Somewhere between Santa Fe, New Mexico

and Wichita, Kansas USA

Friday, September 26, 2008




Hitting the Road

A Harebrained Adventure in Global Gallivanting



I think we’re nearly ready for this. At least it’s too late to turn back. The New Mexican cholla cacti have given way to the prairielands of southern Kansas. The late afternoon sun spreads its rosy radiance over the landscape, which grows flatter with each passing mile. A breeze stirs the field of tall grasses outside my window. When I turn my head, the grasses wave in unison, perhaps bidding us farewell. I return my eyes to the road, exhale deeply, and shake my head in an attempt to clear the clutter of thoughts lodged in my brain like tumbleweeds against a barbed wire fence.


Jason and I have been running on empty for weeks: packing the entire house in boxes, which are now tucked away in the chicken house; finding long-term tenants to pay the mortgage and a friend to manage the property; scrambling to get the kids caught up on vaccinations that only a year ago we were refusing; cajoling an unsuspecting friend who was a bit tipsy at our going-away party into adopting the cat and houseplants; tilling under the fall garden, and saying goodbye to my precious soil—for what could be nine months, or maybe two years. They say that tonight will bring the first frost to the Santa Fe foothills, which made it a bit easier to walk away. But the calabacitas were still ripening.


When we first began to incubate initial ideas of this adventure—just married and fresh out of college—we had visions of Jason landing a teaching position for a year or two in an international school, perhaps somewhere in South America or Europe. Then the kids came along and we had to put the plan on hold for a bit. But not scrap it. The kids would just join in the student body of his international school, of course. And by then I would have built my freelance translation career, my income serving as icing on the cake.


Unfortunately, the international school recruiters had apparently not received a copy of our game plan. Jason spent the better part of last year perfecting his resume, traveling to international school job fairs, interviewing and marketing himself to his preferred schools, and then, eventually to any schools that would listen. We had been told that native English-speaking teachers were in high demand, so he hadn’t anticipated the lukewarm reception. We’ve since learned that international schools prefer to hire unmarried teachers. They will consider married applicants, but generally only if both are teaching professionals. Apparently a candidate with three dependent children and a wildcard self-employed wife is a bit less marketable than we had expected.


After nine months of pounding the pavement, with nary a job offer in the hopper, we admitted to ourselves that we were going to have to alter our strategy again. We have slowly embraced the idea that we are a complete, cohesive unit, with all the components we need to do this thing on our own. One teacher capable of homeschooling the children, one modest translator’s salary to cover expenses, very little know-how, and a whole lot of gumption. Hence, we’ve adopted Plan B—Global Gallivanting.


Lacking an employer to sponsor a visa for a long-term stay, we will have to jump from country to country, staying in each as long as possible with a tourist visa. Clearly, this won’t allow us to send the kids to a normal school. Jason will have to teach them.


Despite ten years in elementary and middle school classrooms, Jason was none too sure about transferring his skills to the homeschool stage. Nevertheless, he has been granted a sabbatical from teaching at the kids’ elementary school in Santa Fe and will be taking his show on the road for the foreseeable future.


He spent the past few months researching public school standards for Bella (who is eight years old) and Cyrus (ten), and has even developed some lesson plans for little Cruz (three). He met with Cyrus and Bella’s teachers earlier this week. The good news, he says, is that they each seem to be a year above the average level for their age, “so at least I won’t be able to mess them up too badly.” And little Cruz—well, as far as he knows, this will all be normal parental behavior.


We don’t have the luxury of bringing all the text books, novels, and school supplies with which Jason would like to be equipped. Instead, he invested in an iPod and an eReader, both of which fit into his laptop case. He has spent the past few months putting every audio book we own onto the iPod and loading the eReader with enough classic novels to keep us all entertained for a decade.


We plan to supplement homeschooling with local classes in each country. I’ll arrange language lessons for the whole family in advance of our arrival, with the help of colleagues in the translation community. Then, on the ground, we’ll look for opportunities to study local cuisine, music, religion—whatever each country has to offer—in addition to seeking out opportunities to volunteer.


I imagine that our biggest challenge with the kids might be in helping them to make friends along the way, and to maintain relationships with their buddies back home. I’m not so worried about little Cruz and Bella. They could be content just about anywhere, as long as they have each other and some animals to play with.


Cyrus, on the other hand, is at an age where his friends are, arguably, more important than his family. He is also a shy kid, unlike Bella, who has a new best friend every hour and no problems attracting a crowd of admirers—little Cruz always among them. Cyrus has finally made a few close buddies in Santa Fe, and he’s not eager to leave them behind. We’ve set them all up with Skype and video cameras, so they should be able to play chess or tell each other crude jokes via teleconference as often as they like. I’m trying to assure him that friendships can grow, despite distance, but he’s not convinced. And perhaps I’m not fully buying it either.


