First Day on Our Own: Looking for the upside to wrong turns, rocky roads and volcano fountains

“Day 38 Six hours, two buses, one ferry–and we’re almost at Finca Mystica in Ometepe Island.”

Those were the overconfident lines I wrote from an Internet cafe at around 4 pm, in Altagracia. It was probably around the same time, as we would later learn, that the last bus of the day was pulling away for Merida, leaving us stranded.

The day had started auspiciously. We had left Granada that morning on a chicken bus, bound for Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. We had arranged to have a cab from the organic tree farm, Finca Mystica, pick us up. Considering most cab rides have been a dollar or two, it felt kind of crazy to spend $30 for the ride, but as it was the first day the kids and I would be traveling on our own, Jorge encouraged us to take the cab as it would erase any of the uncertainty from taking the local buses.

That first bus to Rivas went smoothly. It was full of tourists. It was odd as I had never seen so many tourists on a chicken bus. Probably a good fifth or maybe even a quarter were hauling backpacks. I breathed an internal sigh of relief, confident this would be an easy trip to Ometepe since everyone was heading the same direction. We arrived in San Jorge and had a $3 cab ride to the ferry. Rough ride on the ‘new’ (circa 1970) ferry, but knowing that our pre-arranged driver would be waiting was a great relief.

As soon as we got off the ferry, we were accosted by the usual “taxi! taxi!” I looked for my guy with a sign, as I had imagined our driver would have a handwritten paper announcing “Herrada” as if hailing our successful first morning of travel as a threesome.

But he wasn’t there.

Many drivers offered to take us to Finca Mystica, but I was worried that our driver would come and find us gone. So we waited, eventually concluding that he wasn’t coming. And then I saw the chicken bus. Considering this option, I’d not only save $28, but I’d also prove what unflappable adventurers we were–savvy, frugal travelers who can handle just about anything thrown our way. Right or wrong, I needed that validation, a vote of confidence that first day.

We clambered on the old school bus, local style, through the back emergency exit. The bus sat, waiting to fill. We were soon hot and questioning if this was the best choice. We got off. We weren’t giving up, just exploring our options, as Jorge would have done. We talked to the local guys lingering around the bus. The bus wasn’t leaving for a half an hour. One said to take this bus. The other said wait for the next bus. Many said to just take a cab.

We were wilting quickly so we stepped into a patio restaurant with Wifi for a drink so we could check our email and see if the hotel was sending a ride. That’s when I realized that when I had intended to reply to the hotel this morning to arrange our driver, I had replied only to Jorge’s forwarded message. Ryan, the owner, had not received our email. My dream of a waiting chauffeur was gone.

Undeterred, I seized the chance to prove what good travelers the kids and I were. Chicken bus all the way….

Off the tourist route on this bus, it was a crowded ride to Altagracia, where we stopped for lunch and to wait for the next bus on the last leg of our journey, departing at 4:30 to get us to Merida.

We looked for an internet cafe to confirm our change of plans with Ryan, the owner of Finca Mystica, as we’d need them to pick us up at the last town to drive is to the farm. It was then that we stumbled on what we thought must be Altagracia’s claim to fame: a model of Ometepe Island made of two large volcano structures set in a fountain. Though perhaps ‘claim to fame’ is a bit strong, there were turtles in the water and a few even climbing around on the island statue’s ring road. Nice. Kids were duly impressed. Looking back, I wonder if the turtle on the ring road wasn’t an omen for our day. Of course, had Jorge been there, we would have known to stop in at the church see the petroglyphs.

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At the Internet cafe, we were sure to let Jorge know about our facility navigating chicken buses without him. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were gloating, but perhaps a bit prideful.

We had lunch, bought some snacks to take with us, and crossed the park to where the bus would come.

But the bus had already left, about a half hour ago. We had been told the wrong time.

Absolutely undeterred, I marched the children down the center of the road in the direction out of town. I announce in no uncertain terms that we’d be hitch hiking. We’d just jump in the back of a pick up and get to Merida. We were an intrepid threesome and nothing could stop us. This was just another chance to prove that.

