I was introduced to Kaia by Sarah Alderson, author of ‘Can we live here’ who I interviewed previously for our #mastersoftravel series. A like minded traveller to myself, she considers herself as a ‘citizen of the world’ and is currently living in Costa Rica with her husband and two daughters, with previous stints in Bali, Australia and California as places she’s called ‘home’ for her family. She works as a freelancer writer, giving her a location agnostic lifestyle that works well to feed her travel bug.
Her book, The Joy Plan, has just been released this month. It’s a memoir about what happened when she dedicated 30 days to the singular pursuit of happiness, in the hopes that month would change her entire life. She’s also a blogger for The Huffington Post and other sites, and teaches Mindfulness to elementary school students.
Tell us about your family & work situation and how travel fits in with your life….
Our family is four people. We have two daughters, Kira and Nava, 10 and 8. They pretty much have grown up living in different countries. They were born in Australia, even though Dan and I are both from California. We lived in Australia for almost 7 years, which was home, but then Dan’s mum got sick back in California, so we returned when the girls were three and five. We stayed there until she passed away, then California became home again. Then we decided to go to Bali, and we lived there for almost a year, then went back to California. Finally, we decided to go to Costa Rica, where we’ve been for six months.
At this point, we’ve done this successfully enough that we’re kind of addicted to the lifestyle of not necessarily being constantly on the move, but choosing new places and immersing ourselves in new cultures, that I think we’ll probably continue to do that as our kids grow up.
Our hope is that we’re raising some interesting little people that will do interesting things in the world. Right now, they’re almost completely bi-lingual with Spanish, which is excellent. They definitely got a lot out of the Bali experience, and I’m sure we’ll head back to Australia at some point. We consider ourselves to be citizens of the world.
What do you and your husband do for a living?
It has been different things. I recently discovered that what I want to be when I ‘grow up’ is a writer, and that has been really great. I’ve been working in marketing for about 20 years, but I’ve finally worked out that the piece that I really enjoy in that is the writing.
If you can meet the right people and make the right contacts, it’s possible to be a freelance writer from anywhere. That’s what I’m doing, and it’s still up and down as a contractor. Mostly it’s blogging, and for companies as they have the budget. I’m a ghost writer, so I write blogs for all kinds of people and companies that have their names on them. I also write people’s website content and email marketing content and other marketing materials that people need.
Dan has been in sales for many years, in different arenas. He speaks five languages and tries to use them whenever he can. He and I are very different. I really love to work just by myself, at the computer, in my own little quiet space. Dan really thrives with people and in a social environment. He’s tried to do sales type work remotely, but ultimately that never works out so well for him. If it’s just him and his laptop for too long, he’s not happy. He tends to find local work wherever we go, so here in Costa Rica, he’s just started to work with a real estate agency and is giving that a go. It’s a different job every time – he had a job at a really cool website company in Australia. In Bali, we both worked at an international school, so we have mixed it up a bit.
It sounds like you’ve both got really transferable skills that you can flexibly use?
I’m very thankful that we have skills that continue to be useful in most places. I think writing is something that so many people need – anyone that runs a business needs a lot of content; and Dan is so personable and great with people, which is always a useful skill.
You started out living in California, then Australia, then living in different places - what were you hoping to gain from these experiences?
Our travel story really starts a lot earlier. The very first time I got to spend time out of the country was when I was 12. My Dad took me for a month backpacking around Europe, staying in hostels and retreats. This whole new world opened up to me and I cried so hard when we had to come back to America, I did not want to leave! That’s when I really got the travel bug. As soon as I could I left again, when I was 18 I went back to Europe and worked on organic farms for 6 months, I went to Mexico, I went to Spanish language school, I volunteered.
I was saving up money to take a trip around the world when I was 24, and then I met Dan just before I was due to leave. He was also just about to go travelling, to Mexico for a surf trip by himself, and so we ended up going on this trip around the world together. That was about 15 years ago. We travelled for a year, with a budget of $12 a day for both of us including food and accommodation. We lived in our tent, pitching it anywhere. We ate loaves of bread and heads of cabbage. We stayed with people we knew or met and stayed for free. It was amazing, back when we could really rough it and live on very little. During that time, we fell in love with Australia, and Dan asked me to marry him. We moved back to California, got ‘real jobs’, saved money and moved to Australia a couple of years later.
