A Family RTW Travel Adventure (2008-2009)
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Four Years Later


Sitting on a cool tile floor in a serviced apartment just north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, we huddled around a 19-inch TV set to watch the first African-American U.S. President take the oath of office half a world away.

It was a thrilling moment, flush with optimism and hope for better days. None of us could imagine all the change that lay ahead.

We were six months and three continents into our round the world trip, marveling in the atmosphere of Thailand. South America, New Zealand and Australia were behind us.  Southeast Asia, China, India, the Middle East and a life beyond lay ahead.

The full implications of the unfolding global financial crisis – and the challenges and human suffering it would create – were not clear yet.

But in that moment, as Barack Obama took the oath of office, as we watched from the other side of the world, I felt more proudly American than at any time in my life.


We don’t talk about our trip much now days.  Why would we?  As Tony Soprano once said: “Remember when. It’s the lowest form of conversation.”

But when the topic does come up, people often ask: “How did it affect your family?  Your kids?”  This is a question that is both easy and hard to answer.

Not to overstate it: Our trip affected each of us profoundly, defined us as a family and shifted the arc of our lives.

When we returned home we first had to navigate the wreckage wrought by the near collapse of the global economy.  Fortunately for us, that turned out to be the easy part.

More of a challenge was what to make of our lives.  Home was a comfort after eleven months on the road, but the context of our lives had changed.  Even the kids, as young as they were, felt this.

Gradually we found our way.

Fifteen years earlier, Dani had left the workforce to focus on our kids.  Now with two teenagers in the house, she had time to think about what she wanted to do next.

A volunteer opportunity helped her find her true calling.  Dani returned to graduate school to earn a Master’s in Teaching ESOL.  Now she is teaching in public school, working with new immigrants from around the world as they try to make sense of English and America.

Dani is a naturally gifted teacher, and our travels have given her an understanding and empathy for the incredible challenge of adapting to life in a new country.

Caroline (14 when we made the trip) is now halfway through her freshman year of college.  In the years since our return, she has made two service trips to El Salvador, living for weeks in extreme rural poverty, helping with local education projects.

The concern about Caroline missing her freshman year of high school was for nothing. The trip, I believe, gave Caroline a confidence beyond her years.  At college, she has decided to major in International Studies, with a concentration in Latin America.

Conor (11 when we traveled) is now a high school sophomore.  After ten years of studying Spanish – and serving as our primary translator in South America – he decided it was time to learn another language.  So this year he is tackling Arabic as he looks forward to his college search.

As always, Conor’s sense of humor and creativity fill every day. I have to wonder, though, why I ever introduced him to “Spinal Tap.”

Still, every day, I count our blessings and try to push from my mind the alternate narrative that could have unfolded. I think often of that day in the Galapagos, when disaster was so narrowly avoided. And each night, I thank my lucky stars for the family and life Fate has granted me.

C & C

Four years after the heat of Chiang Mai, we find ourselves gathered back in the Washington DC environs, watching a second inauguration, still optimistic, still full of hope.  Caroline, along with a group of college friends, is representing us at the ceremonies on the National Mall.

Four years later we realize how much the trip defined us, made us adventurers and citizens of the world.  Most important, it gave us a year of extraordinary (and ordinary) experiences through which we have forged a bond deeper than I could have ever imagined.

So maybe Tony Soprano was wrong.  Maybe at certain times, in certain circles, “Remember when” can be a very high form of conversation indeed.

A few weeks ago I was thinking ahead to Spring Break, looking for a new destination, a new adventure.

Inspiration struck.  I pulled out my phone to text Caroline at college, to gauge her interest and get her opinion.

“Nicaragua?” I texted.

“That seems awesome!” came the reply.

“I’m going to work on it – Nicaragua this spring, Turkey this summer.”

Caroline responded: “Yeah world travelers for life!”

I tapped out: “World FAMILY travelers for life!!”

After a few seconds Caroline replied:  “Awwww yeah!”


1 Sarah Jones { 01.21.13 at 6:02 pm }

We “remember when,” and your trip has always inspired our family. We didn’t know you personally (I knew Dani a little at RCF), but we loved following your every adventure–and we treasure the vicarious memories!! We can’t do it all, but I am writing this comment from the tiny island of Yap, one of the few places on earth I have been that is completely untouched and unaffected by American culture and consumerism. Unlike some of the nearby cultures (Chuuk, for example), it is a harmonious, thriving, and self-sufficient society. We thank you for the inspiration! Sarah Jones, Tim Quast, Sophia, Helen, Zoe Quast.

2 Doug Spiro { 01.22.13 at 11:25 am }

Having lost the trail of the James gang for 15 years I was lucky to find the Wide Wide world about 2 weeks after the start of your trip. Every morning I would log on to see what fantastic adventures you all were having. Your words and pictures saved me at a time in my life when I was in need of being saved. From tales of Prelox (To help a man with love) in Asia to the lost red cap in South America , every morning the Wide Wide World was right in front of me. Thanks for going and thanks for coming back!

3 Recall | Lives of Wander { 01.22.13 at 10:52 pm }

[…] morning, while wandering around my online neighborhood, I came across a post on The Wide Wide World reflecting on Obama’s first inauguration and experiencing it from abroad. It made me pause […]

4 Rachel { 01.23.13 at 11:38 pm }

LOVED reading this — it was just the sort of inspiration I needed as doubt to do our own rtw trip was setting in. Hearing how the trip expanded your kids minds and interests and confidence is another push forward to stay the plan! Thank you.

5 David { 02.13.13 at 1:08 pm }

We’ve been back a little longer from our trip than you now (12 years!), but your words equally apply to us, and I suspect to anyone who has done the long term RTW trip.

We still travel a lot both as a family and as individuals, but I have to say that the biggest benefit of our year off was just spending a year together as a family. I don’t know very many other parents who spent 24/7 with their kids for a year on an adventure with none of the usual distractions. The older I get, the more I realize how amazing it really was.

6 David { 02.13.13 at 1:10 pm }

I can’t count! Its coming up to 11 years since we got back… 12 years since we left. 🙂

7 Dani James { 03.19.13 at 9:04 pm }

@David, You were my very first contact and inspiration. Thanks for your support and encouragement early on. Wow, time really does fly. Thanks for writing.

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