Meet the Workaway family that backpacked through 72 countries together

Have you wondered what it's like to go on a backpacking trip with your entire family? What about staying with another family across the globe, or exploring different places together as volunteers? This month, we're excited to introduce the Su family, who did just that and not only once, but THREE times. In total they backpacked through 72 countries including Workaways at a yurt camp in Mongolia, an NGO in Kazakhstan, a hostel in Egypt and a pomegranate farm in Israel – to name just a few!

We asked for their best tips for travelling as a family, planning a trip with five different opinions to consider and how the pandemic has affected their adventures.

My first question is to introduce yourself, who you are and a little bit about how you discovered Workaway.
We call ourselves the SU family backpacking adventure. My name is Jonathan, and my wife is Annie and we have three children, Olivia, Nathan and Joani. Our motto is traveling and praying through the nations. We started 13 years ago, when our kids were only six, eight and 11.
Since then, we have travelled to 72 countries, as a family. It's been wonderful to be able to see the world together with my wife and my children and now because of Workaway, our experience has been so much richer.
One of our goals is to really get to know the country and get to know the people instead of just hearing from the news, which are usually sensationalized or negative and so with Workaway, we could get to know the local people, and do activities we normally won’t be able to do as tourists. I'm so happy that Workaway exists, it's really enriched our traveling. 
English school friends with teacher language exchange family experience volunteer sharing
You're an inspiration! Let's go back to your first gap year. How do you possibly plan for five people? Did you plan Workaways first, and then other accommodation around it? Did everyone have a dream destination then plan around that? 
I discovered Workaway in 2015. We knew we wanted to go from China along the Silk Road through Central Asia and the Middle East into Europe. Then I looked on Workaway searching different countries along this route. I think it's a combination of both - if there's a Workaway I think we’ll really enjoy, we will probably be more likely to visit that country, but we also have some countries we know that we want to visit, so I pick which Workaway to do once we’re there.
For us, it is not really about saving money. It's really about having a unique experience that we normally wouldn't have. For example, we really wanted to live in a yurt in Mongolia. You could pay a lot of money to rent a yurt but instead we got to live in Europe for free and volunteered at a yurt camp. 
In Egypt, we wanted to see the pyramids of Giza and so I found a Workaway that was literally, next to the Pyramids of Giza. From the roof, you can see Giza and then you could even hear the light and sound show from the roof, we were so close to it.
So usually, Jonathan would find a few options, and then we would decide as a family, what appeals to us individually, and then we take a vote.
workaway painting mural art in Egypt pyramid background
That's helpful for my next question. Traveling as a family, there must be so many opinions and possibly arguments. You guys have survived traveling as a family, not once, not twice, but three gap years! I just wondered if you could share your best tips on how you made it? 
We actually had counselling help. Our first gap year was 2008 and Jonathan was an NGO worker with World Vision and his work came first so our family life and marriage was deteriorating. By the seven year point it was near time for his sabbatical and we already had counselling support for our marriage.
We learned to make family vision statements, just like how you run a company. We had two parts to our family vision statement. Mine was, I want our family and marriage to be a place of emotional healing, safety, growth, and loving God. Then Jonathan's part was to be a family full of adventure and fun. 
I remember when we were in Latin America my counsellors were based out of our city in China and we could call, Skype, or email them to help us resolve our parenting issues. There are quite a few arguments like who gets to sit next to mom, bed space, stuff like that, and especially when they're hungry - that's like mutiny! They gave us a lot of tips on what to do and how to do it.
We started to play cards or Uno every night in our tents or hostel to win the best bed space. Then Jonathan had a lot of little games to distract the kids to play for points. For example, how many points if you see a butterfly on this trail. They’d accumulate points to win ice cream and they would walk five kilometres for that ice cream!
su family with children jumping up with pagoda background travel
These are really good ideas! 
Our first gap year our kids were in elementary age, Second they were teens and now third they are adults. I think each has its own uniqueness as well as challenges. During the teen years my relationship with my daughter wasn't so good so there were a lot of fights along the way. But then, because we were able to spend 365 days of 24 hours a day together, it really rebuilt our relationship.
That was one of the great results of our second gap year. I think this third one, as adults, they have a lot more ideas of what they want to get out of it so there is a lot of negotiation going on and trying to make sure that everyone's needs are met. 
As adults we do things a little differently than before as a unit of five. Since they're adults, if they want to do something else, they're old enough to do it. We will all be in the same city, but we might be doing different activities and we always come back together at night. That's been working well.
yurt camp fun volunteer chores work exchange washing outdoors with kids
You mentioned that you did a Workaway at a camp in Mongolia, and you saw the pyramids in Egypt. Is it difficult when you apply to hosts because you are travelling as a family?
I think having a group of five can be good, or it can be challenging. The good aspect is that if they need more people, then it's easier for them to just communicate with one person, and they have five people, instead of having to organise five different Workawayers.
Also, being a family some thought “oh this is interesting, we never had a family apply before. Let's give it a try.”  That was what happened in Portugal. We stayed with a great host who runs a vineyard in Portugal this year. The harvest time is only about two weeks but they had six acres to harvest. Instead of trying to get several different Workawayers our family did the whole thing. 