I’ve had visions of the kids turning anti-social, paranoid, pale, and sickly thin, allergic to peanuts and food coloring, cowering in the corner with books and protractors. I’m just not sure that’s what I want for my children. But we’ve taken steps we hope will allow us to avoid those scenarios. 


First, Jason and the kids have created a website. They had to begin by deciding on a name for the impending adventure, and so henceforth and forevermore it shall be referred to as The Big Field Trip[i]. The idea is that the website will allow the kids to organize their homeschool work in a format that educators back home can use as a teaching tool in their classrooms. Students will be able to track our journey and pose questions for Bella and Cyrus to research on the ground. Jason will also have a segment where he plans to post recipes from each country. My section will include photography and travel essays, which I have promised to write to keep folks back home informed about our escapades (and, selfishly, to help me remember them).


Over the past few months, Bella and Cyrus have worked with Jason to create and present a slideshow to every fifth and sixth-grade class in Santa Fe, introducing students and teachers to The Big Field Trip. They have one more such presentation scheduled in their cousin’s classroom in Kansas before we fly out.


I’m mostly confident that my translation company is ready to hit the road. I’ve spent the past year making all the changes that I can foresee being essential—adapting the database to an online format so I can access it from anywhere in the world (as long as I have an Internet connection); setting up clients to pay, and translators to be paid, via direct bank transfer; shifting business telephone lines to Skype so calls will ring on my laptop wherever we may be. I even hired my very first employee, who is a long-time freelancer for the company and also happens to be my lovely sister, Maria.


Maria will take over most of the day-to-day project management and give the company at least an impression of stability while we’re on the road. With any luck, my clients (most of whom I’ve never met in person or even spoken to on the phone since techy types prefer the efficiency of email) will not even realize that I’m not in the office—which, in any case, has thus far been the desk beside my bed.


I’m looking forward to meeting face-to-face with some of my clients and translators as we travel and to studying the languages in each country. I have specialized thus far in Romance Languages, translating from Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese into English, but I’m eager to broaden my repertoire.


We’ve hammered out the itinerary for the most part, but it’s by no means fixed. We set out in five days: first stop South America. We’ll spend three months in Peru and three months in Brazil before heading to North Africa for three months in Tunisia. After that, we’ve outlined a half-dozen more countries to follow. If we see the entire itinerary through to the end, it will eventually take us all the way around the world, in an easterly direction, and bring us back to Santa Fe in two years—in the spring, just in time to plant my vegetable garden.


At this point, with our first three tickets in-hand, we’re committed to traveling for at least the next nine months. After that only Jehovah knows what will happen. Perhaps we’ll decide that we want to choose just one country for a longer stay. Or maybe three months will be too much time in each country. Or what if, after nine months, we decide that gallivanting is for the birds and are ready to come home? Only time will tell, so we’re leaving all options on the table.


If I had my druthers, after Tunisia we would spend the following year making our way slowly around the Mediterranean, in a clockwise fashion, until eventually landing in Turkey for Thanksgiving (which would be fitting since we’ve always referred to the holiday as “Turkey Day”). Then we would explore the Holy Lands throughout the Christmas season. But my druthers, along with my proposed itinerary, were shot down earlier this year when Jason had the bright idea of promoting democracy within the family unit. 


When we first sat down to draft our itinerary, Jason and I started by each making a list of the top twenty countries we’d like to see before we die. We compared our lists, and countries that appeared on both made the cut. But there were only six common countries, so we had a few more to go. I proposed that we spin the globe and choose randomly over tequila shots, but Jason claimed that good parents would let their kids weigh in on the decision. One person, one vote. So it was decided.


In advance of the election, Jason and I each spent a month researching and designing our ideal itinerary. We each worked in isolation and decided not even to share our itineraries with one another. Instead, our plans would be kept secret until we presented them to the kids—in the form of dueling slideshows.


By show time, I was feeling pretty confident, and I offered to present my slideshow first. I knew our audience well enough to realize that the actual itinerary would take a backseat to special effects. Since we rarely watch television at home, the kids gobble up any screen time they can get. With this in mind, I had incorporated lots of bling bling and colorful photography into my presentation. This had precisely the effect I had hoped. Throughout the production, intermittent Oohs and aahs erupted from the crowd. By the time we got to the climax, which (rather ingeniously) featured the animated music video of They Might Be Giants, Istanbul, not Constantinople, the kids were out of their seats dancing in front of the screen.


I was pretty sure I had this competition in the bag.


When my slideshow came to an end, I closed with a few persuasive remarks, which I had prepared in advance, and then handed the screen over to Jason with a sympathetic wink. Jason thanked me kindly for the introduction and popped his disk into the drive. He then rolled up his sleeves and, for the next thirty minutes, proceeded to employ everything short of fireworks in unveiling his proposed travel plan, the scale of which was so grandiose that, by the end of it, even my jaw was on the floor.


