Teaching Traveling: Welcome to Stacey Zolt Hara, Owner and Author of the Travel with Bella book series, and overall FASCINATING person!
Stacey, tell us about yourself.
Stacey: I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and started my career as a journalist covering U.S. Congress in Washington, DC. Since college, my career took lots of twists and turns that included internships at a high-fashion magazine in Manhattan, covering Congress amid the tail end of the Gingrich years and his fall from grace, traveling the country covering elections as a reporter, working for both President Bill Clinton and then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, managing public affairs campaigns for not-for-profits and handling crisis communications for corporations.
I moved to Singapore in 2008 with my husband and baby girl, and soon began working for a global public relations agency managing a corporate communications and, later, an issues management practice.
After our son was born in 2010, I launched Travel with Bella – books, apps and games for kids aged three to eight, which encourage a love for travel and curiosity for diverse people, places and cultures through the adventures of Bella, a gregarious and precocious five-year-old girl, inspired by own daughter, Rose, and our travels as a family all over the world. We’ve published two books thus far: “Bella’s Chinese New Year” and “Bella’s Vietnam Adventure.”
Today, I also work for a biopharmaceutical company, overseeing corporate communications for Asia Pacific. The common denominator in my work has always been that it puts me in the center of the action, where I can be both a driver and a fly on the wall. As a writer most fundamentally, these experiences have helped shaped my worldview and influence my work.
TT: Fabulous! Tell us more about your travels.
S: Cambodia has touched me like no other place in the world. Next week, we will travel to Siem Reap, Cambodia with our two children and my in-laws. I first went there in 2004, and recently went to Phnom Penh for a business trip where our team volunteered to build 15 houses in a rural village through an incredibly impactful organization called Tabitha.
I’m both eager to see how much Siem Reap has changed and to revisit a country that changed my world view forever. Despite having endured senseless and unspeakable violence that destroyed a generation in the relative recent past, and despite their continued struggle as one of Asia’s poorest nations, the Cambodian people are the most authentic and sincerely kind people I’ve encountered, anywhere.
My children will undoubtedly love exploring the ancient temples of Ankor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm, but I am most looking forward to taking them to see fishing villages where kids travel to school in upside down trash cans floating through the flood waters, backpacks lifted overhead, and serving breakfast to local school children through Caring For Cambodia. Children learning through other children is a beautiful site to see, no matter how gruff the lesson.
TT: Powerfully said. How do you find your travel opportunities?
S: I dedicated my second book, “Bella’s Vietnam Adventure,” to my husband Bryan “who first dreamed of this charmed life.” Bryan had a love affair with China long before our love affair began. He lived in Beijing for three years before we met in Chicago, and is fluent in Mandarin.
A year after we began dating, we took a trip together to Peru, explored Lima and Machu Picchu, got robbed in Cusco and rode a local bus six hours to Puno to see Lake Titicaca. It was my first time traveling off the beaten path, and I loved it. Little did I know it was a bit of a test of whether I could truly hang with my wanderlust husband.
I passed the test, and – after a proposal on a quaint footbridge in Venice – we were married in 2004. We moved to Singapore when our first child was 15 months old, vowing to continue our travels as a family. While traveling with a toddler entourage is extra work, we believe that children are the great global leveler. I learn so much traveling through their eyes and I believe that they open doors for us to connect with locals in ways we would not otherwise.
Waiting for a flight from Botswana to South Africa, my daughter bonded with two local kids, giggling and playing despite being unable to converse. In the National Museum in Seoul last year, a group of teenage girls swarmed my then eight-month-old son to take pictures with him.
And just last week in Bali, as we sat jaws dropped watching a local performance where a man sat in a blazing fire, my daughter reminded me, “That is so dangerous! You should not sit in fire. It’s very unhealthy, very ouchy.” She wanted to make sure he was all right afterwards.
It’s easy to let these small moments pass you by, but with kids in tow, you notice the little things and people take interest in you with a mutual need to connect. Traveling with our children has inspired my books and my philosophy on experience-based education.
TT: Love it! How do you find the money to fund this travel?
S: I only wish traveling and writing were my full time job! My husband and I both have corporate gigs. We are extremely lucky that we love what we do, and that both of our jobs take us to interesting places, both literally and figuratively. In the past year alone, I’ve traveled to Beijing, Shanghai, Cambodia, Jakarta and several places in Malaysia for my corporate communications job.
