We Finished our COVID Family Gap Year!

“Do you realize that this could have been our last video of you?” Olivia reflected suddenly with a tinge of sadness mixed with relief while going through the photos of our past year.

I shuddered.

It was a video of the five of us standing tall through the roof of the open-air safari jeep at Nakuru National Park, the day before I came down with severe malaria and almost died. Indeed, the video could easily have been the last video of me made.

This video of me could have been my last one.

This 3rd family gap year has been characterized by many interruptions and unexpected changes. First, it took 40 days and two quarantines instead of a 16-hour flight for Olivia and Enli to finally reach Kunming from Canada. Then instead of flying direct from Kunming to South Africa, it took us 4 months after a detour in Hong Kong, UK, Portugal, Spain, and Morocco. Then I contracted malaria, spending two months in Kenya, resulting in an early return back to the US with another two months of limbo for everyone while I go from one doctor’s appointment to another.

Our actual gap year route versus original plan. A big difference due to COVID.

Back in the US, Annie was not with me and the three children for half of the time while she tried to recover physically at different friends’ houses. The rest of us stayed with my parents, their grandparents. The children felt abandoned and restless.

“I would like to have a good conclusion to our one year endeavor and to continue to have shared experiences,” Olivia proposed.

Joani added, “It would be good for us to be a unit of five again, just us.”

“I like to finish our original plan of going to Central America, even if I am not able to do strenuous activities,” I agreed.

Annie was the most hesitant as she felt she needed more time to recover physically and mentally.

“What if you join us to Mexico but can rest at the Airbnbs without obligation to join the outdoor activities or to cook for us? At least we can be together as a family during the evenings. We can continue to pray for Central America as we originally planned,” I proposed to Annie.

After thinking through it for several days, Annie finally said yes! She added, “Going to Cancun is just so tempting. I have to go!”

So after a month in the US, we headed off to Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador for 5 weeks.

Amazing Waters and Foods of Mexico

The last time Annie and I went to Cancun was when Olivia was one year old, 24 years ago. We are back again, now with three adult children,

Cancun area is the most touristy area of Mexico and for good reasons. The white sand and aqua-blue waters of the Mexican Caribbean beaches are unmatched. We went from beach to beach discovering various hidden treasures, such as sea turtles, hidden cenotes (sinkholes), and kite surfing.

We swam in the clear crystal water of the fresh water sinkholes.
Swimming with sea turtles right at the beach.

However, what got us most excited was the food, whether ordering coconut meat with mango from the mobile fruit vendors patrolling the beaches or eating tacos with pig’s brain or outrages shave ice desserts at the street corners of where we lived.

Playing cards at the beach with vendors offering great food was heavenly.
Tacos after tacos we just couldn’t get enough.

There, off the shore of the island of Cozumel, Joani finally accomplished what she had dreamed for years, a scuba diving license. She had wanted to scuba dive since watching her older sister and brother got theirs in Cambodia 8 years ago. Many times she tried but couldn’t because she needed a doctor to certify that her asthma won’t be a problem. So for this 3rd gap year, we carried a doctor’s certification for an entire year which we finally used in Cozumel.

At the famous coral walls of Cozumel, Joani dived with her siblings and was rewarded with seeing a large sea turtle charging at her as well as her feared shark!

Joani finally got to dive with us after 8 years.

At the famous Coba Maya ruins, we got to understand its ancient history and conflicts with its colonizers and to pray for the current Mayan ethnic groups that still exist today.

We prayed for the Mayans at Coba, a significant mayan archeological site.

In San Cristobal, we visited one of the most bizarre syncretic churches where the Catholic practices were mixed with Mayan culture. There were no pews in the cathedral but instead the ground was covered with fresh pine leaves, surrounded by thousands of candles lighted by worshippers, while sacrificing chicken on the ground.

We saw the bizarre worship of the locals where there were animal sacrifices inside the cathedral.

There we also had the most extraordinary free walking tour with Carlos and cooking class with Carlos’ mom, Tota. At the cooking class, we learned how to pan fried Mexican chilies and cactus plants!

We had a great time with Carlos and his mom at their home for the cooking class.

Volcanos of Guatemala

Getting through the land border from Mexico to Guatemala during COVID was the worst. Despite booking a private transfer van, the entire journey took close to 14 hours. We had a detour 7 kilometers before the border where locals blocked road traffic to protest, resulting in us having to hike and catch other transports to reach the border control offices. After waiting an hour for the office to open due to siesta at Mexico’s side, we waited at another long line at the Guatemala side to show proof of our vaccination. It was not until 10 pm did we finally arrived at Lake Atitlan. But we were thankful that we were able to cross by land despite the border being closed officially.