When the smoke cleared and the lights came on, we tallied the kids’ ballots. They had voted, unanimously, for Jason’s itinerary. It seems that my Around-the-Mediterranean campaign just couldn’t compete with his Around-the-Whole-Stinking-World bit. Or more likely, he had bribed them with ice cream; I’ll never know the truth.


My allegations of Election Day fraud fell upon deaf ears. I switched strategies and instead begged the children to consider the global footprint of their father’s financially irresponsible globe-hopping scheme. Jason countered by whipping out the spreadsheet he had prepared, which showed that, though his itinerary would indeed incur more actual travel expense, the countries he had selected had a much lower cost of living. As a result, the increased travel costs would be offset by savings on the ground, and therefore, my itinerary would actually be more expensive overall.


On the following day, I finally threw up my hands and conceded victory. As Pa says, “I guess everyone is entitled to their own stupid damned opinion.” Hence, I have reluctantly agreed to the following preliminary itinerary:


Peru, Brazil, Tunisia, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, India, Thailand, Vietnam


We will stay an average of three months in each of nine countries, mostly in the developing world where our dollars should stretch farther. After our arrival in each country, we will travel as little as possible, with a goal of missing all of the standard tourist sites and doing our best to stay off the gringo trail. We will steer clear of hotels and instead arrange home-stays or long-term home rentals in the hopes of saving money, getting to know each community more intimately, and also establishing some semblance of a stable home life for the children.


We will divide and conquer—each according to our personal strengths—the seemingly insurmountable list of practicalities that will have to be addressed on a daily basis in order to make a go of this:


Jason, who is a type-B personality (with infuriatingly endless patience), will make the education of our children his number one priority.


I will hide my type-A self in a dark corner somewhere with my laptop, attempting to keep the coffers full.


Jason will address the practical aspects of arranging travel, home-stays, Internet, and other essentials before our arrival in each new location. (This seems fair since he was, after all, voted authority over the itinerary.)


I will be in charge of organizing language lessons in advance and seeking out extracurricular activities on the ground.


Jason will keep track of the passports, immunization records, and visas (since he’s never forgiven me for losing those Phish tickets 15 years ago).


I will gather seeds from each country for our hibernating garden.


Jason will sort and wash the laundry.


I will hang and fold.


We have limited ourselves to three jumbo backpacks, two large duffel bags, and five daypacks, which we figure is about the maximum we’ll be able to lug from place to place. The daypacks are stuffed with essentials: our laptops, three mini dry-erase boards for daily homeschool lessons, my camera, Jason’s garlic press, and the medical kit assembled by our family doctor. One duffle bag is devoted entirely to homeschool supplies and books. That leaves the three backpacks and a duffel for our personal cargo. Now, I was just a Humanities major, but Jason says this equals about four cubic feet per person. Every square inch is precious.


The clothing was the easy part—three sweaters, three short sleeve shirts, two pairs of long pants, and another of shorts, one nice pair of shoes and another for hiking, socks, underwear, flip-flops, and a rain jacket. Once all the essentials were packed, there was enough room left over that each of the kids was able to choose six cubic inches of personal items. Cyrus, without a moment’s hesitation, filled a plastic box with Legos of all shapes and sizes. Bella latched on to her stuffed tiger and best friend, Tigey Wigey. And our little artist, Cruz, packed a shoebox full of markers, paints, and colored pencils to satisfy his burgeoning artistic tendencies.


The backpacks, duffle bags, and daypacks are all now jammed in tightly behind the kids in the back of our beloved Toyota, which, with any luck, Pa will sell for us once we’re gone. The sun has long since set over the endless horizon of these Great Plains, and darkness has swallowed the road ahead. Silver pinpricks fill the sky and twinkle, giddy to have the heavens all to themselves under the new moon. The flat, black horizon is interrupted only occasionally by silhouettes of grain elevators—Kansas skyscrapers.


The kids are asleep peacefully in the backseat, at least momentarily unaware of what is to come. Only a couple more hours to go to my childhood home where we’ll spend the next few days soaking up family time. Ma and Pa will almost certainly be waiting up for us, despite the late hour, with a crockpot full of potato soup and fresh bread.


Recently, when I was on the phone with Ma discussing the details of our itinerary, I overheard Pa in the background saying he just couldn’t imagine what gave us “the harebrained notion to schlep three otherwise perfectly normal children all over hell.” Ma, who has spent the past thirty-nine years translating his sentiments into more accessible language, paused for a moment before gently wondering aloud why one would need to travel so far away “when there’s so much to see here in Kansas.”


Though they have finally stopped trying to dissuade us from going on this trip, they did make us swear to bring the kids back unscathed. We, likewise, have forced the entire family, along with all of our friends, to promise not to die, get married, divorced, or have any children until we return.


As Cruz’s baby-fat cheeks jiggle with the rhythm of Highway 54, Jason glances in my direction, and we breathe a harmonious sigh of relief. We’re finally on the road, about to embark on the journey that we’ve been concocting for over a decade. Neither of us is willing to let on that we’re as nervous as a pair of long-tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs.