Howard County families share stories, advice from trips around the world

For Howard Magazine
Would you take your kids on a trip around the world? These three Howard County families did.

Three Howard County families have bragging rights to one spectacular accomplishment: They recently put their “normal lives” on hold to travel the world for a year, give or take a month or so.

The Schlossnagles of Fulton, the Robinsons of Columbia and the Rivenbarks of Glenelg share the highlights of their globe-trotting journeys and point out the pluses — and few minuses — of such a massive, yet doable, undertaking. 

The Schlossnagles
Theo and Lisa, both 38; Zoe, 13; Gianna, 11; Tori, 9
Trip: July 8, 2015 to March 1, 2016; 26 countries, 50,000 miles
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As the family ate breakfast on the rooftop deck of their rented houseboat in Amsterdam, a man serenaded passersby on clarinet while another played accordion on a bridge.

It was such a perfect, serendipitous moment drenched in local culture that the family wished they’d scheduled more than a short stay in the Netherlands.

Lisa Schlossnagle, a community volunteer and substitute teacher, says she and her husband, Theo, knew where the family would be sleeping each night long before arriving at their first stop in Istanbul. Yet time and time again they marveled at their good timing, like arriving in Spain on the day of a huge festival called the Seville Fair.

Though their trip ended four months early when Theo needed to get back to the software company he founded, the family made plenty of memories — camel riding in the Sahara, going on safari in South Africa and touring the Galápagos islands, to name a few.

“Actually, everybody liked 99 percent of the countries we visited,” Lisa says. That was something of a surprise, considering that the girls hadn’t taken news of the plan seriously two years earlier.

“I remember when you told us I thought, ‘Not actually going to happen,’ ” Zoe says to her mother.

Theo, taking his cue, advised parents to carefully consider their children’s ages when choosing the optimum time for an extended-length trip.

“You want them to be old enough to make lasting memories yet young enough to not be violently independent,” he says.

The couple had pre-arranged to buy  a friend’s house on the same street after selling theirs. Contract negotiations were finalized in Germany. Lisa had taught elementary school, so she planned their daughters’ lessons with pre-approval from a home-school umbrella organization.

The close-knit family became even closer while traveling and contributing to a family blog.

“We were leaving Quito [Ecuador] when Tori says she really didn’t care what we did next as long as we did it together,” Lisa says.

The typical sibling clashes even subsided.

“It’s surprising how well we got along when we really don’t,” Gianna says.

Souvenirs were shunned since they didn’t want to lug them around, and Tori had fun explaining to a curious trolley driver that they’d only brought five backpacks for their yearlong trip.

Lisa says they all discovered a deep love of adventure and want to visit countries they had to forgo when their trip was cut short, but they also want to see more of the U.S.

Advice: Plan your itinerary around warm weather because it’s easier to pack for and more enjoyable; enforce a rule that everyone keeps a journal — it’s worth any initial nagging required; obey the family’s normal rhythms or goodwill will quickly plummet.

The Robinsons
Bob, 42; Jill, 41; Caleb, 14; Leslie, 12; Oliver, 10
Trip: May 2, 2015, to May 15, 2016; 25 countries, 14,000 miles by sea
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Jill and Bob Robinson met in 1993 on a sailing team at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, so it’s fitting they would captain a 44-foot catamaran across the Atlantic with their kids.

“It was our dream even before we got married in 1999 to go around the world, but we knew we wanted to do it as a family,” Jill says.

The couple started financial planning for their adventure 15 years ago and in 2013 bought the boat they christened the Honu Kai, which means “sea turtle” in Hawaiian. They had previously sailed big boats to Charleston, S.C., and to Canada, so they were confident in their skills.

“Having the boat was like taking a house along with us, and we slept on board most nights,” Jill says of sailing around the coast of Europe and the Baltics. They returned via the Canary Islands and the Caribbean.

The couple used a weather router, a trained observer in Florida with whom they kept in touch via ham radio and who tracked their exact location at all times.

“He gave us longitudes and latitudes and told us where to get the best winds,” Jill says, calling the service “invaluable.”

She and Bob, who are engineers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, took sabbaticals from their jobs. They rented out their house before leaving and are now choosing a new home.

The kids used the Calvert Education online home-school curriculum, an all-inclusive package recommended by the county school system.

“It encourages kids to teach themselves, though some kids probably can’t handle the autonomy,” she says.

The family didn’t shy away from adventure — exploring caves in Gibraltar, riding camels in the Canary Islands and hiking to a boiling lake in Dominica.

