NOTE: this post has been shared thousands of times on Facebook but since I moved over from ronithetravelguru.com my shareholic hasn’t been acting right. Ugh.
I’m pleased to introduce you to Elmeka, another dynamic and fascinating woman of color doing remarkable things while being a single mother of 1. I am positive her story will make you feel a plethora of emotions and end up smiling because you now understand the strength that some women walk around with daily. She is a true Travel Ninja and a shining example of a loving mother doing the best for her son. You can follow their travels at www.
1. You have made a big decision for you and your son. What is it?
I have decided to accept a position as the Special Needs Coordinator and Special Education Teacher at a school in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. My son Chris and I will be living there for at least the next year, but most likely will be longer.
2. What made you choose Cambodia?
I didn’t choose it, really. Although we have never been to Southeast Asia, I didn’t specifically want to move to Cambodia, It was just how it worked out. I submitted my resume to several schools all over the globe and Cambodia was the place that seemed to be the best fit for us right now. I previously interviewed with several schools in China, Qatar, and Korea, but Cambodia seemed right for both my son and my career.
I was actually offered a position in Qatar first, but the school rescinded the offer because there are issues around single mothers bringing children without the permission of the father and they were concerned my visa wouldn’t be approved. So after that whole debacle, I continued my search and Cambodia reached out to me.
3. What qualifications did you need to apply for this job? And how did you hear about the job?
I hold a Master’s degree in School Psychology and a certification as an Educational Specialist. I also have a TEFL certificate. To find the position, I registered with International School Services and also searched several international job sites for different positions. Also, I posted my intent to move and work abroad in a few groups that I’m a member of on Facebook and received an incredible amount of support.
There were people that I didn’t know who were sending me job postings and access to different job databases. I honestly cannot remember where the position in Cambodia came from, possibly a combination from all of those efforts, but they emailed me one day calling my resume “impressive and informative” and asked for a Skype interview. I interviewed with them that week and was offered a position that same night.
4. What exactly will you be teaching? What age children will you be teaching?
I will be working with children with special needs. This includes intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, autism, and English language learners. So I will be teaching remedial classes and working in small groups with those children. I will also be the person responsible for diagnosing disabilities and coordinating the specialized services needed for those children; making sure they are getting what they need either in a specialized classroom or in the general education classes. It is going to be challenging because special education in Cambodia, as we know it here in the states, is nonexistent. But it should be a great experience.
5. You have 1 son, are you afraid to move to another continent with no family?
Not at all. I moved to Philadelphia alone after graduating undergrad. I’ve lived here with my sone for almost 10 years with no family or real outside support. I’m used to it. But I’m sure we will become part of a community quickly and make friends. My son is very social and forces me to become social as well. He’ll make friends for the both of us in no time.
6. How does your family feel about you moving so far away?
My mother is terrified. She hates that I live in Philadelphia (She lives in Kansas). My father cried. I’m the only girl, so there will always be this desire to protect me from whatever. But they know the child they raised and I’ve always been the one to leave at the drop of a hat. They just never expected me to move abroad. My brothers (I have 4) are supportive. They are even talking about getting their passports to come visit me.
7. Does the thought of living in a country where you may be one of the few people of color scare/intimidate/concern you? How do you think it will impact your son?
Moving to another country terrifies me, if I’m being completely honest. Just the transition alone is concerning. Chris loves to travel, but I have no idea how he’s going to adjust to daily life in Cambodia until after we settle in and he gets into the schedule of going to school and whatnot.
Being in a place where there are few people of color is really the least of my concerns. I think it would be good for my son to experience a different culture and live in a place there things aren’t so “black and white”, so to speak. Living here in the states has recently become increasingly stressful for the both of us. I think we are both seeking a place where being different is expected and embraced.
I’ve spoken to several people who have lived in Cambodia and being an emigrant, no one expects you to assimilate to the culture. It’s not expected for you to change who you are, but rather use those differences as a way to connect to the people of that community in a different way. I think we’re both open to what is to come and hopeful that this move will be a positive experience for us.
Part of the motivation for the move was due to the increased violence against Black men, women, and children here in the states, it has become very challenging as a single mother of a Black boy to counteract the negative impact that can have on his psyche. We are very open in conversation about the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, but particularly Tamir Rice and Aiyana Jones. He’s a very sensitive and compassionate child and was really interested in their stories.
