Stupid Questions for World Travelers: Interview with Susan Whitehead

Stupid Questions for World Travelers: Interview with Susan Whitehead

Some people are embarrassed to ask stupid questions.  I love asking them.   Stupid questions have a way of boiling issues down to their core.  I know of no better way to avoid confusion than to ask stupid questions.

One of the great joys of my life since we started this blog has been the great friendships that have developed.  We now have friends living and traveling all over the world.  I love reading their blogs and I love interacting with them on Facebook.  They’ve been a tremendous resource to us.

Today I am excited to welcome to this blog Susan Whitehead.  On her blog, Susan describes her family as “a crazy, kid-loving, homeschooling, entrepreneurial, nap-enjoying, Christ-following family of wanderlusts that are often being led in new directions.”

I can relate to Susan and her family.  You see, like us…. they had this “perfect life.”  The only problem?  They also had an itch.

You have to deal with the itch.

Currently living in Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico, Susan and her family are people worth listening to.

Whitehead-Family-July-2012-Chapala

Susan Whitehead and her family exploring the area around the place they currently call home, Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico

Family Trek: Ok so you’ve been traveling or living nomadically for a while now. How much stuff do you travel with? What kind of luggage do you use?

SW: We each have our own backpacks (even the little guy who is almost 4) and we have 3 checked bags to carry things like my kitchen knife (NOT good to have in a carry on!), school supplies for the kids and other odds and ends.  We got Lands’ End backpacks for me and the girls and my husband really likes his eBags Motherlode bag because of all the compartments.  The checked bags are no name bags.

Family Trek: How long did it take you to prepare to set off on your traveling adventures?

SW: We had 3 months to prepare, but had been thinking about it for about 6 months or so.  We were renting a house in Brandon, FL and our landlord literally showed up at the door with a pie in her hand to let us know she had to move into the house and couldn’t extend the lease like we’d planned.  We took it as a sign to get going sooner rather than later and we were on a plane to Costa Rica 3 months later.  It was INSANE!

Family Trek: I know this is a really stupid question but at our house we have a little piece of pottery on our bathroom vanity that is loaded with Q-Tips. I mean I use them occasionally but for my wife they are an essential part of her bathing ritual. Do you travel with Q-Tips?

SW: Um, doesn’t everyone travel with Q-Tips???

Family Trek: I don’t mean to get stuck on this Q-Tip thing, but here’s what I’m thinking. If I am staying at nice US based hotel chains I can feel pretty confident that often enough the hotel is going to provide Q-Tips. But I am betting that hostels in Laos don’t provide Q-Tips. So what do I do when I’m in Laos or some other corner of the world and my wife needs Q-Tips?

SW: That is NOT a good situation.  Let me tell you…stock up before you leave the states because, believe it or not, there are places where you can only get the “off” brands and they are sub-par.  Before we came to Mexico, I bought the biggest container I could find (outside of going to a warehouse store and getting a 15000 pack) and we recently ran out.  Good thing we have a trip coming up where we can restock.

Family Trek: Ok, enough about Q-Tips. What about your mail? What do you do about important documents or government stuff that requires a permanent address?

SW: We have a service we use called SBI Mail Service (mention our names and we get a free month).  They’re very affordable and will open and scan any mail we get.  You can get a Florida driver’s license with the address, register to vote, etc.  The one thing they don’t do is deposit checks for you.  My mom handles that for us and she’s extremely affordable. 🙂

Family Trek: Do you have medical insurance? Without getting all political, what are your thoughts about medical care while traveling?

SW:We do not have medical insurance.  We’ve had a few medical needs while traveling, but nothing worth paying insurance on month after month.  We know there’s a chance we might really need it or wish we had it at some point, but we’re willing to take that risk at this point.

Whitehead-Christmas-in-Costa-RicaFestival-of-lights

Festival of Lights: The Whitehead daughters celebrating Christmas while living in Costa Rica.

Family Trek: How much do you have to think about and prepare for immunizations and different standards different countries have for entry when it comes to medical issues and immunizations?

SW: What immunizations?  Seriously, though, I have very mixed feelings about immunizing my children against diseases that are perceived to be more dangerous than they really are.  But then again, we’ve not been traveling to impoverished locations where our health has been a concern.  I might think about it more seriously if we were traveling to certain places in Asia or Africa.

It doesn’t help that I hate needles with a passion.  My husband was always the one that had to go with the children to get the shots they did get or have blood drawn.  I am a total wuss when it comes to anything needle related.  Can we move on now?  I’m feeling queasy…

Family Trek: So this is sort of tied to medical issues… but you hear a lot about water and whether you can drink the water in different places around the world. Thoughts?

