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Who’s Out There Now? Darren and Sandy

Written By: jeff

Posted On: July 10th, 2012

Trekking the Planet, Everest Base Camp, career break travel in Tibet, China

At Everest Base Camp in Tibet, China. Courtesy TrekkingthePlanet.net

In this week’s ¨Who’s Out There Now¨ feature, we bring to you Darren and Sandy, who as their site’s name implies, are out Trekking the Planet. They are, in many ways, world traveler veterans having already taken a break to take their kids around the world in 2003. This time around, they’re focused on helping school kids learn more about geography.  I knew a bit about their journey, but prepping these questions gave me a chance to dig in deep. They are traveling to 50 countries on 6 continents over their 14-month journey. Check out their site – lots of photos, stories and videos to enjoy, even if you’re not a school kid!

1. So, where in the world are you answering these questions?

We are currently in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in Central Asia (just north of Afghanistan in fact).  We have been on the road since the end of January, so almost five months now.

2. So, you’re out traveling around the world encouraging schools to integrate your adventures into their curriculum. What drove you to want to undertake this project?

We took our daughters around the world in 2003 for 4 ½ months when they were 10 and 12 years old. We actually took them out of school for a semester and home schooled them on the road.  We saw what an impression a trip like this made on them and also on their classmates back home (We were sending emails to their teachers each week which we later found were being read to the entire school!). When we decided to take this trip nine years later, we came across the results of a National Geographic study which found that 29% of 18-24 year olds couldn’t find the Pacific Ocean on an unlabeled map.  This statistic challenged us to get as many students as possible to follow along so that they could learn more about the world through our travels (We currently have 850 classrooms from 20 countries, representing 50,000 students following our expedition over the Internet.).

career break travel in Laos, trekking the planet

Sandy giving a lesson at a school in Northern Laos. Courtesy TrekkingthePlanet.net

3. How are the kids responding to your travels? What are some of the best/funniest/oddest questions you’ve been asked by them?

Here’s a question we got from the 4th and 5th graders at Byrd Elementary School on a navy base in Negishi, Japan.


We were wondering if you packed mosquito nets or mosquito repellant. Also, did you pack any sort of tools, such as a Swiss Army knife? Do you have any sort of item to help you learn the local’s language? Is your backpack heavy with your laptop inside? What do you put in your daypack? We are VERY curious!  (One of the students is from Germany and recommends bringing climbing gear because there are lots of pretty mountains.


Hi – great to hear from your classroom! We have both mosquito nets that you can wear over your face and repellant. We have two Swiss Army knives that come in very handy. We have a fold-out card that contains a set of pictures that we can use to communicate if need be. We carry our laptops in our daypacks and they can get heavy. Let us know if you have any other questions! Thanks for the suggestion about Germany!

4. You’ve done a big trip before. How was the planning and preparation different this time than the first time?

For the 4 ½ month trip in 2003, we planned about half of it and left half of it open. For this journey, because we are releasing educational materials each week, we needed to have a fairly precise itinerary. So we planned and booked the first 11 months of the trip before we left home. This meant that we had to make hotel / transportation arrangements for that time before we left.  We were able to split this work up between the two of us, so that helped. We are taking 12 overnight hikes or treks to remote places around the world as part of this trip, so had to spend time researching that and integrating it into our schedule.  That said, the last three months (South America) are in the planning stages right now because it was too far out to book before we left.

career break travel in Kyrgyzstan, trekking the planet

Hiking in Kyrgyzstan. Courtesy TrekkingthePlanet.net

5. A lot of people who want to take a career break worry about reentry and becoming employed again. Can you talk a little about your experience after your 2003 trip? What tips and tricks did you learn about talking about your career break to a potential employer?

In 2003, we operated under the assumption that we would have to quit our jobs since we would be gone for 4 ½ months.  So we saved money not only for the trip but to live some time afterwards. Exactly one month before we were scheduled to leave, we each went into our manager’s offices with resignation letters. When we explained why we would be leaving, both our managers said that they would rather us not quit but take a “leave of absence”, which we readily agreed to do. We think by going in with the worst case scenario and being confident about it helped our case.  In the end, we were able to take the leave and come right back to our jobs.  Everyone was super supportive.  Many people from work were following our trip through our emails!

6. Career break, nomadic adventure, backpacking, how do you characterize your trips?

Trekking adventure!  We are always on the lookout for the unusual, off-the-beaten-track experiences.  In this case, we have purposefully selected destinations and treks that are remote so that we can learn and share about these parts of the world.

career break travel in Australia, trekking the planet

Hiking in Tasmania, Australia. Courtesy TrekkingthePlanet.net

7. What are some of the secrets to travel that you’ve discovered that you think more people who aren’t traveling should know?

On our first trip with our kids in 2003, we discovered a mode of travel that we now call the Holiday Inn model. This name came to us at a Holiday Inn in Dar Es Salam (Tanzania).  We arrived there after a long stretch of living in hostels and picking up meals at the market.  Though it was only a Holiday Inn, we found it very nice.  It was a high rise with air conditioning (that worked) and a nice bathroom (that we didn’t need to share).  Breakfast was included — the food was great and it was served outside near a garden!  After a few days there, we felt recharged and ready to return to lower-cost accommodations.  Alternating between nice places and lower-cost ones is a sustainable way to travel and save money.

