Day 156: Egypt-Older than Time

I now know the significance of the phrase: “Balls like a Cairo taxi driver.

Driving in Cairo is more like living through a scene from ‘Mad Max‘ where everyone is escaping near death on a daily basis in a post apocalyptic dust cloud of dented cars and trash lined roadways. Lanes are completely optional. If two cars are driving down designated lanes and there is space between them, shooting the gap is fair game. Horns are used as religiously as the Koran. Most cars we rode in didn’t even have seatbelts.

Don’t try to cross the road here with heavy traffic.” Our friend Susanna said.”It’s not like Vietnam, where they’ll swerve around you. Here, they’ll run over you.

And run over people we did. Because pedestrian cross walks are non-existent, people are forced to find gaps in the traffic and play ‘frogger’. On our second Uber trip in the city, a pedestrian bounced off our hood and neither him or our driver didn’t even stop.

Shouldn’t you check to see if he’s OK?” I asked.

No, he’s probably fine.” The driver said dismissively with a wave of his hand.

The next day, we came to a screeching halt just inches in front of a man escorting an elderly woman across the street. Her guide shook his cane at our driver and our driver shouted back while casting obscene hand gestures. Luckily, Ubers were cheap. Some rides around the less touristy sites came in at less than a dollar, so after getting a ride to our friends Anton and Suzanna’s house, we knew we could rest easy for 3 days with old friends and catching up.

Giza Plateau

If you ask people: “What do you want to see before you die?“, many will answer the Pyramids at Giza.

Of all the historic sites we planned to see on our trip, the pyramids in Cairo and ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru were at the top of our list. Learning about these structures as young children filled both Lisa, Ava and I with such an awe, that the night before we actually felt nervous; like you do before delivering a speech or a job interview. It was almost if we were afraid of disappointing the pyramids themselves and had anthropomorphized them into judgmental monoliths whose journey through time brought them to life.

The size is the first thing that strikes you. You know they’re going to be big, but nothing prepares you for the size of seeing 2 million blocks built over 20 years with primitive tools that has lasted for 4000 years with only 58 millimeters of variance. Many of the blocks were as tall as me. We did a figure eight around Khufu and Khafre before we walked down the causeway to the great Sphinx.

Wow, the Sphinx is smaller than I imagined.” said Ava. “And it looks like Imseti. Don’t you think daddy?”

Who is that?

Imseti is the egyptian man that guards the liver in the canopic jars.

Since she had been reading the ‘Horrible Histories’ version of “The Ancient Egyptians” our daughter would come to teach us much about ancient Egypt and served as our family’s own personal guide.

Saqqara Complex

Our friends in Tanzania (The Fossgreens) whom we stayed with while there and who lived in Egypt for a time told us not to miss the Saqqara complex.

And the Red Pyramid too.” Bill told us. “You can go down into the antechambers and there is nobody there.

We chartered a driver for 800 Egyptian pounds to pick us up from our house and drive us south of Cairo to visit the Saqqara (or step pyramid), Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. Bill was right. There was hardly anybody there.

What made the Saqqara complex so amazing is the tombs of the viziers. The royal viziers were the most trusted counsels of the kings in ancient Egypt and although they weren’t given pyramids, trusted viziers commanded respect in the form of large tombs, and carvings worthy of a Pharaoh. While in Saqqara, we visited the tombs of viziers Kagemni and Mereruka, counsel for King Teti in the sixth dynasty which was around 2,400 BC. King Teti’s tomb was also there and in typical fashion of tombs in the pyramids, you have to crouch and descend down a long chamber to the main corridors and interior chambers that were adorned with wealth.

The red pyramid was a harsh lesson in physical fitness. It had a 65 meter descending tunnel into three massive corbel vaulted chambers. By the time we got down, I was dripping in sweat and needed to stop twice on the way out. Our thighs were sore for 3 days afterwards.

Scams to Watch out For

By now, we had gotten pretty accustomed to scams in Egypt, which we read were too numerous to print. Around the temple areas, the scam plays out the same: some guy will be lurking near an off the beaten track part of the complex and tell you your ticket does not cover these rooms and if you want to see them, you have to pay extra money. Or, a guide will miraculously appear at your side and start talking, and after waxing on about the history of the area, ask for a little ‘baksheesh‘ by rubbing his fingers together. Another is a vendor who will give you a shirt for free, and then his thugs will appear a minute later asking for money now that you have soiled his shirt.

