By Heather Greenwood Davis
We arrive in Chengdu on a pitch-black morning on the overnight train from Xi'an. As my husband, Ish, our two young sons, Ethan and Cameron, and I stumble groggily out of the station, we sidestep poorer travelers huddled on flattened boxes on the freezing concrete. China's tenth largest city, home to a famous panda research facility, feels lonely and uninviting. It doesn't help that we've forgotten to have our hotel's name written down for us in Chinese, and the taxi drivers swarming us don't speak English. They pull at my sons, who are clutching my waist. Suddenly a man carrying a laptop approaches. "Where are you trying to go?" he asks. Soon he's negotiating with a driver, and not long after that we're laughing with him over breakfast at our hotel. He turns out to be a visiting professor from Singapore. "I couldn't just leave you out there to fend for yourselves," he tells us. As we're cooing over pictures of his baby daughter, I lock eyes with Ish across the table: We know this never would have happened back in Toronto.
In 2011, when Ish was offered a sabbatical from his job as a public health inspector, we set out to see the world for a year with our kids (as a journalist, my job has always been flexible). We aren't rich or crazy; we just saw an opportunity to live our dreams and seized it, selling our car, renting out our house, and exhausting our savings. Over the next 12 months, we visited 29 countries, soaring in a hot-air balloon above King Tut's tomb, riding ostriches in Vietnam and scrubbing four-ton elephants in Thailand.
But the moments we'll remember most involve people, not places. When we joined in a moonlit game of Ping-Pong in a Cairo alleyway with our city guide's neighbors, for example, or dined on duck confit in the minimalist home of a worldly Parisian family for whom we'd snapped a photo in Seville, or sat cross-legged on the floor of the one-room home of a Cambodian tuk-tuk driver who wanted his kids to meet ours. We'd expected to be four alone in the world, but in these moments -- when we relied on instinct and trusted strangers -- we became a part of it. I'd always taught my kids to be wary of anyone they didn't know, but in Buenos Aires I watched with pride as my shy 7-year-old gathered his courage and marched into a soccer game some local kids were playing. In the Galápagos Islands, I beamed when my picky 9-year-old tasted -- and loved -- lobster tail on the advice of some new friends in our tour group. As for Ish and me, we learned that people are kinder than we'd given them credit for. We stopped seeing the planet as a list of places to visit and started daydreaming about whom, exactly, we'd meet next.
Back home in Canada, we now chat with the grocery clerk whose Portuguese accent we can place and share a joke with the taxi driver whose rearview-mirror flag we recognize. We linger to make a connection, where once we might have rushed on by.
(For more on the Davises' trip, visit GlobetrottingMama.com.)