One Day: 'How a gap year in South America rescued our family'

Rachel (far right), Toby (centre), and their three children 
Rachel (far right), Toby (centre), and their three children 

As I sat in the shade of a palm tree, I could hear the squeals of my children searching for passion fruit among vines nearby. Since we had traded our safe middle-class life in Bristol for a six-month sabbatical in Peru, this had become a typical afternoon’s activity for our family - my husband Toby and I, plus our kids; Amelia, nine, Leila, eight, and Joseph, six.

We’d moved to Huanchaco, a tiny seaside town, and were living in a flat on a tucked-away street with views of the ocean and the sun setting over the beach. The children had settled quickly into a local school, despite speaking no Spanish.

Toby and I continued our UK jobs on a part-time basis (I’m a journalist and work for training website Digital Mums; he is a computer programmer) and I also taught English at the children’s school.

Rachel with husband Toby and children (left to right) Leila, eight, Amelia, nine, and Joseph, six Credit: Rachel Mostyn

Back in Bristol, we were usually scheduled to the max and Toby and I snatched time together at the end of the day.

I was militant about exercise and it wasn’t uncommon to get up at 5am for a jog before the kids woke at seven. Then my day was a round of meetings, work deadlines, play dates and after-school activities. I often got headaches, and just assumed they were a part of life.

Until we stepped off the treadmill, I didn’t appreciate how chaotic life really was. In Peru, the school was a two-minute walk away. Lessons started at 7.45am, but were over before lunch. After classes, we’d wander to the beach or a park without the pressure of having places to be.

Most evenings, Toby and I sat on the balcony, drinking and chatting, which brought us closer together. We were less connected to our phones too, which made us more present. As we stopped rushing, the children started talking.

In Bristol, there was barely time to digest the day and I only ever had one ear on what they were saying, always thinking about what was next.

In Peru, as I watched them play, it was never long before one of them was telling me about a teacher, or a book they were reading. 

I began enjoying these simple moments for what they were. Less cajoling from me meant less whinging from the children – and, after a few months, it struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time I had a headache. 

We had amazing adventures, seeing pirouetting whales and spectacular mountain peaks. But if you ask my eldest daughter what her highlight was, she’ll say ‘being together’.

Alternative to the Inca Trail: The Inca Jungle Trail Alternative to the Inca Trail: The Inca Jungle Trail
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After a magical six months, we’re now back to reality, which is a shock. Life is speeding up but I’m trying to hold on to that simplicity. Pre-South America, my most-used phrase was ‘we’re going to be late’, but I’ve not uttered those words since we’ve been back. I haven’t signed the kids up to a single club and don’t make as many plans at the weekend.

Friends are booked for months in advance, but I don’t want to get back into that living-in-the-future mentality. I no longer feel compelled to exercise at unearthly hours. When I do go for a run, I don’t wear a watch. I’m thinking more carefully about the work I take on, too.

This new way of being makes me more patient with my kids and more sociable when Toby gets home. We’re no longer together all day like we were in South America, but there’s definitely a new kind of closeness between us.

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