campervan

Our Dream House

One of the questions that my wife R and I get asked when we tell people that we are going on a year-long overland trip to South America is “what about work?” I translate this to mean, “Are you out of your mind, man? You’re going to throw away your career, pull your kids out of school and away from their friends to drive them to where? Do you read the papers? This is not safe or responsible.   And you are going to pay for this how? Good effin’ luck.” I suppose I should be grateful that these people consider me well groomed and rational enough to be employable in the first place. But the answer that weighs on my mind is that neither R nor I will be working for the year, which means that unless we hit the lottery, we will have no income for the year. Note, our budget for the year does not include money to buy lottery tickets.

While having no income will be slightly less than we earned when I was a government employee and R ran her own immigration law practice, we are counting on it being okay. We have been planning this trip since 2008. Along with the money we’ve put aside from each paycheck for the kids’ college, our retirement, and my beer, we’ve also saved more than a couple of dollars for this trip.

Yet despite all this saving, we’ve still been able to do just exactly what we’ve wanted – be it the spring break vacation to Hawaii or Iceland, tickets to the ballgame or the theater, or just going out for dinner and a movie.

Many of our money saving ways derive from R's granola tendencies. Use cloth napkins; save the Earth and some money!

How? It comes down to one simple principle that has played big in every major life decision I have ever made – dumb luck. Although R and I never talked about money and bank accounts when we were dating, choosing instead to focus on more practical things like whether our hacienda should have one or two turrets and what kind of chickens we would keep, it turned out we have the same philosophy when it comes to spending money – we’re cheap as hell. We hang our clothes rather than putting them in the dryer. We don’t have cable, Netflix, or a Starbucks habit. We turn out the lights when we leave the room, cut coupons and use them, and brown bag our lunches. Target is our Nordstrom and the thrift store is our Target. Our children, Coconut and Rooster, wear handed-down hand-me downs. I didn’t think anyone could be cheaper than my dad until I met my in-laws. And the bargain-hunting, coupon-cutting childhood we were raised in is being passed down to our children. My daughter Coconut checks music CDs out of the library rather than buying them on Amazon.

Here I am saving a few bucks by grilling dinner at the neighbors while they are away on vacation.

Now, none of this is to say we don’t appreciate quality. Chinese products have a very, very bad reputation in our house and we’ll spend a few extra bucks to get a better product that will not fall apart in the middle of its first use. But we recognize the difference between what we want compared to what we need, and we’ll shop around for hours using our neighbor's Wi-Fi to find the best price and use the time to talk ourselves out of buying the things that we think we want. I suppose this impulse control can be achieved through some form of practiced self-flagellation, but it’s how we’re wired.

From a young age we preached to our children the adage - if it's yellow let it mellow.

When R and I were just starting out in the careers that we are getting ready to flush down the toilet, she decided it would be a good idea if we bought a house rather than continue to rent the perfectly situated and spacious apartment that we both loved. Some fool bank loan officer who is now probably employed cleaning bathrooms at the airport offered us a pile of money that, although we aren’t very good with numbers, R and I were sure we would never be able to pay back. We ended up across the tracks and with a mortgage that we can pay with the loose change our guests leave in the couch cushions. Despite the fact that it has little natural light, seems to grow smaller each year as our children grow bigger, and has free range rats in the alley rather than chickens, R calls it her dream house. At some point we realized that the dream is not the house that we owned or the stuff that we had, but the life that we lived. Our priority in living, and what we are trying to instill in Coconut and Rooster, is that doing things is cooler than having things. Choosing to buy this house rather than one in the fancy part of town is emblematic of all the other choices we’ve made either by stumbling into them or through thoughtful process and which have allowed us the financial freedom to create experiences, and to save the money that we are about to use to live the dream that we both knew we always wanted to live.

Meet the Cuy

I don’t know a lot about cars and engines and stuff, but I do know that you need a car with an engine and stuff to do an overland tour of the Americas. So, the first thing that my wife R and I agreed to do after we decided we would drive a VW camper van to South America was buy a VW camper van. To give this thought some context, let me go back a lifetime - to 2008.  That's when we spent the summer in Quito, Ecuador, and the seed for this year-long journey was planted.  R was volunteering with Asylum Access, a non-profit organization providing legal services to refugees and I had taken a leave of absence from my government job to buy ice cream for my daughter (age five) and son (age two), learn something that passes for Spanish, and generally goof off.  R helped some people escape from those that wanted to harm them in Colombia and set them on a path for a new life and I managed to not lose the children and not have them eat anything that did permanent damage.  We each achieved success in our own way!  We called our trip the Adventures of the Cuy.

camper van family in Ecuador

camper van family in Ecuador

maya driving

One weekend during that adventure while we were vacationing at the beach and drinking rum (which is what R and I are prone to do at the beach) we met a single mother with her adolescent children who was WOOFing around the world for a year.  I remember that she and R had an intense conversation while the kids and I dug very deep holes in the beach for fun.  We parted from the woman as friends, but never spoke to her again.  It was one of those circumstances where someone you hardly even know says or does something that profoundly impacts the course of your life - like Brett Favre telling me to buy real, comfortable, jeans.  It happens to me all the time.