SW: You can drink the water everywhere.  Whether you get sick or not is another question.

We drank the tap water in Costa Rica and NEVER got sick.  That was one of the perks of going there first.  But in Mexico, we recently had our fresh water tank cleaned out by our gardener.  The sludge in the bottom of the tank was BEYOND nasty.  We have a wonderful man, Salvador, that delivers fresh 5 gallon jugs of water to our house for about $1.50, including tip.  That suits us just fine.

Family Trek: Have your parents and other relatives been supportive? If not how have you coped with this?

SW: Ha ha ha…I don’t know if I should answer this one.  My parents were initially shocked by our decision and initially aired their concerns about our travels, but once they got everything out, they dropped it and told us they trusted that we would make good decisions for our family.  I don’t know that they’re supportive or us taking the kids on these crazy adventure, but they support us as a family and they don’t make an issue of it, which is a blessing.

We cope with it all by knowing we are doing what we believe is the right thing to do for our family right now.  It could change at some point, but for now, this is the path we feel we’re supposed to be on and will continue to travel until we feel directed otherwise.  This confidence really helps if and when we don’t get the support we’d like from our families.

Family Trek: How do you stay in touch? Do you use Google Voice or Skype? My wife and I use cell phones all the time to stay in touch in our everyday life but I don’t think that will be the case when we’re in Paraguay.  What have you learned about this?

SW: We LOVE Google voice and use it to call family and clients.  We also use Skype, but not as often and I mostly use it to chat with outsourcers we use.  We did each have a cell phone up until about 2 weeks ago when Michael’s decided to stop working.  His is a nice smart phone, but mine is a cheap phone we got for less than 300 pesos, including 100 pesos of minutes.  But his is broken and mine is working, so maybe cheaper is better.  He’s hoping to get a used iPhone soon.  I’m not convinced his current broken phone won’t heal itself if we give it enough time. 🙂

Whitehead-Family-Bike-Ride

A family bike ride in Merida

Family Trek: When you are moving from country to country how do you pay for stuff? Do you use credit cards? Exchange money?

SW: We have had great success using our debit cards.  The ONLY time we’ve had any trouble with using a debit card was when Michael had to fly back to the US for a funeral and the US rental car company wouldn’t take a debit card.  Crazy!  We did learn NOT to exchange money at the airports, or not to do much at one time.  So far, we just do big withdrawls from the ATMs at one time to minimize fees, but Michael always walks away from the ATM shaking his head like it didn’t work.  Just to throw off any would-be muggers.

Editors note: We just learned that our Bank of America debit card is not a good way to make purchases while traveling.  Debit purchases are hit with a 3 percent fee.  There is a $5 fee for ATM withdrawals with an additional 1 percent fee.  Learn from my mistake!  Cheers, Clark

Family Trek: What about my kids? Our kids have blond hair and blue eyes.  Aren’t they prime targets to be kidnapped?

SW: In Latin America, they will get more attention, but they’re more likely to be touched and told, “Ay, que lindo!” than anything else.  Our two youngest have light skin, light hair and blue eyes and really stand out from our dark hair, brown eyed and olive skinned oldest 3.  Shoot, the youngest don’t look like me or my husband!  They really stand out when we’re all together.

I was concerned about kidnappings when we first left the US and even considered getting one of those kid leashes for our son.  But the reality is that most people are just like we are and it’s just too stressful to live in fear all the time.  Just don’t hang around trouble makers, keep an eye on your kids and you should be fine!

Family Trek: So let’s say we were going to roll into some beach town and wanted to rent a house for a few weeks or a few months. How would we go about doing that?

SW: I am a planner, so I’d plan to have somewhere to land at least temporarily.  It is just too stressful for me not to have something planned out ahead of time.  But once you got there, I’d just start asking around.  Go to a local grocery store and look for signs.  Ask the locals if they know of anyone with a place to rent.  You can do the same thing you’d do in the US, but I’d highly advise knowing some of the local language ahead of time so you can understand any responses you get.

Family Trek: How do you decide where to go next? What if members of your family want different things?

SW: In deciding where to go next, we figure out a cheap place to get to and go.  For 7 people, a huge chunk of our budget goes to relocation expenses.  It’s not cheap buying 7 airline tickets anywhere…ever.  We wound up in Mexico because JetBlue had tickets to Cancun for $100 each.  How long the visas are in a place is a big concern, too.  If we have to pack up and move too often, things get too expensive.

