long-term travel

Holes in our Sneakers

We've done this drill before. In 2008 when we went to Ecuador for four months we rented our home and had to empty drawers and cabinets, scrub the toilet and vacuum years of dust from our lampshades and fan blades so that our tenants didn't feel like they were moving into a junk drawer. My wife R and I were hissing at each other like a couple of alley cats over whether a box should be labelled pantry stuff or non-perishables. It's completely logical that a half-empty jar of Sockarooni pasta sauce left in an otherwise spotless refrigerator should become grounds for divorce when a relationship is under that kind of stress. For this year-long overland trip to South America that we are about to undertake, we also have renters for our home. It's a testimonial to R's and my growth as human beings that when given this second chance to clean and straighten our house and discard and store our crap, we have not renewed our retainers with Dewey, Screwum & Howe.

We started this emptying the house process months ago and even though we have been working diligently at it while binge watching episodes of "The Walking Dead" and "Orange is the New Black" we still have loads of boxes to pack and haul to storage and rolls of bags to fill and bring to goodwill so the sorters can peek inside, move some things around, and then toss the whole thing in the dumpster.  So even though you would think we would have this place stripped down to the studs by now, we've run into two problems.

The first problem is that we have six more years worth of stuff since the last time we did something like this. Two rubber balls have produced 85 offspring off all colors, sizes, and degrees of bounce.  We have enough pencils to make a tree and if we had any engineering skills could probably build a Transformer out of the number of barrettes, random plastic things, and matchbox cars we've found.  Plus, the kids are older and don't think it is "fun" anymore to help Mommy and Poppy clean hair out of the sink drain like they did when they were young and cute. The message they're sending from behind their screens is clear - this was your idea so pay the piper.

The other problem is that we have a family moving into the house that plans to make it their home for the year. Even though they are graciously allowing us to leave most of our furniture, we have to remove all of our personal items.  I haven't actually asked them this, but have a gut feeling they don't want to find my copy of the Internal Revenue Code displayed in the middle of the bookshelf when they move in on August 1st. Since we are still living here but don't want to be packing boxes up until the minute our tenants’ movers ring the doorbell with their stuff, our pre-vacate the premises packing requires us to anticipate what we might need (fourteen decks of cards) as compared to what we just can't do without (toothbrushes). All the things we might need, we have moved to storage. But even the stuff that we have managed to clear out of the house keeps managing to find its way back. My daughter Coconut has asked for the typewriter, her letter writing box, and our DVD collection. My son Rooster has retrieved his football card collection and World Cup soccer sticker book, and shortly after we surreptitiously discarded his rock collection, made himself a nice new gem pile with "precious stones" he found in the alley which are currently neatly laid out on a towel on his bedroom floor.

We sent these first day of school outfits of Coconut and Rooster to the thrift store.

R wanders around the house with her iPhone randomly taking photos of things to get rid of on Craigslist so the kids and I run for cover when she approaches to avoid being photoed and posted as “free”. She recently sold her dresser and has what's left of her wardrobe - three shirts, a clown suit, and some undergarments - piled in a suitcase on the floor. We have to bake cookies so the kids giddily dance around the kitchen while we haul to the car goodwill bags filled with things they haven't used for years but are sure to desperately need if they see them.

One last plaintive look before being stuffed into a bag and dumped in the Goodwill bin.

In going through my own things and deciding what I will be happy to see again when I unpack it next year against what I'll never remember I even had, I realized that but for the fact that R can often be found at my side, I must cut a pretty pathetic figure. Looking with a critical eye as I was going through my clothes drawer, I realized that most items were faded, frayed, torn, and dated from the days before Bill Clinton ran for a second term. The other day while sitting in a meeting at work I saw I had a hole in my sock that matched up perfectly with the hole in my sneaker. I could see the top of my big toe. In anticipation of leaving this place for a year, I've become neglectful of simple things like noticing as I try to squeeze every last use and value out of things without any plan to replace them. My bike tires are so worn I can see the tubes but I don't want to spend 100 bucks for new ones because that's money that will be hanging from the roof of my father-in-law's shed for the next year.

The other night when I was tucking Coconut into bed she said that she wanted to wash her sheets. Ordinarily this would lighten my heart for how responsible she's become to pick up a chore that R and I have  neglected. Instead, I felt like she shouldn't bother because she’s only going to be sleeping on them a couple more days and the time to wash them and put them back on the bed can be better spent doing other things. Rather than tell her this, however, I bit my tongue, kissed her forehead and told her that was a good idea. Then I left the room and turned out the light; just like we're going to do on this life in a few days - clean sheets and all.

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.