Living the Dream: Roadtrip with babies

Photo: Thomas Alboth
Anna and Thomas Alboth always loved travelling. When the couple from Berlin became parents, they asked themselves: What next? The answer only took a second: keep on travelling.

Anna and Thomas, you went on a big adventure trip for many months in areas that aren’t known for being very safe. Your children were still in early infancy. Isn’t that irresponsible?

Big animals were the greatest attraction for the girls. | Photo: Thomas Alboth
Thomas: Many people criticised us for going on such an adventure with the kids. It’s no more dangerous for kids than being at home with an iron and windows they could fall out of.        I mean, what does an eight month old baby need? Food, sleep, happy parents. And when we travel, we’re happy.

Sounds a bit selfish.

Thomas: It would have been selfish not to take the children on board. Some fathers climb Mt Everest and leave mother and children worrying home. A journey like we had gives babies much more than it takes away from them.

Aren’t children overwhelmed with the constant change?

Anna: The look out of the car window always changes but the teddy bear stays the same, as well as the songs in the car and the games in the mornings with the parents.

How did your parents react when they heard about your travel plans?

Taking a local family on board. | Photo: Thomas Alboth
Anna: My parents even gave us the car to travel to the Caspian Sea. Of course they were sad because they wouldn’t be able to see Hanna for a while. It was one of the reasons we started our travel blog so the grandparents could take part in their grandchildren‘s journey. Very often, we were on Skype too: for Hanna, my mum became her »notebook granny«.
Thomas: My parents were more worried, especially due to safety issues in countries like Georgia, even though the South Ossetia war ended back in 2008. My dad’s reaction reminded me of Globetrotter founder Klaus Denart when he went off to Africa with his little daughters and his dad warned him: »Make sure to bring the girls back home safe!«

Fair enough. Your travels indeed led you to areas of conflict with high criminality like Mexico!

Anna: You hardly notice any past conflicts. For example, we weren’t sure if we should speak Russian in Georgia. The Georgians don’t have a problem with the Russians at all.
Thomas: And we skipped the dangerous North of Mexico, as well as Chechnya and Dagestan.

What did the children’s doctor say about your adventure plans?

Anna: She went with us through the list of countries to find out if there were special dangers we had to be aware of. You cannot protect a baby more than with the common vaccinations.
Thomas: She gave us pieces of advice for our life on the road, like taking electrolytes in case one of the children vomited. It wasn’t news to us though.

Did you already know this having travelled before?

Anna: Exactly, however, those backpacking trips never lasted longer than four weeks. We knew east Europe and the Middle East.

Did you meet each other on one of your travels?

The trunk turns into a bedroom, the great outdoors is the children’s room – in Belize. | Photo: Thomas Alboth
Anna: No, we met in Brussels at a conference of the European Youth Press. I moved to Thomas in Berlin in 2008.

Did you ever dream of becoming a normal family with a house and a garden?

Anna: I always felt more at home in a shared flat with lots of people around.
Thomas: We rather dreamed of travelling together, Anna as a journalist and me as a photographer. However, in the end it was the children who made us start travelling.

How can two babies kick off such a family holiday?

Anna: Both of the girls were premature babies and spent many months in the hospital.
Thomas: Those were hard times, and afterwards we felt like we had to go somewhere. So we used my parental leave and drove towards the rising sun. We also wanted to meet some people we knew in east Europe and the Middle East.

Did you travel by car to make it easier for Hanna?

Anna: We didn’t know if she would like travelling. If not we would have simply turned around and gone back home. Travelling by car has the advantage that you can follow the child’s rhythm: You drive while she sleeps, and you stop when she wakes up or when she is hungry.
Thomas: We took the Renault from Anna’s dad for a service before we left. The mechanic reckoned the car wouldn’t make it back to Berlin. But we travelled almost 20,000 kilometres along some of the worst roads you can imagine.

How did you turn the Renault Escape into a camping car?

Thomas: We simply covered the luggage boxes with wooden planks, so it didn’t take longer than ten minutes to get the beds ready at night.

So you hit the road with a trunk full of nappies?

Anna (laughs): Yes. Looking back, it wasn’t very clever. You get nappies everywhere. We also didn’t need to bring boxes full of baby food. Nestlé is everywhere.

Did you cook your own meals?

Anna: We often went out for dinner to local restaurants. It’s not too expensive, tastes very good and you meet new people.

Tell me about a typical day of family Alboth on the road.

