You freak out when there’s traffic and your kid’s iPad stops working. But what if you had to pack 2 kids and the wife into a Land Rover equipped to hold weeks of clothing, gear, and supplies — and then overlanding Africa? Then South America? Then North America? With no Wi-Fi?
That’s how Graeme Bell — writer, self-taught mechanic and prolific backseat-fight moderator — has seen 29 countries with his clan. Bell retrofitted a Land Rover Defender 130 himself in 2009 and set out with his wife Luisa, son Keelan (16), and daughter Jessica (11). The family has been together virtually every second since then, with Graeme and Luisa taking the role as navigators, mediators, mechanics, and teachers to their “road-schooled” kids. Here’s what he’s learned about keeping everyone sane on the world’s longest on-going family vacation.
Bite Your Tongue And Make Them A Sandwich
On one occasion in rural northern Brazil, Graeme broke the number one rule of overlanding: No traveling at night. When the Land Rover’s rear wheel bearings broke, Bell was “sitting in the dirt until 3 in the morning,” trying to get the family mobile again.
Outside the Land Rover were things that could either eat you, steal from you, or both — so you might say safety was a concern. But the kids were oblivious to the danger. They wanted sandwiches. “You’re up to your elbows in grease, ants crawling up your underpants, struggling with a piece of metal that won’t cooperate, and a little person comes up to you and says they’re hungry,” says Bell. “It’s easy to say and do things you regret later, but it’s not worth it.” So, if you think that you’re proving a point by spitefully telling your kids that you’ll turn this damn car around … you’re not. (And yes, Luisa made the kids sandwiches and Graeme fixed the truck.)
Most Stuff You Take With You, You Should Leave Home
The family’s Defender 130 makes a Manhattan apartment … look like an apartment just about anywhere else. Which is to say that space is at a premium and growing worse because Keelan – already 6’2” and over 200 pounds — is still growing. Which is why Graeme set some ground rules about which possessions will take up room in the Land Rover:
- Use it Or Lose it. If an item hasn’t been used in one month, it gets paid forward to some of the less fortunate local folks they encounter in their travels.
- One In, One Out. If you want something new, you have to toss something out. “That’s also great because it teaches them to value their possessions,” says Bell.
- One Child, One Backpack. When it comes to non-essential personal belongings, the Bell kids get a single backpack. You might not be overlanding in South America for 2 years like the Bells did, but having your children carry their own shit is a good lesson to learn while they’re young. It also really cuts down on how many souvenir snow globes they’re willing to bring back.
No One Rides For Free
With the kind of world traveling the Bells are undertaking, there’s a motto inside the Defender: No one rides for free. Bell’s kids filter water, grow food (when the family is stationary, as they are now for several months on a ranch in Baja, California), feed chickens and dogs, track animals, and chop wood.
“They’re not passengers,” as Bell puts it. His kids are “road-schooled,” (aka home-schooling for road warriors), but their real education comes in encountering new cultures, different languages, and doing chores. “There’s a hell of a lot of practical learning just being here,” says Bell. If you think family trips are just for seeing monuments and museums, how about including the part where your kids learn something about teamwork and self-reliance?
You Suffer First
Hope you enjoyed those 5-star accommodations in your twenties, because the remote situations the Bells find themselves in really tests that selfless parent instinct. On the road his kids get the last cups of water, the last bites of food, and the warmest blankets.
In a more domestic example, Graeme — whose writing funds the family’s wanderings — is stuck with an old laptop while his son and daughter both have more modern, powerful computers. “That’s an example of a sacrifice,” says Bell. “I’ve chosen to give Keelan the tool he needs for his education and himself, even though I could really use a new computer.” Seeing their parents take one for the team generates a feeling of “we’re-all-in-this-together” in the kids. Graeme did not mention how much of his retirement plan falls under the same header.