We don’t just have an Around the World interview for you today, we have a pair of travellers that are truly giving something back along the way. Meet Darren & Sandy the couple behind Trekking the Planet. Their trip focuses on geography and educating classrooms around the world. We’re slightly in awe of these two tenacious and deft planners, what an astonishing achievement. Read on to find out more…
1. Hi guys! Could you briefly introduce yourselves, your site and tell us a little about your Around the World travel plans?
Sure! We are Sandy and Darren Van Soye. We are from Southern California (Los Angeles area). We are on a 424-day journey around the world, visiting 50 countries on six continents. We are also including treks to the world’s most remote and unspoiled places of natural or cultural significance. Our focus is on the environment and on sustainability practices, highlighting where the world is being threatened or improved.
2. Your site has a strong mission, tell us more!
We came across the results of a National Geographic study that found that 29% of U.S. 18-24 year olds could not find the Pacific Ocean on an unlabeled map. We decided then and there to use this journey as a way to “give back” as we travel, to get kids around the globe excited about geography. To date, we have signed up 850 classrooms from 20 countries, representing 55,000 students. We put out a weekly newsletter at no charge that includes an iPad-compatible educational module on the country that we are visiting that week, as well as articles and videos. Our goal is to establish a two-way link with students where they can witness first-hand the world ‘out there’ and even pose and receive answers to their questions in near real time.
3. This sort of trekking adventure must have meant a lot of preparation, how did you tackle it?
Because of our pace (nearly a country a week) and because we publish education materials on the go, we had to have a pretty tight itinerary before we left. Before we left home, we had all 60 educational modules drafted and the first 11 months of our trip fully booked. This included all our hotels, guides and most of our transportation. Needless to say, this was a huge effort that required months of preparation.
We handed this like any other project. We created a theme (trekking) and framework for the journey (which continents and when) and then broke it down into smaller and smaller tasks until each one could be accomplished in a couple of hours. Once we had the day-by-day itinerary, we were free to start on the education materials. In parallel, we booked our shipboard transportation, guides, hotels and flights, trains, buses and ferries. We basically booked everything that we could before we left so we could spend most of the time on the trip sightseeing, writing articles, producing videos and answering questions.
4. Where have you been to date? What has been the highlight?
We left on January 28, 2012 from San Diego, CA, taking a cruise all the way to Sydney, Australia. This took 29 days. Then, after three weeks visiting Sydney, Melbourne and completing the Overland Track on the island of Tasmania, we returned to Sydney and took another cruise, this one up the east coast of Australia to Singapore. After that, we headed up the Malay Peninsula, trekking in Laos, then over to Nepal before crossing the border into Tibet. From China, we flew to Central Asia and visited Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and then flew again to Europe. In Europe, we have traveled for three months through 19 countries in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, following the sun (and good weather) from north to south, ending up in Italy at the end of September.
We really like riding trains. To date, we have traveled over 16,000 km by train. We, in fact, have spent eight nights on the train in sleeper cars. We also like to trek and what we have experienced to date has been epic! We especially enjoyed and were challenged by our treks in Tasmania, Nepal and Sweden. In Sweden, we covered 103 km above the Arctic Circle in a self-supported manner along the Kungsleden Trail. From a big city perspective, Sandy liked Hobart, Australia and Budapest, Hungary. I liked Singapore, Riga, Latvia and Krakow, Poland. Laos, Nepal and Tibet were probably the most interesting parts of our journey to date.
5. How has your blog been received by educators? What do you think children will gain from it?
Before we left, we spoke to thousands of students about our journey. We continue to speak with students as we travel. To date, we have visited classrooms in American Samoa, Thailand, Laos, Nepal, Latvia and Serbia (The school in Laos was made of bamboo and had a dirt floor!). Whether at home or abroad, our message to the kids is the same – it’s a global market out there and in order to be successful in life, you need to understand what it’s like in other countries. Our presentation gives examples that both boys and girls can understand.
The response has been great! You can see it in their eyes when we make our pitch. We find it so rewarding to see all of the hands in the air while they wait their turn to ask their question or to answer one of ours. We also regularly receive questions from classrooms by email. Sometimes one email includes a question from each student. They ask the darndest things too! Here are some of the questions we received from the 4th and 5th graders at Byrd Elementary School in Negishi, Japan.
- We were wondering if you packed mosquito nets or mosquito repellant.
- 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?