Picnicking at Lago de Atitlán in Guatemala. | Photo: Thomas Alboth
Thomas: Wake up when the sun reaches the car or one of the girls starts babbling because a cow is looking through the window. Breakfast leisurely, mostly Muesli. Go to the creek to clean up, play with the children while Anna reads. In the morning maybe have a look at something nearby like a waterfall. When the kids tire around noon drive for two or three hours looking for a nice place for the night where we can park our car. Then play and explored the area. Off to bed as soon as it gets dark. In Central America, it was already dark at 6 pm…

Isn’t it boring when you have to go to bed with the kids?

Anna: Very often we wrote on our blog, organised our photos and reflected on our experiences. I really enjoyed these twilight hours.

How did the locals react when you got out of your car with two blond girls?

Anna: They always helped us to find a place for our car for the night when we asked them. Often they even offered us to stay in their garden. Hanna is the perfect door and heart opener: she walks straight up to people and says »Hi!« or »Hola!«.
Thomas: When we were in Mexico, we also looked for a place to stay overnight. We stopped at a farm once and a man came towards us with a machete. When he saw Hanna in my arms, he opened the gate immediately so we could drive in. His wife and children ran towards us, our girls got a piece of melon and they invited us for dinner. Things like this happened to us all the time.

Did the girls also open borders?

What a roaring sound over there. At the Chilascó waterfall in Guatemala. | Photo: Thomas Alboth
Thomas: Border crossings were usually complicated. We could write a book about all the formalities, especially because of the car. When there was no way forward anymore we played the baby trump. We were supposed to wait for an unknown time on the border from Ukraine to Rumania because they were changing shifts . Anna went with Hanna to the customs officer and told him in a friendly way that the little one was tired and hungry. He just opened the gate for diplomats and waved us through.

Which places were the most beautiful ones?

Thomas: The most fascinating country on our first trip was Georgia. The Caucasus, the rivers… and no matter which village we visited, we always got invited in. Even in areas where they say it’s unsafe – like on the border to Chechnya – we got along well. There is one thing you can’t do wrong: talk to people. »Hello, we are here; do you mind if we stay here overnight?«. We never received negative replies, on the contrary. We had once been sitting by a creek in Georgia for only three minutes, when suddenly children came to us and brought nuts and fresh fish.

What were the most memorable encounters on your trip to the East?

Thomas: The Gipsy King of Soroca! We knew that a Roma tribe apparently lived in this city in Moldova with their king. Even on approaching, we could see big houses with decorative facades and golden domes. The Roma are particularly proud of their houses: they have hardly any furniture inside, but outside they are magnificent to kitschy. We were also invited to dinner. Suddenly they all stood up and greeted a man with a long beard: Arthur Cherari, the Roma king of Moldova. He took Hanna in his arms and showed us through his house. Arthur was especially proud of his collection of porcelain. Hanna was fascinated by the Roma’s golden teeth.

Was there a moment when you touched a low-point?

Anna: It happened when we stood at the border of Russia and Georgia and they told us that EU citizens weren’t allowed to cross the border. This meant that we had to drive back 2,000 kilometres with a visa that wasn’t valid any more, take the ferry across the Black Sea and enter Georgia through Turkey.

It must have been an impressive moment when you finally arrived at the Caspian Sea.

Anna: We were rather excited about the drive back, because we still had a lot ahead of us with it being a round trip.
Thomas: However, we only had three weeks‘ time for the way back so we rushed through Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia where our car broke down.

A broken car? What had happened?

Are you a fairy? Hanna experiences Georgian folklore. | Photo: Thomas Alboth
Thomas: The car was over-heating all the time. We had to stop every few kilometres and wait until the water cooled down. When we reached the last mountain just before Belgrade I didn’t care any more and just kept on driving across the city boundary with a smoking engine. After that the engine failed and we couldn’t start it again.

How did you get home?

Thomas: We got towed away and brought to a hotel. The next day, we took a flight back home – thanks to the breakdown recovery service of the ADAC (General German Automobile Association).

What kind of insurance did you have for your travels?

Thomas: Two insurance policies were essential: ADAC membership – which is only valid in Europe – and an overseas health insurance policy.

What was it like for Hanna to come back home?

Anna: Exciting. She took her first steps in Belgrade. Once our car stopped, Hanna started walking. Then, a new adventure started for her: Berlin on her own feet.

When did you get itchy feet again?

Anna: When we came home from our first trip I was already pregnant again. The first ultrasound photos of Mila featured Georgian, Armenian and Turkish inscriptions.

Celebrities like to name their children after places where they were conceived. How would your children be called?

This Russian policeman confirmed that Hanna was worth many hugs. | Photo: Thomas Alboth
Anna: Mila would be called Balaclava (laughs). A beautiful bay in Crimea.
Thomas: And Hanna’s name could be Austria – from our ski holidays…

Why did you choose Central America?