He’s aware they were children, like him, and he has asked what they did wrong and why police would do that when they are supposed to protect you. Even more so, his sense of right and wrong has been challenged. He frequently questions why no one is held responsible for doing something wrong. I’ve always taught him that even if it’s an accident, you’re still responsible and there are always consequences to your actions. Part of him is having a hard time understanding the lack of consequence in these cases.
His interactions have also changed. We were traveling recently and were in Penn Station in New York. He needed to use the restroom and I pointed out the direction of the bathroom. I saw him looking around for the bathroom for a few minutes and eventually approached him and asked him what he was doing. He said he was lost and couldn’t find it. After he returned, I asked him why he didn’t ask the policeman standing near him to show him the bathroom. He just looked at me and I already knew the answer. That broke my heart.
While traveling, particularly in our recent trip to several countries in Africa, I have noticed how free he is when we are abroad. We both are. No matter what country we are in, no matter the make up of the culture or the language barriers, we are at ease. It’s difficult to explain, but it seems like we feel more like ourselves in a world where no one is like us.
We seem to find these spaces where we can be who we were created to be, because there is no comparison, no competition to be better than, we can just be with the requirement to explain ourselves or rationalize our feelings. Seeing that freedom in him while in Zambia playing soccer with the children at an orphanage, or dancing unabashedly in Soweto, I knew that the decision I was making was the right one for him. That he would be forever changed by this experience and so would I.
We will miss our family terribly, but this is a piece of his well-being that I am not willing to sacrifice for the security of having family and friends close by. We will visit, and so will they. But ultimately I want a better life for him and I think this is the best way I can do that right now.
I have no idea how long we will be away from our home country, but I plan to continue travelling with him for as long as he can be that free spirited kid. The United States will always be the country that birthed us, but we recognize that we are of a different place. And I intend to find out where that place is so we can be our true selves.
8. How often do you travel solo and with your son?
Up until recently, we never travelled internationally. My family didn’t travel like that, outside of road trips to see family. I actually didn’t get my passport until 2008, when a guy I was dating proposed a trip to Mexico if I got my passport. He traveled and encouraged me to do so as well, so that was really the beginning of my international travels. I loved that he showed me the culture of Mexico and we stayed far away from the tourist areas and I was able to see a beautiful side of a country outside of Cancun, which is an area that most people I knew had traveled. We even took a family trip to Puerto Rico with our children (my son and his daughter) to show the kids a different culture as well.
But my travels were halted after I took a trip to Peru in 2010. I went there in the summer to volunteer and study Spanish and a week before I was to return home, I contracted a group A strep infection in my bloodstream. I was hospitalized and spent over a week in ICU with a pulmonary embolism and soon by body began to go septic. They were initially hopeful, but when my organs began to shut down, my family was contacted and told to come as soon as they could to make arrangements to transport my body back to the states. I was told that I was given a 30 percent chance of survival. But my family is full of prayer warriors and I made a miraculous recovery within 24 hours before my then fiancé arrived.
But that experience made it difficult to want to leave the state, much less the country and I lost all interest in travelling anywhere for a long time. One day, my son found a travel book in Barnes & Noble and asked to buy it. When we arrived home, he was completely indulged in the book and began making a list of places he wanted to visit. First on that list was Niagara Falls. So shortly after, I got his passport and we took a trip to Ontario, Canada the summer of 2013. His desire to travel and see new places reaffirmed my desire to have a passport book full of stamps and we began our travels from then on.
Since then, I take one international trip solo and one with him every year. He’s been to Canada, China, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana with me. Before considering this move, we were making plans to go to Thailand around Thanksgiving for Loi Krathong, the lantern festival.
Without him, I’ve traveled to Samoa, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, India, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahamas, Peru, and Mexico. I’m also preparing to visit Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Haiti this month. The funny thing is, whenever I travel without him I find myself thinking “Oh my God! Chris would LOVE this!” and then begin making plans in my head to return with him. While away, we FaceTime almost every day and I send him pictures. I think that’s our way for him to share in my travels even if he isn’t there with me.
9. Does your job provide housing? How will you get to work? Are you planning on learning the local language?
The school I will be working at isn’t a traditional international school. It was created as a way for local Cambodian children to have an international education. The population is 90% Cambodian, so the tuition is significantly cheaper than other schools. Therefore my school wasn’t able to offer a housing stipend. However someone I will be working with has been helping me find housing while here in Philadelphia, and we make plans to arrive a few weeks before I begin work to seek out housing with the school’s assistance.
