Remember the DB family who took a year off to travel the world? Well they’re back, and sharing their adventures with Suveera Sharma.
When I first met Doug Tahirali and Marie- Christine Merkley back in June 2018, they were about to embark on a 12-month tour of the world with their beautiful daughters Kaia, then 13, Skye, 10, and Willow, 8. Now they’re back, having visited 24 different countries across four continents, and I can’t wait to hear about their adventures. It’s like the excitement you feel when the sequel to your favourite movie is about to be released.
There’s no doubt the family has had an exhilarating ride this past year and a bit. Starting out in Mongolia and returning to DB via Canada, they’ve spent three-and-a-half months in Asia, three-and-a-half months in Africa, five months in South America and a week in North America. They’ve been on the road for 389 days, covering 86,723 kilometres by air, train, bus, car and ferry.
Memories to last a lifetime
In dreaming up this trip, Marie-Christine (M.C.) and Doug wanted first and foremost to share their love of travel with their kids, and open their eyes to a world of possibilities. Having provided the girls with 10 years of stability in DB, they decided to seize the moment and take a year’s sabbatical, while they still could, before the pressures of schooling became too great.
“I knew we would see fantastic stuff but I did not know how fantastic,” opens M.C. “Mount Everest and Victoria Falls. Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn in Namibia and hanging out on the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, visiting the Potala Palace in Tibet and Machu Picchu in Peru… Experiences like these are forever.”
Bolivia. At the Uyuni salt flats.
For Kaia, the highlight of the trip was the diving. “I started the training in Goa and completed it in Oman. I also managed to get my advanced certification in South Africa, while diving with sharks.” Skye, meanwhile, loved the Naadam Festival in Mongolia. “I remember a random stranger came up and kissed my dad on the cheek; he was so happy to see us tourists in such a small place.” And for Willow? “Africa. I love animals and we camped by a watering hole in Botswana. But I loved Abu Dhabi and snorkelling in Oman too.”
A shared highpoint for the family was that first fabled glimpse of the Taj Mahal. But ask them where they would choose to settle out of all the countries they visited, and the unanimous answer is South Africa. “The beauty of the country, the interest of the people we met along the way; the food, wine and weather – it is a spectacular country,” says M.C. “We just wish there weren’t the political issues and, in areas, the violence. Every country has a dark underbelly but with three young girls, it’s just not worth the risk.”
A degree of danger is unavoidable in a trip that takes you this far off the beaten track, and M.C. recalls looking out of a local bus in Colombia, and seeing the body of a man who had just been shot, likely in a gang war. “There were so many moments where things could have gone bad, but we got lucky and things got turned round,” Doug says.
Nepal. Paragliding in Pokhara.
“We also managed to make friends and we are still in touch with three families that we were on a ship with,” Doug adds. “We made some strange connections while exploring. We met people in the remotest of places, who knew our friends back in Hong Kong. It made us realise what a small place the world is.”
But was it all sunshine and roses? Wasn’t it exhausting to travel together as a family for so long without a routine, just taking each day as it came?
“It was challenging sometimes keeping everyone happy,” Doug admits. “For example, the younger girls were great at forming connections and making friends. Especially Skye, she is our family’s ice breaker. She always managed to find someone to play with and kept herself occupied. With Kaia, our eldest, however, it wasn’t that easy. Not many people do what we did with kids that are Kaia’s age.”
It turns out that most of the travellers the family came across were either adults (gap-year students to solo pensioners) or families with young children. “The reality is that at Kaia’s age traditional schooling gets more complex. She therefore met very few kids of her own age,” says M.C. “I think other parents might consider this a deterrent to travelling with teens.” Kaia, who admits to sometimes feeling lonely without her friends, says WhatsApp and Instagram helped.
Namibia. At the Tropic of Capricorn.
It turns out that what everyone missed most during the trip were the comforts of home. “The basic amenities that you take for granted become a luxury on a trip like this,” M.C. says. “Just the familiarity and comfort of your own bed to come back to after a day of exploring.” She is proud that the girls have learnt to appreciate “the simpler things, such as living in a safe country, and having a permanent home, drinkable water, flushing toilets, hot showers and their own bed.”
So, in what other ways have the girls grown from this experience according to Mum? “With Kaia, now 14, a key moment came when we were in Bolivia, 10 months in. She was crying at bedtime… She said she’d suddenly realised how lucky she was, and that she understood that most don’t, or will never be able to experience a trip like this in their lifetime.” And for Skye, 11? “She still struggles with it but she has realised that life isn’t black and white. She understands the complexities of travel and the importance of safety/ awareness.” And Willow, 9? “She didn’t like it, but she realised that she had to eat what was available!”
Ask Willow herself what she learnt on the trip and she says, sagely, “Expect the least and you will get the most.” Skye shares another very mature takeaway, “On the map we see the continents and they look huge but when you visit them, you realise that the world is small. Anyone can go anywhere any time.”
While M.C. admits that homeschooling Kaia stretched her limits, she says she loved understanding how each of the kids learnt, and seeing them progress. “We found an app (iTooch) which covered the French Lycée curriculum for their years and we used that to teach. We invested in Kindles. There is a lot out there and, importantly, it’s available when you are offline. Doug handled the English. I handled the French.
Peru. On the Inca Trail at Machu Picchu.
“We taught usually in the morning for around two hours. It was easier to teach when we were based somewhere for several days or weeks but we didn’t stress about it too much. They learnt so much on the road, from the people they met, the things they did and saw… They all learnt Spanish during our time in South America.
“The purpose of the trip was to regain time with family and we achieved that,” M.C. adds. “We understand them even more. They now know their parents can be goofy, fun and caring at the same time. We cooked, explored, walked and built great memories.”
Home sweet home
The big question, of course, is how well the family has adjusted to being back in DB. Doug, it seems, has hit the ground running; he was back to the grindstone just three days after they landed. M.C., who is waiting to go back to work until the girls are settled, has been able to take things a bit easier. “I still haven’t put my watch back on,” she says. “For now, I’m cherishing that little bit of freedom.” The girls, meanwhile, are back at French International School and enjoying reconnecting with their BFFs. “They’ve struggled a bit with the concept of time,” M.C. says. “The idea that if you miss this bus, you’ll miss your ferry, you’ll then miss your school bus and miss school… They feel some stress.”
While the family didn’t know where they would settle at the end of the trip, the economic realities made DB the logical place. “And we love our ‘hood,’” says Doug. “The community spirit, the hills, the sea.”
And yes, the girls have caught the travel bug. When asked where they’d like to go next, they come back with a list of 34 countries. “Time to start saving up again,” says M.C. with a smile. “Our next trip will be Thailand at Easter and we plan to visit family back in Canada next summer.”