Thomas: On our trip to the East we enjoyed visiting many countries in a small area, meaning: many different cultures and people. The same concept is possible in Central America but without the visa problems. Our goal was roughly to go from Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica and further to Panama.

How did you get a car in Mexico?

Thomas: Gran problema! We tried to talk to banks, car sales men and authorities, with almost no Spanish skills at all – those were two exhausting weeks. In the end we found a Chrysler but couldn’t register it in our names. Then Mila got sick and a hurricane swept across us…

Did the family without borders reach the end of the road at that time?

Anna: Yes, I had doubts if we had done the right thing. For me, the trip really started when we drove to a Maya village in the Mexican jungle.

What was the difference between the two trips?

Photo: Thomas Alboth
Thomas: The first trip meant total freedom. We just drove around and stopped somewhere we liked the look of.
Anna: In Guatemala we approached families and asked them if we could stay overnight. Almost every man carries a gun in that area. One evening, men with pump guns ran around in front of our hostel and talked on the phone all the time. I was really scared. In the end, we went outside and asked them directly: »Are you dangerous?« They replied »Not for you and not here.«. All the more fascinating was our encounter with Mennonites in Belize. They are strict Protestants and live very isolated without any electricity, just as if you turned the clock back one hundred years.
Thomas: We drove into the centre of the town. I asked an old man if we could stay in front of their community centre for a night. It was sweet to observe how the women and children were torn between shyness and curiosity. During the evening, more and more candles started to appeared near our car because they just happened to have letters to deliver to their centre… So we started talking.
Anna: They were pretty shocked when they realised that we weren’t married when Hanna was born.

How did Hanna experience her second trip?

Anna: She was even better at approaching people. However, she missed her friends from kindergarten. Something we underestimated.

Did Mila develop in a similar way?

Anna: Not really. Mila is very shy and always started crying when somebody wanted to hold her.

How did you celebrate Christmas 2011?

Thomas: It was a fiasco. On the 24th we wanted to be on an  island off the coast of Belize. In the morning when we drove into the harbour city, the brakes broke down completely. Luckily it was a lonely and straight road, so I could just let the car run. In the next village, we screwed the brake cable back on. In the afternoon we arrived at Belize City and quickly had to get some presents from a junk shop. A ferry took us to the island.
Anna: Our pre-booked hostel room had already been taken. And bed bugs in the next hostel. Finally we found a room. We went to the internet café to skype with my parents. The connection broke down after a few seconds. In another internet café they told us that the telecommunication company blocked skype so that people would talk more on the phone. The kids were hungry and tired – Merry Christmas…

Did your Central America trip at least have a happy ending?

Anna: On the contrary. We had just arrived in Honduras when I received an E-Mail that my father had passed away. The only possibility to go back home was to drive to Cancun. We travelled day and night, and had to contend with many problems at the borders. The Mexican dealer in whose name the car was registered luckily gave us 4,000 euros for the car and drove us straight to the airport.
Thomas: We wouldn’t have made it to Panama anyway. Instead of eight countries we saw four, which was impressive enough.

Globetrotter supported your Central America trip with equipment. Could you use any of the things?

It’s a long and stony road to the Caspian Sea. | Photo: Thomas Alboth
Thomas: Oh yes. The most helpful thing was the Deuter kid carrier. I can recommend a kid carrier like this one to everybody who’s travelling with babies. You’re very flexible with it.

So you did allow yourself some luxury. Isn’t a family holiday for half a year pretty expensive?

Thomas: The insurance and the flights cost a pretty penny indeed. But if you stay overnight in the car or in cheap hostels, life can be cheaper than in Germany. We also had some income from subletting our room in Berlin, child allowance and parental allowance.

When is the next kid due?

Anna: A Moldavian Roma woman has predicted we will have twenty children. I’m already busy with our two girls though.

Don’t you want to go on a normal family holiday now? Maybe stay in an all-inclusive hotel with child care?

Anna: What a crazy idea!


4-Seasons Info

Family without borders

Some families go to a children‘s hotel, other families go on a road trip: Anna (28) and Thomas (24) Alboth went travelling by car twice for several months. In 2010, they travelled with eight-months-old Hanna from Berlin to the Caspian Sea and back; in 2011/2012 they crossed Central America with Hanna and nine-month-old Mila. Anna is from Warsaw, Thomas from Saxony. Anna works as a journalist and has a master’s degree in scientific information. Thomas is a photographer and partner of the webdesign agency undkonsorten. The family lives in a shared flat in Berlin Pankow. Their website thefamilywith­ was awarded the title of »Best Traveler Blog Of The Year 2011« by National Geographic Poland.

Photo show at Globetrotter Berlin
The Alboth family will display their travel photos at the Globetrotter store in Berlin in March 2013. On 26 March they will be giving a presentation too.