Most of the housing I have found includes utilities and is furnished, so that won’t be an added issue. We will most likely put some of our belongings in storage until we can figure out the logistics of moving personal items. We do plan to bring some things to make the place our own, but have downsized considerably. I’ve agreed to take a significant pay cut, in comparison to what I’m making here, so I’ll have to be cognizant of my expenses while I am there as well. The good news is Cambodia’s cost of living is really low, so there are no worries we will be able to make it work.
As far as transportation, I was told that I could walk to work if I choose to live nearby, or take a tuktuk daily. There are certain areas that a lot of the school staff reside and some ride to work together in shared transportation. We are very easy going and I think my son would enjoy the adventure of getting to school in a tuktuk or on the back of someone’s motorbike. So we’re open to the possibilities.
We do plan to learn Khmer while we are there. It’s important to me that my son immerse himself as much as possible in the culture. I think it would be completely disrespectful to the experience to live there for the better part of a year and not takeaway something from the country. The language at the very least, but also traditions, the food, and learning about the daily lives of Cambodians. This is how we travel, and most certainly will be how we will live our lives in Cambodia.
10. Will your son be in a local school or a private one? What does he think about this journey you are about to take?
Chris will be attending the school where I will be working. He will be in the regular education classes and will be entering the 3rd grade there. He’s very excited to have me so close to him. I work primarily in schools here in Philadelphia and he hears stories about my students and I think is secretly jealous that they have his mama all day.
He’s been actively involved in the process of finding a job overseas and we’ve had several conversations about what that will look like and the changes that will occur. He’s excited to live abroad, I think. He’s really low key with me and will just offer a shrug in response when I ask him how he feels. But I’ve caught him talking with his friends at school or his baseball mates about the move and I can tell he’s really excited.
We previously were planning a move to California and he fought me on it. Tooth and nail. But when I changed directions, there was no resistance. When I asked him why he said “because I’ll get to use my passport”. He’s a great kid. Very easy going and incredibly brave. In all of our travels, he is drawn to children and most often can be found engaging them in a game of soccer. He will talk to anyone. ANYONE, which freaks me out a bit sometimes. But he loves learning about people and that’s his way to do so. He has even already begun researching with me about the places he wants to travel within Cambodia and the surrounding countries during out time there. I think he thinks this is one big vacation.
My hope for him and this experience is that he will develop a more secure sense of self. He’s easily influenced by his peers and typically doesn’t care about much, but often cares about what his friend think. So I have seen how that affects his choices and I’m not completely happy about that. I hope that in Cambodia he will not have those outside pressures of consumerism and competition to worry about and learn to appreciate his experiences more than his belongings. I want him to know that he is capable of anything and that his confidence in that grows more than ever during our journey abroad.
Coming to this decision to move was incredibly trying. And I don’t want it to seem like it was easier than it was. Being a single mother has its own set of challenges, much less one that chooses to move almost 9,000 miles away. But I think my decision to move was grounded in the truth that I want my son to know that it’s okay to change your mind about the life you thought you wanted. It’s okay to want something more, something else, or something different than every one else. I don’t proselytize this way of life or even minimize those who don’t travel. I just know this life is the essence of who we are and it was my son who reignited that passion for me and validated what I had been feeling for a long time. And I truly believe that reminding myself of our truth will get us through any of the challenges ahead.
Chris’ father is not involved at all. We separated when I was six months pregnant and we chose to go our separate ways mainly because the relationship was becoming increasingly unhealthy. We fought a lot and it was becoming stressful for the pregnancy. We tried to resolve our issues before I gave birth but ultimately he wanted to be a family, all or nothing. I didn’t. So that was that.
We have had some honest conversations about his biological father. He’s asked questions, but hasn’t expressed interest in him as of yet. I know that not having a father present bothers him, but he has strong men in his life here in Philly and he’s very close to my father and my brothers. I think that has helped him a little bit.
In the very few relationships I’ve had since, he either loved the guy or didn’t. He would be cordial, but was very verbal when he wasn’t “feeling” someone I dated 🙂 He’s a good judge of character, and in hindsight I’ve realized that the relationship wasn’t good for the both of us and have learned to trust his feelings and intuition. I have always expressed to him that if I were to be involved with someone, it would have to be a good relationship for not only me, but him as well. I still date, and for the most part Chris isn’t involved in any of that unless it begins to become serious. He’s aware of my dating life and sometimes tries to give my number to random strangers, even when we travel. He wants siblings, so I think that’s his motivation for trying to marry me off.
