This June, Jesse Mark, his wife Joyce, and their two kids, Jonah, 3, and Jaxon, 1, set out on an adventure of a lifetime. Making the monumental decision to live life now, the Js sold their house and everything in it, packed their lives into a suitcase (or two), and set out for a journey across the world as a family—and they’ve invited us all along for the ride! As they shared their experiences along the way via their Instagram and Youtube channel, from Amsterdam to the Amalfi Coast , from Fes to Indonesia, we’ve followed along as they’ve ridden camels in Morocco, swam in the thermal springs of Tuscany, and gotten down and dirty in Balinese mud martial arts. Come Christmas, they’ll have already done a full lap around the world, and they’re only just getting started!
M People Barbados had the absolute pleasure of catching up with the Js—somewhere between Morocco and Bali—for an exclusive and inspiring interview, during which Jesse, a Barbadian, spoke about chasing your dreams and living a life you love.
What triggered the decision to sell your home and embark on this journey?
In December 2017, we spent three weeks in Barbados celebrating Christmas with family. On our first night back in Toronto, after a typical day at work, we put the kids to bed, sat on the couch, and Joyce turned to me and said, “I feel sad.” I knew exactly what she meant. We just spent three beautiful weeks with our boys and with each other and now here we were back to ‘real life’ and already missing being together all the time. Even though we didn’t realise it at the time, those few moments on the couch were the start of many more conversations over the next few weeks and months. After tossing around dozens of ideas, we eventually realised that the only way to keep spending that much time together as a family was to stop working altogether. And if we wanted to do that, the only way to afford it was to sell everything we owned. So at its core, this entire adventure is really about spending more time together as a family. But there is also more to it than that. During those conversations on the couch, we repeatedly found ourselves saying, “well, when ‘X’ happens, we can travel more with the kids” or “when we have ‘Y’ amount saved up we can take time off work” or “when we reach this or that milestone we’ll be ready to make a big change.” There was always an excuse. There would always be a reason to not do this right now. There would never be a perfect time or a perfect set of circumstances. And once we made the decision, Joyce started saying, “live life now.” That little phrase kind of sums it up.
Were you big travellers before this?
Both of us had done some travelling before. I had been to more than 30 countries and I’d lived long-term in three different countries. We also did quite a bit of travelling together, both before and after having kids. But nothing quite like this! Our two biggest trips before this were a month-long backpacking trip through Southeast Asia before the kids and a three-week road trip through Eastern Canada when Jonah was just a year old.
Tell us a bit about you guys!
I was born and raised in Barbados. I went to St Gabriel’s for primary school and The St Michael School for secondary. After university in the US, I returned to Barbados for a few years, but I left in 2008 and moved to Canada. I was actually headed somewhere else, but when I was passing through Toronto I just decided to stay there. But that’s a whole different story! Joyce has spent her entire life in Toronto. We met each other on the first day of Teacher’s College at the University of Toronto. Before leaving on our travels, Joyce was still working as a public school teacher—she teaches music (mainly strings). I stopped teaching after just one year and went back to school to become a lawyer. To become a full-time travelling family, I took a leave of absence from my job at a social justice legal clinic called Justice for Children and Youth. It’s an organization that provides free legal services for children and young people in difficult circumstances.
Jonah and Jaxon have both had birthdays since we started our travels. Jonah celebrated his third birthday with a boat ride along the Amalfi Coast in Italy. And Jaxon smashed a chocolate cake to bits on his first birthday next to the pool at our incredible villa in Santorini, Greece. The two boys are so different. Jonah is very observant and really scopes out the scene before diving in to a new activity. He can be a bit shy at first, but once he decides he’s in, then he is all in! He is quite articulate for a three-year-old and he loves grabbing the camera from us on occasion to do his own vlogging. He really seems to enjoy the storytelling and we love listening to him go.
Jaxon, on the other hand, has no patience for observing first. If he sees someone else doing something, especially Jonah, he is immediately on the move to join in. He loves meeting new people and has quickly figured out that the more he smiles and waves at strangers, the more attention he’ll get. Since starting our travels, the boys have been on the receiving end of what must be hundreds of kisses, hugs, and free gifts by complete strangers—it’s par for the course for full-time travelling toddlers.
What made you decide to document your journey online?
