Family Gap Year

Things to Know about Life on the Road

We left Alexandria, Virginia on August 1, 2015, in our 1985 VW Westphalia and spent nights in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas before finding ourselves at the U.S.-Mexican border in Laredo, Texas. When we crossed into Mexico on August 26, we expected to spend a month making our way to Belize and to be in Panama by Christmas. Happily, that plan didn’t work out and we spent the next 3 ½ months experiencing Mexico, which is now one of our favorite places. We even settled down in Oaxaca for a month when we rented a house, giving our “life on the road” some semblance of stability.

Nevertheless, our goal was to overland to South America in a year, and however dim that prospect looks at the moment – as I type this on January 11, 2016, we are more than five months into our twelve month trip but have only been in Mexico and Guatemala (we planned to have been through those two countries, as well as El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica by now, and waiting in Panama to ship our van to Colombia) - we plan to push southward until we have to come back north.

Since we left Oaxaca on November 29, we have been living out of the van more or less on a day-to-day basis. This has reminded us that overlanding is not the party that it may seem to be. As a fellow overlander said to me as we bellied up to the tiny bathroom sink to wash our dinner dishes, “People think we’re on vacation, but this is hard work.”

It’s not the 9 to 5 type of job, and we don’t get paid, but for all the fun it is to discover new places, it does involve some hard thought. With that in mind, we thought it would be fun to share how we go about our “daily work” – which consists of finding a place to go, finding a place to sleep, and figuring out what to eat.

"What are we doing today?"

Coconut and J ask us this all the time. Their second most frequent question is, “How long are we staying here?” Sometimes we have an answer, and sometimes not.

When planning a route into and through a country, we come up with an overall country plan. How do we get from our entry point, visit the places in the country that are must do, that we have always dreamed of seeing, or that we never heard of before but that have been recommended to us by other overlanders, and get to our exit point using an efficient route on paved roads? Our country plan for Mexico got blown to pieces, as we ended up in places we had no intention of going and stayed much longer than we planned, but that turned out for the better. We’ve stuck to the plan so far for Guatemala.

In making our overall country plan, I am low tech. We have a few guide books – Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide – and I read them. There are a lot cooler 21st century ways to do this, but I like to curl up with a good book at night and what could be better than the Rough Guide to Central America on a Budget?

When I come up with a place or an area that sounds fun for all, or that has something educational to do that I think the kids won’t complain too much about, I look at our paper map to see if we can get there in a reasonable way considering all the other things in the country that are on the list of things to do. One thing we learned in Mexico is that not all roads are flat and that Wesley, our van, is capable of climbing mountains, but that it takes time. We double the time that our guidebooks or Google Maps estimate that it will take to get anyplace.

Once I’ve mapped out an overall country plan, I discuss it with R, our resident techie, and she uses the few apps that we have and poses queries to the overlanding forums she is part of to see if things have changed in the few years since our books were written or for places to camp, since the books are written with backpackers, not overlanders, in mind.

When we are in country, we plan our day-to-day activities like we would plan our weekends at home – we see what comes up. As I mentioned, we go to an area of the country because there are cool things to do there, but we don’t really have a plan to do them. We roll with the mood that strikes us, or the weather, or the circumstances. For example, we anticipated that Flores, Guatemala, had a full week of activities - a lake for swimming, boats to cruise the lake, a zoo, hiking, a wild animal rehabilitation center, and Tikal. Also, R had studied Spanish in nearby San Andres and we wanted to visit her places of interest. We ended up underestimating the time needed and spending ten days there, and still didn’t do some of the things I thought we might do. Other places, like Rio Dulce on Lago Izabel, are hot, bustling, dusty junctions, and we get out of dodge sooner than we think we might.

Other times we don’t get to a planned location and have to come up with a new plan on the fly. Semuc Champey, the most beautiful waterfalls in Guatemala, was recommended to us by several other travelers, but it will have to exist without us because we couldn’t drive there from where we were. Instead, we drove to some other waterfalls that were maybe not as beautiful, but we learned how to use a machete to cut a coconut and jumped off a bridge with some local boys into the Rio Chiyo.

Victor lived across the street from the place we camped for New Years. He showed J how to cut a coconut with a machete, showed us the best swimming spots on the river, and basically stuck with us the two days we were there.



The house Victor lives in with his parents and two younger brothers.

J shows some of the local boys how to do it. He was soon joined by Victor and his brothers.

