Lessons a couple learned honeymooning 'round the world when COVID hit.
On July 23, 2019, my brother and sister-in-law, Will and Caroline Lacksen, took off with their passports, small backpacks, and a one way ticket to Paris. Celebrating their wedding only four weeks before, they were setting off on a honeymoon they’d been dreaming of for years. Last year’s Lakelife featured their story six months into their trip, in December 2019. At the time, they were traveling in Nha Trang, Vietnam with plans to visit Bali, Indonesia before making their way to Australia.
At that time, none of us could have predicted the global COVID-19 pandemic would hit a few months later. Will and Caroline’s one year around-the-world trip took some unexpected twists with the travel restrictions and border shut downs implemented during the unprecedented Spring of 2020. What was supposed to be only a two-week farm stay in Cunderdin, Western Australia, turned into a ten-week quarantine spot. Their hosts told Will and Caroline they could stay as long as needed. During that time, Will learned to drive and operate the John Deere Air Seeder which plants thirty-six rows simultaneously. At roughly 6,000 hectares (~14,800 acres), the farm is used primarily for wheat, barley, and canola production. To say that Will and Caroline were isolated during their weeks on the farm would be an understatement. However, part of the key to their success as they traveled was and is their flexibility and openness to new experiences.
When they landed back in the United States on July 4, 2020, I picked them up at a mostly empty Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson airport. After they’d slept off the jet lag, we sat around the kitchen table at my parents’ house and talked for a long time about the rest of the trip and the experience of being abroad during the onset of COVID-19. Once again, they have graciously allowed me to share their experience with you.
If you had to briefly summarize this experience, what would you tell someone?
Caroline: The most challenging, yet most inspiring and exciting year.
Caroline: Yeah, you know we saw so many things that inspired us to make life changes. A big one I think about is how waste conscious we got while in Australia. We’d go to the grocery store and only buy the food we were going to eat over the next few days. We had very little food waste.
Will: They were very conscious about packaging. You could only get reusable grocery bags.
Caroline: We’ve been to the grocery store since we’ve been home and have consumed (many) plastic grocery bags. In Australia, they’re banned so you just wouldn’t have that option. Coming back to closets full of stuff, we realize that the more stuff you have, the more you have to worry about.
Will: When you are away from the place you grew up or lived in for a long period of time, you get a really different perspective on issues, especially the pros and the cons of that place. I would say America is going through a tough time right now, so it’s been tough and inspiring to watch it from afar and see what’s going to happen.
It’s been almost one year since you took off for this trip. How do you feel now about your decision to quit your jobs and take this year off?
Will: Well, I’d do it again next year.
Will: No? We’ll talk about it.
Caroline: As it relates to jobs, towards the end of the trip when I was in the application process, for some schools it made them very nervous that I had been out of the classroom for a year. But for some schools, it (was desirable) because it made me unique and would impact my teaching in the classroom in a positive way and gave me an extra advantage in terms of what I could bring. There is so much to learn through travel, whether that is locally or literally around the world. If I can inspire someone to want to do that, I think that is a good thing.
Will: I had a very different reaction for work. So in January, she (Caroline) was missing her work really badly. Even now, I would say I wasn’t super excited about going back to work, so I would have been fine staying and surfing if I could afford it. I don’t know if that means I haven’t found my dream job or if it’s just a difference of approaches. Some people think about work 24/7 and are all in. For me, it’s more of a decision to support a specific lifestyle, rather than being so passionate about doing this for the rest of my life. Where for you (Caroline) with your teaching, you are so excited to go to work in the morning.
Caroline: I think our trip allowed us space and time to think about little and big decisions. For me, the time away really solidified how I feel about what I get to do everyday and that is really what I want to be doing. And for you (Will), it’s inspired you to look more out of the box.
Will: Yeah, it’s inspired me to look at having more flexibility rather than the highest paying salary because I’d rather have the flexibility to go on vacation when I want with Caroline’s schedule.