With a family our size, we hardly ever have a unanimous decision about anything.  Our oldest 2 girls would have been happy if we’d stayed in Costa Rica and never left.  But now they like Mexico and are excited about seeing Europe someday.  All our children learned from a young age that while their opinions do matter and we care what they think, we have to make decisions that are best for our whole family.  Sometimes we get a happy majority and sometimes one sour apple spoils the whole bunch.  Just depends on the mood everyone is in!

Family Trek: What about school for the kids?

SW: Geez…I knew I was forgetting something…

We’ve homeschooled from the beginning and are going on our 10th year.  We’ve had to make things less book intensive and more electronic.  Our oldest devours books, so a Kindle has been amazing.  She’s read more classics than I ever will.  The oldest 2 have math curricula on the computer (one is internet based, the other is on CD’s), but we’re starting to incorporate more apps for science (did you know you can dissect a frog and a rat on the iPad?) and music and art.  The oldest 3 take Spanish lessons every week and sometimes our youngest daughter tags along.

The youngest 2 girls have worksheets for math and everyone has some sort of writing and copy work to do.  Our little guy can already read (he started identifying all the letters and numbers before he was 2!!!) and is a little sponge.  I can’t keep up with him.  All I can say is thank goodness for educational apps and Legos.

Family Trek: Do kids even like traveling?

SW: From what we can tell, they do like traveling, but I know they miss being near their friends.  Our family became very close friends with another family that is very similar to ours (they have 4 girls that match up in ages/personalities with our 4 and 2 sons…the oldest one is just about 6 weeks younger than our son).  The miss playing and talking with them, as well as visiting their grandparents, great-grandparents and aunts and uncles.

But overall, they seem to enjoy this new life.  Little things like picking up fresh tortillas on the way home from Spanish lessons or going horseback riding by the lake are fun and exciting.  The whole world has opened up to them.  I think they now feel like they can go anywhere and do anything.  They get just as excited as we do about upcoming travel plans.

The one thing they do not like is long bus rides.  I think we all would be just fine if we never had a long bus ride again.  But they travel very well and all of them have adjusted to this new crazy life we lead.  We are very blessed to be doing all of this with them.

Thank you, Susan, for a really great interview.

If you enjoyed this interview, please take a moment to connect with Susan online.  You can visit her blog Family Travel Bucket List.  In addition to being an inspiration in the world of family travel, Susan is a tremendous resource for those juggling being a parent and running a business.  Check out her site MRS Homeschool (That’s Multiple Revenue Streams Homeschool Moms).  Oh, and get this, she’s just launched a new magazine on iPad called Real Family Travel!

 For more answers to my stupid questions, check out this Stupid Questions for World Travelers Tag Page which features additional interviews in this series.

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  • Thanks Clark! And OUCH on the atm fees! Our main debit card is Paypal. We do get assessed a 1% fee, but since we earn 1% with any charges, we usually make it back. They do get find of funny sometimes with charges, but a quick phone call clears it up every time.

  • Paz

    Great interview! So great to hear about other families especially big ones that travel together. hmmm traveling with a butcher knife, that is a new one. We also have an awful ATM card and fees. Since I was earning money in Asia we used mostly my income and didn’t have to go into our U.S. accounts much. I need to find a different bank. We use Wells fargo and it is the same as what Clark described above. 🙁 But good to know about paypal.

  • Great interview! I love the idea of shaking your head after walking away from an ATM, like it didn’t work. Something I would totally do…hahaa!! We’ve used so many ATM’s in Mexico and Guatemala and have never felt at risk…but the worry-wart in me still wonders if there are eyes on us! Haha! And wow for the 2-year old already having known his alphabet, etc! Our 4 year old still doesn’t…but she’s not super cool and homeschooled (until NOW)!! Time to change that!

    • We’ve never really felt uneasy either, but the last time he got money out in town, he came out shaking his head. I just knew it had not worked (had those problems before), but it was all a ruse.

      And yes, that little guy of ours started pointing out letters on a t-shirt I was wearing when I was changing his diaper once. FREAKED ME OUT! He just picked it up on his own and he can read short books on his own. He’s too smart for me and I can’t take any credit. Signing Time was a HUGE help.

  • Loved reading your interview, Susan! Great encouragement for my family’s travel plans.

  • A delightful interview! It’s always a help to hear the mechanics of a travel lifestyle from another’s experience, especially with families. Dealing with addresses, medical insurance, etc. can be daunting and it helps to know what others are doing. I agree with Alisa, the bit about shaking ones head when leaving the ATM is a great idea. Never know who might be watching. I enjoyed the read.

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