After R helped me out of a very deep hole and told me about the conversation, and after about five minutes more of daydreaming (which we are also prone to do, especially when drinking rum on the beach), we decided that we would undertake a similar trip when our daughter Coconut was in the seventh grade - which seemed to me to be far enough in the future to safely agree to do without really committing to anything.  Then I didn't think seriously about our agreement for six years despite all the times R would bring it up, which was pretty often.  It turns out that taking a family off the grid for a year requires someone to give it about six years of thought and planning.

And then finally, as Coconut was starting the sixth grade in September of 2014, it got real.  R reminded me again of our many conversations (at some point I had also agreed that instead of going by airplane from organic farm to organic farm to provide manual labor we should drive an old van through the Americas.  It's possible I may have been drinking rum on the beach when agreeing to this alternative) and said she'd been looking on Craigslist and had found a rusty old van in town that she wanted us to go look at.  Well, it turned out that van was not rusty or old enough, but after a few more visits here and there around the East Coast we finally found our van in rusting armor.  We named it Wesley and just recently got it back from the mechanic where it had been since March.  We drove it around for a couple weeks and everything mechanical seemed to be in working order (that's the extent of my shop talk), so we dropped it off at with a guy to install solar panels to charge our auxiliary battery which will power our electronics, lights, and refrigerator.  We hope to have Wesley back soon so we can actually go camping in it before we set off on our year long trip.  We need to learn the important things like  how cold we can expect our drinks to get and where, strategically, is the best place to keep the toilet paper.  In another post I'll explain Wesley's very cool design and layout, what modifications we made, and how a family of four actually expects to survive while living in it for a year. Until then, meet your crazy adventurers:

R – She’s the brains of the operation. She pitched the idea to take a year off and travel, and stuck to it through all of my efforts to domesticate her. I’d like to put her in a time capsule Vanamos Mom and family gap year with kidsbecause every generation should have someone like her.  She tries to downplay it, says this is not a unique idea and that she’s just tacking on to what others have done before her, but she’s never done it. I’ve never done it. Goodness knows our kids have never done it. It takes some amount of guts to take a family out of its suburban comfort zone, pack it into a VW camper van, and drive it across two continents. But that's R, always climbing towards the stars.  Will we still love her when all is done and done? I bet we will.

Vanamos daugher and family gap year

Coconut – Our daughter is a tough nut to crack. She’s an introvert and bookworm, but will be the first one in line for a daredevil stunt or some other adrenaline-pumping thrill. She’s laid-back and independent and has not revealed much about her feelings towards our upcoming adventure; but every now and then I see the gleam in her eye. Coconut will be turning 13 during this adventure, so we got her a tent as her own space to unwind. It’s roomy enough for her to be alone with her thoughts and maybe even invite one of us in for a game of cards if the mood strikes her.

Vanamos boy and family gap year

Rooster – Our son will turn ten on this adventure. He likes playing sports, bouncing off the walls, and waking up early. We aren’t bringing an alarm clock along because it’s inhumane to set it earlier than Rooster will wake. Though generally shy and humble, he’s confident in what he can do and can sometimes be seen strutting around the barnyard like he owns the place. Rooster is naturally inquisitive and often hilarious. He’s also very practical; he sleeps in his clothes to save time in the morning.

Me – I’m an attorney in a small office at a large government bureaucracy. Over the last several years events in both my personal and professional life have caused me to reflect on where I am, how I got here, and where it’s leading. Some might call it a mid-life crisis, but as someone recently pointed out to me, I’m actually past halfway for a white male of my socio-economic status. Given the incidence of hair loss and couch-potatoness among males in my family, the picture becomes even clearer – time is all I’ve got and I’m running out of time! Of course, time isn’t all I’ve got – I’ve also got a family, a baseball glove, and the complete catalog of studio recordings from the original lineup of Black Sabbath. But you know what I mean.

Vanamos Dad and family gap year