I found out about Sarah on our month long trip to Indonesia last year. We were sitting in a place having breakfast, looking up good places to eat in Ubud, and her blog canwelivehere.com came up with some recommendations. On reading the 'about us' section, it felt quite fatalistic that I'd come across it, as her husband had started the co-working space Hubud (also in Ubud), and I was due to visit them that afternoon.
The journey that Sarah and her family (John and Alula) have been on, searching for where they wanted to live, via stints in California, Singapore, and Bali; immediately married with us and how we were thinking about our future. Ben (my husband) bought me the book that Sarah wrote from the blog, and when we started this thread of content on @mastersofmany, talking to people who'd integrated travel into their working existence, Sarah was one of the first people I approached. I was super excited to talk to her, and I hope you find their story as inspiring as I did.
Tell us about your family & work situation and how travel fits in?
I was working for a charity called Time Bank. It was a good job, but a typical 9 to 5, a trajectory job where the next thing was to be CEO. We had our daughter Alula and when she was 2 we went to Mexico on holiday for 2 weeks. On the flight back, we were like, "why are we going back to London to work?" It seeded the idea of living abroad and having a better lifestyle.
We spent about a year trying to figure out how to do it. John is a designer and has always worked freelance, so it was much easier to conceive of working remotely. I was panicking because I had no skills. I was wondering why I'd bothered to go to university and get a degree! The whole 'I'm going to be a writer' thing seemed ridiculous. I didn't really know what I was doing, so I started writing a book . I had a ridiculous notion that I'd be like JK Rowling and earn millions. It was so naive, which was the beauty of it. If we had actually stopped to think about what we were doing, we probably wouldn't have done any of it.
We took out a loan and started our travels in Asia. We weren't really working for the first 3 or 4 months. I sold 3 books while we were travelling, it was a random miracle really. You don't get that much for books, but in Bali it was enough to rent a place. John set up a business called Hubud and he worked a lot in Singapore, so he'd fly back and forth. We were probably earning half of what we were earning in London, but our quality of life was exponentially higher. We had a wonderful lifestyle, Alula when to a good school, and it was great.
You have to pay to send kids to school in Indonesia, so that was expensive. I was writing prolifically - 10 books in 4 1/2 years - just because I needed the money. I did lots of copy writing, but I hated it so I stopped doing it. Hunting Lila, my first book, got optioned and I had the opportunity to write the screen play (which was a lot better pay), so I taught myself how to do screen writing. I got an agent in London, which was why I went back, and John had a new job offer working for a new bank he'd launched with someone in Bali.
We spent a year in London, but we hated it, which we knew going in, but it was worse than before as John was working ridiculous hours. However, we knew it was a stepping stone to get to California, where we wanted to live. We initiated the visa process straight away, which took about 8 months. We came here in January of this year.
You travelled to India, Singapore, Malaysia, Bali, Australia and California in total. What was it about Bali that made you want to stay there?
It was easy to get a visa, it was really cheap back then, had a really good school (the green school) and there was strong creative expat community, and beautiful weather. It ticked the boxes for what we wanted at the time.
And why California eventually?
We'd come here on our first trip and we loved it as much as Bali, but knew that it would be difficult to get a visa, and we would need more money to live here. At that stage we wanted to be self employed, and have that flexibility. Then my screen writing career started to take offand you need to be in London or Hollywood for that. My visa is an artist visa, so my publisher sponsored me and a production company I was writing a script for did as well. We didn't want to live in LA itself, as we're not city people anymore. We live an hour and a half north, surrounded by mountains.
It was a fantasy dream come true, so now we have to keep it going. I've got a two year visa, Alula is at school and is so happy. Our next step is getting a green card, as we don't want to move again.
What were you hoping to gain from your trip, aside from working out where to live?
I've always been a big traveller. I did a gap year at 18 and went round the world then, so it was never out of the ordinary. I always wanted Alula to grow up having a global perspective. John and I felt that traditional schooling is not necessarily going to work for the future for kids. Alula has been to school in Bali from kindergarten to 3rd grade, a year in state school in England, six months in public school here, and now she's at a hippy private school. She's had these really different experiences and she's able at 10 years old to articulate how valuable that's been. She has such a global world view compared to all her peers.
The other thing we felt was really important and that I see in her versus other children I know is a sense of her privilege; and a sense of empathy. It comes a lot from living in India. She's seen abject poverty up close, and recognises her own luck. She often talks about how lucky she is and how glad she is. I think travelling is brilliant for children, more valuable than schooling up to a point.
What were friends / families reactions when you announced you were going?
Everyone was actually really supportive, even our parents. We knew that they were sad, as we were taking (at the time) their only grandchild. I think they hoped desperately that we'd decide to come back to England and live there, although after 7 years I think they're past that hope. My brother in law, Richard, runs Career Shifters and one of the things that they say people contend with when they make change, is negative influence. No-one was ever negative with us. Our friends and families are of the same mind-set, so we didn't have that much of an uphill battle. John and I are also pretty strong willed, so I don't think it was a surprise to people. I think the best thing to do is just to avoid negative people.