I heard from others that ‘Baksheesh‘ was a dreaded term in Egypt and many locals would not do their job unless some gratuity was promised or given for their meager efforts. Upon landing at the Cairo airport on day one, a bathroom attendant pulled a paper towel down from the dispenser so it was easier for me to grab and wanted baksheesh. I would ask guards and attendants for information on this or that and they wanted baksheesh. As tourism is just starting to rebound since the revolution of 2011 when tourism revenues fell by 95%, many locals are still hurting for money and jobs and appreciate every little bit.

Luxor: Time to Relax

Since we had been staying with friends in Oman, Dubai and Cairo, we decided to splurge for our 4 nights in Luxor by staying at the Hilton Luxor Spa and Resort and celebrate having gotten new teaching positions in Lima, Peru starting next summer. Although the rooms were $140 a night, we got 3 times our normal 14 times points as this was the low season and with our diamond status got free room upgrades with breakfast and complimentary cocktails in the evening and the point tally would push us over the amount needed for a free 4 night redemption in Brazil in March. Having 4 full days to lounge around the pool in the afternoon with room service, massages and spa access was the cats whiskers and just what we needed to unwind after the emotional rollercoaster of an international job search.

Before entering the temple of Karnak, Lisa and I bought checkered ‘Kieffer’ headscarfs to keep our pates out of the scorching heat. Kieffers are commonly worn by locals in the Arab world and they vary much on the fabric, size and design depending on whether your intent is style or function. Ours were made of cotton and were a slightly heavy weave to absorb the sweat and were just under a meter square to allow us enough material to wrap securely around our heads but allow enough material to drape over our neck and ears to keep the majority of our heads shaded. Many locals volunteered to show us different head wrapping styles that they themselves had favored over time.

Valley of the Kings and Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple

We chartered a car that took us to the west bank of the Nile to see the Valley of the Kings one morning while in Luxor. The valley is pretty unseemly, and what surprised us was how many people were buried in the region. We had thought going into it that a dozen or so kings and queens lie buried in ancient tombs, but it turns out that there are thousands of people from upper and upper middle class Egypt that had been laid to rest over the centuries. Some modern villages were built on top of the tombs and after UNESCO declared the area a world heritage site, the local homes had to be demolished and moved to a new area that complied with conservation mandates. 24 hour video cameras keep an eye on the huge area to prevent further grave robberies.

Valley of the Kings was pretty spectacular. Admission gains you entrance to 3 tombs of your choice, but some of the more decorative ones like Seti and Aphrodite have additional, eye gouging fees. We visited the tombs of Ramses the III, IV and IX and the carvings were exquisite. We didn’t visit King Tutankhamun’s tomb as there was an extra fee and as he died young and rather unexpectedly, so there wasn’t time to make his tomb as large and elaborate as the other kings of old. His claim to fame was the tomb itself escaping burglary and being only discovered in 1922 with all his possessions still in the chambers. His golden mask at the Cairo museum might just be one of the most beautiful artifacts we’ve ever seen.

On the way out, we stopped at queen Hatshepsut’s temple which was anything by subtle. The mortuary temple at Deir El-Bahiri is a colonnaded symmetrical entrance with that is a grand gesture to her time as ruler and her achievements such as her fairly long reign and expansion of trade routes and building projects within the Egyptian civilization.

Our Middle East Trip Takes a Turn

While in Luxor, we decided to take the next portion of our middle east trip off our journey. Although Lebanon was a place we’ve wanted to visit for some time, travel there had recently become a headache since anti-government protests started mid-October and the country was starting to suspend basic services and roadblocks were making it difficult to get around. Our friend Damon who is a teacher there relayed that his school had been cancelled, banks were shutting down, and kidnappings were up around border areas near Syria and Israel so we decided to avoid it for the time being. Even the US state department raised their travel advisory one notch below the level: “Avoid all travel

So, while in Luxor, we cancelled all our Lebanese bookings and researched an island in the Mediterranean sea we knew nothing about which we would come to discover soon: Cyprus.

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Booking Budget Safaris in Africa

I’ve had Africa on the brain lately.

