If you met me today, you might take me for a typical minivan-driving Berkeley mom. And I am. But I’m also full of stories. And dreams.Â Let me start with one of each from tenÂ years ago.
The first date with my future-husband, Alec, was a long one. Four hours in, we were exchanging personal travel stories like trading cards over milkshakes. Alec had been to Kenya and me to Turkey; he had been to Honduras and me to Thailand; he had been to Australia and me to the Czech Republic. We both had been to parts of Western Europe. We unknowingly laid the foundation for our own big journey together.
A year after our first date, I bought a big map. Alec and I circled places on it that we wanted to go. That same map hangs above my oldest son’s homework desk and some of the markings are still visible. Once the circles started to obscure the countries with too many highlights to visit in a year, I made a plan. I took charge and whittled our dream trip down to a manageable six-month round-the-world plane ticket with eight major stopovers plus trains, buses, boats, and cars to get us the rest of the way.
In hindsight, I can’t imagine it any other way, but the trip planning preceded any mention of a wedding. And then we got engaged, so decided to turn the adventure-trip into a honeymoon, making a handshake agreement to also leave the country every year of our marriage.
In preparation, we sold most of our belongings and put the rest into two storage pods. I went on a formal leave of absence but had no intention of returning to my job. We vacated our apartment the day after our wedding as we polished off the cake.
Vacation Heather is the best version of me. For many reasons as soon as I approach the airplane I gate-check my controlling nature and just go with it. I’ve learned so many wonderful things on trips. And most of them were about myself.
I didn’t want to forget a single detail of our epic monstermoon. Once the trip started, I recorded every restaurant, hostel, and activity along with all our expenses in a paper notebook.
Together, we had so many big and small adventures. We learned how to live out of one wallet from the start; that was a big shift in our thinking that has served us well since then. Similarly, we learned how grumpy I get after a day of hiking without enough snacks.
We kicked off our trip in the United Kingdom. Alec and I explored museums, pubs, and castles when we weren’t visiting with dear friends. One of my favorite spots in London is the transit museum where I climbed all over old buses and trains and learned bits of trivia I love to share.
To stretch our dollars as far as they’d go, we stayed in youth hostels most nights; to make it more “honeymoony”, we pampered ourselves at nicer hotels and restaurants every so often. I made up the rule that we should stay somewhere with a nice shower before every long flight. You’re welcome, world.
We flew to Germany as a launch point for other parts of Central and Eastern Europe. We discovered the perfect drinking chocolate in the Czech Republic; jumped off a bridge into a river holding hands in Slovenia; swam in a Budapest bath complex so lovely it could pass for a cathedral; discovered a common love of board games; and ate pizza more than a dozen times. We didn’t know it then but we picked up our most significant souvenir in Croatia, a group of tiny cells that taught us that the Facts of Life are universal, unchanged by geography. I should have suspected something was off when Alec won in Scrabble for the first time ever.
My husband still takes his bike rides rain or shine but I prefer to wait for ideal conditions. In Slovenia, we borrowed a pair of bikes and spent an hour cycling in the pouring rain along a highway with me in a blown-out poncho that poofed out like a sail. We returned to our hostel to tasty goulash and a belly-dancing show before catching our night-train to Munich on our way to Africa. I love a day like that; it’s such a potluck of random experiences.
Arriving in Cape Town was a huge shock: we had flown from summer to winter, town to city, and Europe to Africa.
After a few days in the big city, we joined a 10-day safari tour to take us through Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. The young leaders provided a big truck, meals, tents, and sleeping mats for eleven of us. In exchange, we did dishes and other odd chores. During these days, I began to feel oddly terrible.
Our safari truck drove on gravel roads with no other cars for hours in any direction. The towns we passed were lucky to have a dusty can of tripe on the shelves, certainly not a pregnancy test like I was hoping to find. By the time I summoned up the nerve to ask our young guides where I might find one, we were one day away from a real city with pharmacies and physicians.
The day we saw the positive pink lines on the pregnancy test ”“ and visited a local doctor to double-check ”“ we saw a wild zebra on the road and a flock of wild flamingoes. Lone zebras are very rare so we took it as a good omen.
Our visit to the Etosha National Park was perfect: we awoke before a glorious sunrise for our first of two game drives; we saw so many birds, giraffes, lions, zebras along our route to the lunch spot; after eating lunch, we walked to the nearby water hole and saw literally SIXTY (60) ELEPHANTS with babies splashing and drinking. It was amazing and hard to leave. We slept in tents to the roar of lions, too exhausted to see if they were nearby.
In other news, having disclosed my pregnancy to the staff, we were summarily kicked off our safari trip and dropped off at a Wimpy Hamburger joint to fend for ourselves. If I were to be bitten by an infected mosquito or take the malaria medicine, it would be very bad for the fetus. Alec and I agreed to leave the tour and wing it. Working as a team, we figured it out just fine. More good practice for real life!
Other African highlights include staying in a deluxe resort as a gift from my best friend; hiking through the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountains) to cave painting sites from about a thousand years ago; sleeping in a private rondeval with no bathroom door; and Alec eating antelopes large and small from impala and springbok to kudu and oryx. No doubt our insistence that our kids take a “no thank you bite” of whatever we prepare originated with these wild game taste tests.
When the time came to move on from Africa to Asia, we carefully packed up the only evidence we had of our tiny stowaway, the ultrasound picture from a doctor in Johannesburg.
The journey didn’t end, but it did take an unexpected path.
Lessons learned from my monstermoon?
- Nobody feels sorry for you taking a three-month honeymoon
- It’s important to get an hour to yourself every day, even if you’re with your favorite person in the world
- Raising a family is a different kind of epic adventure
- Hot chocolate is always a good idea, get the good stuff
- Your inbox will never be empty and there’s no such thing as a perfect time
- It’s almost always better to keep a job until you have a new one
We promised each other that we’d leave the country every year of our marriage. Three kids later and we’re still amortizing our honeymoon with only a few deposits in that bank. I hopeÂ some day we’ll get back on track.
[Photos by Heather and Alec Flett and a few random passers by]