2011: The year we sold (almost) everything and hit the road

Travel has a way of distorting time like nothing else.

It’s been nearly six months since we left our home in Ottawa. In many ways, the days have flown by. In that time, we’ve travelled in six countries on two continents, lived in two apartments, and visited with many family and friends, meeting new friends on the road. I feel like I’ve blinked and we’re now in 2012.

While time has zipped by, it’s also hard to imagine we’ve been doing anything else.

Our old life feels like a distant memory: bundling the kids up in snowsuits for school, going to work at a 9-5 job, taking care of all the day-to-day stuff of owning a home and the large stack of bills that goes with it. It’s amazing how quickly the cares and worries of that lifestyle can slip away. A year ago we were recovering from a Christmas holiday that required careful planning, lots of anxiety, and at least a week’s worth of recovery. While these visits are incredibly meaningful and important, holidays always seemed to require a vacation to recover from our vacation.

Our life now has become so stripped down that taking a holiday is a pretty straightforward and stress-free affair. We took a 5-night trip to Kuala Lumpur over the Christmas break and our preparations involved a quick Internet booking and then throwing a few things together in a suitcase the morning of our departure. When you don’t have much to begin with, packing is a piece of cake. And when your life isn’t a complicated tapestry of commitments and responsibilities, leaving town isn’t much different than staying home.

That’s not to say that our life can now be characterized as easy. We still worry about the kids and their schooling, paying the bills, and taking care of the household.

What we’re grateful for is the simplicity we now enjoy.

It gives us more time together, more time to do things we love, and more time to make new discoveries in a place unlike anywhere we’ve lived before. This time may pass, but we’re enjoying it while we can.

As we have closed out 2011 and prepare for the Chinese New Year, it’s hard not to reflect on everything that has happened in the past 12 months.

A year ago, we announced to our families that we were leaving in July to travel the world. With their generous and surprisingly overwhelming support, we began from that moment on to focus all our free time and energy on setting our plans into motion, downsizing all our possessions and extricating ourselves from our life in Ottawa.

In May I gave two months’ notice at work. For me, this was one of the hardest parts about the whole process. I had worked for SRDC for 13 years and loved the work I was doing; I’ve been grateful for the chance to remain somewhat involved in their work since I left.

In May we also made the decision to sell the house. Thankfully, this part of the process went very quickly and smoothly (thanks Andy!).

With the house sold and our final plans in place, we spent most of the last two months selling and/or giving away most of our remaining possessions. Each day there was a pile of items by the door for pickup by potential buyers, and we had a steady stream of visitors carting away all the things that accumulate in 15 years of marriage.

In June we booked our round-the-world tickets. After a summer in Michigan, we would be flying Toronto-Hong Kong-Singapore-France-Toronto. The trip was on!

We held a series of events to say a formal good-bye to our Ottawa communities. We held open houses and an amazing coffeehouse where many friends gave generously of their gifts of poetry, song and dance.

On July 9 we packed our remaining things into a rented car, said good-bye to the house, and began a road trip through Southwestern Ontario. Our destination was Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, where we rented an apartment for the months of July and August to be near Alison’s sister and her family for the summer. The summer whizzed by, featuring the kids being enrolled in a day program with their cousins, trips together to Detroit’s zoo, children’s museums and play places, as well as many visits to Grosse Pointe’s amazing parks.

On September 4 we flew from Toronto to Hong Kong. This trip over was the smoothest long-distance flight we’ve had yet with the kids, thanks in big part to Nico’s blossoming independence and in-seat entertainment systems. Based on previous trips to China, we knew we HAD to book a two-bedroom flat in Hong Kong to deal with the jet lag. The apartment we rented was tiny, but with lockable bedroom doors and a TV in the living room, it gave us the space to sleep or be awake as we needed while we waited for our bodies to adjust to having our internal clocks turned upside down.

Hong Kong, with its many distractions, was a great place to get over jet lag. The city’s trams and metro are easy to navigate, and we spent time taking the Star Ferry, walking the waterfront, riding up to the Peak, and playing in the parks. Our Ottawa friends Anne and Taylor are from Hong Kong, and they gave us a very generous gift of admission to Ocean Park, one of Hong Kong’s major theme parks. We all had a blast. Each night we’d stumble home with a couple of super cranky kids and collapse into bed.