Last month, I finished booking and paying for the first 2 months of our trip in Eastern Europe, so East Africa was next. I wrote earlier how I essentially got a free flight down to Dar Es Salaam and now we are working on logistics around how to spend our time there. Ava wants to see a rhinoceros. Lisa wants to lounge around Zanzibar. I just want to see them happy.

If I could book and pay for the first four months of our trip, sticking to our budget would be infinity easier. However, Africa has its challenges. Overland travel and local transport forces you to mix and mingle with locals and bag snatching and pickpocketing are much more common than the relative safety of East Asia and we had the safety of our nine old to consider. I remember years ago stepping off a small minibus into the shady outskirts of Maputo, Mozambique at night and practically getting mobbed. On our trip, we’d be heading through Nairobi (known as ‘Nairobbery’ by the locals) and were contesting how to weigh long, overland budget friendly bus trips with time saving, more expensive flights.

The great migration

The problem is cost. Africa is expensive. Years ago we did a 3 week safari through South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and for 1 booze fueled night, Zambia. At the time, the price tag was one that school teachers could afford. Now, going into the bush costs a kings ransom. Inflation and paying park rangers a wage that is not usurped by kickbacks from poachers has put game parks almost out of reach. Almost.

Our lonely planet had a gamut of tour providers whom I wrote with our rough date in a generic, bcc email. Soon, my inbox was flooded by high end operators offering $6,000-$7,000 one week trips for the family. We wanted to see the Serengeti and Masai Mara and it wasn’t coincidence that our timing in East Africa would be during the great migration of huge herds of game crossing the landscape. However, one site became invaluable in the process:

The Dashboard

Googling ‘African Safaris’ led me to independent companies, but compares hundreds of safaris at once. Typing in your prospective country, dates and people in your party then lists hundreds of safaris and from there, filtering options pop up such as cost per day, private or group tours, customer ratings and most importantly, budget options.

I was glad to find some safaris that were $700 per person per 1 week safari (75% of that amount for the child) which was just short of my squealing point. I really hope Ava sees her rhino.

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Mongolia Part 3: Among the Holy

The scenery has taken a big change. For our first few days in Mongolia, the steppe was a smooth, barren landscape. What was once ankle high scrub gave way to hills, gullies and glens spotted with small trees. During our drive, we were 4 wheel creeping over lava flows, and insolent river crossings, which turned sanguine in our rearview mirror. By late afternoon, we were in the mountain steppe, with strange coniferous trees that had yellow pine needles which I’d never seen before.

The father of our Ger camp was ‘Gala’, and soon after meeting us, his young grandchildren chased Ava around the camp. All together, there were four families (Gala’s children) and their children living here and up till now, we had never come upon a group with such an extended family living together. The adults were the quietest family we had met. I would later learn why.

The Lovely Bones


We loaded up on horses and took off on an 8 kilometer horse ride, down to a local waterfall. The horses would favor the trails but mix it up by forging their own trails on the perfectly manicured grass. As we rode on, I noticed bones everywhere. Not covering the entire landscape, but everywhere you seemed to look, there they were- here and there, bleached white, stark against the sparse vegetation and grey volcanic rock. These signs of death were everywhere in Mongolia and I wondered if remains were from a wolf kill or from a local family who had simply thrown the scraps out. I always expected a bone to announce a nearby carcass, but I never saw one. Top echelon predators undoubtedly take the largest piece they can to their den and kin, and down the line with scavengers lining up and even the smallest of decomposers and detritivores getting their meager, but ample sized scraps. This tug of war over rotting limbs leaves no discernible epicenter of the creature’s last breath as pieces are separated, thinned and turned back into earth.


Horses are just like people, they like to go home. After a short rest at a local water fall, we mounted up and the horses started out with a trot, no doubt eager to get home to their pasture lands.

Erdene Zu Monestary

We left the valley camp homestay with a long goodbye the next morning. Saagii had given the mother a long, tearful goodbye, and I sensed something was amiss. During the embrace, Saagii whispered words into the mother’s ear and the mother nodded back, appreciatively tears streaming down her face. We would later learn that our host family had suffered a terrible tragedy only 2 weeks ago when their 19 year old son was unexpectedly killed in an accident. Instantly, I hated myself for being there and having this wonderful family take care of us and force smiles in the face of such agonizing grief.