Crossing from Mexico to Guatemala took us 14 hours.

Lake Atitlan was created by a huge volcano. There are also other tall volcano cones along the edges still. Surrounding the lake are many ethnic towns, of which we decided to station ourselves in the town of San Pedro, frequented by backpackers. We stayed at Mikaso Hotel, which is right at the edge of the lake with beautiful sunrise and sunset views. We had a relaxing four days of swimming, kayaking, oil painting, and Spanish classes.

Lake Atitlan is a huge volcano crater lake.

Of course, our highlights were the food. Amazingly, it was not easy to find tacos as it is considered strictly Mexican food. Instead, we had the best and cheapest tostada ever at US$25 cent each and delicious shrimp ceviche (shrimp cocktail).

Tostada at Guatemala is like tacos at Mexico – delicious!

Antigua was another colonial town surrounded by three tall volcanos, one of which we decided to join a two-day hiking tour up to the 4000-meter summit of volcano Acatenago. Everyone we talked to said that after the hike, they had to rest for 5 days to recover. I was apprehensive as to whether I can do it due to my anemia but decided to do it with the three children. The hike was steep and sandy. However, I felt strong and capable as I took each step forward. After 5 hours, we reached our base camp above the clouds.

The volcano Agua soar above the town of Antigua.

“Woa…It’s that a volcano eruption?” we were stupefied by the sound and sight of a large column of smoke shooting upward across us from the Fuego Volcano every 5-15 minutes. We had relaxing afternoon playing cards and watching the elusive volcano eruptions as it appears and disappears among the moving clouds.

At night, the smoke turned into red splashing lava fountains accompanied by roaring sounds and sometimes even shaking of the ground when a big one erupted. The first time we saw it we all jumped up and went wild in disbelief. It felt surreal to see red lava exploding from the tent opening as we slept inside.

At 4 am, we woke up to hike to the top of the volcano Acatenago. As we hiked, we were accompanied by moonlight, city lights, and volcano eruption showers. Near the top, it was even more steep and sandy. The oxygen was thin as well.

When I made it up to the top by sunrise I couldn’t help but give thanks to the Lord. When I was lying in the hospital bed in Kenya, I thought I would be bed-ridden for the rest of my life. 3 months later, I hiked to 4000 meters watching one of the most beautiful and exotic sunrises of my life. By the grace of God, He has more plans for my life. I can’t wait to see what is His plan.

Surfs of El Salvador

When I found out that Guatemala and El Salvador have a borderless agreement and that no COVID test is needed if one is fully vaccinated, I couldn’t resist but to book a land transfer to El Salvador. After doing some research, I found out the most famous tourist destination in El Salvador is El Tunco, the recently discovered surf heaven of Central America.

El Tunco is a world famous surf town, which was holding olympic qualifying competition.

Our private land transfer driver, Alex, and his whole family picked us up from the border to bring us to El Tunco. Little did we know that Alex became our best friend in El Salvador.

Alex, our driver and free tour guide.

As it turned out, El Tunco was chosen for the Olympic surfing qualifying competition and every hotel and hostel was packed with surfers from all over the world. We got to watch them practice for the competition but had not cheap option to stay as all places cost more than US$150 per night for the five of us. After knocking on the doors of many resorts, we finally found a place for US$40 every 12 hours. The aircon was good but there was no water and no shower and El Tunco was tropically hot! We decided to stay for just 1.5 days (2 nights) and to head to the mountain town of Juayua as soon as possible.

The beach of El Tunco

While in El Tunco, we thoroughly enjoyed the seafood, especially the seafood cream soup, papusa (tortilla with fillings), and raw clams. Little did we know at the time, El Tunco is also the cryptocurrency capital of the world, being an experimental town where you can pay for everything with cryptocurrency and has an ATM to exchange cryptocurrency for real money. Despite having no water, we had a relaxing afternoon swimming in the pool and catching up on our smartphones and laptops.

delicious fresh raw clams

Because Alex was so friendly and helpful the first time, we decided to ask Alex to drive us again from El Tunco to Juayua. On our way to Juayua, Alex stopped at a few towns for sightseeing for free! When we arrived in Juayua, at 1400 meters, we were so thankful for the weather and a clean Airbnb with running water.