But we both have become acclimated to our two person family. It was difficult at first, but I think we both are learning one another and growing to appreciate our relationship so much more in these recent years. It’s been he and I for the most part, so we are working on developing that relationship and anyone who comes into our lives will have to figure out how to work within a relationship that is 9 years strong and counting. I have com to recognize that we are both part of a twin soul and that can be challenging for someone to understand on the outside of that relationship, much less find his place in. Although we have hope that the person who can exists, but that’s not our primary focus right now.
11. What would you tell single parents that think traveling with their children isn’t possible?
I would tell any single parent who is considering traveling with or without their children to first re-frame what they think it looks like. Stop listening to what other people say it can or should be, specifically those without children. They have no idea what it means to have a child, much less know what it means to travel with one. Most often they operating from a position of assumption of the worse case scenario.
Any travel destination can be made kid friendly without paying an astronomical amount for a children’s resort or a Disney cruise. You know your child better than anyone and if you are unsure how they will respond in a foreign country, try some place local first. Travelling with your children doesn’t have to be international, even a road trip across the country can be amazing and exciting for your family. Also, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, and other territories can be accessed without a passport and are relatively easy to get to. Try those and see how they respond and then branch out.Also, children under the age of 2 fly free, and most international flights they travel at a discount – another incentive to travel when they are younger.
My son has been travelling domestically since he was 2 weeks old, so I already knew how he was with short plane rides. However, I had no idea how he would respond to a 14 hour flight to China. So I over compensated. Made sure the iPad was charged, carried snacks in case he didn’t like the in-flight meals and extra books and games to keep him occupied. To my surprise, he did well and I had no problems, but there is nothing wrong with being over prepared.
While I’m on the subject of flights – Don’t EVER let anyone make you feel bad for travelling with your child. If he or she is younger, don’t think you have to make your child do anything other than be a child – within reason. I wouldn’t suggest letting your child run up and down the aisles or kick other people seats, but children are going to be children, no matter the environment. Dogs bark, birds fly, and children cry, fart, and get frustrated. Don’t feel like you need to overcompensate for other’s travel experiences. If someone complains, politely apologize for their frustrations, but don’t ever take that on as your own problem. They could have easily had better life aspirations and chartered a private plane if they wanted a child-free flight.
Travel to a destination where you can you both can have fun. Some resorts and hotels have babysitting available. If that’s above your comfort level, pick a place that you feel comfortable heading down to the hotel restaurant for a dinner by yourself while your child occupies himself in the room or sleeps. But also allow the vacation to be a chance for you to embrace your inner child. I love doing things with my son on vacation and letting him talk me into doing things that he loves and wants to try. Recently, he convinced me to zip-line across the Zambezi river. I was completely blown away by the suggestion, but it ended up being an amazing experience for the both of us. If you allow them, your children will surprise you with their bravery and resiliency.
I think it’s also important to travel without your children. Travelling alone makes me a better mother. Chris can see how stressed I am with work and notices the difference in my mood and attitude when I return. My son and I are very similar and we appreciate those spaces from one another. If separation anxiety is part of your life, invite friends who have children to vacation with you and designate a babysitting day or night so that each of you can have a few hours alone and a break from the kid-centered activities.
I would also tell single parents who want to travel to find a community where traveling with children is the norm, and not the exception. I am a member of several travel communities that have helped me with this transition. Within the Nomadness Travel Tribe, I have met some incredible seasoned travelers who have shown me that not only travel, but also living abroad, is possible with children.
I am also a member of a single parents who travel group on Facebook that offers a lot of advice regarding travelling with children as well. Both of these groups have helped me build a community of like-minded travelers that have offered an overwhelming amount of love and support during this transition. Sometimes the encouragement you need can be offered by complete strangers.
There are always options. The first step is changing your mindset and figure out what reasonably works for you and your family. Both logistically and financially. I wouldn’t suggest traipsing around Europe with your children to come home to no electricity or a repossessed car.
Take care of your home first, the travel will happen regardless. There are great websites that offer help with finding deals on flights and family packages. And don’t sleep on Livingsocial or Groupon. Our trip to China was a Livingsocial deal and there is no way I would have been able to afford that level of travel on my budget.
Travelling can be an amazing experience for your family to share. Whether your children are 2 or 22, it’s never too late to do what you’ve always dreamed of.