For personal travel (and book research) in 2011, we ventured to Laos, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, Philippines, South Korea and three times to Indonesia. I work three days a week, which gives me flexibility to write, publish and promote my Travel with Bella books, and spend time with my mini globetrotters.
TT: Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.
S: In Northern Thailand and Laos last February, we took our kids to visit the hill tribes. These families live in stark poverty and isolation. Many of these tribes settled in from Tibet several generations ago, but have retained their own language and culture. They live off the land and remain separated from the mainstream or even other tribes which may be just 5-10 km away.
My daughter, Rose, was four years old at the time, just beginning to understand that she is very lucky to live a life where she essentially wants for nothing – with the exception of an extra serving of dessert now and then. We visited three or four different villages, each one without running water or toilets, many with kids only half clothed.
Our car pulled up to one village where most of the people were in traditional dress, including the kids. Lavish, brightly colored fabrics shone in contrast to the mostly brown backdrop of wilted foliage and dilapidated single-room houses. We stepped out of the car and two young girls, around Rose’s age, ran to see what was happening. When they saw Rose – with her porcelain skin and cherubic face – their faces dropped and they began screaming and crying, hiding behind their mothers.
Stunned, we asked our guide what they were saying and why they were so hysterical. He said, “They’ve never seen a white child before. They think she’s a doll who came alive.”
The moms posed for a picture with us, but the kids hid behind a tree for our entire visit. While the fact that they’d never seen a Caucasian child before was interesting, the thought that stays with me most is how sad it is that the only dolls these gorgeous children have ever seen are white – they’ve never had a toy which resembles their own beautiful features.
TT: What a powerful scene. How have your travels impacted you in your current career?
S: I’m not a teacher by trade, but traveling and, more specifically, seeing the impact of travel on my children, has fostered my point of view on education. First, travel offers a hands-on educational playground at every turn. There are endless opportunities to teach not only geography and culture but also math, reading, science and socialization.
Second, children who travel not only understand why they should, but will also want to, learn many languages once they realize how many languages are out there and how important language is if you want to navigate the world. Third, in an increasingly materialistic society, I see few better ways to teach kids to be humble and grateful than seeing real poverty up close.
Exposure to diverse people, languages, places and cultures has made my now five-year-old daughter an extremely open, optimistic and analytical person at a very young age. She has a naturalized ability to compare and contrast concepts, she understands how the world can be both big and small at once, and she has a deep believe that any place in the world is within her grasp. Her latest obsession is outer space. I’m convinced that’s because it’s secretly on her bucket list.
My 15-month-old son was born in Singapore, and it’s a bit early to see its impact on him, but I can already see that he is adaptable, easy going and curious. I suspect the fact that he’s been to seven countries in his short life has something to do with that.
TT: Wow. How have your travels impacted you as a person?
S: I’ve learned to let go, to roll with the punches and to live out the parts in between my to-do lists. The most memorable part of nearly every trip I’ve taken was not the moment when I saw something in the guide book’s Top 10 site list, but the moments in between, the times when we were just living, observing and experiencing the world around us.
TT: What advice do you have for other teachers who are dreaming of travel?
S: If you dream of traveling, don’t overcomplicate it, just go. Many of the most interesting places to see are developing countries where daily living is much less expensive than in the U.S. or other Western countries. Your biggest barrier to entry is a plane ticket. The rest will fall into place.
Use sites like Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum, TripAdvisor.com or Twitter to get up to date recommendations from other travelers as this is much more valuable than a guidebook. We always book a local driver and guide (usually sourced from Thorn Tree recommendations) before we go, and this makes for a much softer landing upon arrival.
Finally, if cost or other circumstances make traveling now impossible, find ways to bring a travelers’ perspective into your everyday life. What “staycation” activities can you do in your hometown that will get you out of your comfort zone and expand your world view? Is there a relationship you can build with a school overseas that will enrich your classroom and your life? What can you do to enjoy the parts in between the to-do list more each and every day?
That last one is my personal New Year’s Resolution.
TT: Thanks so much, Stacey! Readers, what questions or comments do you have for this inspirational traveler?