We left Australia originally to go back to California because of family illness, but once we were ‘free’ we felt like we should keep going. We always keep Australia in mind, and have a house there if want to go back, but once we had let go of all of our stuff and felt free in the world, we felt like keeping that up for a while.
What were friends / family’s reactions when you announced you were leaving again?
Dan doesn’t have much family left anymore. My family don’t live in California, and my parents are used to me being far away anyway, and I’ve always had this travel bug, so they’re used to that. Luckily with technology we’re able to keep in touch.
And why Costa Rica as your next destination?
Dan and I took our first trip here by ourselves a year and a half ago and really loved it, but could also really imagine being here with our kids, learning Spanish, becoming great surfers and having a simpler life. We’re in Tamarindo, in the north part of the west coast. It’s quite easy to live here, with a lot of shops and conveniences, but also some great schools to choose from.
We started just thinking we’d come for the summer. When we had the idea, my husband had a job that he didn’t plan to leave, and it was just a fantasy. Then he got laid off, and when his income went down, my freelance income went up, so the opportunity opened up for us as I had an income that could work from anywhere. We tried it for the summer, and then found schools that the girls really like, and they’re becoming incredible surfers, which is amazing. Dan loves surfing, so it’s great for him to surf with his daughters, and I’m learning to surf again. We don’t know how long we’ll stay, but for now it’s just been a really nice experience to simplify our lives and understand another culture, improve our Spanish and make new friends here.
Why is travel so important to you?
There's what's important to me personally and what I'm hoping to do for my kids. Personally, I feel like I easily get stuck in certain patterns when I stay somewhere for a while, and I like to bust up those patterns and travel does that more easily than anything else.
It shakes everything up, makes me go through my stuff and get rid of what is unnecessary and keeps our possessions very light. When I'm living in the same place I buy the same foods, go to the same shops and fall into a routine, and that goes along with having the same thoughts and mental patterns. Travel changes that up, and I like that challenge of being slightly uncomfortable, or needing to assimilate in a new culture and make new friends.
There are just so many beautiful, incredible places in the world to explore. I know that we're really fortunate to have the ability to do it and I want to take advantage of that opportunity.
It's really wonderful for my kids to be exposed to different cultures and ways of living. The flipside however, is that I'm not giving them a very stable childhood in a way.
Do you worry about that?
Of course. I worry about whether these are the right parenting choices, but ultimately although we have our 4 unique personalities, choosing new places to live and centering them around locations with great surf works well for us. If I'm moving every 2-3 years that works really well for me, but if my husband surfs he's happy. The girls are 8 and 10 and so far, they have been up for the adventure, and it's been really fun to see them thrive in new environments.
What do you hope your kids will gain from travelling?
I'm hoping that they will gain an understanding that different people live in many different ways. There isn't just one culture that is better or right. I'm hoping that they'll gain tolerance and acceptance and embrace lots of different ways to live.
I hope that they'll speak different languages as I think that does different things to your brain. I'm very happy that they're learning Spanish, and they actually learnt Indonesian when we were in Bali, although they don't remember it now.
In terms of the lifestyle we have now in Costa Rica, I hope that they embrace and learn that we have everything we need in terms of entertainment and friends in our natural environment. We spend all our free time at the beach, surfing, we buy our food from the local farmers market and that feels like a healthier life. We tried to live a healthy life in California, but we had more screen time, more packaged food, and bought more stuff, so I'm hoping that they'll embrace a simple life, knowing that it can be incredibly fulfilling.
Have the screen habits followed them, or are they living differently??
One of the differences is that it's much warmer here, so we can be outside more easily. There's that period of time after school where they would have had screen time before, and now they go to the beach. At the weekends, we are outside whenever we can be, and that wasn't the case when we lived in a colder place. My screen habits haven't got better though, I'm on a screen all day long, but I'm living more healthily, with more time outside and more time in the ocean.
Do the kids have a choice about where you go?
This time around they really wanted to go to Paris, and that was not going to happen! It's probably one of the most expensive places on the planet, and we'd left California because we were trying to spend less money. But they get a say - if they're miserable, we won’t stay somewhere.
Have there been times that your kids didn't want to move on?