Another story: In 2009, we visited New Zealand (If you haven’t been there, you should go.  The place is packed with wonderful things to see and experience.) . Anyway, we only had two weeks and felt the need to see everything while we were there.  We started in Auckland (in the north) and ended up in Queenstown (in the south).  We stayed in a different place every night and completed two treks there – Abel Tasman and Milford.  We came home more exhausted than when we left.  Since that time, we have learned that pace and balance are important, no matter how long the trip. We can’t be on the go every minute of every day.  Now we build in down time and try not to go too fast even when we are taking a short trip.

8. What was your first ¨We’re not in Kansas anymore¨ moment on this trip?

We had wanted to go to Nepal for years.  So, when we planned this trip, we made sure that we included it in our itinerary.  We selected a remote area called “Mustang” and booked a 12-day trek there.  Mustang is former kingdom.  It has only been open to foreigners since 1991.  Most of the people there practice Tibetan Buddhism.  Though things are changing there, they are changing slowly.  We spent each day, visiting monasteries and witnessing the daily life of the people there.  In our video for the week, we used the term “living history” – I mean, they still make some of their own clothes, carry loads on their back and travel on horseback.  The scenery there was “otherworldly” too – dry and desolate like the moon with 7,000 meter snowy peaks in the distance.

9. What’s been your most ¨local¨ experience so far?

In Laos, we took a trek in the northern providence of Phongsali in which we spent the night in a hill tribe village.  We stayed in the home of the chief and were able to observe authentic village life.  The next morning we were able to speak to the local school (through an interpreter) about our journey, which was a great thrill!

career break travel in Nepal, trekking the planet

Hiking in the Mustang Region of Nepal. Courtesy TrekkingthePlanet.net

10. What has been your most embarrassing moment?

We had a stretch about two weeks ago where we had a 48-hour stretch in which we took a 25-hour overnight train trip, followed by two flights, with an overnight between them, in order for us to get from Tibet to Kyrgyzstan.  Just before the second flight and after only 3 ½ hours of sleep, we were craving coffee.  We found a place at the Urumqi, China airport with some of the best coffee we had had in months but when we got the bill we were shocked to see that two cups of coffee cost us the equivalent of about $27!  Normally, we would have done more due diligence on the cost before we sat down but two days of nonstop travel does that to you sometimes!

11. What’s your secret for getting the most out of your journey?

We have come up with a concept of staying “close to the ground”.  Instead of flying everywhere, we try to use local public transportation whenever we can.  Sometimes it’s a bus, but other times it is a public ferry or train.  We have met so many local people this way and almost always come away with a memorable experience.  Once on a train in Central China, we were “adopted” by a Chinese family.  The patriarch offered us some of the food they had brought for the journey (it was a barbequed duck and really good). We had a laminated map of China which we showed them.  Over the next few hours, this map “made the rounds” through the entire train car.  Our fellow passengers were so curious to see a map of their country with all of the names in English instead of Chinese.

12. Finally, our lightening round.

  • Best dish you’ve found so far: Anything Thai.  The food in Thailand was amazing, especially the mango with sticky rice at the Chiang Mai night market.
  • Most exotic food eaten: Fermented horse milk in Kyrgyzstan. We were invited into a nomad’s yurt for a taste. Not the best thing we ever drank but great to meet the family and understand their way of life.
  • Most breathtaking moment: Our first trek was the Overland Track in Tasmania, Australia. It was 50 miles of incredible scenery, ranging from alpine terrain to rainforests.
  • Biggest disappointment: We were saddened to see so much development in northern Laos, which we thought would be more untouched.
  • Most memorable place: Tibet was amazing! From seeing Mount Everest to visiting the monasteries, we had a real immersion into the culture and natural beauty there.
  • Most memorable person: Having tea with Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, the former king of the Mustang kingdom in Nepal.
  • Best thing to have on a long bus ride: Newly purchased music!  Music can really help on long, uncomfortable rides. We both have downloaded the Kindle app on our phones as well so that we can buy books from time to time.
  • Worst thing to have on a long bus ride: Unpaved roads – we have certainly have had our share of that in multiple countries!
  • Best thing you packed: Our smart phones. Darren has an unlocked Android and gets local SIM cards in each country. Sandy has an AT&T iPhone with an International Data Plan.  Between the two of us, we can always get a signal!
  • Dumbest thing you packed: Reusable water bottles.  We were hoping to fill up and not have to purchase so much bottled water but that has not worked so far in Asia.
  • Funniest travel habit the other has: We are the opposites when it comes to neatness.  Sandy has her luggage neatly organized and keeps it that way, even in the hotel room. Darren lets his stuff spread out and then makes a mad dash to put it all back together when it is time to move on to the next place.
  • Place you wish you could’ve stayed longer: We both loved Singapore and felt that we had “just scratched the surface” in the three days that we were there.

You can follow Darren and Sandy online at TrekkingthePlanet.net on Facebook and on Twitter @TrekkingPlanet.

Every week, Career Break Secrets profiles a different traveler or traveling couple who are embracing the ¨Because Life Is Out There TM¨ travel spirit.  These are people who have taken the plunge to embark on a career break and are currently traveling the world.  

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One Response to “Who’s Out There Now? Darren and Sandy”

  1. […] and a recent embarrassing moment. Also included are some pictures from our recent treks. Read the interview to learn […]

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