AFTER a four-year journey together through more than 80 countries, the Watkins family has no secrets.
The West Vancouver family also knows a few things their former neighbours in the British Properties probably don't. Like the way to pick a goat's head in the market is by checking its teeth. That there are no roads in much of Mongolia, just breathtaking panoramas. That the Gobi Desert will suck the moisture from beneath your fingernails.
That privacy is a luxury most of the world doesn't share. It wasn't always like this.
Eight years ago, the former North Shore family was living comfortably, running an adventure-tour family business catering to ESL students, before their lives took a 180-degree turn.
The family - including three of four siblings ranging in age from 14 to 25 - lived in a large rented house in a toney West Vancouver neighbourhood. They weren't rich, said Maggie Watkins, but "we were surrounded by a lot of wealth."
Everything changed when Maggie's husband Brandon walked out and her marriage crumbled when she was 45. At some point soon after she was asked, "Well, what do you want to do?"
What she wanted to do, she realized, was take her kids and see the world. Not everyone was thrilled. "I was devastated," said Savannah Grace Watkins, now 22 and the author of a new self-published book about the family's travels, Sihpromatum - I Grew My Boobs in China.
Sihpromatum is a word meaning a blessing that initially appears to be a curse. Then just 14, what Savannah wanted was to hang out with her friends "and discover boys and stuff." Instead, her mother told her, "We're going to sell everything we have and get a backpack and go to China."
"My whole life just got ripped away," she said. They started having garage sales - lots of them - getting rid of ping pong tables, beds, trampolines, sports equipment, clothes; everything that had previously filled their seven-bedroom home.
In place of those things, they got two backpacks each - a big one to hoist on their backs and a small daypack to carry on their front. They took clothes, medical supplies, books, sleeping bags, hiking boots and sandals.
"There were no high heels," said Savannah Grace. "Nothing like a hair dryer."
The original plan was to go for a year, ending their trip in Australia.
Ammon Watkins, then 25 and the oldest of the Watkins kids, had backpacked before and was the organizer and leader of the group, arranging visas and planning their route.
"From the time we thought about it to the time we left it was five months," said Ammon.
They had $60,000 when they started - and more than a few preconceived ideas.
"I was totally afraid of the squatty toilet. I thought it was going to be the most horrifying experience of my life," said Savannah.
"My biggest concern was travelling with them," said Ammon. "I had no idea how the family dynamic would work or how they would adjust."
On May 5, 2005, they left for Hong Kong, spending the first night sleeping in the airport. From there, they moved on to the cheapest room they could find - about the size of a walk-in closet. It had running water, though, which they would later learn to appreciate.
The family spent two months in China, travelling by local buses and trains. They visited the Chengdu Panda Bear Reserve, ancient mud caves in Yangshuo, the Great Wall and the terracotta warriors, a world heritage site. They saw massive cities and the largest Buddha in the world carved out of a cliff face in Leshan. They took a boat trip down the Yangtze River before the Three Gorges Dam was finished. "We were probably one of the last groups to do it. The water had already risen quite a bit by the time we got there," said Ammon.
Away from the more popular destinations, they learned to navigate markets selling barbecued chicken feet, snacks of duck tongues and pots of boiling goats' heads.
They began to learn how differently the rest of the world lives. At one point, Maggie found herself talking to "a small person, a woman" who wanted to practise her English. "I thought she was 60 years old. She was 16. She looked like a little old lady."
"That's the culture shock," said Savannah. "Feeling they live a completely different life. It's a hard life."
That was before other countries where they'd see former battlegrounds, and limbless beggars.
In a classroom in rural China, Savannah popped out her retainer to show curious school children, suddenly conscious of her own privileged dental care. "That's when you start being thankful for everything you've ever grown up with," she said.
The family soon learned about crowded train rides in the heat, about "pit stops" where busloads of travellers relieved themselves in open fields, and about Internet connections that were often blocked.
They travelled without a laptop but carried one cellphone. Only one person knew the number - Skylar Watkins, the second oldest sibling, who was missing the trip because he had signed on to serve with the U.S. military in Iraq.
It was frightening when the phone rang. "It was either Skylar or about Skylar," said Maggie.
Luckily, the only times the phone rang, it was Skylar's voice on the line.
As her education in the world grew, Savannah ditched the correspondence courses she'd lugged from West Vancouver, glad to lose the extra five pounds of paper in her pack.
The family crossed into Mongolia. "It's like the ultimate camping trip," said Ammon. "Everything is outdoors. Everything is dirty."
They rented a jeep and driver but soon found "even the guides and drivers didn't know where they were going."