Juayua is famous for its weekend exotic food market and the 7 waterfalls. Although we missed the weekend food market, but we enjoyed eating fried cerevesa and zapote fruit shakes! The waterfall was created after an earthquake that divert a river down a cliff of rocks. It is spread out along the cliff as wide falls. We got to enjoy swimming under the fall all by ourselves as we didn’t hire a guide and had to find our way through the jungle to the backside of the waterfall area to avoid the locked fences.

Joani’s prized slipper got washed down the bottom of the fall when the water level rose and after searching thoroughly several times among the rocks and shrubs, I was only able to find one slipper. Without me knowing, Joani prayed to God and she heard God told her to go down and try again. In just a few seconds, she saw the other slipper caught by a tree root on the side of the stream. Praise God for answering Joani’s prayer and strengthening her faith.

French fries on steroid at Santa Ana

Alex kept praising the city of Santa Ana and its papusa where he lives so we couldn’t resist but to go to Santa Ana next and to stay at his hostel. Arriving there, he gave us a free personal tour of the city square where we found French fries on steroid as well as buying cheap tickets (US$2/person) for ballet the next day! The next day, we found our own transportation and hiked up the nearby Santa Ana volcano. The aqua-green mineral crater lake surrounded by the fast-flowing clouds was very out of the world.

Santa Ana volcano

How Should We Celebrate the Last Week of Our One Year Trip?

“Make sure you leave the last 5 days at the end of the trip for our end-of-the-trip celebration and reflections!” reminded Joani and Olivia.

“How should we celebrate it?” asked Olivia.

We pondered upon this question for several days until Olivia suddenly had a bright idea, “Why don’t we buy a piñata (a traditional Latin America birthday game with stuffed animal made of color papers) and put reflection questions in it? Whoever hits it such that questions fall out, then the person would have to answer the questions.”

“Let’s also put some ‘Truth & Dare’ questions,” Joani added excitedly.

“Can we also put money in it to make it more exciting?” Enli begged.

“We should also have our last one-on-one dates with each other,” Annie suggested.

“Why don’t we surprise call the people we met in different countries during the last 12 months to thank them and ask how we can pray for them?” Olivia added.

“Don’t forget we still need to do our covid PCR test on our last day,” I reminded everyone as the good logistic leader of the group.

So one by one, our end-of-the-trip celebration plan began to materialize.

One-on-one Dates

Antigua, Guatemala was the perfect place for one-on-one dates with its numerous cafes, street food, and even the Chocolate Museum, where I had my date with Joani.

I asked, “How has our relationship changed during each of our gap year in 2008, 2015, and 2020?”

“I think for the first gap year, you were the ‘fun dad’. Then we got to know each other better during the second gap year. This gap year we continued to know each other better through the challenges we faced through the family conflicts,” Joani replied.

One on one date with Joani at the Chocolate Museum

We continued with questions such as “How have you changed during each gap year” or “How have you influenced me”. One surprising question that I hadn’t thought before was “What could you have done to improve our relationship even before our gap year 2015?” It reminded me that we didn’t have to wait for these big trips to become closer. We should take every single day to grow closer to each other.

For my date with Olivia, naturally, we chose an outdoor venue, which was a park on top of a hill overlooking the grand Agua Volcano. A fun question that we both answered was “What are things that we have in common that are not obvious?” We came up with: hiking, biking, camping, stubbornness , planning, coaching, hangry, and waking up early.

One on one date with Olivia overlooking the town of Antigua.

Olivia then got into the “coaching” mentality and asked: “What things am I afraid of when I go and live in Vancouver for 6 months?” and “What goals can I have in Vancouver so that I don’t feel like I a wasting my time?” I also shared with her my learnings in coaching, such as the “Flow Model” where balancing one’s skill is with the challenges so that one is energized, even joyful, about what one is doing.

Calling Those Who Were Part of Our One Year Trip

At the same time, whenever the time zone difference works out, we began to call those who hosted us during the gap year. It was difficult setting up time ahead of time so we decided to just make surprise calls. We will just reach as many people we can reach spontaneously!

It was fun to hear their surprise, as well as joy when they answered our calls. We called (tried to call) Edith, Chris & Pete, Jo & Deb in the UK, Hugh and Jane our vineyard workaway hosts in Portugal, Irene, whom we met on the Camino de Santiago, Mario & Gema our canyoning guides in Spain, Fatima the language center teacher, and Ihssan in Morocco, Handley family and Theo & Debbie workaway host in South Africa, Wilson family in Uganda, and the Chinese church friends in Kenya.

