Posted from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. We were young and naive. Before we left on our year long overland trip through Mexico and Central America in our 1985 VW Westfalia camper van, we thought we could follow two very simple "road rules," that our kids would take an interest in learning, and that we would all come back fit and healthy.
Things did not go as planned.
I need exercise like some people need sleep. In my 9 to 5 life I was biking to work, lifting weights, stretching like Mr. Fantastic, running on weekends, playing backyard sports with the kids, and rolling around on the floor with my wife - I mean, I was living the dream.
R is not much for exercise for the sake of exercise. She prefers the kind of movement that comes with an active lifestyle. She’s coordinated, athletic, and confident and this makes her good at most physical activities. She claims to have beaten me at tennis, but I don’t remember. A few years ago she had earned her green belt in karate, which is like one step down from being the antagonist in a Steven Seagal movie, but stopped going to the dojo when I started picking fights so she could step in and kick the guys’ asses.
J and Coconut got the normal exercise kids get from playing outside with their friends, playing inside with their friends, and going to school. By dumb luck, we stumbled into buying a town house with no yard but with a park directly behind us. Being the exceptional parents we are, R noticed, and I agreed, that if J didn’t get outside time each day to run off some of his spunk, he was a real pain in the ass come bedtime. On days he had been stuck indoors, we would go to the park as a family after dinner to throw and hit a baseball (we changed to a tennis ball as the kids got better at hitting so we didn't break any car windows), shoot the basketball off of the backboard and maybe even hit the rim, and generally goof around in an active way.
While making preparations to leave on our year-long trip I came across a few articles that mentioned all the yummy treats that would be available and how I should try them because hey, when in Rome, but that trying them could lead to something like the “freshman fifteen” in my forties. So, apart from the thought that my limbs would be hacked off with a machete and my torso hung from the underside of an overpass, what to do for exercise while south of the border is what kept me awake at night.
We considered bringing bikes, not only to burn calories but also for transport once Wesley was parked and set up for camp. But where do you put four bikes on a Westy? Weights were out of the question, of course, our van would be heavy enough with all the gear we were carrying, and I nixed the idea of bringing a hard foam roller to keep my back in alignment because it took up too much space. We would need to think outside the box.
As a testament that I hardly knew my family, I put together an exercise program that didn’t require any stuff besides our bodies – things like push-ups, jumping jacks, deep knee bends – and expected that we would all do it together a couple of mornings each week. But I had miscalculated several factors that, in retrospect, may have been obvious.
First, you can’t lie down in the grass in Mexico or Central America to do a sit-up because if you are lucky, ants will crawl up your shirt and bite the shit out of you. If you are unlucky, it will be a scorpion or a spider. So, anything that requires you to get down on the ground is out of the question.
Second, it’s too damn hot to move around because I only brought three T-shirts. I can’t afford to have one soaked through with sweat before breakfast because I decided to do twenty-five scissor kicks. I need to wear the shirt tomorrow, and possibly the next day as well.
So, what did we do for exercise? Basically, nothing. That is, nothing that anyone could call regular exercise. Instead, we try to find things to do daily that require us to move our bodies. Hiking is an obvious choice as there are so many beautiful areas to explore, but we do not go on family “hikes” because the word brings tears to the kids’ eyes. I've managed to do a few solo hikes, but not nearly enough as have been there for the walking.
Walking, as they say, is the best exercise and we did a fair amount of it. The trick here is for us to be careful that our walks don't end at the store so we can buy two liters of beer and an ice cream cone.
We had fun joining baseball games on the beach or in the banana fields, kicking the soccer ball around with the locals, and doing our own thing with a ball or Frisbee. We all love to swim in the ocean and there is nothing that makes you feel so alive as dragging your body onto the beach after it was thrown about by the Pacific surf, but then Coconut informed us she hated sand and proved it when we spent three weeks at Playa Marsella in Nicaragua by sitting on the couch the entire time while the rest of us splashed around daily.
Surfing is a great upper body exercise and we've tried it, but we do not have the lean, tanned bodies of the surfer. Rather, we have the sore, bruised bodies of the non-surfer.
The adventure activities we've done like zip-lining and tree climbing might count as exercise because they require a modicum of upper body strength and you have to hike to each platform, but our budget does not allow us that indulgence frequently enough. Stepping off the Tarzan Swing and free-falling definitely gave me a cardio work out by raising my heart rate to dangerous levels.
In some places I saw people lifting heavy rocks over their heads and I did that a few times in lieu of lifting weights, but I can’t always find a heavy rock at camp. And most of the time I don't want to because, well, it's hot and when it comes down to it, I'm lazy.
If the park where we are wandering has exercise machines or a pull up bar we’ll fool around with them, but this is more like a one night stand with exercise, not a relationship.
As a result of all these flirtations with exercise but failure to make a commitment, I’ve definitely gained weight and lost muscle mass and Coconut and J don't like to walk up a staircase without complaining unless we've bribed them with a treat for reaching the top. This all has to stop when we get back to Alexandria.
The only one of us who is in better shape than when we started is R – she lost weight and is looking like she did when she was in high school. I'm hoping my re-initiation into the regular exercise routine is going to involve a lot of rolling around on the floor.