When I was 14, a vicious insect attacked me. It sunk its long fangs into my skin, injected its venom, and hasn’t let go since.
This was the travel bug.
In the summer of 1997 I traveled to Chile for a month-long homestay. My dad, a longtime traveler and Spanish-speaker himself, suggested the idea, and I leaped at it. Having taken only one Spanish class in my life, I soon realized that I was the youngest and most inexperienced Spanish-speaker of the entire program. This felt intimidating, but it also felt right, because school had never moved fast enough for me. I yearned for more challenge, adventure, and immersion-style experiences than a classroom could provide.
Our group flew to Santiago, took a bus south to Rancagua, and then split up to join individual homestay families. Over the following month I had little contact with my English-speaking group members. My host family graciously engaged me in long, awkward conversations in which I spent half the time looking at the ceiling, snapping my fingers, and muttering as I attempted to remember a certain adjective or verb conjugation. During dinner one night, I asked my host mother to pass me the avocado, which in my Spanglish came out as abogado, which means “lawyer.” Pass the salt, pepper, and lawyer, would you, mother?
On my second night, my host brother, age 15, took me out to the local high school gym for a punk music show. (The band’s name: Los Tetas. I’ll let you translate that one.) The city where I was staying, Rancagua, didn’t get many North American visitors, so I became an instant celebrity. One girl immediately claimed me as her boyfriend. Behind the blasting speakers of Los Tetas, she introduced herself as “Varvala,” which struck me as very exotic. It took me a week of being her boyfriend (read: boy-toy) to discover that her name was actually “Barbara” (much less exotic), a mistake that introduced me to the nuances of Chilean dialect.
At the end of the month, I said adios to my host family with much-improved Spanish and joined the other U.S. group members for a week of snowboarding in the mountain town of Chillán. I remember carving first tracks down a steep groomed trail, a CD player blasting tunes through my headphones, with a panorama of the snow-covered Andes filling my vision. This adventure iced the cake of an already incredible month-long learning and growing experience. I returned home feeling truly blessed, enlivened, and seeking my next excuse to travel.
In the decade that followed, many important things happened—I went to college to study astrophysics, discovered the existence of unschooling and free schools, and subsequently abandoned my path in research science to custom-design a college degree in alternative education—but that darn travel bug never left center stage.
Thanks to powerful impression that my Chilean adventure made on my 14-year-old self, I found myself perpetually saving money for travel, gravitating toward bookstores’ international guidebook sections, and poring over world maps. At age 19, I designed a classic Western European backpacking trip with a group of high school buddies. At age 20, I crafted two trips to British Columbia to snowboard in deep powder. And at age 24, I departed for South America on a one-way plane ticket, returning three months from a life-changing trek across Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina.
I loved each of these experiences, but none of them could quite hold a candle to my original travel adventure in Chile. There was simply something magical about being a teenager who was ready to dive into life, see the world, and experience a truly immersive challenge for the first time.
Realizing this—and getting fed up working for other people—was what prompted me to start my little travel company for self-directed teenagers: Unschool Adventures. What began in 2008 as a six-week trip to Argentina with a handful of teen homeschoolers and unschoolers soon expanded into a multi-year career that enabled me to further explore the world—satisfying my own travel bug—while sharing the gift of travel with young people.
In groups of roughly 10 teenagers with two or three adult trip leaders, we explored South America, Australia, New Zealand, and Nepal. (I say “we,” but it was a different group each time.) Our destinations included big, high-energy cities (like Buenos Aires), stunningly beautiful natural landscapes (like those on New Zealand’s South Island), and the occasional eccentric escapade (like the 10-day Tibetan Buddhism retreat in Nepal or the volunteering gig at a Hare Krishna farm in Argentina).
Taking a cue from my 14-year-old trip to Chile, I crafted homestays and outdoor adventures into the trips whenever possible. And most important, I integrated heavy elements of unstructured free time into every trip, allowing the independent and self-directed teens who attended my trips to construct their own experiences instead of merely being shepherded from one attraction to another.
At the end of every trip, the smiles, tears, and feedback forms told me what I hoped: that I had successfully facilitated a transformational experience on the scale of my own eye-opening 14-year-old adventure. No work has satisfied me more since.
Today, I’m focusing less on designing international trips and more on building a sleep-away semester program for teens in the United States temporarily called Hogwarts for Unschoolers. The program will allow me to work with a greater number of teens on a longer timescale than international travel allows. But the mission of my work is the same: to provide immersive group programs for teenagers whose passion, intellect, and curiosity cannot be satiated by traditional school; to create an opportunity to live, grow, and adventure safely away from one’s home; and to share the wonder and bounty of our big wide world with young people who hunger for it.
Blake Boles builds exciting alternatives to traditional school for self-directed young people. He directs the company Unschool Adventures and is the author of The Art of Self-Directed Learning, Better Than College, and College Without High School.
Blake and his work have appeared on TEDx, The Huffington Post, USA Today, The New York Times, BBC Travel, Fox Business, Ignite, NPR affiliate radio, and the blogs of The Wall Street Journal and Wired.com.