They really didn't want to leave California, which is why we said we'd just go to Costa Rica for the summer. They loved their school and friends in California, but then they totally adapted to being here and they love it here.
What's the best experience you've had with your family while travelling?
Now that we're all surfing together, that's the best experience. We are all out in the water on our surfboards and a wave comes and 2 or 3 of us catch it and ride it together, those are high moments for us. Any adventures we've had outside. We've had incredible experiences in Monte Verde, feeding humming birds, seeing a sloth, finding natural hot spring rivers. We've had some incredible experiences in nature.
And the worst? The biggest challenges about travelling with kids?
I've noticed that my kids are fighting a lot more and I don't know if that's an age thing, no matter where we are, or because they are spending a lot more time together. They're in a smaller school so they're in the same class, they're on a bus to school every day together, with less friends that are each their own, and spending less time with friends here than we did in California. They're getting on each other’s nerves, but that's not related to travelling.
Nothing else specifically about travelling related to kids is challenging. The challenges could exist anywhere. For us the biggest challenge is our income. We have to come up with income every month, and as a contractor my income fluctuates a lot, and Dan is finding his groove still. It's a constant stress that would exist wherever we are, but seems kind of heightened in a way when you're in another country. It feels a little crazy sometimes, but worry never helps so you have to let go of that.
Is there anything you regret about having taken the non-traditional route?
Not really! With two kids, I'm not sure I could have done it when they were babies, but in some ways, I regret not doing it sooner. The years before they go to school is such a great time to travel, but in my case I had 2 under 2 years old, and no sleep for such a long time. Just functioning day to day felt difficult, I can't imagine navigating being in a different country at that point. We were in Australia for those years and that was a cool time.
I've definitely learned that kids are very resilient. I feel like they adapt more easily than we do. They've been fine with whatever we've done and take cues from us – e.g. how are mum and dad handling this?
How does education work for the girls as you move?
When they get to high school age it will be important to stay in one place as you take exams and think about going to university, but at this point, as long as they're learning thing every year, I'm not too worried about the consistency or if they're following the same curriculum.
We've found that the years they went to school in California, they got quite ahead, and when they were in school in Bali or Costa Rica, they were way ahead of other students. But they learnt other skills there, like cool things with art, Balinese dance, and Balinese language. Here they're going to a Waldorf school. They sing, they knit, they are making incredible art, and they're speaking Spanish.
As long as they're learning I'm happy and if they fall behind in certain subjects, we'll pick it up when we need to. But those high school years are important, so we'll have to see where we are at that point.
What are your best tips for others wanting to travel with children? Things you'd wish you'd known and learnt the hard way?
I think it's really important for kids to have a few things that make them feel comfortable, a special stuffy, or art supplies if they love art. My 10 year-old daughter is a voracious reader so we have a kindle so she can get books as we don't have a library here.
However, one thing that I feel that I'm constantly undoing is a large attachment to stuff. That would be my tip. When we moved to Bali we thought it was going to be for a long time (it ended up being for a year). We bought an insane amount of stuff, 2 or 3 suitcases each, and it was way too much. We ended up donating almost all of it and leaving it there. When we came to Costa Rica we allowed just one small suitcase each. You really don't need so much stuff! When we went to Bali we had one suitcase filled with stuffed animals!
This time they each got to bring one. There's resistance to that at first, but then they move on. I'm trying for all of us to work out that we don't need so much stuff to be happy. Especially if you live in a hot place, you don't need lots of clothes. No-one sees me for work, and if our main entertainment is being outside, we don't need all kinds of gear and toys.
I think it makes a big difference if you have a house or not. If people are taking off and have a house, it can be a huge asset. We have friends who spend time in multiple countries each year. They have a condo in Italy and they do it by house swapping. We might do something like that in the future. People sometimes think that they can't leave their house, but there are lots of different ways to go about it.
Do you have any future travelling plans?
I think we all have an interest in living in Europe at some point. Dan has extended family in Denmark, Switzerland, and France. We have friends in Italy and Spain, so we've always talked about spending some time in Europe. I don't know if that's a summer, travelling around, or we pick a country at some point to live in. At this point we have committed to a lease in our condo until June 2018, which is a long time for us to be committed to something… we’ll see!