Looking at the mountain of paperwork that never seemed to go down, I counted up the hours I had worked that week. At 80 I lost count and knew that while owning my own marketing company was profitable and brought in around $140,000 (Dh513,800) a year, it was sucking the life out of me. I was a single mum of a fantastic 10-year-old boy called Miro, but while I could buy him anything he wanted, what I couldn’t buy him was quality time with me.
The last straw came one night in September 2008 when I finally sat down with Miro to share a few precious moments with him before bedtime and he looked at me with these huge sad eyes and said, “Mom, you never spend any time with me, I’d love to hang out more, go to the movies, go for walks, play games together, but you’re always working.”
It was like a knife to my heart, but I knew deep down he was absolutely right. In that moment I knew I had to make some changes.
Yes we lived in a fancy apartment in downtown Los Angeles, and had a tidy sum in the bank, but did we have time to spend it on doing things together? No.
Looking at the son I adored, I wondered where the last 10 years had gone. How did he get so big? One thing I did know was I did not want to waste another minute of Miro’s childhood working all hours.
It was then I began to hatch a plan that was to change our life forever.
What if we gave up everything? What if we didn’t spend $12,000 a month on health care, rent, a fancy car and shopping for things we didn’t even need?
What if we packed up and just went and saw the world?
That night I couldn’t sleep, my head was bursting with ideas.
The next morning I sat down with Miro and started to show him photos on the internet of volcanoes, Machu Picchu in Peru, far-off lands we had never been to and asked, “What if we packed up and went to see these things? What if we got rid of everything, found a simpler life, climbed a volcano and lived in the jungle?”
And without missing a beat Miro said, “Let’s do it.”
He was beaming from ear to ear, he was so excited. I think he was just so relieved that I had listened to what he had said about wanting to spend more time together and was just beyond happy that not only was I going to slow down with work, I was going to stop completely to go on the most exciting adventure together.
He was jumping around with excitement; he couldn’t start our trip soon enough. It was like suddenly the whole world was open to us and we were going to explore it together and nothing could be more magical than that.
Miro was always such a smart, adventurous boy that during the past year at school he had grown more and more despondent at not being challenged enough. Always ahead of the class, the teachers had even started using him to help the other kids finish their work, he was that far advanced. Not surprisingly, Miro had started to hate school.
He felt like he was being punished for being smart, as instead of giving him harder work, he was being told he had to help everyone else with theirs. I began to research home schooling on the internet and then discovered a movement called ‘radical unschooling’. It is a way of life where kids don’t study a set curriculum at all, but instead learn through play and experience.
Instead of thinking we are on a higher level than our children, radical unschooling means as a parent I am a partner to my son, not just in regards to academic pursuits, but in daily activities and decision making.
At the core belief of unschooling is trust. Trust that our children possess an inner wisdom or intuitiveness beyond what they are usually given credit for.
Therefore rather than strict rules, unschoolers do not have limits, but instead work with their children to help them live in a balanced and healthy way.
There would be no set times for maths and English. But instead we would focus on whatever Miro was interested in at that given moment. It made perfect sense to me as I don’t believe in order to learn you have to study textbooks and sit exams.
Did I have any misgivings about taking him out of school? Yes, but when I weighed up the pros and cons I honestly thought travelling the world would enrich Miro’s life far more than being in a school environment that he had grown to dislike anyway.
I wanted the world to become his classroom. As with everything I discussed it with Miro and he said “This makes perfect sense mum. School doesn’t work for me anymore and I think I would learn much more this way. I cannot wait to start.”
Of course when I told friends and family of our plans, many thought I was mad. “Lainie you are committing career suicide, packing up and leaving your business,” said one.
But to me staying in Los Angeles and continuing our old life was no longer an option.
Luckily Miro’s dad Greg, who I was no longer with, was totally onboard and as an artist was incredibly open to our plan. “That’s amazing Lainie, go see the world,” he said to me and he even came to visit us in Guatemala.
Over the next few weeks we sold or gave away every possession we had. We sold our Mercedes, most of Miro’s toys, our furniture, our plates, our silverware, everything we owned. And the more we sold, the freer we felt. Miro would get so much joy from giving some of his toys away to charity, knowing that now instead of toys to play with, he would be visiting far-off lands.
Our initial plan was to travel for one year in South America because it was a country that fascinated us. Also, Mexico was easily accessible from Los Angeles.
We took just one backpack each, containing a pair of shoes, swimming costumes, a sweater, some T-shirts and shorts, and headed to Mexico.
From the moment we left, Miro and I knew 100 per cent we had made the right decision. I had around $20,000 savings, which I felt I could dip into at any time.