We called Pete and Chris in the UK where we stayed at the most beautiful place of our whole trip.

The most joyous and fun phone call was to a Moroccan street BBQ vendor from Cameroon called Oliver. He was in the middle of cooking when he picked up our call. There was still so much love and hugs when we connected again after 6 months. It felt as if we were back there again eating his delicious cuisine. I think one of the biggest rewards of our one-year trip is to know and love different people from all walks of life from all over the world!


Finishing our Gap Year with a “Bang”

All of us couldn’t wait for our celebration by hitting the piñata blindfolded with a bloom stick, which is a traditional birthday celebration activity here. When we saw a COVID virus piñata wearing a mask, we all knew this is the one that will epitomize our one-year trip. It is also fitting that we will be “killing” the virus to let out all of the frustrations for how it made our travel logistics so challenging.

Instead of stuffing the piñata with candies and small gifts, we each wrote different reflection questions and truth & dare questions related to our one-year trip. To make it more exciting, we also put in $5 currency notes! Some questions were: favorite moments, worst moments, accomplishments, what did you learn about yourself and others, etc.

We spent some time writing the questions to put into the piñata.

“I think the lowest moment for me was when I threw down the shovel in anger and accidentally hitting mom’s feet,” Enli regretted. “But I am amazing how I was able to wake up for all those early morning meetings due to time zone difference!”

“For me, my worst moment obviously was when I was deathly ill in the hospital,” I shared. “In the hospital, I also learned that it is very hard for me to stay still and not do anything; I am afraid that when I am retired at 80, 90-year-old, how I am going to pass my time.”

Olivia hit the piñata with all her might.

“What I learned about myself this trip is that I enjoy cooking, especially when learning from YouTube,” Joani reflected. “I also learned that I am more academic than I thought; I missed studying and like researching.”

“Joani, I realized that you are more similar to me than I thought!” Olivia added. “Leading, organizing, thinking, always being one step ahead by scheduling and putting down lists.”

After reading the questions that fell out of the piñata, the person would answer them.
A reflection question: “What was the worst transportation you were on?”;
A Truth question: “What was the prettiest or most smashing woman or man you met during the trip.”

With these questions written down on notes, we stuffed them into the Piñata and began the fun. We each took turns being blindfolded, spun around a few times, and swinging as hard as we can without being able to see. It was fun when someone missed and it was even more exciting when money fell down. The piñata turned out to be very sturdy with wired meshes. It took us a full 4 hours to break it open! In the end, Jonathan won the most money at US$55!

We took turn hitting the COVID piñata blindfolded.
At the end, we finally “destroyed” COVID!

One fun question I put in was how many cities did we traveled to and how many days did we camp. After guessing, I revealed the statistics that I have kept throughout the trip:

Out of a total of 341 nights that we traveled, we went to 13 countries, 69 cities/towns, and we stayed 158 nights at friends’ homes, 12 nights camping, 48 nights working for room & boards, 5 nights Couchsurfing, 4 nights on bus/airplane, 62 nights in Airbnbs, 35 nights in hostels, and 17 nights in hotels. In total, we spent 227 nights in free accommodations, which is exactly two-thirds or 66% of the time!

At the beginning of our celebration, we first look intently at each other for 10 seconds and say whatever comes to one’s mind. It was powerful and we ended crying and hugging each other.

What’s Next?

Looking back, I am amazed and thankful to God that we accomplished what we did despite the family conflicts at the beginning, the pandemic that plagued us throughout the year, and my near-death sickness in Kenya. Looking forward, we each can’t wait to start our next journey in life.

We did our signature jumping photo as a fitting ending to our one year trip.

Olivia, who just graduated from business with an emphasis in HR, wants to find a job related to coaching in Canada, preferably in Edmonton where her boyfriend lives. Enli who will start his 3rd year in university hopes to find opportunities to gain experience in teaching and serving youth in preparation for applying for an education degree. Joani can’t wait to start her university life as she studies kinesiology with the hope to do physical therapy in the future.

Annie and I will be in Canada for half a year to walk with our children through their transition back to Canada, do some traveling in Canada, and prepare for the potential move to Iraq long-term following what God is doing there. There are many uncertainties ahead of us and your prayers are appreciated as we continue to follow our life callings.

“The brave may not live forever, but the cautious never live at all.”

― Courtney Allison Moulton

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