Earlier this week we planned to stay at a Japanese guest house in Quirigua, a small town near some off-the-beaten track Mayan ruins, so that R could rest from her recent infirmities, the kids could catch up on homework, and I could visit the ruins. However, after finding the guest house – which was no easy task – we learned there were no rooms available. So it was back in the car for another 200 kilometers to Guatemala City. After a few hours of driving, we were all hot and cranky and R was fading, so we ended up at a hotel with a pool and water slide in Santa Rosa where we stayed for two nights.

"Where are we going to sleep?"

When Coconut was three, we flew to the Bahamas to meet some friends who were cruising in their 44-foot sailboat, Belisana, for the year. We told Coconut beforehand that we would be staying on the boat with our friends, so when they came to pick us up in the dinghy from wherever it was the puddle jumper dropped us off, Coconut was a little confused. She whispered to R, “Where are we all going to sleep?”

Having Wesley solves that problem – we can all sleep comfortably inside the van. My preference is to camp because it’s cheaper, and also, like a younger sibling, Wesley has become part of the family and it’s a little sad when we roll the slider door shut and walk away for the night. One couple we met in Oaxaca told us that when they have guests to their home, they offer the guests their own bedroom and sleep in their van in the garage. We understand that sentiment. There have been a few times when we’ve rented a hotel room and R or I have slept in the van on the street. It’s nice and cozy.

Sometimes it is too hot to sleep in the van, or sometimes we have slept in the van a few days in a row and we need a shower, or the kids will request a room with WiFi. For example, Coconut asked if we could get a room for Christmas because she didn’t want to drive on that day. That was a reasonable request – how else would Santa have found us – so we got a room.  If we get a hotel room, it is usually a place suggested by our guidebook or that R has found online. If we plan to be around a while, we will look for an AirBnB place.

In most cities there are no convenient places to camp and we end up in a room because we would have to camp too far out of the city to visit the places in the city that we want to visit. Once camp is set up, it’s an involved process to break it down to drive around town, so we don’t usually do that. Guanajuato and San Cristobal de las Casas, both in Mexico, were two exceptions where campgrounds were within walking distance of the city center – though, in Guanajuato, we called the campground a “yonke” (junkyard) because there were several rusted out autos on the grounds.

The view from our campsite in Guanajuato was interesting.

"What’s for dinner?"

Wesley comes equipped with a two-burner propane stove, and we brought along our camp stove, so we can cook our meals at home. If we aren’t camping, we look for rooms that have a private kitchen or access to a communal kitchen. R has become expert at baking a pizza on the bottom of a cast iron frying pan.

Of course, part of the fun of traveling is that you get to eat all the tasty foods native to the place that you are visiting. One of our favorite things to do in Oaxaca was to visit the Friday street vendor food market in Llano park to get the pork rib tacos for 5 pesos each. Overall, we prefer the food in Mexico. It was cheaper than in Guatemala, and tastier – we eat these things in Guatemala that they call tortillas but the Chicago Black Sox may have used them in 1919 for baseball gloves.

We also loved the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables in Mexico. And the fresh squeezed juices. Consistently, the vegetables on offer in Guatemala are yellowed broccoli, wrinkled string beans, and sad-looking cauliflower. The fruits are just as pathetic - waxy apples and believe it or not, it’s hard to find a decent banana. Guatemala does have seedless watermelons, which is the only kind the kids will eat, and the pineapples are outstanding. We drove through Puerto Barrios the other day, which is a city on the Caribbean coast where Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita have shipping facilities, and stopped at a few roadside stands for some of the sweetest pineapples ever. They cut it in quarters, with the hard center intact, so it’s like you are eating pineapple on a stick.

The only other food that stands out in Guatemala is the fried chicken from Pollo Campero – but this is basically fast food and you can now get it in the states, including in Alexandria. So, we’ve done a lot of eating at “home” – eggs and rice, roasted potatoes, salads, pasta.

So, that's it. That's how we've taken the two greatest obligations a parent has to his or her children and turned them into our only responsibilities. It's a pretty low-stress lifestyle - no worrying about schedules or who needs to be where at what time - and for all the benefit that Coconut and J will get out of it, the more immediate benefit seems to have accrued to R and I. In fact, while reading "Life of Pi" yesterday, I came across this thought penned by Yann Martel, the author. He writes, "I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he's not careful.

Slow down, America!