For the first time I allowed myself to be lazy and stopped thinking that to be a success, you always had to be earning more and more money.
“Mum this is amazing, I love our new life,” Miro would say as he soaked up every moment of our trip.
It felt so wonderful to be travelling with my son and spending every minute of the day together. Amazingly, we didn’t seem to miss any of the luxuries at home. For the first time in my adult life I was not obsessing about work and making money, but instead sharing so many magical moments with Miro.
Without school Miro flourished. Within months of starting our travels he was able to speak Spanish fluently without ever looking at a Spanish textbook and we started to adopt a way of education called World Schooling. That means Miro never has to study books or set topics while we are on the road or sit any exams, but instead my son is guiding his own education led by his interests.
It is perfectly legal, as we are classed as expats we are not governed by the normal laws of the US, so perfectly entitled to do what we want. Many people might think I am being irresponsible and five years ago, I might have agreed. But seeing how smart and happy Miro is today, I know that passion and travel drives learning far more than school did.
To me learning is different from education and since we began travelling I have seen my son pursue his interest in mythology, zombies, gardening, the internet, cooking, pirates, tae kwon do, acting and even sword play.
If anyone doubts that my son was learning, they should hear him excitedly describe how Prometheus gave the power of fire to man. Of course there are times when he chooses to be lazy and not engage in any passions, but I have now decided that is his choice.
We never fall out and our bond just gets stronger every day. The best thing is that there is no typical day in our life. One day we could have breakfast together and sit on the beach and read, another we would visit a museum, a third we would climb a mountain...
After Mexico we slowly criss-crossed through Central America.
With a very tight budget we travelled mainly by bus. We went to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and then on to Guatemala, where we fell in love with the country. Miro and I travel using our inspiration as our compass, planning our next destination when we feel inspired to leave the one we are at. For the most part, our accommodation has been couch surfing – staying over at the homes of local people in a hospitality exchange programme. It’s a great way to meet local people and keep to our strict budget.
We never know how long we are going to be in one place, but as a rule of thumb the least amount of time we spend in one place is a week.
People are always asking, ‘Isn’t it dangerous?’ But hand on heart, not once in all the time that we have been travelling have I ever felt intimidated or in danger, in fact quite the opposite. What Miro and I are constantly amazed by is how the world is full of caring, kind, wonderful human beings.
When we reached the eight-month mark of our trip, Miro and I sat down and had a frank discussion about whether we were ready to end our trip after a year.
I said ‘Do you want to end this?’ and if he had said yes, we would have returned to Los Angeles in a heartbeat. But instead Miro looked at me and said “No, let’s just keep on going mum.” The part of my head that is a responsible parent agonised over whether it would truly be good for my son, to continue keeping him out of formal education.
But as I reflected on how much he had grown and learnt since we began our travels, I knew this unusual way of life worked perfectly for us.
And so we kept on going and five years on, we still are travelling and never intend to stop.
Miro and I have climbed mountains, held tropical animals in the Amazon, visited the Panama Canal, volunteered in Nicaragua at an animal clinic and helped at a cat rescue centre in Belize.
The list just goes on and on and every day Miro and I are blown away by all the world has to offer.
Miro has made friends in every place we have visited and has adapted to a life on the road like he was born to do it.
Money is tough and we live frugally. Whereas in our old life I spent thousands every month, now we live on a $1,000 a month budget. Twice on our travels we have been down to our last $10, but on both occasions I trusted everything would be OK and it was. Money I was owed from previous freelance work came through just when we needed it most.
Today we have very little money, but we have a blog about our travels and that is starting to make us money by people advertising on it. On top of that we have started to run retreats for other unschooled children from the US. This year we ran one in Peru and Miro and I loved showing the kids all about the local history and culture.
That’s what learning to me is all about – experiencing the world through travel.
People are always asking me “What if Miro wants to go to college?” But if that’s something Miro ever starts to want, then he is smart enough to make it happen.
But for now we know we will be travelling together, at least until Miro is 18. Then, who knows? We tend not to think too much about the future, but just love our life right now. We are currently in Ecuador as on a previous visit I met a man who I developed feelings for. What will happen I don’t know, for now we are just loving our life on the beach and excited about what other adventures will be in store for us.
We plan to travel to Europe, Asia and the world really is our oyster. I believe the unconventional life we lead has made my son smarter and happier than he would ever have been if we had stayed living our old life.
We are equals and there are no rules, no set bed times, no home and no hierarchy in our relationship.
But what there is in our life is an abundance of love, laughter and now a childhood full of magical, unforgettable memories.
Lainie Liberti, 47, and Miro, 16, are from Los Angeles in the US