The challenging part is that some Workaway opportunities have very limited space to accommodate more people. For example, if they are looking for a tutor for children, five people is usually too many.
picking grapes for wine family adventure workaway group vineyard portugal farm
Safety is always a concern for parents, and I'd imagine there's quite a lot of parents who are hesitant to allow their children to do Workaway or join as a family as they’re unsure if it is safe to live with a stranger. Do you have any advice for parents in this position? 
Workaway is safe because there will be mutual references, and hosts are rated. Hosts can read up about the workawayers' profiles to see if they are a match or not. Children have a chance to integrate into a new home setting, so they grow their social networking skills.
It is a two way thing that I felt really was a blessing. We do already have our own family time but then we can invite our hosts to be part of our family culture. At the end of an experience, we are literally doing life together as a family unit or community with the host and that’s why it’s so endearing.
enjoy food outdoors during workaway break with friends and family
Definitely, far more rewarding than just staying in a hotel. It is the perfect time for your children to join as my next question is, do you have a highlight, from your Workaway experiences? Is there a place or a host that is particularly special?
I think all our experiences with Workaway have been good. Each one has been different, shown us new things, new culture and people. I think one of my favourites was in Israel, when we worked on a pomegranate farm for just a week.
It was amazing because of the things we got to do, as well as the people. They taught us how to trim the trees, they call it designing because you're bending the branches or cutting them in order to help make them better for next year, so it was really rewarding work, just enjoying nature. At the same time, there were all sorts of people. I remember there was a writer from the US and there was an ultra-Orthodox Jew - Israel is such a dynamic place!
In this little farm in the middle of the desert, there's people from every background, every religion, on the same journey of trying to figure out what they're doing and making meaning out of it. We had amazing conversations and amazing growth. I think that is the one that I would keep going back to, I feel like I could maybe trim trees forever.
Are there any other highlights?
I think for me, I really enjoyed our Workaway in Morocco. We were volunteering to help students with English . It was a unique opportunity to be able to speak with the locals in a safe environment where they are so open to different ideas and topics. You really got to see the hospitality of the people because as we socialized with them and they gave us recommendations or invited us along to places. They were really warm people and I think Workaway really gave us the opportunity to meet people like that.
For me, one of my highlights would be the Workaway in Portugal. We volunteered on a vineyard for 17 days so we were able to just be part of the whole harvesting process and then the winemaking. 
Our hosts were great and treated us so well. It was really cool to learn so much about wine and all the different techniques. The whole process was a really enriching experience.
I like to add that the host used to be a famous cook back in the UK so every meal was amazing. We felt like we ate the best UK food in Portugal because of them. They also run a bed and breakfast from the vineyard, so our accommodation was of bed and breakfast quality. It's one of the nicest places we have stayed thanks to Workaway, so that was quite special.
homemade English food dinner and wine with workaway family portugal
You are currently on your family gap year 3.0 and obviously COVID-19 had a huge effect on the travel industry. I wondered how it affected your plans for your third gap year and how you adapted? 
It affected us quite a lot. Originally, we wanted to start in South Africa, and then spend half a year in Africa and then half a year in Central America and Caribbean. However, because of the COVID travel restrictions it was very hard to move from one country to another. There are restrictions there: you cannot go by land, you must fly, you have to quarantine, etc.
For my kids, to start the gap year they actually had to quarantine in three different countries for 15 days each and that was just to start so it was really, really difficult. The way that we adjusted is that instead of going through a lot of countries, we simply pick a representative country from each region, and we just stay there for a longer period.
workaway family teenager chat with local teen in Africa outdoors biking grassland
Do you have more Workaways organised or any dream destinations that you would like to visit in the future?
Well, I have three potential Workaways in Guatemala. One of the hosts is a tour guide where he brings in tourists to hike up a volcano. Another is a motorcycle club where they teach you to ride motorcycles. There’s a few and I would like to discuss with my children and see which one they prefer.
Is there a Workaway experience that you haven't found yet that you would like to do?
My dream is to work on a sheep farm during lambing season when they're having baby lambs, like in New Zealand or Scotland.
My dream is to be able to work on a sailboat in the Caribbean. 
I think for me, my dream Workaway would be taking care of lots of cats. I just love them!
I think if time permits, in a hostel or something like that where there are lots of activities like horseback riding, or like jet skiing. Where we can learn how to do it and help others to experience it. 
What I like about Workaway is there are things to do that you never thought of yourself. Scrolling through, you're like, Oh, that's really interesting.
workaway family teenagers build yurt camp outdoor volunteering
Well I am so excited to follow along with your adventure. When this family gap year is finished, will you then be returning to work or do you not want to think about that just yet? 
My youngest children are continuing with their university studies in Vancouver and Olivia just graduated so she'll be looking for work. My wife and I were thinking about going to Iraq, and doing NGO work there with the refugees.
Wow, that is amazing. Thank you so much for your time. I could speak to you all day and ask so many questions.
Thank you for reaching out to us as well. Workaway has really enriched our family experience.  
workaway backpacking family take flight pose on balcony

Watch our original interview with the Su family here!

Do you want to be our next Workawayer of the month? We are always on the lookout for inspirational Workawayers who have a great story to tell! Email us and you could be featured next!

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