6. We’re loving your travel videos! What have been your favourite ones to shoot?
Thanks. Most people and, especially kids in our target age-group, are visual. I mean, this is the generation that grew up with YouTube! So, we decided to produce short videos while we were on this trip from each of the more-interesting places we visited. At first, we just started capturing sights and sounds, trying to make sense of them later in our hotel room. But then, things got more elaborate and we started to develop a “screenplay” – basically, a shoot list – before we ventured out. Lately, we have been searching for interesting stories ahead of time and scheduling interviews with people who can bring to light the things that make a particular place unique. To date, we have interviewed a Zoo Keeper, Park Ranger, a former King, a Gourmet Chef, a Transportation Worker, a City Guide and a Palace Tour Guide. I find interviews very exciting to put together but equally difficult to shoot and produce. Frankly, I’m never completely satisfied with the end product.
Of all of the videos that we have done so far (over 50), I think the one that was the most fun to shoot was the one in Tibet. We were on a tour of two – just Sandy and me. Three others had originally signed up but cancelled at the last minute (this made for an interesting situation at each of the police checkpoints when our guide was asked why there were only two of us in the car!). Though he was an employee of the Chinese government, our guide was full-on Tibetan by birth. He was a practicing Buddhist and would pass the time during the long rides in the car by meditating (I would watch him finger his prayer beads from the back seat). Though we didn’t go into too much detail about our trip (we didn’t want to be mistaken for reporters!), we told Jigmei we were interested in long dirt roads, mountains, religious ceremonies and historical sites.
We arrived at Everest Base Camp at just the perfect time for clear photographs of the summit. In Gyantse, we were fortunate to witness a once-a-year procession at the Palcho Monastery during the Saga Dawa festival. I don’t know how, but we received permission to shoot video of hundreds of monks chanting at the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, one the largest of all Tibetan monasteries in China. I was able to capture the final scene for that video as we traveled by train to Lanzhou. The altitude is so high there that they have to pump oxygen into the cars!
7. What’s been your biggest challenge whilst on the road?
I think the most difficult part of this trip so far has been replanning our itinerary in West Africa. When we left, we were all set. We would visit the countries of Mali, Burkina Faro and Ghana. We had the visas and had booked the guides. But then, we heard reports of kidnappings in Timbuktu (OK. We won’t be going to Timbuktu.). Then, we heard about Tuareg rebels taking positions in the north of the country (Maybe if we make a few changes?). The last straw was the coup – just four months before a planned election. This was Mali! We picked it because it was a model of stability. We feel very sad for the people. But, there was just no way we could still go and keep the commitments we made to our family about staying safe. So, while staying in a different hotel room every few nights, we were forced to replan four weeks of our journey. Now that is it done, we are super excited about our new itinerary in Kenya.
8. Where are you now?
Right now? We are in the air flying from Doha, Qatar, to Nairobi, Kenya. The lady in front of me has her seat all the way back making it very difficult to type. I can hardly see the screen!
9. What are your top three tips for burgeoning trekkers?
On an extended 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 Salaam (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. By the way, 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.
My last tip is: If you have a dream, write it down in your planner, on a piece of paper or on a Post-It Note, and make sure to include a date. We have done this many times with all sorts of big goals and we have accomplished every one of them. Then, tell another person you can trust. What happens next will seem nothing short of a miracle. But, as you are confronted with decisions each day, your big goal makes the right decision obvious. As our trip got closer, we were forced to make our first big deposit. Sure, we had doubts. I mean, what would people say? How would our kids react? Would we get sick, hurt? (Or worse?) At the end of the day, you need to mitigate all of the risk that you can foresee and then just take that first step of faith. And, we are so glad that we did! We both feel we are getting to express ourselves in a way that would be impossible at work. The reaction and support from educators, friends, family and other travelers has been overwhelmingly positive.
10. What’s next on the agenda?
Africa! We are going to Kenya and Ethiopia for a little less than two months. We are going to be trekking in each country and also visiting a variety of cultural and natural sites. We are excited about our first trek there in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. It is going to be exciting to do the walking safari we have planned there and see the animals. We are also partnering with an organization called the Samburu Project. They are responsible for drilling 40 wells, providing clean and safe drinking water to over 40,000 people. We have learned that women and children in this area must walk up to 19 km every day to get safe water. We will be doing a variety of activities there including some site visits – seeing existing wells. But, also with any luck, we will be visiting actual well drill sites.
Then, we will make our way north to Ethiopia. We plan to trek for about 40 miles in the Simien Mountain range, which is also a national park. There are deep gorges throughout the park with great views. It is possible to see the wild Ibex, once hunted close to extinction, foxes and groups of baboons. We are also trying to set up some interviews along the way in order to give the students following our journey cultural and historical insights into life in this part of Africa.
Thanks guys, amazing interview with a really solid mission. Very impressive!
You can follow Darren and Sandy online at TrekkingthePlanet.net. They are @TrekkingPlanet on Facebook and Twitter.
To rave about your own site and travel plans, contact us for an interview