I found it really surprising when we did leave. I was worried whether we were doing the right thing, but then you're in this new world and meeting people who are all doing the same as you, being creative and finding a way. You feel like it's going to be fine, and not something out of the blue or unusual.
Why is travel so important to you?
Ironically, we are such home bodies now and we've never been like that. We went away for two weeks to Tahoe and we couldn't wait to get back, we even thought about coming back early! It feels like we're on holiday all of the time here, and we have no desire to travel anywhere right now. I've always had wander lust and felt like the grass is greener, but now I feel like this is where the grass is greenest.
The idea is that we settle now for Alula, as she's 10 and needs a bit more grounding. She really didn't react well to moving around a lot, she needs to be in one place now and feel like it's home. She's still heartbroken about leaving friends in Bali and in London, which has been hard, but at the same time they all email each other and she has those connections and sees the value of seeing friends in all of these places.
I asked her what nationality she's comfortable with. She said that part of her feels British, part American, and part Indonesian - not rooted or belonging in one place. It could be a huge asset, but it's an interesting question.
What's the best experience you've had with your family while travelling?
The gift of time together as the three of us. Before it was one of us looking after the Alula, while the other was at work and we were constantly juggling. The biggest advantage for me is that I'm now always at home, looking after her, and taking her to school. I work in between and she's good at knowing that mum and dad work at home. We have such an amazing bond as we've been through so much.
In Bali, the houses are so badly designed, that it was really hard to get a normal house. Alula kind of lived in our dressing room, which didn't have a door, so there was a real sense of being tight knit. That has paid dividends now, we're very close as a three and get along really well. We'd never have had that time to bond in London, given the way that we were working.
And the worst? The biggest challenges about travelling with kids?
I think its hard travelling with a toddler. 3 is a difficult age, and on a long haul plane it's not that easy, as they're not into watching TV for 10 hours. It was hard at times, wanting to be able to relax and enjoy some of the places, but you are constantly on with a 3 year old.
She really struggled with all of the moving around and not having a base. There's a story in the book, when we moved to Bali and I told her we were moving back to London in six months. Her automatic reaction was to go and pack her things. It took her a long time to feel grounded in Bali and know that she wasn't moving again.
But the pro's so out weighed the negatives. She's never been sick and has a great constitution. We ate street food and pretty much anything. I think it's really helped her be fearless, and she's incredibly self reliant. In starting new schools and going to new places, she's had to take risks and do challenging things at a very young age, and doing them successfully has given her huge self confidence that she can deal with any situation. She's an introvert, not an extrovert, but she knows who she is.
John and I were saying the other day how different she'd be if she hadn't gone travelling. I think it's an amazing thing to do, although she might not fully appreciate the benefits until she's older. It's probably easier too if you have a sibling - a buddy to go through it with.
Anything you regret about having taken the non-traditional route?
It depends on what day you catch me! Essentially no, but there are times, that anyone who is creative or self employed experiences - where you hit rock bottom. You're broke and you panic, and it throws up so many fears. I have books published, but I still face so many rejections daily on my work. It's really hard to walk away from a 9 to 5 income, a mortgage, and a pension, the NHS and put yourself out there, with none of these things that you've been taught to strive for.
I very occasionally feel like I should have stayed at Time Bank! But half an hour later I think - that's stupid - look where I am, and I would rather take the risk and uncertainty for this incredible life. It's terrifying, but the potential is so much bigger. If you want that, you have to take the risk, and with risk comes uncertainty.
It helps to have John. He's very steady and focused, and he's the ballast I hang on to when I'm having a freak out. It would be easier if you didn't have children, then we wouldn't have to be settled anywhere, we'd go wherever we needed to go, but with school you have to be in one place, and that puts on the pressure of bringing in the cash to sustain it.
Your best tips for others wanting to travel with children? Things you'd wish you'd known and learnt the hard way?
We were quite sensible. We stayed put for lengths of time rather than trying to squeeze too much into a trip as you can't do as much as when you're on your own. We found places where we could get childcare or pre-school. In India we had a German run pre-school, which bought us a bit of respite. In Bali there was the green school and creative music groups and things like that. Try and choose locations where you can get support and you can meet other parents and your kids can meet other children.
Do you have any future travelling plans?
My future travelling plans all involve being on set when my movies and TV shows finally get the green light. I would want to bring Alula with me. I think it would be awesome. Hopefully we'll be in South Africa for Hunting Lila within the year!
To buy a copy of 'Can we live here' to find out more about Sarah and her family's journey, click here.
Follow Sarah on Twitter here
Check out the Hunting Lila range of books and Sarah's blog here.