A big benefit of the trip was watching the kids learn to get along better and to interact with people of all ages and from all walks of life, Jill says. A downside was missing childhood milestones, like eighth-grade graduation.

One of their greatest “aha moments” was discovering that walking everywhere — in daytime and in nighttime — reawakened natural circadian rhythms, she says. “We trimmed down and got stronger, much like our ancestors. That brought home to me that’s how we’re supposed to live.”

“We started eating more whole foods and we really want to not return to old habits,” Bob added.

Advice: Even seasoned sailors can get seasick, but over-the-counter medicines work well; get as fit as possible before leaving; be prepared to explain why your family can’t be “normal” and stay in one place.

The Rivenbarks
Tim, 45; Julie, 41; Tyler, 13, Kara, 11
Trip: June 29, 2014, to July 29, 2015; 35 countries, 87,000 miles
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Julie and Tim Rivenbark worried at first that by fulfilling a long-held dream to see the world with their children they might be “committing financial suicide.”

“You’re taught throughout life to pursue the American dream — a good job, house and nice things — so one of the challenges we had was giving up the great life we had built,” Tim says.

It took him two years to get on board with Julie’s grand idea to take a yearlong family excursion abroad, which she’d suggested in 2009 after reading a book about one family’s experience.

The couple sold their house six weeks before they left and negotiated for their current home from Japan. Tim took a leave of absence from his employer and returned as a sales director in the aerospace industry; Julie quit her job as a physician’s assistant and found a similar position upon their return.

“Being able to learn about history and culture firsthand made it all worth it,” Tim says.

The family kept on the move, averaging a three-nights’ stay per country, and pre-arranged all of their accommodations on the cheaper side.

“We budgeted more money for experiences,” Tim says, advocating busting out of comfort zones as often as possible.

Bungee jumping in New Zealand and shark-cage diving in South Africa were intimidating at first but became trip highlights, as did riding ostriches in South Africa and washing elephants in India.

An initial, pervasive concern was Tyler’s peanut allergy, but there were enough fast-food restaurants where he could eat safely. The couple purchased travelers’ insurance to cover health emergencies, which they recommend.

“There are [calculated] risks you have to be willing to take,” Julie says. She contracted a mild case of dengue fever, and Tyler dealt with a bout of altitude sickness.

One potential negative that parents should consider, she says, is that kids may not respond well to the non-structured environment of home schooling on vacation. Tyler flourished, while Kara had a more difficult time with the Calvert Education program.

Since the Rivenbarks were one of the first families they know to go on an extended vacation abroad, their website focuses on travel advice.

“People write us all the time,” Julie says. “We love sharing what we learned and helping others realize their dreams.”

Advice: Create a budget and stick to it; allow kids to pick countries they want to visit; plan down time to give each other space; permit social media use to allay homesickness; pack versatile clothing you can wash by hand. 

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Is travel right for your family?

What to consider before packing your bags

Dr. Brad Sachs, a Columbia-based family psychologist and author, says he’s worked with families who have embarked on similar adventures — some autonomously, some for missionary service and some due to job transfers — and they don’t always end well.

“It’s a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it’s not for everybody,” Sachs says. “Sometimes, it’s just a miscalculation of children’s readiness.”

When extended travel doesn’t work, it’s often because children are suddenly spending all their time with their parents and siblings, so their daily experiences are “no longer leavened enough with association with peers.”

When kids miss their friends, family conflict or fractiousness may result, he says.

Kids may find “when they’re plucked out of their current sea of socialization, they wind up further downstream” when they return home, causing difficulty or awkwardness in reconnecting with friends because they haven’t had enough practice, he says.

It’s tougher yet to predict is how kids will respond to being home-schooled, Sachs says.

“The educational piece can be a complicated one, as not every child thrives in a new situation. Negative results can range anywhere from unpleasant to disastrous,” he says. “Parents must see their children as they are, rather than who they wish they could be” to determine if they’re malleable enough to cope with the change.

An extended stay abroad has the benefit of helping families rise above the competition and materialistic acquisition that is common in social spheres by focusing on family unity, service and kindness to one another, Sachs points out.

Should the grand adventure still fail to live up to expectations — which is more often the exception, not the rule — parents mustn’t feel they’re inadequate.

“There’s no shame in admitting defeat or aborting a trip early; pulling the plug can salvage pride and leave fond remembrances intact,” he says. “The bottom line is: Be true to yourself and don’t falsify who your family is.”