But the country was gorgeous and the people were animated and friendly, said Maggie. They stayed in sheep-felt tents called gers and learned the sounds made by an angry camel.
They were challenged by the food - including tail of mutton fat and a ubiquitous salty, milky tea. They rode Mongolian horses.
"The horses are small but fast and they can run forever," said Maggie.
Although they didn't know it at the time, the Watkins' family journey would eventually take them through almost four years of travel together to some of the most distant parts of the globe.
The crossed from Mongolia into Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and back into China. They went trekking for five weeks in Nepal, rode elephants in a river and watched the sun rise over Mount Everest.
They spent five months in India and a month in Pakistan, moving north.
In May 2006, family members found themselves sitting on burlap sacks in a truck heading to the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. Up ahead, their escort carried an AK-47. The country was still a war zone.
They hadn't really planned on going through the country, but "It was in the way," said Maggie.
In Kabul, they stayed in a comparatively luxurious hotel that catered to foreign aid workers. To do otherwise would have been too dangerous.
As it was, they still took risks by walking around the markets, a rarity for other westerners. There were some scary moments when their presence attracted crowds. "The risk is really high when you think about it," said Ammon. "We must have been insane."
In many male-dominated countries they visited, the women could not go out without Ammon. They made sure to dress according to local custom, including wearing head coverings in 45-degree heat and sometimes full burkas.
The people they visited in most countries were as curious about them as they were about their hosts. "It was definitely a two-way exchange," says Ammon. "We were having to represent our culture and our country. It was important for us to remember that."
People they met loved the fact they were travelling as a family. "They seemed surprised," said Maggie. "I think the media they get is there are no families in the west."
It was another adjustment coming out of a conservative country. "You felt kind of naughty wearing shorts," said Breanna.
They moved on north through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, taking a freighter across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and Georgia.
About 18 months in to their trip, while travelling through Eastern Europe, Maggie and Breanna were on a hilltop in Macedonia when they realized something was missing.
"I said 'We're not a complete family,'" says Breanna. "We need to go get Dad."
Maggie and her estranged husband had begun talking over email about a month before. The next day, she and Savannah were on a flight back to Vancouver for a reconciliation. It took them five months to wrap up the family business on the North Shore. In April 2007, the family regrouped - this time with Brandon Watkins in tow - in Jordan. Not every moment was watching sunsets over glorious vistas. In Eastern Europe, "I got punched and I punched somebody," said Maggie.
"I was jumped in the Ukraine and had my ribs busted," said Ammon.
Breanna had a close call in Macedonia. She had eaten some bad ketchup from a market that was popping and bubbling in the container. Maggie forced her to throw it up, then gave her some antibiotics from their medical kit. She soon started itching, turning purple and having difficulty breathing in an apparent allergic reaction. They flagged down a car and raced to a nearby hospital. "If we'd been out of the city, it could have been a real problem," said Maggie.
There was a three-week wait for a boat in Liberia. "It was always tomorrow. Tomorrow it's coming. Every day you're thinking you're going to go and it ends up being three weeks," said Savannah.
In some ways, the hardest part of their trip was their final journey around west and central Africa. "You're waiting for eight hours for a car to fill up so you can stuff 11 people in it," said Maggie.
Although they had already encountered poverty, the countries in that region of Africa - Senegal, Sierra Leone, and the Congo - took it to another level. "The standard of living just drops dramatically," said Ammon. "Even from the other poor countries."
For the last eight months, the family travelled with two other travelers - Ben and Kees - who they met in Ghana and who had trucks - the ultimate luxury.
They rode ostriches and went shark-cage diving in South Africa. They ended their family journey in Egypt, in December 2008 after more than three and a half years.
But coming home was complicated - and for several family members, ultimately short-lived. "When I came back I felt so much older" than her peers, said Savannah. "I had this idea that I wanted to go home. I realized home was not necessarily better."
But the world they saw is basically a good place.
"We were in so many different places where we didn't know what we were doing. We didn't know the language. We were putting ourselves in a position where it would have been very easy for someone to take advantage of us or hurt us in some way," said Ammon. "We came out of it unscathed with so many good memories."
The world is also bigger than they imagined. "You understand that you really don't know anything," said Ammon.
Today, the Watkins clan - who never fully stopped travelling - urge others to follow their dreams.
"If you wait for the perfect plan and perfect conditions and you're sure you have experience and money and time you'll be waiting until the sun's no longer shining," said Ammon.
"Go now," said Maggie. "The hardest part is stepping out the door to do it."
Photos and blogs on the family's travels online at sihpromatum.com.
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