get you settled when and if you go home.

My biggest piece of advice is to monitor yourself after you dropout. Because sometimes you come to the realisation that the life you left behind wasn’t all bad. And finally — don’t burn any bridges when you go. Because you never know if you’re going to come back or not!

This interview series of traveling families is in collaboration with Dr. Jessie Voigts, founder of the Family Travel Bloggers Association, founder of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program, and Publisher of Wandering Educators, a travel library for people curious about the world.