We have been doing a lot of interstate driving - I-95 and I-64 to Williamsburg; the interminable I-85 to North Carolina and Atlanta; I-20 through Georgia to Alabama; I-22 from Alabama to Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, I-55 to Arkansas - and I am amazed at how fast people drive and how noisy it is in the van with the windows rolled down. Of course, I've been more aware of how fast everyone else is going because everyone else is going faster than us. Wesley at full throttle is closer to`the minimum speed limit than the maximum so it might be that folks are going as fast as the law allows. What I shake my fist at as they fly past us though is the way they change lanes at the last second nearly clipping our tail, try to pass on the right when the blinker is on signalling we are trying to move right to get out of the way, and how they look so damn smug in their cars with the automatic transmissions and the windows rolled up and air conditioning blasting. We've gotten a few honks and waves from folks who either feel some nostalgia for seeing one of these VW Westphalia dinosaurs still stomping the earth or can't believe some idiot would take the thing on a public highway, but for the most part, people just want us in the rear view mirror. The stretch of State Route 78 that we drove out of Birmingham, Alabama, may have been most unpleasant bit of driving I've ever done, and I cut my teeth behind the wheel in North Jersey and currently live in Northern Virginia, where drivers are notoriously unable to merge, thus turning twenty mile trips into day long ventures. It was hot. There were red traffic lights every hundred yards, narrow lanes and big trucks on all sides, and the only businesses that seemed to exist in the otherwise empty strip malls were pawn shops, Dollar stores, garages, fast food joints, and adult novelty superstores. And then we saw a WalMart and that explained why the other retail businesses - including a grocery store - had failed. The highlight of this part of our trip, by a longshot, was seeing a dead armadillo by the side of the road.

Another highlight - sunset from our Mississippi camp

We've been on the interstate so much rather than the more time-consuming but interesting and scenic country roads because we are still on a schedule. We committed to meet R's parents in Atlanta and my cousin in Arkansas on certain dates so we aren't able to linger another day at camps that we like. We also want to get to Mexico, so pushing on day after day isn't all bad, but it does change the dynamic from take your time to hurry up - which is opposite of how we envision life once we leave the United States in about ten days.

As R pointed out, the places we've been in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and now Arkansas, may turn out to be just as foreign to us as Mexico will be - maybe even more foreign because in Mexico we expect things to be different but in the States we expect things a certain way. It would have been nice to be able to spend some more time getting to know these places. Most of the Alabama that we drove through was flying the confederate flag from a ramshackle home that had several abandoned cars with weeds growing up through the engine block permanently docked in the front yard. Bet you don't now how many used appliances you can discard by the side of a barn: a lot.

J and Coconut sleeping on the top bunk of Wesley after an evening downpour washed out the tent Maya planned to sleep in

To be fair, our camp on Monday night on Clear Creek in Alabama, part of the vast Lewis Smith Lake, was pretty. And the drive west towards Mississippi on Country Road 278 was a nice change from interstate driving and revealed a few nice homes in seemingly otherwise forsaken towns. Maybe there is more to these towns than we could see - I don't know - but at least our experience was a bit more organic because we drove through at about 45 m.p.h. and with the windows down. We did spend about 20 minutes chatting with a park ranger who had come to take a water sample near our camp in Fulton Campground on the Tennessee River-Tombigbee Waterway in Mississippi. He was enthused about our trip and may follow through on some of his own wanderlust - which would be great if we inspired him to do that. This is to say that anyone we've talked to has been nice.

This is the view we woke to at our Clear Creek camp in Alabama on Tuesday

Natural Bridge near the Mississippi - Alabama border. We stopped while driving along State Route 195 for a short hike and picnic lunch

For the most part, Coconut and J look at their screens while we drive and R navigates from the passenger seat or orders things on our friend's Amazon Prime account that we forgot or have already lost.  We are expecting R's new swim shorts (three pair; they were on sale), her old lady face cream, a VW repair manual, and our replacement credit cards to be shipped to our next known address in Tulsa, which belongs to my cousin, who will host us next Sunday. Coconut is also hoping some of her friends will respond to the letters she sent.

The kids reading, doing other worthy things, or even playing some games on their screens while we drive is fine. Once in a while we can get them to look up at something interesting like a ride-on mower parked on a front porch and sometimes Coconut will ride shotgun so R can sit back with J and play cards. J spends a lot of time playing games on his Kindle and we need to help him download some books once we get to free Wifi.

Coconut reading a book after taking a swim in the lake

We haven't spent much time living out of the van yet to establish a routine, but we have started to engage Coconut and J in helping set up camp when we arrive and doing some chores around camp while we are there. I've taught J how to scrounge unused or partially charred firewood from the unoccupied campsites and he'll take off doing that and report back on the burned ones that are still good but that he doesn't want to carry because he will get his hands dirty. Coconut will set up the chairs and her tent. They both do the dinner dishes. They've been receptive if less than enthusiastic about doing these things but we're hoping that we can help our children succeed not by doing for them, but by showing them what they can do for themselves. This slower pace of life on the road is new to them, and we realize enthusiasm may go up as the temperatures go down. So far all any of us have wanted to do once we get to camp is put on our swimsuits and hit the water.


On the Road - Kerr Lake

For the first three nights of our year-long overland trip to South America we stayed with my in-laws friends - the very generous David and Thao - in Williamsburg, Virginia, and looked like typical tourists - standing in line at amusement parks, over-eating at buffets, and swimming in the hotel pool. Coconut and J had a nice time visiting with my sisters and nephew who came down from New Jersey for a final hug before we turned our bow south. That time finally came on Monday. Even though we would like to make it all the way to Tierra del Fuego in this year, R and I have planned that we won't do more than 4 hours of driving on any day and won't drive consecutive 4 hour days. That might mean we won't make it to the tip of Argentina, but this trip doesn't necessarily have to have a destination to be a success. With our paper map spread on the floor of Wesley and our four-hour threshold in mind, we fingered Kerr Lake in Boydton, Virginia, as within range. The GPS confirmed it to be a 2.5 hour drive and once we accounted for Wesley's more leisurely pace, we pinned it as our target for the day.

R and I met at school in Williamsburg, however, so we before we hit the highway we took a detour down nostalgia way and visited some of our old haunts - including, believe it or not, the school library. After nearly 20 years most of these places remained surprisingly familiar. And of course, because no trip to Williamsburg is complete without a visit to the premium outlets, we made a stop so I could replace my threadbare and musty sneakers that were past due on fixing.

R and I outside the school in Williamsburg were we met.  Photo courtesy of J.

Finally, with the air temperature past the boiling point and knowing that being in our unairconditioned Wesley is only tolerable when we are at cruising speed - 45 miles per hour - we set off for real on our journey - to borrow a term from John Steinbeck - into bumdom.

R had a revelation after a day spent at WaterCountry USA while she was hanging our wrung out swim suits from a line stretched from the front of Wesley to the back (essentially through our kitchen, family room and dining room) that we are actually going to be living in a van for a year - and she realized that made her happy. What a difference this emotion must be if you choose this life compared to if you are forced to live it.

Our view of Kerr Lake from camp

The drive south on Interstate 85 to the John H. Kerr Reservoir was uneventful, but by the time we pulled into campsite # 240 in North Bend Park, we were all ready for a swim. J decided, however, that it would be better if we set up camp first so we would get even more sweaty and then go for a swim. So that's what we did. J gathered firewood, Coconut pitched her tent, and R made happy noises as she pulled out our dinnerware and bedding. The swim in the lake after this bit of chores was extra refreshing and it wasn't long before J had made a new friend - Luca - and was running up and down the beach chasing after a Frisbee and living the dream - carefree and happy and not wanting for anything but more of the same.

J built a fire at camp.  Sweaty work and it was rewarded by a swim in the lake.

Coconut enjoying a book at our camp on Kerr Lake

After the sun went down, and we were reminded the sky actually contains stars and not just planes and light pollution, and with Coconut zipped into her tent and J in the top bunk dreaming whatever dreams almost 10-year old boys dream, R and I enjoyed the lake breeze with the doors on Wesley flung wide open - just like the opportunity in front of us.

La Libertadora and the Admirable Campaign

This past Friday was Simon Bolivar’s birthday.  In case you don’t know,  Bolivar was a Venezuelan military and political leader who was critical to establishing Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and a couple of other Central and South American countries no one in the United States cares about as independent of Spanish rule.  He's the Southern Hemisphere's equivalent of George Washington.  La Libertador! I read a biography about Simon Bolivar when we were in Ecuador in 2008 and when I came back to work I put an annual reminder for his birthday on Outlook. June 24, 1783. I don’t know exactly why I did this – I haven’t done it for any of the Kardashians or U.S. Presidents. Washington and Lincoln have that day in February, but it’s not their birthday and I don't know when their real birthdays are; I think that Federal holiday is designated mostly so department stores can have sales to boost corporate profits.

This year when that Outlook reminder popped up reminding me that it was Bolivar's two-hundredth and thirty-second birthday, which also believe it or not by some coincidence happened to be my last day at work for the year before we drive through Mexico and the Americas, I used it as an opportunity to get a little bit nostalgic for our time spent in Quito when I knew that if I needed shoelaces I could buy them from the woman in the plaza.

Shoelaces anyone?


I also used it as an opportunity to think a little taller.  See, Bolivar was inspired from a young age towards liberation of Latin America from Spanish rule and not only did he nail it, but he managed to get a country named after him.  (Hint: it's not Simonia.)