When we first decided to sell everything to travel the world, we never even thought about Instagram or YouTube. We were just thrilled with the idea of travelling full-time. But as we began telling our family and close friends, each person kept telling us that we should start an Instagram or YouTube channel. So we did both! But in retrospect, we are so glad we did because having people out there who are watching does two things: one, it encourages us to get out and look for cool and interesting things to do or see in each place so that we can share those things with our followers, and what’s nice is that because our content is family-focused almost everything we do also involves spending more time together as a family; and two, it gives us an avenue to meet and engage with other like-minded people, whether that is other travelling families or people who love to travel or anyone who’s thinking about making a life change. We’ve met so many interesting people online so far, and we’ve even managed to link up with a few of them in person. In fact, both Joyce and I frequently say that the best part of this entire experience has been the people we have met along the way, both in person and online. We are so grateful for each person who has shared a bit of themselves with us and for those who have allowed us to share a bit of our family’s journey with them through social media.
We are also very interested in promoting sustainable and responsible tourism. Being from Barbados, I am deeply aware that tourism can be a double-edged sword. While it can be an enormous boost for a local economy, it can also be a great harm to the local environment and to local culture, people, and communities. That’s why we have partnered with an organisation called Planeterra Foundation, which is the non-profit division of leading global adventure travel company G-Adventures. In collaboration with Planeterra, we visit some of their local grassroots projects and social enterprises in various places that we are visiting, and we use our social media accounts to highlight the good work that Planeterra is doing in the world of responsible tourism.
Tell us a little about the name ‘Our Every J Life.’
When Joyce and I got married, my parents started calling us “The Js.” And we thought it would be fun to continue the J names with our kids. With the two kids, we are still The Js; now there are just more of us. And when we decided to document our travels on social media, we wanted our name to remind people that The Js are just an average family, dealing with all of the everyday tasks and chores and ups and downs that every other family deals with. We just happen to be doing those everyday things in a bunch of different places around the world. But take away the airplanes and passports, and our daily lives are pretty similar to most families—our kids wake us up before we want them to, we deal with dirty diapers and dirty dishes, we have good days and bad days, and at the end of every day we have bedtime stories and share goodnight kisses. Our days are much like any family with small kids.
What did your family and friends think of all this when you told them?
We are both very fortunate that we come from loving, supportive families who have been incredible from the beginning. Having been living in Toronto for 10 years, I am accustomed to being away from my family for long periods of time. But for Joyce, it was a big change. Luckily, our world today is so connected that it is easy to stay in touch on a regular basis. One great thing about social media is that since starting our travels, our team of supporters has grown exponentially! We now have friends from all over the world who we regularly interact with on social media and who have been so friendly, helpful, and supportive. We have been showered with love from complete strangers, and it’s been the most fun when we can find ways to meet up with some of our social media friends in person. We are so grateful for all the love we get on our Instagram and YouTube channels. So thanks to all the new friends we’ve made, and we’re looking forward to making many more along this fantastic journey.
How do you budget for a trip of this magnitude? Are you working as you go?
The only way we’ve been able to afford our travels is by selling our house. When I finished law school, I had about CAD $100,000 in tuition debt. We took the last little bit of my student line of credit and used it to put a small down payment on a little house that was about 100 years old. It was a huge risk! But, luckily for us, the Toronto housing market was shooting skyward. The house gained 50 per cent in value in just two years, and that’s when we sold. It was enough to pay off the rest of my school debt and still have enough to travel for a while. Right now, we are not working but we are starting to think about some options that will help us to balance the budget in a more sustainable way. If anyone out there has suggestions, we are all ears!
What do you hope to get out of your travels?
The main goal is just to spend more time together as a family. That’s always the first filter that every other decision gets passed through. I think we’re already doing a pretty good job of that! But a secondary goal is to allow our adventure to be an encouragement to others to live life now. Full-time travel isn’t for everyone, and it takes a lot to sell everything you own to travel, but if our decision to do just that can encourage someone else to step outside of their comfort zone, to try something, to chase a dream, to live a life they will love, then that would be simply awesome!
What do you hope for your kids through this? How do you think your travels will benefit them?
Sometimes people say to us, “well your kids are so young they won’t remember any of this.” And that might be true. But for us, the opportunity to bond with our kids during these early years, to build those relationships of trust and love, is equally as or more important than the memories of our travels. They may not remember bathing in the natural hot springs of Tuscany or riding a camel in Morocco, but hopefully they will develop a sense of adventure, genuine appreciation for the diversity of our world, and resilience, bravery, and confidence in the face of uncertainty. Recently in Morocco, Jaxon randomly started saying, “yalla”, which loosely translates to “let’s go, guys.” It was so funny when he started saying it, but it was a great example of how our boys are beginning to embrace new cultures and languages in a very organic way.
Do you have a bucket list of places or any sort of route in mind?
