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Family

We're traveling the world with our kids and having the time of our lives

High school sweethearts Katie and Mark Sievers never did an OE. So they're travelling the world now, in their thirties with their kids.

By Monique McKenzie
Tracking down Katie Sievers was no mean feat. Soaking up the sun in Fiji, with limited internet, she and her family have been doing what many of us only dream of – travelling the globe full-time.
Since August 2017, Katie, her husband Mark and their daughters Poppie, six, and Lillie, three, have spent their days collecting an impressive number of passport stamps as they've explored 21 countries together. Being in a position to do so is the result of a lot of hard work and careful planning.
The high school sweethearts, now both 35, had never done the traditional Kiwi OE. Katie, who worked in property management, and Mark, a builder, spent their 20s growing their business and getting on the property ladder.
"Mark had missed out on time with the kids and I had too," says Katie. "With both girls, I had them and was back at work a few days later. It was quite full on, so when we were in a position where we didn't have to work, we decided we wanted to have that time together, give each other and the kids a different life and learn from the adventure."
Upon telling friends and family their decision, Katie and Mark were met mostly with support, with friends saying it was "awesome". But she admits there was also a bit of light-hearted cynicism.
"Because Mark doesn't like crowds, he's the most unlikely person to go travelling. All of our friends thought, 'You're never going to make it, this is just not going to last', and my dad thinks that I'm wasting my life. That's a different generation though, like 'you need to be grafting or you're not successful', and for most people of that generation, the reaction was similar."
But Katie and Mark are proving the naysayers wrong. In order to make the trip happen, they sold their manufacturing business and rented out their home. Katie sold or gave away most of their belongings and rented a small container to put everything else into. They were left with two suitcases and a backpack each, which she says was difficult to start with.
"It sounds ridiculous, especially when you travel and see how little so much of the world lives with. But it's quite refreshing; now I have two outfits and that's it."
The original plan was to take a month off somewhere warm to slow down and have some fun together as a family; if it all became too hard, they could come home. However, the trip quickly turned into full-time travel. From Hawaii and the US through to Central America – Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia – to a cruise through the Caribbean followed by Europe, starting in London and down to Greece, the trip has pretty much been smooth sailing.
The day they set off, however, was anything but – Mark crashed the car on the way to the airport. "He backed into the trailer down the driveway," says Katie. "Looking back, it was so funny!"

Little marvels

Travelling on a budget has been another challenge, especially in more expensive destinations such as Paris. Accommodation eats up most of the budget, with the family always needing a kitchen for the children and ideally two bedrooms.
With Poppie aged four and Lillie only one and a half when they set off, both girls grew out of their clothes quickly – and finding what they needed wasn't always as easy as Katie expected.
"I remember on one of the islands in Hawaii we asked, 'Excuse me, do you know where a dairy is to buy nappies?' No one knows what nappies are, or a dairy, either – they think you're nuts. Eventually we realised, 'Oh, diapers!'"
The family initially travelled with a little carry cot that was light enough to hold handbag-style, so Lillie had the same bed every night to give her a bit of consistency. She learned to walk and talk overseas, and her first word was 'gracias'. Although Katie and Mark try hard to keep the kids' routines consistent, meltdowns are to be expected from young children.
"They'd be having a tantrum or crying in the cupboard and we're like, 'Oh my goodness, look at this huge cathedral! Can't you be grateful? Do you know how much it cost to get here, or how much time it's taken?!' But they are just too little to appreciate it – they just want to go to the playground."
Having dropped out of school 15 years ago and worked ever since, Mark initially struggled without the adult conversation he'd have had if he was going to work every day. "Mark does love to work; he's quite focused, so he found it a lot harder than me," says Katie.
"Especially if you're in those typical gender roles, a dad has an escape going to work – you get away from it, and even though I was working too, he didn't get 'mummy guilt'. He really missed going to work and he missed his mates."
But the highlights have absolutely outweighed the negatives, and Katie says Mark has now caught the travel bug. "When he looks at our photos, he's like, 'Wow, thank you, this is so cool.' Mark's such an involved father, the girls are really lucky, and that's the thing the kids love, just having him all of the time."
The toughest moment of the family's trip happened one night in Costa Rica when they were ejected from their accommodation at 5pm because Katie's credit card declined. They went to the bank to get cash out but, being a Saturday, it was closed and the maximum they could withdraw was $200.
"The lady flipped out, started speaking Spanish and kicked us and the kids out. There we were with two suitcases on a dusty gravel road without street lights; Mark just said, 'This is it, we're going home.'"

