A year ago to the day our family left our home of South Korea on a trip that would take us over 90 thousand kilometers and 6 continents over nearly 10 months. It seems like a decade ago that we stepped out the door on that day on June 16th 2019, and all the experiences we had along the way seem like they happened in a different lifetime. Maybe even to different people.
Traveling changes you. Through it and through the people you meet, one gains a heightened sense of awareness, adaptability and tolerance of a larger world. Through international education, Lisa and I have been on an overseas trip for nearly 20 years now, but for our daughter Ava, the trip was a great ‘leveler’ and brought her a new found sense of humility which is great for the budding teenager. For us as a family though, we have not seen a vision or had an epiphany that brought us Nirvana or a moment of enlightenment. Keillor was right: “In the end, there are no answers. Only stories.”
It’s in these stories that our travels live on. “Remember when..” is a common starter one of us will lead with, out of the blue, as the others join in and reminisce with growing smiles. Dinner time conversations are accompanied with more grist and I can die happy knowing we lived a year of our lives to the fullest and didn’t let it slip by the wayside of complacency or fall victim to the rigamarole of life’s routines.
Our daughter’s learning continues. Since finishing 4th grade, Ava has taken a keen interest in music and despite completing her yearly curriculum, has started songwriting and recording for fun. She enrolled in a ‘School of Rock’ class that meets twice a week with a private teacher for one session and a group jam session for the other. She is currently learning ‘The White Stripes’, 1-4-5 music theory and has an upcoming master class with a Led Zeppelin theme. She has some open mic video sessions coming up and despite her surfer/snowboarder father offering to play accompanying guitar to her singing, I apparently present a high risk of embarrassing her. A budding teenager she is definitely turning out to be.
Thank you to all of our friends and readers around the world. To our readers: thanks for all your commentary and to all our friends who put us up at their houses and apartments: we can’t begin to thank you enough for your hospitality and friendship. In a time where the world seems increasingly divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’ political factions and growing movements like ‘Black Lives Matter’, the bonds of love that we strengthened with friends (new and old) remind us that there is good in the world. Still, we have much more work to do for the causes of justice, equality and tolerance. The need for education has never been higher.
I think back to when we first conceived of a living a year abroad and what an insurmountable task planning such a trip would have been. The challenges of health care, storage, our pets, let alone designing a curriculum and saving for such an endeavor seemed next to impossible. But, over the course of 4 years we outlined, researched, prepared, saved and we went. While we were at it, Lisa suggested I write about the experience.
As soon as we stepped out of the airport in Iguazu Falls, we were in the rainforest.
Hot, humid and muggy. Despite the road being paved into town, it was dense jungle on either side with signs announcing ‘Tapir Crossing’ and ‘Leopard Crossing’. We were in a whole different biome for our last few days in Argentina.
Argentinian Side of the Falls
We walked to the bus station the next morning and got round trip tickets to the park for 200 pesos each. To get to the park was a 20 minute drive from town and after passing through the park entrance there were a series of trails that you could hike down to see the falls from different perspectives. We hiked the ‘lower trail’ which had more steps and less traffic and had better vantage points, but with the heat and humidity, our shirts were soaked and our inner thighs badly chaffed.
Arriving at the top of the falls on the Argentine side, we walked to the ‘Garganta Del Diablo’ or ‘The Devil’s Throat’ where visitors peer over the edge and clamor for selfies. For the last 3 weeks, we hadn’t encountered many tourists so we felt a bit out of place in such an international community. Since we crossed into Uruguay weeks ago, we had only met 1 german at our hostel and a retired couple from Minnesota at the bus station in Colonia. Last week was in Argentina’s northern college towns of Rosario and Cordoba and most locals asked us ‘Why would you want to come here?‘
The bum rush to the falls overlook was a beautiful but hurried affair. There were rows three people deep who elbowed their ways through the forest of selfie sticks to put on their best face for their social media feeds. An elderly woman who was taking her time enjoying the view of 1.5 million gallons thundering over the side was shamed by others who thought she was taking too long and getting in their shots. Being around such disingenuous and unoriginal mania made me feel gross, but being there yourself, you realize you’re part of the problem. It’a not enough to take in a beautiful painting, landscape or work of art anymore. Now, you have to ‘prove’ you were there.
Finding our Budget Groove
With two months of our trip left, we’ve had to be more conscientious of our budget and are planning very much like a teacher in the last month of school where every lesson is accounted for. Daily travel costs can skyrocket on visits to national parks, hotel payments or the odd flight so staying within a budget has become a challenge. Here are some strategies that have helped us during long term travel:
Paying off our credit card on a weekly instead of monthly basis. This has allowed us to make sure if we have a high spend week, to curtail it the following week or the week before.
Set up Automatic Transfers. I have the bulk of our trip budget money in a high yield savings account that sends $1,200 to our Bank of America account each Thursday. If we run out of money for the week, we just chill in our apartment and do walking tours. I don’t pay off our credit card balances until the new transfer comes through.
Utilize Travel Rewards. I recently got a free flight on points from Rio De Janiero to Lima on points through our Chase Sapphire Reserve Card and also received a $250 travel credit from our new Bank of America credit card. So far, we’ve gotten 12 free flights with travel rewards since we started in June.
Crossing into Brazil
Just under a year ago, Brazil made it much easier for Americans to travel to Brazil. Before, there was a tedious visa application process, but now there is no cost and no application-not even an arrival card. We paid our airport pickup ‘Manuel’ $15 to drive us across the border to our hotel and it was the easiest border crossing we’ve had yet on our trip and took 40 minutes from doorstep to doorstep. (Best $15 I’ve ever spent.) Driving over the river, the concrete bumpers on either side of the road turned from blue and white (the Argentinian flag) to yellow and green (the Brazilian flag) until we got to customs where we were shooed through in Portuguese.
Since we landed in Buenos Aires December 29th, our Spanish has been getting pretty good. Whereas Lisa is fluent, I’m proficient and have no trouble reading or speaking, but as in English, listening is my weak suit. Northern Argentinians have a peculiar Spanish dialect and seem to ‘zzz’ their double ‘L’s. Llamado or ‘ya-maado’ turns to ‘xuh-maado’ and ‘llegar’ or ‘yay-gar’ sounds like ‘xay-gar’. Portuguese is heavy on ‘xuh’ sounds and I wonder if the proximity to Brazil is what brought these tones over the border slowly over time.
The last time we were in a Portuguese speaking country was back in 2006 when we visited Lisa’s Peace Corps host family in Mozambique and we were the star attraction to the local villagers. The son of the house, ‘Rene’ took me on a 6 hour pub crawl through the dankest cantinas around Macia during which I survived on the 3 following Portuguese phrases: “It is hot outside today.”, “How are you?” and “mmmmh” to which I said when someone was telling an unintelligible story of which I could not understand. Rene was proud to show off his new friend (and the only ‘Mullungu’ within 100 miles) and I was proud to prove that I could hang with the best of them.
Brazilian Side of the Falls
Visiting the falls the next day from the Brazilian side was a completely different experience. The infrastructure was much better than in Argentina and there was easier and free public transportation from the visitor center to the trail head. We saw coatis, a monkey, a myriad of geckos and lizards including a baby iguana. A few hours at the falls were met afterwards with a cool splash in our hotel’s swimming pool which is a luxury we haven’t had in months.
Tonight, we’re having our first ‘Churrasqueira’ or Brazilian BBQ. Brazilian style BBQ is an ‘all you can eat‘ dining experience when a small flag or puck at the table announces to the waiters to bring skewers meat to you and slice off a piece. Turn the puck over, they leave you alone. I’ve had Brazilian BBQ twice (one in Vietnam and once in Thailand) and they’ve ranked in my ‘Top 10 Life Experiences‘ alongside falling in love with Lisa and the birth of our daughter.
For our family, getting asked the question of ‘Where are you from?‘ isn’t a very straightforward answer.
Being a third culture kid, Ava has grown up contending with this question her whole life and her response depends greatly on the mood. Telling people she was from ‘Vietnam‘ or ‘South Korea‘ (where she’s lived her whole life) has always been met with quizzical looks and skepticism from people looking for Asian features and, not finding any, unleash a barrage of even more questions. Over time, she’s whittled down her answer to the succinct: “Well, I was born in California, but I’ve grown up in Vietnam and now live in South Korea.” Sometimes she just answers ‘California’ when she doesn’t want to get into it, because, let’s face it- when you tell strangers where you’re from, you’re really learn where they’re from. People size Lisa and I up as either military or missionaries so we have our scripts as well:
“Well, I guess you could say that we’re from California although we don’t actually live there. We’ve been based in east Asia for the last 17 years across Thailand, Vietnam and South Korea as school teachers, but we’re now on a sabbatical year of travel that we’re about 8 months into and we’ll start work soon in Lima Peru.” I candidly say. The ensuing back and forth brings up and puts down a few questions, such as how we did it, where we’ve been, what resources we’re using to teach our daughter and maybe even some tips for how to get started in international teaching.
Overtime though, the novelty of repeating this same conversation over the last 8 months has worn off and we’ve retreated more and more into the solace of our hostel rooms rather than engage with the 20 year old crowds in public spaces to spare ourselves from sounding like broken records by saying the same thing over and over. Not having permanent roots anywhere means you’re really from both everywhere and nowhere, and I wonder if this nomadic, drifting lifestyle will give Ava a world class education or an existential crisis later on in life.
Montevideo: The Uruguayan Capital
Our first pass through Montevideo was met with the start of Carnival, the world’s largest party. When we checked out of our hotel room after a quick one night stay, we left early in the morning for the bus station and people were still drinking on the streets at 5:30 am. It was high season and would be until the party ended mid February with blow out bashes in other parts of South America such as Rio De Janeiro and Buenos Aires.
After spending the last 2 weeks in the campo, coming back to Montevideo was a nice respite to see some of the sights we missed on our first, one night stopover. The highlight for all of us was barbecue grill at ‘Mercado Del Puerto’ followed by the ‘Museo Del Andes de 1972‘
Museum of the Andes
The Museum of the Andes in an independent museum made by a Norwegian ‘Jorg Thomsen’ who wanted to memorialize the plane crash of 1972 made famous by the book ‘Alive’ which chronicled the story of Air Force Flight 571 that resulted in the deaths of 29 people but also brought 16 of them back to the living world. The survivors endured freezing cold, an avalanche and resorted to cannibalism of the corpses to meet their nutritional intake. My only knowledge of this was from the movie ‘Alive‘ starring Ethan Hawke back in the 80’s, but the museum proved the reality of what happened was slightly different than what Hollywood chose to tell.
Mr. Thomson was on site and gave us a tour that housed artifacts from the survivors and the dead along with plane wreckage, aerial photographs and testimony from friends. The ingenuity of the survivors was breathtaking. They fashioned snow goggles to prevent blindness, engineered water collection devices to conserve calories and even used wiring and seat covers for coats. The most striking part of the museum was how the 16 survivors were embraced whole heartedly when they were rescued and not overly judged or condemned by reporters, the public or even parents of the deceased of whose children they ate to stay alive.
“What if that happened to you?” I asked Ava as we watched the movie that night.
“What do you mean?” She asked back.
“If we were on that flight together, and I died and you had no food, could you eat me?“
“No! That’s disgusting.”
“Yes it is. But I would want to give my body to you to stay alive. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second and would want you to live.I hope it’s a decision you never have to make.”
Colonia Del Sacramento
Colonia Del Sacramento is a charming two hour bus ride from Montevideo west along the coast and is more than just a place to ‘kill some time’. It’s speckled Portuguese and Spanish past dots the peninsula and the new town rises out of the old town’s 300 year old ruins presenting visitors with decadent restaurants, hotels and brew pubs.
