Goodbye home, goodbye school, hello world

For the Parry family, rat race to backpack was but a step.

Dominic Parry, aged 10, rates Burma as his favourite place in the world. "Even though the government there is not very nice, the people are still lovely," he says. "They are not affected by it at all. They are so friendly and keep wanting to give you presents like fresh avocados."

Dominic's classmates at his village school in Binfield, Berkshire, are unlikely to share his enthusiasm. The political unrest and social climate of Burma is outside the scope of the national curriculum for year six.

But Dominic Parry's world experience falls outside the scope of the majority of adults, never mind his classmates. For 11 months Dominic and his sister Amber, 13, backpacked around the world with their parents Anne and Neal, who were both in their late thirties, travelling a route which is more usually the domain of twentysomethings, never staying anywhere longer than three nights. Beginning in Kenya they journeyed through India, Nepal,Thailand, Burma, Singapore and Bali before moving on to NewZealand, Australia, Fiji, the Cook Islands, the United States and Canada.

Two weeks into the trip, Dominic, then aged eight, suffered food poisoning and ended up dehydrated on a drip in a Nairobi hospital. "It was a frightening start to the trip," admits Anne, "and the thought crossed my mind `Are we being sensible here?' But we're not the sort of people to be easily defeated."

The family trekked in the Himalayas, hiked in New Zealand, went whitewater rafting in Nepal, made friendship bracelets around the campfire with girls from a village hill tribe in Thailand, and played "It" with Nepalese children, communicating without the need of a shared spoken language.

Amber, who was 11 when they set off in September 1994, missed her first year at secondary school to make the trip. Dominic missed year four. Neal Parry took a year's unpaid leave from his job as a financial planning manager with no guarantee of employment on his return and Anne put her part-time aromatherapy business on hold. The decision to kick convention in the ribs and swap family security for a self-styled life on the open road, was one which crept upon them gradually.

"It was a cumulative thing," says Anne. "Neal had been with the same software company for 10 years without ever being deeply satisfied with his work. I was up to my eyes trying to sort out a secondary school for Amber and it was March. I said to Neal, `Don't you wish we could just escape all this and live somewhere else for a year or two?' and he said, `Why not?' I was quite shocked. I didn't think he would take me seriously. With two children our lives were very much locked into the rat race. There were an awful lot of `why nots', not least of which were the safety aspect of travelling independently abroad and the health risks. Besides which we were not experienced backpackers.

"It would have been easy to forget the whole idea, keep it as a pipe dream and knuckle down to everyday living. We'd had a windfall with some share options which made the trip financially feasible but what really tipped the balance for us was the loss of a good friend who died of cancer at the age of 45. We had taken it for granted that we would have time to do all the things we wanted to do later in life, but who knows?"

So the family put aside any ideas of investing the windfall in material things, rented out their home, notified Dominic's primary school and Amber's new secondary school that they would be away for a whole academic year, cancelled the milk and left.

"Once we had made the decision it was relatively easy," says Anne. "None of the `why nots' were insurmountable. Everyone was very supportive and friends who had backpacked in their twenties told us we would regret it for the rest of our lives if we didn't carry it through. We were concerned about the children missing out on their education and falling behind their peers but we were assured on all fronts, including their schools, that travelling broadens the mind and that the trip would be an unbeatable form of education.

"We had wondered whether Amber might have to go into the year group below her age when we came back but the school felt there would not be a problem. As the first year at secondary school is very much a consolidation period, she would quickly catch up.

"One of the nicest things about backpacking is that it forces you to simplify your life down to the amount you can carry on your back. It really makes you prioritise. We consequently couldn't start lugging school work with us but then we didn't want to make the whole thing a booky affair. We wanted the children to see and experience.

"They wrote diaries sporadically and always had a book on the go, plus they had pocket money which they had to convert into different currencies and manage themselves so that they kept their maths ticking. Apart from that I did attempt to teach Amber French because her peers would be learning it at school."

Amber remembers being shocked when her parents mooted the idea of backpacking. "All my friends at school were really jealous but now it just seems like normal. There were so many other things that shocked me on the trip like ordering a plate of vegetables in a restaurant in Thailand and finding it had a duck's foot on it which I was supposed to eat.

"I don't think I was ever homesick, we were too busy and every day was different. It wasn't until near the end of the trip that I began to look forward to going back to school. The thing I probably missed the most was my pillow. We had mattresses to lie on but we had to roll up clothes we weren't wearing to use as pillows."

Dominic's recollections of the trip resemble a flip-over photo album. "We were on a truck in Burma and people just kept giving Amber and me avocados. There were some monks there as well who kept wanting to touch me - they were really nice. "I did miss my bike and not being able to wear jeans because they were too heavy to carry, but I liked being in the middle of nowhere and really enjoyed making friends with children from other cultures. They played games just the same as us so we never had any problems getting on.

"Seeing how dirty some cities are really made me appreciate living in a clean village like Binfield. I'm going to take my children backpacking round the world."

The 11-month trip cost the Parrys pounds 30,000. "We could have done it a lot cheaper," says Anne, "but it was a trip of a lifetime and we didn't want to be there and not do it. Although our travel and accommodation was cheap, we had all sorts of treats like elephant riding and whitewater rafting and flying around Everest, which put the price of the trip up. If we hadn't had the windfall of the share options those things wouldn't have been on the agenda. But I think the richest thing we discovered wherever we went were the people."

Neal believes that the greatest lesson the children have learnt from the trip will be an anti-racist one. "They have lived as foreigners in so many different countries, and experienced so many cultures and yet discovered that people are not that different the world over. Hopefully it will have nurtured a degree of international understanding in them," he says.

Anne imagined they would all come back radically changed and have difficulty fitting back into every day life. "In actual fact I was amazed at how easily we all slotted back into our old routines," she says. "It was hardest for Neal because he had to face unemployment for the first time in his life - his former company was taken over while we were away so he was out of a job and it took four months before he found another one. "But the children seemed to just fit back into the school system with few problems and without being way behind in their work. The thing we noticed most in that 11 months was that Amber's friends had all become very much involved in the popular culture and were wearing fashion clothes and talking about pop groups.

"Amber was very much untainted by Western culture, she still had a certain purity about her. It was as though we had extended her childhood by a year. Almost overnight, though, she swapped her comfortable travelling clothes for the latest gear and got up to date with music. I am glad that the children remained ordinary. In spite of all the things that they have seen they still get excited when they find a frog under a stone in the back garden . I still get a thrill out of watching the leaves change colour in the autumn."

But escaping the rat race has not made Neal less dissatisfied with it. "I naively believed that a year out would cure me of any restlessness," he says, "but of course the rat race is still there when you come back and you have to get on with it. And after four months unemployment I was grateful to get back into it.

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