By the time we reach Barbados in December, we’ll have done one full lap around the world, travelling east. Once we leave Barbados, we plan to head back in the opposite direction for our next lap. We’ll likely start in Central and South America, then make our way over to Asia and Africa before making it back to this part of the world again. I think there’s a famous quote that says, “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” That pretty much describes our list. Some of our plans for 2019 include an African Safari in South Africa or Tanzania (or both), the Galapagos Islands, and we’re putting aside some time to explore India and China. One of the things we love is getting personal recommendations from people about where to go. So if anyone’s got good recommendations, we’d love to hear from them! We’ve got no particular method for choosing where to go. Looking around online there are countless pictures, videos, and articles about amazing things all over the world. When we see something that seems fun or interesting, we try to work it into the schedule. Maybe we should be more methodical about it, but so far the spontaneous planning has been working out OK.
Tell us a little about the process; who does the planning?
There are two sides to the planning—there’s the travel and accommodations, and there are the things to do once you get there. The travel and accommodations take way more time and effort! Usually I will find a bunch of accommodations that seem feasible and narrow it down to two or three. But that process can take hours. Then Joyce and I will look at the final options together and decide which one. When it comes to flights, we typically just take the cheapest option, but we also keep in mind that flying is hard on the kids so we try to pick schedules that work for them too.
When it comes to planning our days in each destination, we don’t like to have very rigid plans. Almost all of the great experiences we’ve had have been spontaneous moments or things that we’ve just stumbled across unexpectedly. Having plans that are too rigid would mean that we would miss all of those wonderful spontaneous moments that make travel so exciting. Anyone with two small kids will also tell you that planning too much is a waste of time. Even if we had a very structured schedule, trying to get a one-year-old and three-year-old to follow along would be a Herculean task. Of course, there are often one or two big things that we really want to see or do in a particular destination, so when necessary we’ll try to book those in advance, but otherwise we just play it by ear.
When did your journey start? Do you have an end date in mind?
We took our first flight at the end of June 2018. We don’t have a specific end date in mind. We book our destinations about one to three months in advance, so right now we have a rough plan through to December. We have some ideas for where we will go in the New Year too, but we’ve got to do some more research and finalise our plans. Our priority will always be our kids. So while we don’t have a specific end date in mind, if full-time travel ever becomes something that is not good for them, that’s when we’ll stop. Or when the money runs out!
Where have you been so far? Where has been your favourite and why?
So far we’ve been to: Amsterdam • Prague • Montenegro • Santorini • Amalfi Coast • Rome • Tuscany • Barcelona • Valencia • Madrid • Fes • Chefchaouen. By the time we get to Barbados in December, we’ll also have seen: Bali, Indonesia, 14. Singapore, 15. Thailand (we’ll be there for a month), 16. Vietnam. Joyce’s favourite place so far has been Madrid. The people were so friendly, the food was unbelievably good, the city is beautiful and diverse, and we had some really fun experiences, including an intimate Flamenco performance and a sunset Segway tour through the city with an awesome new friend named Carlos.
I’m a bit torn between Santorini and Valencia. Santorini was filled with adventures like cliff diving and riding ATVs, plus I have a soft spot for great sunsets and the sunsets there are simply spectacular—although the best sunset I’ve seen yet has been in Tuscany. But Santorini was also incredible because the property manager at Sienna Resort where we stayed was unbelievable! And Valencia was epic for one reason—La Tomatina, the epic tomato food fight in the streets. It is one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had, but it was also one of the worst days of our travels because my phone and GoPro were each stolen—from out of my hands—15 minutes apart. But it was still epic!
What is the number one place you’d like to check off your list? Why?
Joyce is so excited for our African Safari plans next year. But it’s not really a particular place she has in mind, more the experience. For me, I am always looking for anything that will get my adrenaline flowing and swimming with great white sharks sounds like it might do that. It’s not officially on my list, but I’m researching it now.
Where do you stay?
Whenever we can, we try to stay somewhere with: our own kitchen so we can cook some of our own meals; a washing machine because we’ve only got a limited supply of clothes; and different bedrooms because while the boys are happy to share a room and always do, sharing a room with all four of us can be chaotic, to say the least. The reality is that those things are harder to get in a hotel, so we often end up staying in a private guest house or apartment. But we have stayed in a few different hotels and had great experiences, so nothing is written in stone. We’ve been very fortunate to find some amazing places to stay, as well as some wonderful hosts who have made us feel welcome and taken care of.
You must be travelling pretty light, right? How difficult is it to pack minimally for a whole family?
This is a constant battle for us. We were very proud that after selling everything we owned, we were left with just two large suitcases and some small carry-ons. But the truth is our two large suitcases have been overweight on more than a few flights, and boy have we paid the price for that! So we are continually trying to reorganise our bags to meet the airlines’ weight limits and we are constantly getting rid of items we don’t think we need anymore. Fitting four people’s lives into two suitcases is no easy task, but we are slowly figuring out what is really necessary and what is not.
