In 2006, the Wright-Williams family sold their house and took off for an adventure. “I loved our home and was very attached to it, but once it sold, it gave us so much freedom,” remembers Diana. They had ten weeks to plan the trip, pack up, pull kids out of school, get vaccinated and move things into storage. With two duffel bags in tow, they left with their two children (ages 8 and 4) and started in China and traveled though Tibet, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bali and finally rested for three months in New Zealand before coming home one year later. During that time, they taught English to students in Vietnam, raised $20,000 for heart surgery for children in Vietnam, volunteered with monks in Laos, and bought school supplies and clothing to villages, schools and orphanages in Laos. “Volunteering turned out to be easier in concept than in reality in many cases,” says Diana, “but in the end it was transformative for each of us as individuals, as well as for our family and hopefully, we left the places we visited better off than when we arrived. And perhaps best of all, the children quickly learned about simplicity and I hope they learned that each of us can do something, even if it is just a little thing, that can help make someone else’s day a bit better.”
Our journey began in China, where we went to visit my younger daughter’s foster parents. They raised her for a year before we met her and became an adoptive family in 2003, when she was 15 months old. From there, we traveled to Tibet and Nepal. In Tibet, it was virtually impossible to volunteer, at least in a public way. There is so much need, but with children, it would have been too difficult and risky to become involved with an underground effort. We visited friends in Nepal, but chose not to stay due to the civil unrest. In Vietnam, we found what we were looking for and stayed for three months helping with “Heartbeat Vietnam”
Of the year that we were abroad, we spent three months with “Heartbeat Vietnam” in Saigon, traveling to the Mekong Delta and meeting the children who had severe heart defects and didn’t have access to medical care, nor the funds to pay for a surgery. The surgery to repair a heart defect in Saigon averages about $2,000 USD. If the average subsistence farmer is earning a $1/day, then you can see how impossible that would be. Children would just turn blue and eventually die without help. We were able to raise $20,000 from friends and family to get 10 children to the hospital, and continue to support the program with an annual sale of Asian textiles and scarves. We also taught English in two countries – to children Hanoi and to monks in Laos. Through the scarf sales, we have also been able to send support to an orphanage in Laos.
Being with my children as they discovered their own compassion and ability to make a difference in a life of another child was incredible. It can get cold in Laos, and many children don’t go to school in the winter because they don’t have warm clothes or shoes to walk the long way to get there. So, we collected clothes, and with a local teacher who could tell us who the neediest children were, we were able to clothe a few dozen kids in a small village in Northern Laos. One girl, who walked the farthest to school, had feet that were bigger than the shoes we had brought with us. My daughter looked at her for a moment, then bent down, took her sneakers off her feet and gave them to the girl. I like to think that those shoes are still somewhere in that village keeping a child’s feet warm.
I would say there were three major challenges.
1. The health of my family was an everyday challenge. NuNu was four and Isobel was eight when we began our trip. I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been for the altitude sickness in Tibet. For the first few days Bob was violently ill, NuNu was throwing up, Isobel couldn’t walk, as her legs were too weak from lack of oxygen, and I had a massive headache. Malaria was also a consideration, and while I came prepared with Malarone, we never did end up using it. As soon as we landed in a new country I would ask the ex-pats about the malaria situation – after weighing the risk vs. the toxicity of the medication, we just took the usual precautions for preventing mosquito bites.
2. Finding places to volunteer. Since we didn’t work though an organized volunteer program, it was critical to find people whom we could get to know and trust. We learned that money can get into the wrong hands and well-intentioned travelers and tourists can think they are doing a good thing, when in fact they can inadvertently create a lot of damage. Ex-pats were the best source of good information about who to trust and who to stay away from. Again, there were places we visited where the need was possibly the greatest, but our hands were tied, as in Myanmar.
3. No doubt, we became closer as a family. However, being together 24/7 for weeks at a time will either bring you much closer to your spouse or land you in divorce court. I happy to report that Bob and I are still married and are better off for having spent that year together.
We traveled by train, plane, automobile, tuk tuk, motorbike, boat, canoe, bicycle and by foot- and that was half the fun. Because it wasn’t planned out ahead of time, we had the luxury of creating the travel plans as we went. With the exception of getting stuck enroute in the old, bug infested airport in Bangkok for 48 hours, winging it worked pretty well.
Who would you recommend this experience to?
Any family with children who wants to have an adventure. Giving ourselves a year allowed a tremendous amount of freedom, but certainly, a version of this trip could be done in less time.