Other than an early fascination with the Hells’ Angels, which I eventually ruled out as a career option because I didn’t own a motorcycle and couldn’t stomp on someone’s face with a jackboot, and a desire which I can't seem to shake to abuse my knee joints and back alignment by hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail, my life aspirations have been fairly traditional: job, marriage, mortgage, kids. Satisfied in that order.

Happy family! Though, sometimes Coconut is not a morning person

I don’t know whether my vision of life inside a white picket fence sprung from the stable and loving home life provided by my parents, from watching countless re-runs of the domestic bliss embodied by The Munsters, or just from a lack of imagination. But that was the path I was on and I probably would have been very happy in living it, or at least in my ignorance of the chance I had to live some other way, but for that ingredient which has showed up at all the important junctions in my life – dumb luck.

I think I've already introduced you all to R, my wife. She's behind all of this with little resistance from me. So, let's just accept that I was lucky that she called my name and I was smart enough to call her back and that we got married and had two children (daughter, Coconut; son, formerly Rooster but heretofore referred to as J), and that we purchased an affordable house, and leave work at 5 each night, and aren't hooked on caffeine or cable TV, and have saddle bags on our bicycle so we can grocery shop and borrow books and movies from the library, and that we decided that an overland trip to South America was about the best thing that we could do right now when Coconut was 12 and J was just about to be ten.

Without getting into why the doctor thinks it's crazy how we got here, I want to give myself a little bit of credit because I think I may have been leading you all to believe that I am an unwilling passenger in all of this. No Siree Bob! I was actually looking for a smart, good-looking girl with her own wok and holes in her Birks to lead me to this point in our  "Admirable Campaign" - sitting on sagging IKEA Henriksdal dining chairs for the last six years because we needed to put the $480 that we could spend on new chairs and better back support into this trip. And now we are on the verge of turning the wheel south on a trip around the world.

On your marks, get set . . .

I wonder what Coconut and J think about life right now.  Before we stuff them in an aluminum box and drive off. They haven't told me, in spite of my threats to perform Flashdance on the school playground if they don't. Do they want what we've given them so far - a rainbow ice cream treat of a palace?  Or would they care to make different plans?  Because whatever itch R and I are scratching from realizing whatever it is we've been hoping to realize over the last bunch of years, this is when Coconut and J may get swallowed whole.

They've already been bit - Coconut is twelve and has been on four continents and spent time in over ten U.S States and paints her nails black. Think she's going to do what everyone else wants her to do? Opening her eyes to the world in this way may buy her a lifetime passport. J has starred in a very informative and entertaining documentary on the hot water spouts of Iceland and likes to lie face up on a mattress placed directly under darts stuck into an asbestos tile ceiling and turn out of the way of the falling dart at the last second (well, not yet really, but I can see him doing this in college.)  Basically, he's up for anything, and he may realize on this trip that anything is possible.

It's like this: are Coconut and J going to be happier knowing that they scored in the 90th percentile in standardized testing, or that the oil pan wasn't cracked after Pop took the tope, which is Spanish for giant Mexican speed bump, too fast?  It's like this: maybe the captives didn't think they had it so bad until El Libertador rode to town.  And this time, he's embarking on his Admirable Campaign hand-in-hand with La Libertadora!




The Happiness Project

My wife R and I had this crazy idea to buy a VW camper van and spend a year driving it to South America via Mexico and Central America. It’s crazy on the one hand because we have a daughter (age 12), a son (age 9), and zero mechanical acumen.   I just recently learned a “starter” is not just something that you order with drinks before your entrée; it actually helps make the car go vroom.

We’ll have to take the kids out of school, where they both have very good grades and nice friends, and somehow prevent them from bickering each other to death as they spend the next 365 days buckled next to each other on a bench seat where they won’t even have arm rests to define their space. There’s a good chance this will be the last time they ever acknowledge us as their parents!

It’s crazy on the other hand because, well, it’s just crazy awesome! I mean, you would have to be nearly insane to not want to take a year off from the daily 9 to 5 and spend it with your wife and children in an 80 square foot rectangle on wheels. Think of the stories we'll have to tell - of being bitten by enormous mosquitoes! Of paying bribes to men in uniform! Think of the shared experiences  - perfecting our Spanish while ordering cold bebidas at surf camp! wondering where the heck is the tow truck and when does the rainy season end!

The Vanamos family prepares for departure.

But life is what you make it; so we’re going to do it. We’re going to leave Alexandria, Virginia, on August 1 and drive 80 miles south to Richmond to spend the night with my Aunt. Assuming she doesn’t talk us into turning around and heading home, the next day we’re going to drive south some more and then we’re going to keep doing it until we get to the Mexican border. And that’s when the adventure really begins.