Traveling nine months around the world to nontraditional destinations with your teenagers can be exhausting. Reading about the trip isn't.
Charles Wheelan's "We Came, We Saw, We Left," is a sprightly account of an unusual family vacation: a nine-month-long Marco Polo-ish odyssey often visiting nontraditional tourist destinations. And by nontraditional, of course, I mean cities and villages about which both J.W. Marriott and Conrad Hilton likely would have said, "No, thank you, I'll pass."
The trip had only the barest of itinerary, was open to serendipity and dangerously included not only children, but the worst kind of kids — teenagers. It started in South America, (traveling from Colombia to the tip of Argentina), crossing the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia, then on to Southeast Asia, followed by a visit with friends in India. They also planned "a detour to Africa, though the exact timing was ambiguous."
On board were Katrina, 18, on a gap year before college; son C.J., 13, an eighth-grader, and Sophie, 16, athlete and reluctant participant who joined the trip in progress because she didn't want to miss the fall volleyball season. A niece was also along briefly.
The budget was $60 per person per day for everything, which often meant roughing it: limiting clothes to what fit in a backpack, Airbnbs and hostels that didn't always live up to their online description, and sharing communal bathrooms with strangers in "gastric distress." There were also run-ins with giant spiders and bullet ants, and 18-hour bus rides to get from Point A to Point B via C, D, E and F.
On a serious note, Katrina came down with a potentially dangerous parasitic disease that was at first misdiagnosed and mistreated and eventually required a trip to Germany, where it was cured.
But the Wheelan parents handled it all — including teenage temper-tantrums and difficulties getting Sophie to keep up with school assignments — with aplomb.
This was, as the book's title suggests, not an immersive trip. The family picked an adventure for the day and rolled with it. There was plenty of leisure time. In fact Charles had breakfast on his own at a cafe most mornings and actually wrote a novel over coffee, "The Rationing" (published last year) that presciently predicted a pandemic.
He is also the author of three introductions into matters financial, "Naked Money," "Naked Economics" and "Naked Statistics." All are lighthearted in tone, but intelligent, thoughtful and informative. He's taken the same approach here.
As an armchair traveler — I'm in the J.W. and Conrad camp — I came away from the book jealous of the Wheelans' wanderlust. While the journey might not have been immersive, the family time was, and I'm envious of that, too (not to mention that novel).
Still, I'm really glad they invited me along.
Curt Schleier is a freelance critic in New Jersey.
We Came, We Saw, We Left
By: Charles Wheelan.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 304 pages, $27.95.