Traveling Internationally with Teenagers: “We Came, We Saw, We Left” by Charles Wheelan

This is NOT the Wheelan family (links to their photos below)…and to my recollection, they never traveled on camels, which is actually not cheap. It’s fun to try once…if you do, I recommend that you try to have a friend who is a local with you so you get treated fairly, especially at tourist sites. Pocketbook Travel, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This is NOT the Wheelan family (links to their photos below)…and to my recollection, they never traveled on camels, which is actually not cheap. It’s fun to try once…if you do, I recommend that you try to have a friend who is a local with you so you get treated fairly, especially at tourist sites. Pocketbook Travel, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We Came, We Saw, We Left is the true story of a couple who decided to put their lives on hold for a year and go traveling with their three teenagers. Brave folk, yes?

The book got my immediate attention because I also spent a lot of time traveling with a teenager: When my daughter was 13, we moved to Japan and stayed for 5 years. When she was 8, we did a 2 month version of the Wheelen’s trip in Europe.

I have to admit that I started this book with a bit of an attitude because of my experience, but I found myself mostly enjoying this light and relatively fast read.

See some photos of the Wheelan family on their trip here.

Traveling Like the Wheelans

Why Cheaper Is Better

One of the biggest points that Wheelan makes organizing the money to make it last, and with 5 tickets to purchase, they had to do it on the cheap. In case you’re wondering, what they were doing is entirely possible to do safely, even in first world countries.

As someone who has “been there, done that”, I more or less agree with the Wheelan’s philosophy of travel, which is that going cheap enables you to do it longer, and going cheap also enables you to get more out of the experience.

This idea may seem counter intuitive, but usually the cheaper way to travel is the way the locals do it.  If you stay in a major hotel, you are going to meet few people and those you do meet are often traveling for business.  Business class travel is designed to make the travel part easier so people will be able to be effective during work.  The whole point of business class and above travel is to make every place the same. Traveling cheap is more interesting because you experience more of the local life and interact with people who don’t regularly deal with “foreigners”, but takes it also takes time and energy.

I also avoid group tours for the same reason. I guess people do it because it’s “easy”, but then they spend their whole trip interacting with people they could have met at home. So boring. Major sites are cool, and I’ve seen a lot of them, but that’s not really what international travel is about. 

On the other hand, sometimes I personally thought the Wheelans went too far…I would rather have cut the 9 month trip they took to 8 months if I could avoid some of the cramped, extended bus rides they took, but that’s just me.  At times, they decided it was too much and curtailed some of them.

Either way, I can’t fault them for their willingness to try anything…at least once, even if I did get annoyed sometimes with the detail Wheelan goes into about their escapades.  

They had some mishaps: big deal.  If you are traveling in developing countries on local transportation, you have to expect that.  It’s part of the simple equation you always have to do when you travel: is the savings worth the extra time and likely hassle?  In some cases, as I mentioned, the savings can lead to enhanced travel, but it others, it’s not.  You’re not saving money if you get sick or exhausted from your method.  You’re not saving money when you’re losing time by taking a slow method (extra food and energy) or a circuitous flight.

The Point of Traveling Cheaply

Where I think the Wheelan family failed is their apparent seclusion from the local people.   Perhaps this is naturally going to happen when you are traveling with a group of 5 (and sometimes more).  With that many, there is literally no room at the table, whereas it’s easy to fall into conversation with people when you are alone or with one companion.   

They did what I think is a kind of an American approach to travel…the 10 countries in 15 days kind of thing.  They spent short times in lots of various places, and as far as I can tell, never long enough to really get to know the places they were in.  Based on what is in the book, they seemed to hit the biggest tourist attractions in each spot before moving on.  And they also jumped all over the world…India, Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and New Zealand. I’m exhausted just writing it.

A broad puddle isn’t very deep, if you know what I mean.

Rather than hanging out with people, Wheelan seems to have spent a lot of time hanging out in coffee shops writing a novel. I’m kind of bummed that he didn’t use the time to talk to locals more, but the novel he wrote is out, so if you’re interested, read it and decide what you think would be the better use of time.

I found it ironic that China figures heavily in the book, since the Wheelans didn’t go there although they did spend a lot of time in India, also featured in the novel.

Comparing Travel My Experiences with the Wheelans

Although I’ve traveled extensively, I have been to remarkably few of the places the Wheelan family goes, but their reaction to the one place we both have been, Vietnam, is a good example of the shortcomings of their travel style.  I agree with his reaction to the “Hanoi Hilton” (ironic name for Hỏa Lò Prison): while Wheelan missed explaining that most of the exhibit is about showing the cruelty of the French colonials to the Vietnamese people, he is exactly on the nose about the propaganda the current government uses to white wash their treatment of American POW’s (including John McCain) held there out of all recognition.   

On the other hand, they were taken in by the aggressive display of capitalism in the clothing district: “‘What exactly makes this country Communist?’ Katrina asked as she observed the hustling entrepreneurs” (180).  If they had actually gone into those shops and gotten some clothes made, they would have found out that the electrical system is back by generating power from car batteries during periodic “brown outs” during the day so that shopkeepers can continue to do business.  They would have seen fear in the eyes of the Vietnamese when it came to interacting with their American selves.  The Vietnamese are getting more economic opportunities it seems, but don’t be fooled.  Even in the week I was there, I knew the people were not free.  A “bustling” economy has nothing to do with freedom.

 The Wheelans and Rick Steves

I’m pretty sure that at some point in life, even though it isn’t mentioned in the book, both Wheelan and his wife Erin have read Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door.  I highly recommend this book; it taught me all about how to travel inexpensively and safely, as Steves calls it “low to the ground”.  My daughter and I had wonderful experiences traveling just that way.  But the key thing they seemed to miss is that, for Rick Steves, the whole point of traveling this way is to get to know people. 

I was so excited when they finally settled in with a local Indian family only to find out that they ate wonderful homemade meals made by the family cook.  Yawn. They didn’t even visit the cook in the kitchen.

Making Ethnic Jokes as an Outsider (Don’t)

The only thing they did pick up on is the concept of a “Punjabi Shortcut”, which means going the long way around, and Wheelan beat the small joke into the ground. Punjabs are a real ethnic group, and I think that’s the kind of joke outsiders should not make. The fifth time I had to read it, I started thinking about my Punjabi friend, who can intellectually run circles around Charles Wheelan, and in several languages! The main reason I even know he is Punjabi is because that figured into the name of his long-running Pub Quiz team name.

Ok, now I’m getting grumpy. 

The Value of Experiences

In the end, no matter what I think of the Wheelan’s choices, both small and big, one of the major points of this book is that experiences are important, and you are not a slave to the things that you think you are unless you want to be.  I managed to travel with an 8 year old for $100 a day in 2002 (including food, lodging, local travel, and most entry fees), and later, working overseas actually enabled me to support myself and my daughter, provide her with an education, save, and travel to places I other wise wouldn’t have gone. 

It’s about learning to become a good traveler (this was not the family’s first overseas/developing country trip ever) and making choices…both in the planning process and leading up to it.  If your house is filled with stuff, think again if that’s what is making you happy.  If it’s not, change it. 

This entertaining book tells you how one determined family put it together.