by Jodi Bryant
Last year, Jake Baldwin and Sara Ujdur were living the suburban dream. Their spacious Onerahi home was just several minutes walk to the school where Jake taught and their daughter attended. Likewise, the kindy, where Sara, a stay-at-home mum, would take their youngest before having the peaceful house to herself.
But the family of four have traded in this lifestyle, opting instead to spend almost a year travelling around South-East Asia on a single scooter, dining on the likes of grass hoppers and sharing two single beds between them crammed into the one room at night.
For the last seven years, Jake and Sara have had a yearning to re-live their travels and saved like mad to make it happen.
"We had travelled together as a couple extensively through Europe and Asia when we were younger," explains Jake. "We felt pretty bogged down in daily life and decided that we needed a large change. We wanted to try traveling with children."
They chose Asia as it would be a 'complete culture shock for the children' due to language barrier, lifestyle and culture. They also wanted to travel somewhere affordable long-term and with warm weather.
Jake had been working as a teacher for the last 12 years and, at the beginning of 2017, decided to leave teaching and fully renovate a house with his father-in-law. The process took five months and, after selling the project house, along with their cars, furniture and many possessions, they rented out their family home and set off on their adventure.
"Truthfully, I started to get cold feet as we got closer to leaving," recalls Jake. "This was due to a bit of anxiety about all the different diseases we would be exposing us and the children to via insects, animals and food in Asia, as well as spending seven years of our hard-earned savings. However, I did want to know that we could get through the potential tough times of extended travelling 24/7 together."
With only vague plans, Jake, Sara, Blaise, 7, and Elise, 3, flew to Australia, where they left their beloved dog Boe with Jake's sister, before renting a car and travelling around between family members and cheap units for six weeks. Next it was onto Asia.
They arrived in Bali, where Jake, a keen surfer, got his surfing fix, and the kids had an 'easy introductory' to Asia, before carrying on through Malaysia to Thailand via a combination of train, tuk tuk and ferry. In Bangkok, they obtained visas for Vietnam and flew to Saigon, Vietnam and used trains to slowly make their way around the country.
Jake describes many of these slow trains as the wooden seat variety with wind-down windows, toilets that drop straight onto the tracks and full to the brim with humanity.
At each stopover, the family all crammed onto one scooter, often travelling for six hours a day to sightsee and get around.
Reflecting from Malaysia, where they have made their way back to, Jake says, there has been a mix of highlights and lowlights.
"The highlights were definitely Northern Vietnam - it's natural beauty and friendly people, as well as the feeling of experiencing a more traditional way of life that they are leading. Koh Lanta Island really was also a highlight, due to having less tourist development, relaxed daily life, and crystal-clear warm water. Scootering around wherever we were was also fantastic as we always enjoyed seeing what natural beauty, hidden temples, beaches, rivers or mountain roads were just around the corner."
Another highlight has been witnessing the Asian people gravitate toward their children.
"They would soften to them and become very helpful. We had so many people, who own very little, offer and give us food and drinks. At times, especially when exploring temples and sights, the girls would have a queue of people waiting to have their photos taken with them. It was all a bit surreal really, like they were little pop stars."
He cites the lowlights as the accommodation and lack of down-time as a couple.
"We thought two-bedroom units would be easy and cheap to find. Most of the trip we have been in one room, with no tv, two beds if we are lucky, and a smelly bathroom. Sharing a single bed for the children and sharing the other single bed for us has become the norm. As we didn't pre-book hotels, shacks or huts on the beach ahead, we often had a stressful and hot 12-hours-plus of travelling, followed by the stress of finding somewhere to stay - perhaps not the best idea at times!"
Home schooling was also a challenge. While it started out well, life on the road, changing location every three-four days, sight-seeing, heat and frustration all took their toll on lessons, says Jake.
"Life lessons really are the main course, with reading and maths a side-order at best."
In hindsight, he says, they would probably shorten the trip to around three or four months, as opposed the eight-12 months they are doing, which would allow for a larger budget.
But life-lessons and experiences have out-weighed the negatives; the couple have watched the girls' confidence grow, interacting with different nationalities and witnessed their joy experiencing various modes of transport, while making Blaise and Elise appreciate what they have back home.
Sara believes she has a new understanding of her daughters and appreciates their differences and the travel experience has opened her eyes to how lucky we are in New Zealand.
"She is also looking forward to having some personal space, especially when I go off to work and the kids to school," jokes Jake.
Jake himself says he has taken away the feeling of wanderlust again.
"It has made me want to see even more of the world and proven that, just because we have kids, it shouldn't stop us as they are incredibly adaptive and resilient. Their attitudes are truly amazing, certainly helping me to look on the bright side of some stressful experiences of our trip. It has also made me appreciate how amazing and pristine New Zealand is, and that I would like to see more of our own country. Finally, it has made me realise that, sometimes I don't react the best to stressful situations, and that I should, in the future, take a breather, and trust in my/our ability to solve the problem, as life certainly doesn't always go as expected. It is always nice, I believe, to return home with a goal that will make me a better person and father."
The couple have mixed feelings about returning home, where the plan is to look for a job, buy cars and save for their next adventure.
"Coming home to work is always daunting after any holiday. I'm looking forward to surfing in nice, clean, cool water, and not being in a sea of humanity at times. We, of course, are looking forward to seeing family and friends and the girls are really looking forward to being reunited with their toys again."
Does he think it will be hard to slip back into their former lifestyle?
"You know, I think adventures never real sink in until it's over. Often the hard times are all too raw while traveling, and never turn into the adventure in your head until you process them at home. At times, we are really ready to slip into 'normal' life again, at other times I'm trying to formulate plans as to how I can extend this all.
"It has been both amazing and frustrating spending 24/7 with my partner and children, and I think anyone who has done extended travel with their family and says otherwise is perhaps stretching the truth. However, I would never exchange this experience, it has been amazing. We have done things together as a family that I never dreamed of. The memories, the cultural experiences and social interaction, plus the family bonding is priceless.
"So, I guess to answer the question, yes, I think I will view home differently, I think I will view it as an amazing place to live, and play, while saving for the next family adventure."