After four days in Hong Kong, we caught a much shorter flight to Singapore. While we managed to walk the waterfront and take a ride on the Singapore Flyer, our two days didn’t give us enough opportunity to really explore the city and get a sense of everything it had to offer. We’ll definitely be back.

The same could also be said for Kuala Lumpur. On our third morning in Singapore, we caught an early morning train up to KL. We weren’t really prepared for the train trip, and had assumed that we would be able to purchase snacks on board. We were very wrong. By the end, Nico’s hungry complaints were growing so loud that a very kind lady a few seats back reached over and offered him a sleeve of cookies. Thank you, kind stranger!

In KL we stayed at a hotel within walking distance of the Petronas Towers. Knowing that we would be back in the near future, we didn’t place a big emphasis on sightseeing, and spent quite a bit of time in the hotel pool as well as the KLCC park, relaxing and enjoying the warm weather. We had read about the park from Colin and Tracy Burns, and once there the kids did not want to leave!

After two nights in KL we caught our last train to Penang. We learned our lesson this time and not only brought plenty of snacks, but also upgraded our seats to first class. Unfortunately, first class on Malaysian Railways is nothing to write home about, but we were glad for the somewhat larger seats and the free bottle of water. 😉

The Burns family very graciously hosted us for our first few days in Penang. They have two kids of similar age to Lia and Nico, and it’s been cool to see how our two families–despite being from opposite ends of the earth–share similar values and interests in both our personal and professional lives.

We relied on Tracy’s extensive knowledge of the local school scene to select a school for the kids, and checked out a number of apartments in the area around Batu Ferringhi. Within that first week, we were able to move into a lovely apartment complex with two pools, a gym, a tennis court and squash court, and the kids began attending a private, English-based preschool.

We were amazed at how easy it was to set up a new life here in Malaysia.

Malaysia offers a generous 3-month tourist visa. English is spoken everywhere and the cost of living is quite reasonable. Although it may not be as cheap as some other SE Asian countries, we figure we’re paying roughly a third of what we paid in Canada for basic necessities such as housing and food.

Our time so far in Malaysia has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to embark on a new chapter in our lives.

While both Alison and I have continued to do some of the work we were doing before we left Ottawa, we have both been exploring opportunities that hopefully will take us in new career directions in the coming years. The kids have experienced tremendous growth as well. Not only are they being pushed academically much further than they would have been in Canada, they are also getting advanced instruction in Mandarin and Bahasa (Malay). It thrills us to see Lia beginning to read and write in Chinese, and to see both of them at a school with mainly Chinese teachers and classmates.

We have been posting mini-updates, photos and videos on our Facebook page, so I won’t review everything we have done since we arrived in September. While we’ve enjoyed visits to Koh Lipe and Kuala Lumpur, as well as a bit of sightseeing around Penang, we’ve spent most of our time and energy on settling into our new lives, establishing daily routines around school and work, and building our new businesses.

We miss our family and friends from home a great deal, which has been mitigated somewhat by the new friends we’ve made here. While there is a fairly large group of expats teaching at the international schools around town, there is also a constant influx of new folks travelling through the area, some of whom we meet beforehand online, and some we meet out shopping or eating at the local food courts. We had a fun experience at one Christmas party hanging out with a group of Canadians, and it made us a bit homesick to be sharing stories about life back in Canada. I’ve also been playing Ultimate again–something I wasn’t really expecting to do, given that I didn’t even bring my cleats!

2011 was a year of tremendous transition for us as a family.

We have been so grateful for the support from family and friends as we took on this big new adventure, and it’s been great fun to connect with many of you through Facebook, email, phone and Skype. While it’s going to be hard to top what we experienced this past year in terms of both the highs and the lows, we are excited about what the new year will bring. At this point, we know for sure we’ll be leaving Malaysia in April and heading to France and Holland before returning to Canada in July. We hope to go back to China somewhere in there too, although the details of that trip are still being worked out. We also don’t know what will happen next fall. At this point we embrace the mystery.

I’ve put together a 20-minute video slideshow that provides some highlights from our journey this past year. Enjoy!

We wish all our readers the very best for 2012 and happy Year of the Dragon!

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