Silver linings

What was initially a stressful experience turned into a silver lining. The family ended up staying in a hostel that night and while there met a German family with seven children who have been travelling the world for 20 years.
Known as the Sundance family, their extraordinary lifestyle has garnered a Facebook following of 515.5k. Katie and Ka Sundance actually met in New Zealand, so they had plenty to bond over with Katie and Mark, plus their littlest child was about the same age as Lillie. The two families got along so well that the Sundances are planning to come to stay with Katie and Mark in New Zealand.
Katie has developed a following of her own. In order to keep in touch with friends and family back home, she started an Instagram account, @kiwi_and_free. What essentially started as a family photo album now has 16.4k followers. Although the family have met plenty of influencers and bloggers on their journey, Katie admits she still finds the whole social media craze "bizarre".
"We've met a couple of travelling families and they're saying, 'I'm on holiday, I'm not working', but man, they're working to get those amazing videos, shots and content for their blog. The competition in the field must be huge. But we're both terrible at keeping in touch with our family, we're not going to ring every week, so for us it's a way to keep friends and family up-to-date."
Fiji is the couple's last planned destination, so they'll soon head back to New Zealand indefinitely before deciding whether they'll go away again or stay put. With Poppie having just celebrated
her sixth birthday, Katie and Mark are conscious of her schooling.
"Mark's mum asks, 'When is she going to school?'" says Katie. "But we say, 'She's learning so much.' If you're a semi-decent parent, you read to them at night. It was Poppie's job to push the right button every time we got in an elevator, and in every airplane I told her the row, gave her the ticket and she'd find the seat – so they're learning from little things like that. We're not keeping them out
of school until they're 10 or 14, it's a small amount of time."

Global lessons

Katie says the change in the kids has been huge. Poppie snorkelled with sharks and manatees, learned to ski in Montana and held a snake in Marrakech. All of these experiences have helped improve her confidence, as she was a "very quiet and shy little girl" before they went away.
"She goes into the playground and says, 'Hi, my name's Poppie,'" says Katie. "That's such an amazing skill to have, to be able to just go in and make friends in a situation like that. We think this was the best thing we could've done for her."
Travel has also taught the girls to treat everyone the same – no matter what background they're from, what they look like or how much money they've got. "It's opened their hearts to people from all walks of life and different cultures," says Katie.
The family saw a lot of women begging with their children in Europe and the girls have learned to offer food rather than money. "In Bosnia, Poppie pointed out a woman and said, 'Look Mummy, there's a lady and a baby with no food', so we went into a café, bought a bunch of food and gave it to her."
Katie encourages other people to take the plunge and go overseas.
"A lot of people say, 'I wish I could do what you guys are doing now with the kids' and I'm like, 'Hang on, I remember when we were slogging our guts out working at the house every weekend and you guys were swanning off around Europe on your OE.' So it's just a different way of doing it and it's really about what you value in life and what your priorities are."
Katie and Mark have a new business in the environmental industry launching next year – an idea that was sparked while on their travels. But now the whole family has caught the travel bug, they're already tempted to head back to warmer destinations. She says they'll return home a lot more appreciative of how lucky they are.
"Having those experiences together has made us a lot more grounded – silly, simple things like going to a market and having fruit for breakfast and just seeing how other people live. You hear so much bad stuff about the world, but when you travel you really see that the world's a nice place."

Katie’s advice

  • Our priority was to be financially set up first. I see a lot of people selling the house, selling everything they own or spending their house deposit to go travelling. I'd say don't do that – get your home, rent it out, and then go away. Obviously, that's a personal opinion.
For other people, the experience of going away would outweigh that financial security.
  • The hardest thing I found was just to be in the moment because it goes so fast. I encourage everyone to appreciate where you are right now.
  • Instagram has been a really great way for us to meet people and we've connected with a few other families along the way. I'm always happy to answer any questions and share what we've learned – reach out: @kiwi_and_free.

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