What are your travel must-haves?
The two boys both have stuffed toys that they sleep with. They’ve each had one since they were born. Both stuffed toys are little dogs, and we lovingly refer to them by the word for dog that Koreans use with kids—mung mung. (Joyce’s family is Korean, so our kids have grown up speaking mostly English but also a bit of Korean). Without the boys’ mung mungs, bedtime would be a disaster. They each love their respective mung mung so much, and watching them cuddle their mung mungs as they drift off to sleep each night is ridiculously adorable. We absolutely cannot do without them! Our little secret: when the boys were younger we bought some identical back-up mung mungs just in case we ever accidentally lose one 🙂
We keep the back-ups very safe! Our YoYo stroller by BabyZen is also a must-have. It folds up small enough to fit into the overhead compartment on an airplane, yet when you unfold it it’s a full-size stroller with a big seat, an extra board for Jonah to ride on the back (he calls it his boogie board), and lots of storage space. Similarly, our Beco baby carrier is also irreplaceable. Not only do we use it to carry Jaxon anywhere that strollers can’t go, but it also works as a backpack to carry Jonah on hikes that Jaxon can’t go on. I carried Jonah up the side of a mountain in Kotor, Montenegro in the Beco carrier and it worked like a charm! We’ve also found a way to use it to keep Jaxon safe and secure in almost any restaurant chair, even when no high chair is available.
Tell us a bit about educating your children while on the go. How does that work?
Our kids our still quite young, so formal education is not something we have to think too much about just yet. They are at a stage where social development is probably far more important than traditional academics, and our travels have allowed both of them to become very adaptable, flexible, open to new experiences and curious about everything! Jonah in particular, who is our ultimate introvert, has really come out of his shell since we started travelling. He’s still shy, but he’s far more enthusiastic in social settings now. Something that takes up quite a bit of space and weight in our suitcases is our mini-library of children’s books. Jonah has always loved reading, so we made sure to bring quite a few books with us on this trip. Recently, Jonah has learned how to identify and read a few words. He loves showing off his reading skills. He’s also getting quite good at adding and subtracting small numbers. Jaxon just turned one. He is thrilled to just turn the pages, point at each picture and shout “That! That!” Then he waits for us to tell him what “that” is. For some reason, he’s really taken to words starting with ‘B’. He’ll always jump at the chance to show you that he knows words like ball, banana, bread, banana, and especially bed!
What’s one of the biggest challenges of travelling long-term with children, and what is your best tip? (How are you keeping your sanity?)
Being constantly on the move means that Jonah lacks a permanent friend group. Jonah has become quite good at making new friends wherever we are, even when the other kids don’t speak the same language. But sadly, those friends are only there for a day or a few days at most, and then he’s got to say goodbye. He never complains about it, but I wish for him that he didn’t have to say goodbye each time. And that’s why we are really glad that Jonah and Jaxon have each other; their own friendship has really grown stronger and it is so special to see them laughing and playing together.
Pro tip: when it comes to jet-lag, avoid the inclination to take an extra nap when you get to your destination. As much as possible, when you arrive in a new place, just pretend that you’ve always been on local time. Nap only if it’s a normal nap time, but try to stay awake until bedtime and go to bed then. And when it comes to bedtime more generally, try to keep your routine wherever you are. Our kids will go to sleep without any problems in literally any bed we put them in, even in a brand new house in a new country on the first night—once we follow the bedtime routine. There’s something comforting about it for them and for us. And it lets them, and us, actually get some sleep 🙂
The highlight, undoubtedly, has been the people we’ve met. Time and time again we have been blown away by how incredibly kind and generous complete strangers have been to us. In every single location we’ve met genuinely good people, and on many occasions they have completely transformed our experience of the place we are visiting. And on a few rare occasions, they have even come to our rescue. The Three Amigos in Valencia come to mind. After my phone and GoPro were stolen from my hand, along with my only cash which was inside the GoPro handle, they bought me a train ticket back to the city and then paid for a cab for me to get home. We have been reminded over and over that what makes travel so rewarding is not just the beautiful sights, but it’s more often than not the new relationships, the new people, the new connections we make in different places in unexpected ways. And over and over, we are reminded that no matter where you are in the world, there are good people there doing good things, every day.
How do you hope Our Every J Life develops in the future?
We have no specific plans but we would love to find a way to make our full-time travel sustainable in the long-term. Whether that means becoming brand ambassadors in the travel industry, or documenting our travels in a more commercially-appealing way, or even just finding a different type of work that we can do remotely, we don’t know. But there is something special about waking up in a new city every week. The chance to start anew, to explore, to adventure, to connect with new people and cultures, to be with one another all the time—who wouldn’t want to keep that going forever?