We drove to the ancient capital of ‘Karakorum’ and walked around the Erdene Zu Monastery. This was the center of Mongolia in its golden years when it housed tens of thousands and was a premier destination on the silk road. As the Mongol empire spread, Kublai khan moved the capital city to Beijing to be a better location from which to run the empire and Karakorum began its slow but steady demise.


In Search of ‘The Real’ 

I always keep my eyes open for ‘The Real’ side of a place. The gritty. The sad. The overlooked.

This isn’t readily apparent to me when I touch down right after landing. It takes time to see past the guidebook and trip advisor recommendations, but when I see it and am in the ‘moment’, I know that’s the thing I’ll miss most about a destination. Waterfalls and scenic visits are just too easy.


Our last night in Ulanbatur, we went for Indian food. Tugsuu brought his son and he and Ava played ‘Shagai’ a local game played with 4-5 goat ankle bones. The strategy is to keep as many of your bones without losing them to the other player. Each bone has a distinct different feature depending on how it lands, and how it pairs with other bones, gives you more ‘livestock’ or opens you up to having them taken away from you. Lisa, Saagaai, Tugsuu and I were enjoying our last night together with great food, laughs and beer. The kids were entertaining themselves without a lick of English between them. We stuffed ourselves, and reminisced on stories of the last week.

And that was the moment.

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Mongolia Part 2: Among Riders

It’s funny how one tiny piece of equipment can turn an entire piece of machinery useless.

Creative Commons

This was the case for me with during our first night in the Ger when (while packing back in Korea) I left my CPAP mask behind, rendering my CPAP machine I’d brought to Mongolia, useless. I was diagnosed 3 years ago with sleep apnea and rely on this machine to help me sleep through the entire night, which is something I never did through my entire 30’s. I got up 4 times at night to go pee, although the stars were magnificent and worth the wake up which is what I told myself to offset my geriatric ruminations. After night skies in Namibia, they were the most brilliant I’d ever seen in my life with the milky way splashed across the cool canopy of night.

The ‘Ger’ Stay


The ‘Ger’ is a common sight in Mongolia. They lend themselves to the nomadic herding lifestyle and families will move twice a year, to a winter and summer locations and take their livestock with them. I thought that families would migrate huge distances to get somewhat of a relief from bitter temperatures (Apparently schools closed in Ulanbator for a week last year when temperatures dropped to -25) but many winter camps are merely a few hundred meters downstream or down a valley from their summer sites. I wondered why families would take the time to move such a paltry distance.

In the center is a stove which doubles as not only a cooking place, but a central heating unit. A central pipe takes the smoke up through the center and a flap over the roof can keep in heat, or let it escape easily. Every night in Mongolia, our hosts would stoke a fire just before bed and again to wake us up in the morning. In the desert steppe for our first few nights, the stoves would burn horse dung as firewood was scarce. The beds line the inner perimeter with space to move around by the central stove for socializing.

That morning, we drove through the national park spotting Przewalski’s horses and stags in the national park. If there ever is an olympic sport for spotting things at far distances, Mongolians are assured to win the gold, silver and bronze medals as evidenced by the keen eyes of our guides, Saagai and Tugsuu. Every time we stopped, they brought out their binoculars and managed to spot wildlife that would challenge Superman, let alone most mortals.

“What are you guys looking at?” I would often ask.

“On that far ridge, a group of stags.”

“You mean those tiny specs about 3 kilometers away?” I would say, squinting.

“Yes Gary! Do you see them too?”

Bactrian Camel Riding

After riding a camel in India a few years ago, I swore I would never ride another camel again for the rest of my life. At the time, we had planned a one night, overnight desert camp, and envisioned an experience very might like ‘Arabian Nights’, trekking through the dunes, near the Pakistani border. The reality was quite different. The provisions of our camp were packed underneath our saddles, so we were sitting on a heap of clothes, pots and pans which caused incessant rubbing on the inside our thighs from the cooking equipment creating a swelling so great, it felt two balloons on the insides of our thighs, making us look like were were wearing a pair of jodhpurs with the bulges on the inside. We walked, bowlegged, most of the way back the next day as we couldn’t stand the pain. Back in our hotel Jaisalmer, exhausted from the ordeal, I overhead a group excitedly talking about their one week camel safari leaving the next day with the same outfitters. I wished them well.