Tomorrow, we’d take a ferry back into northern Argentina and towards Iguazu falls. Until then, we’d make some pasta tonight in our little Posada and perhaps watch some movies that swept the Oscars last night such as ‘Parasite‘ or ‘1917‘. Lisa and I watched ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood‘ last night after the little girl went to bed and we got a glimpse of tinseltown at the tail end of its golden years. Isn’t that always the case, thinking the best years of our lives are always behind us when they’re all around us, all the time?
“Let me get this straight.” I asked Lisa. “We’re getting dropped off on the side of the road at kilometer marker number 145 on route 8 and from there, we’ll just………..walk to Villa Serrana?”
“Well, hopefully, there will be a taxi. The owners of the next place we’re staying at told us there should be a taxi or just some local that can give us a ride.”
“We’re going to the middle of nowhere. Aren’t we?” I said with a wry smile.
Into the Campo
The onus for us wanting to visit Uruguay started with the late Anthony Bourdain and his series ‘No Reservations‘ which visited this tiny South American country and featured its amazing people, food and culture. Anthony gorged on meat, drank local 70-30 (a ratio of 70% cheap red wine and 30% coca cola which tastes better than it sounds) and visited tiny beach communities up and down the coast. We hoped to retrace parts of his voyage, meet a real ‘gaucho’ or cowboy, and see some spots he missed for ourselves.
Getting to Villa Serrana in the ‘campo’ or countryside as they say locally, was going to be the most challenging. We purchased a ticket to take us on route 8 northeast of ‘Minas’ and simply told the driver to let us off on the side of the road at a specific mile marker. “No problemo” he responded. In east Africa, our bus from Arusha to Nairobi routinely dropped people off at non-descript points and walked from the road to their nearby village. This wasn’t much different.
We met our host ‘Robert’ and his pickup truck on the side of the road and threw our bags in the bed and a 10 minute drive later, we arrived at the ‘Octagon Om Shianti‘ which is a hippy enclave that specializes in vegan dishes, yoga and the mystic arts. Finding a place serving exclusively vegan and vegetarian food in meat heavy Uruguay was a challenge, but we were rewarded with goat cheese, peach and rocket pizza, pumpkin raviolis, and homemade banana bread. Eat your heart out Bourdain.
We spent the days at the local lake and feeding its small population of geese followed by trips to the almacen in the afternoon and nights soaking in the wood fired, homemade hot tub under the night stars- only in rural Namibia have we seen more brilliant nights. The almacen was fun as there was a resident horse (only in Uruguay) that lapped up Ava’s discarded apple cores while neighing in delight.
The husband of the cook managed a horse sanctuary that he took us to visit one afternoon. Apparently when horses get sick, become too old, or break a leg, they are often euthanized to lighten the financial strain on the owners, cutting short their potentially long lives. The husband, who introduced himself to us as ‘Libre‘ or free, started a facebook page that advertised a place for horse owners to ‘retire’ their unwanted horses (or as a cheaper, seasonal alternative for barnyard stabling) and has grown to take care of 54 horses in total which reside in a 1000 acre paradise of hilly rocks, trees and scrub where they can roam free, graze, get lost in the woods, receive health care as needed and socialize for the first time in most of their lives.Libre told us of all the projects he had going on in the reserve such as a new infirmary pen he was building, and the sordid tales of horses that were abused, neglected and how he nursed them back to health with time, love and a little determination. Of all the humans we’ve met on our trip, Libre might just be the most humane. Turns out we met a real gaucho after all.
Punto Del Este
When we arrived at Punta Del Este, Ava used Christmas money from her aunt Dorthy to buy a boogie board and her money from Grandma Shirley to buy a rash guard so we went surfing every day. Being in the water reminded me of how much I missed surfing in California just before Lisa and I moved overseas in 02 and the water felt like SoCal in August, refreshing, not too chilly.
