Volunteer Stephanie Riegel and her family have dinner every week with Faqirzada. Here, he and his roommate prepared a traditional Afghan meal for Riegel and her family.

Around the world in 90 days

Allison and Jason El Koubi did a lifetime’s worth of travel last fall

Twenty-seven cities. Nine countries. Six travel visas. Allison and Jason El Koubi visited the Kremlin, Acropolis, Wall of China, Hidden City and more in a mere three months last year. Like many of life’s most rewarding episodes, this chance at adventure wasn’t handed to this Baton Rouge couple; they created it. Their travel quest is a testament to their determination to make it happen.

“Five years ago, we started talking about a ‘world trip’ that quickly became a personal life commitment for us,” Jason states. But Allison reminds him that it began even earlier than that: “Our priest remembers us talking about this trip during pre-marriage counseling seven years ago.”

For this purposeful pair, planning was imperative and timing was crucial. “We wanted to go before we start a family,” Allison says. “We had a strong desire to learn about parts of the world that we’ve never been to before, especially India, China and Southeast Asia.”

Jason took a career sabbatical from work at Louisiana Economic Development, and Allison took advantage of being between jobs in education reform. The two aren’t newbies to foreign travel: Allison received her MBA from the Solvay Business School in Brussels, and Jason a master’s of public policy from the London School of Economics. So they began their journey by staying with close friends from grad school in Russia, Greece and Ghana. For the rest of the trip, the El Koubis split their time between hostels and hotels, each carrying a backpack for luggage filled with two weeks’ worth of clothing, two pairs of shoes, toiletries, silk bedding to replace dodgy linens when necessary, and copies of important documents. They both brought an iPad, which Jason deems “an invaluable travel tool,” vital to researching activities and restaurants as well as booking transport and accommodations.

First stop: Moscow, where the duo stayed with Allison’s former classmate, Ekaterina Karelina. Having grown up during the Cold War era, Jason and Allison were especially excited to visit Russia. Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and has a population of roughly 12 million, so their hostess played a vital role in making the city manageable. “It was a gift to have Kat arrange airport pickups and drop-offs and host us at her apartment near a main Metro line,” says Jason.

The El Koubis would enjoy equally warm hospitality when visiting a friend in Athens and Jason’s former classmate in Ghana. This cost-saving maneuver also provided invaluable insights from locals.

Three weeks into the journey—an extended vacation by most measures in America—Jason and Allison could not believe that they had just begun. “We were pinching ourselves, asking, ‘Can you believe we get to do this for another two months?’ ” Jason recalls.

Before venturing on to the Far East, their ultimate destination, the couple visited one of their all-time favorite cities, Istanbul. “We had toured most of the major sites on our previous visit, so it was a pleasure to meander at an easy pace this time around,” Jason says. They strolled through Sultanahmet, marveling at magnificent sites like Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque before indulging in some Turkish delight and apple tea from the spice market.

Once bound for Asia, the El Koubis would traverse unfamiliar territory. During the next two months, splurging versus saving was the name of the game. In India, they enjoyed a range of food from the extremes of the cuisine spectrum. At around $1.20 for an entire meal, Mumbai’s legendary street food, “chaat,” constitutes the cheap (but delicious) end. A luxurious spread at the Taj Mahal Hotel countered the bargain fare. In India, the El Koubis stayed at their first luxury hotel, The Chrome in Kolkata, due to doubts about alternative accommodations. They became deal-spotting masters as well. Negotiating a rental price of $150, they sailed down the Malabar Coast for two days in a houseboat, with fuel, meals and crewmembers included.

During the El Koubis’ three-week stay in China, connections again played a pivotal role in their travel experience and comfort. Friends of a friend hosted the couple in Shanghai and served them a true local delicacy—hairy crabs.

“It was wonderful to have a home-cooked meal,” says Allison, “It was our first in over two months.”

For 90 days, the El Koubis met new people, slept in unfamiliar lodgings, toured remote lands and listened to foreign tongues. The food—exotic. The scenery—unforgettable. The experience—once in a lifetime. But by the end of the expedition, even this adventurous pair longed for the peace of mind that comes from familiar surroundings. It was time to go home.

“I came to a new understanding of world topics and a deeper appreciation for the stability and prosperity of my country,” says Jason. “We also missed our bed.”

Although the sacrifices were many and the planning extensive, this isn’t the last trip to be stamped in this couple’s passports. For Jason and Allison El Koubi, foreign travel is a necessity and a life plan—not to be embarked on only when extra time or extra money are readily available. It’s an ongoing quest for experience that differs from the daily tasks that occupy us all.

“It’s not if it happens,” Allison says of future travel ventures. “It’s when it happens. We can’t wait to go again.”