Bactrian camels in Mongolia are another story. The two humps and modest saddle make it quite comfortable to ride. Apparently, there are 285,000 Bactrian camels in the world and about 30% are in Mongolia with the rest in Tibet and other surrounding areas. Their two humps-which are mostly fat, and shaggy coats make them ideally suited to the cold, resource dry steppe. After mounting, we ventured out through the nearby sand dunes, visiting a local temple and watched the sun go down.

Care for some ‘Snuff’?

We had a meager dinner of fried rice and, you guessed it, mutton. After dinner, the son of the family we stayed with offered us some ‘snuff’ in an elegant snuff bottle as an after dinner treat to accompany our vodka shot.

Apparently snuff and snuff bottles are a big deal in Mongolia and even the process of how it’s presented can say a lot about the person and how things are generally going in their life. If someone offers you a snuff bottle that is open, it means that their life is good and they are experiencing good fortunes and bounties aplenty. If you are offered a snuff bottle that is closed, the presenter is undergoing hardship. Some snuff bottles are made of elegant rare earth minerals and can fetch up to thousands of dollars. Why someone would spend such money on glorified tobacco pouch and not a better Ger is beyond me.

That night, we fell into a deep slumber. I don’t know if it was the fire from the stove warming our limbs, vodka warming our bellies or the generosity of our hosts, but we were starting to feel like one of them. Hearing the group scamper of hooves outside our Ger, I nonchalantly said to Lisa before I drifted off to sleep:

“Herds on the move.”

“Yup.” She replied

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3 Expert Tips for Booking a Cheap Airline Ticket

Booking Sites

Google Flights: Start with google flights to see when the cheapest days are. Google flights will highlight fares and how they change throughout the month.

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Google flights highlights prices on different days.

Skyscanner: After we have dates, we will compare Google Flights with ‘Skyscanner’. Skyscanner compares fares across a number of websites and also allows you to select multiple airports.

Change Your Country of Origin with a VPN. 

Many people don’t know that airlines price their tickets differently for citizens for different countries. They do this, as they know that they can squeeze more money from affluent citizens, but need to make tickets more affordable for developing country nationals. Often websites will have this feature within their platform, but it will not change the price of the ticket; merely it will give quick customizations for language and currency.

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Browsing ‘Skyscanner’ through a Vietnamese VPN.

To work around this, use a VPN or ‘virtual private network’. A VPN will let you browse the internet from another country.  Whereas this doesn’t always have cheaper fares, occasionally it does and I have often shaved a hundred dollars off a ticket by booking this way. Simply install your VPN (We use express VPN) and play around with the country of origin. I also find that fares are generally cheaper to book on a Wednesday or Tuesday verses the weekend.

Utilizing Travel Rewards Credit Cards

A couple of years ago, we opened up a ‘Chase Sapphire Reserve‘ credit cards which gives us 3 points per dollar spent on all travel related expenses and restaurants. It changed our life. Just last week, I booked $3,000 worth of tickets for Christmas and $1,200 worth of tickets for spring break which netted us 12,600 points which are then transferrable to airline and hotel partners.

The card also gives a $300 annual travel credit and Priority Pass Access for 1000 airline lounges around the world, so it’s saved us a ton of money!

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Transferring points to travel partners will get you cheap tickets. Here, tickets from Seoul to Hong Kong are only $25 a person and 20,000 miles within United Mileage Plus.  

The real guru of this is ‘The Points Guy‘ but through him and following others, we’ve been able to utilize lucrative sign up bonuses, and get beautiful (and free) hotel stays in Seoul, Rome, Palm Springs and Singapore just in the last 2 years.

Check it out!

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The Cat Conundrum

I think I just figured out a solution to one of our biggest problems leading up to this trip.

What to do with our cats while we’re away for a year has weighed heavily on us. Specifically, it was problem number four following money, storage and getting a job along the way.  Many international school teachers simply ‘give’ their pets to another family as the country they’re moving to won’t allow a four legged friend. However, in our case, our two cats are like family members. Not with the same rank or status as, say, a child, but definitely that of a mascot. Mascots, who routinely pee and crap all over the place.