You’re young, recently out of college, and newlyweds. How was the budgeting and financial aspect of a year-long world trip? Do you have advice or suggestions you’d give to other young couples considering something like it?
Caroline: It is so much more affordable than you think it is.
Will: A single person can live off of $15,000 USD for a year and go to Europe and live decently.
Caroline: Now, you’re not going to 5 star restaurants or living in hotels. A lot of what we did in Australia was camping for very cheap and eating grocery store meals.
Will: We ate out in a restaurant once when we were in Paris.
Caroline: Yeah, otherwise we went to a quick cafe.
Will: There you could get a quick sandwich for $2, maybe $3 or $4.
Caroline: For us, a couple could live traveling the world on $30,000, which is what you’d spend to live in Atlanta.
Will: Or Milledgeville.
Caroline: It’s just a matter of weighing your priorities and I’d say we were very lucky that we didn’t have any assets here we were paying off. As a trade off, instead of paying rent or a house payment, we were staying in boutique hotels in Bali.
Will: You can go to Bali and live like a king for $15,000 a year.
Caroline: Oh that was amazing, the best place we stayed was in Bali for $12.50 a night, a really nice place with fresh meals, access to mopeds, and friendly staff. And the people were so nice!
Will: You could live like a king. Surf everyday. We should have stayed there forever. Should we go back for a month? How do you think it’d be in July?
Caroline: When we were in Germany, we knew we were going to Australia, so we went ahead and applied for the working holiday visas with the intention of going there and doing either farm work, hospitality work, nannying or whatever we could get our hands on because that’s such a huge part of the culture there. You think about it, there are so many backpackers who fuel the produce industry in Europe.
You had friends and family visit you in Australia. How was that?
Will: Interesting. It was obviously wonderful to see friends and family. They were on a different travel schedule than we were. ... The hardest part was both our friends who came and my brother only had a short amount of vacation time, so they wanted to travel very quickly and try and do a lot, whereas we had definitely settled into slowing down and going to one place and staying four nights. It was just a different schedule. They had more money, less time. We had more time, less money.
Caroline: It was a completely different approach to travel. Which is interesting, because I think that will continue to influence our travel in the future. I think we will try to hit less spots and just really savor our time that we do have. A little more quality over quantity.
Where were you when COVID-19 hit?
Will: We heard about it in Sydney for sure.
Caroline: When (Will’s brother Larry surprised him) in mid-February and shared his experience about flying over to Australia, Larry said the agents and people on the plane had asked weird questions about if he’d had flu-like symptoms. We monitored it on the news and heard about Wuhan shutting down. Even though it’s much closer to Australia, it still seemed so far away. Then, right about when we were getting to the farm in Western Australia where we worked was when it started getting really serious in Australia. There were talks of isolation and shutting down. We were there for about two weeks and then they shut the state borders. So they had already shut the international borders or were screening passengers very seriously as they came into the country. So we essentially got stuck.
Will: Even interstate borders. So we were stuck on the farm essentially in the middle of nowhere.
Caroline: Yeah, because Western Australia is about three times the size of Texas.
Will: So it’d be like being stuck in the Great Plains.
Caroline: It really was the middle of nowhere. It was wheat fields as far as you could see with the occasional sheep or kangaroo, so it actually ended up being the perfect place to be when the world shut down. I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been if we had been stuck in Perth in an AirBnB or a hotel with 30 other strangers who are equally as scared as we are.
What was it like not being home, but in another country during the onset of a global pandemic?
Caroline: Initially, it seemed very unreal, which I imagine was a pretty common reaction. Everyone joked, but then people started taking it very seriously. And then we were in lockdown. When they announced no flights from Europe effective in 48 hours, we considered booking a flight home. We considered it briefly and then decided we were probably safest not going anywhere and just staying isolated. We were so far out of the way and with people we trusted. We were fortunate to be somewhere we could get outside and not put anybody, including ourselves, in danger.
