Family takes trip of a lifetime

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

elop family photoAs you’re reading this, UW Accounting grads Tracy [Barnes] (MAcc ’89) and Kevin Elop (MAcc ’89) are well into their 15-month round-the-world trip, with their three young children.

Whatever might propel people – especially Accountants! – to set off on such an adventure?

A big part of the motivation, the Elops told us before embarking in June of this year, is their desire to spend more time with their children – Michael, 10, Laura, 8, and Sarah, 6 -- away from the distractions of day-to-day life.

What they have in mind are simple things, like sharing a campfire, playing a game at night as they work their way across Canada and up the Alaska Highway, or going to a local market wherever they are and picking out food for a picnic lunch.

“We also want to share some amazing experiences with the children,” say the parents, “such as watching a beautiful African sunset, experiencing the Taj Mahal, or floating down the Mekong in Cambodia!”

“Life really is for living,” Kevin says, “and sitting on a couch watching the Leafs lose doesn't cut it for me.” For Tracy, life is “too short and unpredictable” not to take such a trip: “If I found out I only had one more year to live, this is exactly how I would choose to spend it.”

Living a simpler life

The children are at what Kevin and Tracy call “a lovely age” where they want to spend time with their parents and each other. “I want to strengthen that connection before they decide friends are more important and more fun to be with than family,” Tracy explains.

The Elops, who are also School of Accounting and Finance Fellowship Honourees, are very keen to teach them about the wider world. “We want them to live a simpler life for a time, realize how privileged most Canadians’ lives are, and appreciate different cultures and lifestyles,” says Tracy. “We want to instill in them a sense of curiosity about the world – and life in general -- that will cause them to question the status quo.”

Although the Elops are looking forward to the international aspect of their adventure, they wanted the children to see what Canada looks like first. “By the time we finish the trip, we expect to have flown approximately 90,000 km --more than twice the earth’s circumference -- and travelled more than 20,000 km ‘over land’ by RV, train, bus, ferry, river boat, tuk tuk, and elephant,” says Tracy.

Previous trip a model

In 1994 the Elops took a 6-month honeymoon trip that helped inspire the present trip. “We knew we would travel again, and it was just a matter of deciding when best to go,“ says Tracy. They had learned not only that a $10 hostel in Southeast Asia is “a perfectly acceptable place to stay” and that most people are “friendly and incredibly helpful.” And they could see that they and the kids could manage nicely with what fits in backpacks.

What really clinched things was a letter from friends who had sold their home and bought a sailboat to cruise around in and live on for a year. “Our first thought was, ‘That's amazing!’ Tracy recalls. “This quickly progressed to ‘What's stopping us from doing that?’" Not avid sailors themselves, the Elops soon found themselves equipping an RV (for travel within Canada) and filling backpacks for more far-flung destinations.

Careers on hold?

“I'm not terribly concerned about what will happen with my career,” says Kevin, who was serving as CFO of Christie Digital Systems. Tracy has the flexibility that comes with being a part-time consultant (she works with the Deloitte & Touche national office Accounting and Audit group).

“This trip will be an important chapter in our family life book,” she says. “When our kids are older, there will always be more time to work. When we were preparing to go away 14 years ago, we discussed how the time off would affect our careers,” she explains. ”When we came back, life at home was pretty much the same. Within a few months it was apparent that our time away had no impact at all.”

The Elops expect this trip will have similar results.

“We may have to make some changes,” Tracy concedes, ”but as individuals and as a family we will have gained significantly more than anything we may lose professionally.”

Learning en route

The Elops, who call the adventure a “really long field trip," have set definite learning goals for the children. They are following the formal Ontario school curriculum to ensure core learning occurs, especially in math and English.

child posing in front of mountainThe social sciences are expected to “mostly take care of themselves,” as the family visits the very sites the kids are studying. “What better way to learn about Egypt and the pyramids than to go there?” Tracy asks. As well as keeping daily journals, the three young scholars are using a lightweight laptop to access the internet and research upcoming sites in advance.

The Elops’ home schooling started even before they left. Progress shown by one of the kids strengthened the parents’ confidence in teaching basic skills. “It will be neat to have my parents as teachers,” asserts Michael, a new home schoolee. ”The best way to learn about a country is to visit it, so I think I will remember more about what I am learning about. The bad part is that we are starting it as soon as we leave, and I'm not sure that's fair!”

Sister Laura says, “It's exciting, because my parents are pretty smart. It is also good to have one person just helping me. I think it will really help me get better at math.”

“I want my dad to be the music teacher,” offers Sarah, “because he has an interesting -- but kind of bad -- way of singing!”

Click here for more about the kids' views on the trip.

Preparing to go, staying in touch

While Michael claims he’s not doing anything special to prepare for the trip, Laura says she’s Googling “all kinds of things.” She’s found out about rain forest animals, and learned some Chinese words. Meanwhile Sarah is helping everyone get ready to go.

“I have to decide which stuffed animal to take with me,” she says. “Daddy says it has to be a little one so it will fit in my backpack!” The kids are keeping in touch with classmates by e-mail and letter. As well, Laura has a best friend she hopes to meet in Australia, and Sarah wants to connect with a friend who recently moved to Halifax. “It's easy to focus on the reasons why people shouldn't take a trip like ours,” says Sarah’s Mom, “but when you start looking at these reasons individually they tend to disappear pretty easily.”

Kids Corner

Here’s what the Elop kids were saying as they prepared to leave.

How do you feel about the trip?

“I can't wait for it to start. “I'm going to learn so much about the world!” – Laura

“I have definitely warmed up to the idea over time, because at first I didn't want to leave my friends. But now I realize this is a trip that most people will never get to do, and that has me excited.” – Michael

“I was really excited when I first heard the idea.” – Sarah

What are you looking forward to most?

“Going to Australia to see koala bears and a lot of other animals that I don't get to see in Canada. And it also sounds like it will be fun to take an overnight train ride in India!” – Sarah

“I'm looking forward to Alaska, because there's a real town there called the North Pole and I have read that it's full of Christmas stuff. Also, we might get to see river dolphins in Peru.” – Laura

“Going to China to see my favourite animal, the Giant Panda. Also, one of my cousins was born in China. I have also read a lot about ancient Egypt and Greece, so I am looking forward to being there in person.” – Michael

Anything else you want to say?

“It will be an adventure. I am looking forward to trying new types of food in every country.” – Michael

“It will be great to see so many different types of animals. Mommy and Daddy told me that we will see all kinds of animals when we are on a safari in Africa.” – Laura

“It's going to be fun, and I'm going to learn a lot. I also really like to spend time with my family, and I don't even mind drying the dishes in the camper!” – Sarahchildren posing on buddha

A Father's Perspective

“With respect to the children, I really take to heart the lyrics to Harry Chapin's ‘Cat's in the Cradle’ song,” says Kevin Elop, “and I don't want that scenario to unfold with my family.”

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin' home dad?
I don't know when, but we'll get together then son
You know we'll have a good time then.
-- Harry Chapin (1942-81)

See the Elop family's blog here.