Surfing is just as much about patience as it is physical strength. I told Ava that 80% of the time is watching the waves come in, trying to position yourself just right to drop in the middle of set and the other 20% is riding and paddling back out. By noon each day, the winds picked up and the water got choppy which thinned the surfers and allowed us to get in the lineup with few people around us. When Ava tired and went to shore for a rest, I braved the largest swells, even mustering some barrel rolls and hand drag spins. Not bad for a 43 year old.
“Snowboarders can strap in and ride kilometer runs for minutes. Surfers have to work for 5 seconds of Nirvana.”
Building the Perfect Community in Minecraft
It’s a beautiful thing to be young and unchained by the responsibilities of a job, mortgage or life elsewhere when you can visit a place and say: “Let’s live here for a while.” Everyplace felt like this in Uruguay. From its safety, low cost of living, surf that pumps and gentle people, we were often caught saying to ourselves: “Fuck it. Let’s retire here.”
Turns out that our daughter was well ahead of us on building the idyllic community of her dreams in the world of ‘Minecraft’. At the end of grade 3, her teacher Ms. Sally assigned a project on ‘Communities and Societies’ combining the math skills of surface area and perimeter. Many of her peers abandoned the project over the summer but Ava has been going strong, watching ‘how to’ youtube videos and completing many of her buildings over the last 8 months. Minecraft has some great applications for creativity, collaboration and I’ve used it myself when modeling human body systems in the science classroom.
La Pedrera is a small community of surfers who showed up for the powerful lefts and rights off the coast and then never bothered to leave. Most people walked around town shirtless, barefoot and sporting a minimum of 5 tattoos. Our hostel, ‘Piedra Alta‘ was a block from the beach and had a row of surfboards in the entry way and a broken down, volkswagen bus out front in which one of the hostel managers slept every night. Piedra Alta had amazing coffee at breakfast and plentiful servings of ‘Dulce Del Leche‘ as one of its breakfast spreads. Dulce Del Leche is a local favorite and is the result of heating condensed sweet milk until it caramelizes into a sweet spread that tastes like a combination of peanut butter and honey. Everything you put it on becomes instantly better. It puts the crack in crackers and instantly turns stale bread rolls stellar. I imagine this product was discovered by accident when someone left the stove top on long ago and was hard pressed for a late night snack.
At night, the main strip in La Pedrera shuts down at 8:00 pm and turns into a walking street where hipsters emerge from afternoon siesta to sell their wares ranging from paintings, hand woven bracelets and necklaces sporting minerals and feathers with curative properties. Local bands come out to fill the air, stray dogs look for handouts and residents swap surf riding sessions and look to fill their basic necessities; namely a place to sleep, enough food to fill their reserves and maybe enough money for a ticket home at season’s end.
Every day was spent at the beach and was a sun stoked paradise. While there, we met ‘Costa’, a beach vendor that sold 5 tacos for $15 so we could surf from 10 to 4 followed by an ice cream back in town before our afternoon siesta and night out with live music back at the hostel. Just when I thought we were too sunburned or rashed up from the day before to go out again, we woke up renewed and healed, determined to brave a new day.
“Just one more wave!” was Ava’s response to everything while at the beach in La Pedrera. Asking her come in and reapply sunscreen, drink water, call it day or just eat, was met with ‘one more’, ‘one more’, ‘one more’. It’s the best thing a parent can hear, and when you hear it, you know then you’ve instilled a love of something in your child that might someday blossom into a passion, hobby or career. Bobbing out there in the lineup, we sat affixed, eagle-eyed on the horizon, counting the minutes between sets, and trying to wait for for the smoothest, cleanest wave before committing. “The sets come in every 4 minutes.” I said. “The third wave is the best. This is a beach break, so look over your shoulder to see which way it breaks and turn away from its break to ride it as long as you can.”
Our new home of Lima, Peru has waves and surf schools all within an easy reach so I’m looking forward to seeing Ava graduate from foam boards to her very own fiberglass model one day. I imagine her and her old man floating out there past the breakers on the weekend, having daddy-daughter moments that give respite to the hullabaloo of teenage drama and midlife back pain, all the while our eyes looking west, waiting and watching to see whatever the tide brings each of us.