Will: Australia did a much better job than the US. I think they’ve had 100 or so deaths from COVID-19 for a country of 26 million. That would be the same as the United States only having 1,000 deaths based solely on the population. (This interview took place in July.)
Caroline: I feel like it was a surreal experience being in Australia where people took the rules and guidelines very seriously from the beginning. People just shut things down. They just accepted and said this is what we are going to do to help as many people as possible stay healthy and we’re all in. They kind of just trusted the government to make the best decision for everybody. Whereas in the meantime watching the news, it seemed like the United States thought it wasn’t as serious for much longer and, even now, is still responding very, very differently.
So you bought and sold a car while you were overseas. How was that?
Caroline: So you join this Facebook group called Australian Backpack Cars. Google Search, “how do I buy a car in Australia and join the group.” The group was awesome, like a Facebook marketplace thing. It’s how we bought and sold our car. You look at these listings, set up time to meet with these strangers in a public place and do that one, twenty, or a hundred times and then you eventually find the one. You’re trying to do it to get the best deal with the most gear included or, at the very least, a car that will run. And then you do it all from the other side when you get ready to sell. By the time we were ready to sell, I was far more prepared..
Will: It was one week’s time between when we sold it and flew home.
Caroline: It took us one day to sell it. It took us three weeks to buy one.
Will: Sold it for slightly less than we bought it. I think $700 USD less than what we bought it for. Over the course of five months, we put around 10,000 kilometers (over 6,000 miles) on it with no work needed. There is no way we could have rented or bought a new car for that investment.
Any plans now that you are back home?
Caroline: I’ll be a third grade teacher at Baldwin County Lakeview Academy. It will start as a hybrid model of both online and in-person students.
Will: I’ll be working in forestry for a variety of clients while applying for my Registered Forester License.
Speaking hypothetically, it’s 2019 and you’re planning this trip. Someone tips you off that a global pandemic will hit three quarters of the way into your trip. Would you still go? And if so, what would you do differently?
Caroline: Absolutely. Absolutely I would still go. As horrific as COVID has been for the world, there are some things in life that are just invaluable: Time with loved ones, good food, a world trip, good meal. I mean I would do it all again, exactly the same way.
Will: I’d still go.
Caroline: Would you have changed much if you knew coronavirus was coming?
Will: I think I would maybe have stayed in Asia longer. I don’t know, it’s so hard to say.
Caroline: Think about it, we were so ready to move on from Asia by the end. So we were in Europe for three months until we hit the limits of our visa so then when we left Europe we went to Morocco which was a crazy culture shock. And then we went from Morocco to Thailand which was a whole different kind of culture shock and then we did Vietnam and Bali. So by the time we entered Morocco to the time we left Bali was about three months. So it was having three months in several cultures that were so vastly different from home.
Will: Or Western culture.
Caroline: In Europe it was different and kind of unique, but you kind of know what you’re getting into because it’s still very Westernized. Whereas in the other places, it was that sensory overload that we got for three months. I remember just wanting a bowl of macaroni and cheese or something dumb.
Will: Or just wanting to speak English to someone.
Caroline: Like not having the stress about having to translate something, or read a map, or mispronounce the name of something like your hotel.
What did you most look forward to upon your return home?
Will: Chilling with the family. Interestingly, I was really looking forward to the food, but I also think our diets have really changed while we’re on the road.
Will: I mean I guess a little bit more focused on what we’re eating. We ate a lot more veggies overseas. We didn’t eat as much as we used to, I don’t think. Lower caloric intake and a lot less processed food overseas, at least in certain places. ... Also, eat Chick-fil-A.
Caroline: Hug our people. Well, wash our hands then hug our people.
Will: Then eat Chick-fil-A.
Story by Katherine Lacksen Mahlberg
Photos provided by Will & Caroline Lacksen