Despite their misgivings, we love them. They’re affectionate. They’re well behaved. More importantly, serve as surrogate siblings for our daughter Ava. And with that love came the responsibility of imparting them on a family for a year.

My first consideration was to give them to another teacher family here in Seoul at our school, who I would then fly back to visit in order to pick up a year later. I thought this might be awkward to ask for our pets back, from someone. What if they got attached to them? What if the hosting family didn’t want to let them go? In my head, I viewed our cats as low level foreign exchange students, eventually going home to their true family after an adventure abroad. The roles were reversed in our case- we would go and they would stay…somewhere. With that, families that host foreign exchange students often put their best foot forward and children may learn that their original family is more dysfunctional then they originally thought, and take a new shine to their gracious hosts. “Do I really have to go back to them?” I imagine many students saying after a 5 month stint. (Reality checkAs I write this now, our family is lounging around the apartment in our underwear, trying to keep cool in the muggy, Korean heat of August. Any sensible visitor that walked in the door might think less of us and unfit to own a pet, much less raise a child)

In the end, our loving parents offered to watch them. This would work out well as we’d finish our trip in the states sometime in June 2020 before going to our next teaching post. Still, how would we get them there?

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Enter Asiana Airlines

Lisa suggested bringing them back with us for Christmas 6 months before. Doing so would allow us and the cats to spend time in their new environment with their new caretakers. A number of airlines do allow pets on flights, although I learned that this is only for certain legs of a trip and also on certain aircraft types. Asiana, one of Korea’s flagship airlines had a direct flight from Incheon Airport to LAX which allowed pets in the cabin and we got the last two seats that allowed them. All in, our three tickets were $2,956 and each feline would have a 200$ surcharge that we’d pay at the check in counter. Naturally, there is a gauntlet of forms, vaccinations and trips to the vet this fall, but we were locked and loaded.

How would the passengers react?

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What’s in a Name?

“What should we call it?” My wife Lisa asked.

A few years ago, my wife and I had an idea. Not to sleep in separate beds or anything, but to take a trip around the world as a family for a year. I don’t know what prompted it. Perhaps it was the ever increasing audibility of our knees as we lifted ourselves off the toilet, christening the onset of old age. At 42 and 47, we’re definitely in the middle age bracket, but not quite ‘near elderly’.

The planning would be no small feat, but with enough time we were confident that we could figure it out. Some of the big questions that we have had to answer are:

  1. How to save up enough money to finance a year’s travel?
  2. What are we going to do with all our ‘crap’ for a year? (We are living in Korea at the time)
  3. Who is going to take care of our two cats?
  4. How much will health insurance cost and can we get an affordable plan that gives us enough coverage?
  5. Could we blog about it? (and what would be a good name?)
  6. How will our daughter receive recognition for her learning on the road as a fourth grader so she’ll be able to enroll as a fifth grader?

Our two cats, ‘Georgie’ and ‘Cutie Soft Paws’

If you’re still reading this, like me, you probably already have a headache. Trip planning is supposed to be fun, isn’t it? Why bog down a perfectly good vacation with responsibility?

Except it wasn’t. A vacation that is. This was to be our new way routine with a finite amount of money, with the objective of delivering an educational experience for our daughter with a broad world view. Simple, right?

We plan to begin our trip in June of 2019 (when our teaching contracts expire) and we have started to cobble a bucket list of destinations together on a spreadsheet. As I write this, we are currently under a year away, it is now the time to kick our planning into high gear. With the above questions going unanswered, we needed to get something done, so we settled on a wordpress blog to chronicle the experience. The first step in setting up any blog is to give it a name, because once that’s done, it can’t be changed.

“Any blog name should be somewhat short and sweet, but catchy and easy to remember if you’re telling it to someone in passing.” I replied back to her.

“We’ll be writing about travel destinations, tips for traveling, but also the education and the learning angle”. We came up with the following list:

  • Schooling around the world
  • The world is our school
  • Learning about the world
  • Bucket list family (we found this was taken)
  • Worldschooling Ava (too pretentious)
  • Worldly schooling Ava (Tips on how to emotionally abuse your child)
  • A kid, a swimmer and a techie go into a bar…
  • Small steps in a big world
  • A family that travels together
  • Our traveling family

“How about ‘Nomadic Edventures?'” My wife offered.

And with that, the list got a little bit smaller.