Annika Paradise caught the travel bug young, devouring maps in the same way her peers did novels. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, and later as a student travel guide with Where There Be Dragons, she witnessed the transformational power of cross-cultural immersion and wanted to share the experience with her family.
Dragons in the 90’s
The year is 1998 and I’m wiping Holiday campground dust out of my backpack pockets onto the floor of the Thai Airways flight from L.A. to Bangkok. Orientation seems worlds away as the sparkly flight attendants are already in their third outfit change. I overhear the conversation of my students, my charges for the next six weeks, behind me. They are bonding over their lists: reaches, safeties, and backups. Before the age of the cell phone, this is their world.
One week in, they are asked to live on the annual income of the locals in I-san. No, sorry, you can’t afford that Magnum ice cream bar, and actually that 16-year-old that you’re living with cannot afford secondary school. They see the happiness and relationships in their homestay village that don’t cost a thing. The world’s inequalities and the conditional happiness of American culture become immediately apparent. Suddenly “safeties” have a different connotation altogether.
The next week, we start our “trek” deep inside Mae Hong Son, something my co-leader Steven Schipani worked up to literally peer over the edges of the map to look for those dragons. We arrive at our trailhead by rear-wheel drive truck with chains on to grip the slippery road. My students are riveted and “whoop!” with delight as we fishtail up the road. I’m trying to act cool, like yeah, I do this every time I come back to Thailand. My backpack has one change of clothes for two nights, my pah-sin, Dr. Bronner’s, our med kit, and 10 fried rice lunches wrapped in banana leaves. Over three days we are pushed to our edges: leeches, leech checks, sleeping on a schoolroom floor, wet socks, bucket showers, and blisters.
Where do you go when you’re pushed out of your comfort zone? The lessons emerge. For all of us. Just how capable are you to do hard things? How safe and sanitized is life in the U.S.?
You see, the thing with being a Dragons leader is that you witness a coming of age in warp speed. Teens unfold and re-align in front of your eyes. They meet people different from them. And in the same breath, those same people are exactly the same as them. While they may have signed up for Dragons to chase the epic college essay topic, what they’re really doing is leaving everything familiar behind to find their truth. With these beautiful 16 and 17-year-olds, I spoke about how we might rejigger our life to align with our values and passions. I can still get tingles thinking about those pivotal conversations that Dragons travel can foster and we got to do it over a pineapple/ mango smoothie. Being a Dragons leader was my dream job.
At that moment I vowed to myself that if I had kids I would be with them for these growth opportunities.
Raising Young Dragons
When I met my husband, he held travel in the same regard. He had traveled through Pakistan by bus and spent years mountaineering in Nepal. If anything, we needed to dial the adventure knob down to include our kids. We planned, saved, and maneuvered our careers around a date on the horizon for “the big trip.” We used our oldest daughter’s 7th-grade year as our go-date because I personally believe that every girl should be rescued from 7th grade.
The year is 2017, I’m still living in Boulder, and three experiences led me to want to “worldschool” my own three kids for a year: learning and growing from my own experience traveling as a kid, being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, and those years working for Dragons in my twenties. But when I needed to research the nitty-gritty on how to do it, I couldn’t find the information I needed. So I asked my friend who had done something similar. And I also asked a friend of a friend who had also worldschooled for two years. I learned what I needed by expanding the conversation, learning from the wisdom of other women who generously gave me both the detailed how-to’s and the pat on the back encouragement. No, they said, you’re not irresponsible and nuts for “pulling” your kids from school. (More about those ladies later…)
One of our daughters is adopted from China. So as we were planning out our worldschooling year, China was not only on our list, but we needed it to be epic. Even as a nine-year-old Lucy was hearing negative things about the Chinese government and comments about their low-quality goods. We needed to show her all that she had to be proud of. So I did. I know enough about travel in China to understand that you cannot scrape the surface nor get off the beaten tourist path without a fluent, bi-cultural guide. Julie Farrell answered my ad. We interviewed each other over Zoom. We exchanged itineraries and budget plans and met on faith. We were both from the Dragon realm. What could go wrong?!
We hiked on the Great Wall, stayed in Airbnb’s Julie could finagle in Mandarin on phone apps, we took subways, we met guest speakers, we learned our word for the day, and we returned to Lucy’s orphanage with a skilled translator. Julie is both a dream guide and a superb human. My kids still look at her as a mentor.
We also went to Nepal and Thailand where we met up with old Peace Corps colleagues and personal friends. We stayed with Steven Schipani in his beautiful house on the Mekhong in Luang Prabang. One day Steven’s son, Alvie, took delight in being our tour guide around his home town- I was waiting to hop into a truck with chains on the rear wheels but Alvie is more tame Then we went to New Zealand, Costa Rica on our own and finally finished up with three European countries to also visit family friends or stay on local agriturismos. Designing Dragons trips influenced how I did everything: finding meaningful homestays and service projects, doing my background research, and walking the edge of the maps.
From Travel to Writing
Later, when I returned from traveling for that year, I looked on Amazon for the book I wish I’d had before going. It wasn’t there yet. Someone really should write that book I thought. And when friends of friends started coming to me to ask for the details of how they could pull off their own extended family travel, I kept wondering When is someone going to write that book? What began to keep me up at night was the thought that maybe I was that somebody.
I asked those two friends who helped me sort out the nitty-gritty if they wanted to coauthor. Yes! Was their response. Let’s write the book we wish we’d had. From the beginning, our book was mission-driven. If we can help one family have the kind of year we had, then it will be worth it. We decided to title it Wonder Year because taking off for extended family travel with a mindset of curiosity and discovery is a way to reclaim wonder in our lives. “Year” is meant to be more than a fixed unit of time, but rather a metaphorical season of intention. Many worldschoolers do it in summer spurts–like Dragons trips – there’s a lot of transformation that can happen in a short amount of time. Others travel as an open-ended way of life.,
A Gift of a Job
Looking back from middle-age here, I can say that Dragons was more than a job; it was a community of people I needed at a time when I was having a hard time fitting into mainstream American society. Chris Yager is a man of mission and his entrepreneurial vision was totally inspiring to behold. I led three summers of student trips while working as a public school teacher. Then I conceived and led the first Dragons Teacher Institute with Mia Stallone because I know how much my time in Asia helped my teaching. I also moved to Boulder to work in the office at Spruce and 18th. I still drive by that house that was once an office on my way to our family-owned record store or to drop my kids off at Boulder High. I think of all the memories, magic, and growth that Dragons gave me. My parenting style, the way I work with students now at Front Range Community College, my book, all came from the wild goodness of Dragons.
Annika’s book, Wonder Year: A Guide to Long-Term Family Travel and Worldschooling launched on September 5 and is already an Amazon bestseller. Ask for it at your local indie bookstore, library, Colorado REI, or any online retailer. Both Chris Yager and Colette Plum blurbed the book. Annika Paradise and her husband, Will, worldschooled their three children across three continents and twelve countries including Nepal, Laos, China, Cambodia, Thailand, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Italy and Greece. With a cello.
Annika has taught preschool, middle and high school, led summer experiential trips, and currently teaches English at Front Range Community College. She holds an MA in Education from Stanford University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she’s not dreaming of the next big trip, Anni enjoys reading and writing middle-grade novels and adventuring in the outdoors. She is also co-owner of Paradise Found Record Shop in Boulder, Colorado, and Petaluma, California.