But we didn’t see any pickups. A collectivo finally passed, turning a corner and heading in the right direction. I yelled and flagged my arms. I was sure that this must be our ticket out of town. But they were already too far away to see us.

Then a man with a cloth and a bottle of polish, lovingly detailing his motorcycle, and most likely waiting his entire life for this moment, jumped on his bike and raced down the street to catch the collectivo for us, which by this point was well out of sight.

And short of him saying he would take us on his motorcycle himself, this heroic act of kindness would have been a great way to resolve this travel dilemma. Collectivo flagged down. They’d say that of course they were heading to Merida. We’d get in, exhausted and relieved. Problem solved. What an adventure.

But, though our machismo motorcycle man did catch them, the collectivo wasn’t going to Merida. And our speeding hero didn’t offer to have us hop on, backpack straps flapping in the wind as he took us to Merida himself.
So we were stuck again, not just in Merida, but in my stymied pride. Having just spent over three hours getting to this point from the ferry, I was not going to bail out now and take a cab, which would cost the same exact price as a cab from the ferry.

Honestly, I had something to prove to myself and the kids. I had to show them that we could do this and that we’d be alright alone for the next four weeks. If we totally failed the first day, how would that bode for the rest of the trip?

And finally, the truth was, and still is tonight as I write this, that I’m tired and scared. I feel like this whole trip was just too much to take on alone. I wanted to be home where I had nail polish remover and perpetually clean laundry and huge containers of organic baby spinach. I wanted really hot water and a day where I didn’t have to apply DEET insect repellent like lotion while carrying burdensome worries that one of my kids is going to get dengue or a tropical parasite.

But home felt like an elusive dream at that moment. Hot and tired, knowing that we had less than two hours of daylight, we kept trying. Dylan flagged down the occasional collectivo that passed and we asked if they were heading to Merida. Abigail suggested we just go to the grocery store and check if they had ice cream to keep up our energy.

No luck on either front. I was beginning to wonder where Merida was and why no one was going there.

So I gave up. When a second tourist cab finally stopped, we got in. Paid $30. The road to Merida was a bumpy ride on something more aptly called a rock scramble, not really even a trail and definitely not like any road I’ve ever been on. People walked and a few biked, but we didn’t pass any other cars.

As we jolted along the road, I shared with the kids I’d felt like I’d failed. Dylan flatly agreed. Without malice, Abigail said it wouldn’t have happened if Papa had been here. My eyes burned. Tears I had refused to shed that morning as we said goodbye to Jorge were forming a hard knot in my throat. I was frustrated that the day had been so long and angry at myself for making the wrong call.

I tried to put a good spin on it and point out the highlights. Think of what an adventure today was, I told the kids. There were the cute turtles in the funky volcano fountain, the great lunch in Altagracia, and the vision of our motorcycle hero speeding off down the road to catch our ride.

I couldn’t get any takers at my reframing attempts.

Then our van slowed and turned off the road. The sign said, “Finca Mystica.”

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The little houses along the road that were so cute on their website were shacks. There was a bag’o bones horse roped to a tree. Abigail was near to tears when she declared that it was nothing like the pictures online that she’d been poring over for the last few months.

Thankfully, the road didn’t end there. We kept driving and were let out at the most amazing yurt-like cabanas–sustainably, artistically, and lovingly set out on a field near a covered lodge and dining area connected with winding stone paths and dotted with over 100 species of fruit trees and nut trees organically grown. Ryan and Angela ensconced us in a warm welcome. The kids were thrilled. Dinner was coconut Thai soup for Abigail and burritos for Dylan.

Inside our Yurt at Finca Mystica

Inside our Yurt at Finca Mystica

And all was solved, at least for the evening. But there were still many days ahead of us and the reality was that it wasn’t just a few overpriced cabs and missed buses that could undermine this trip. Instead, it was the wrestling within my own psyche, an uneasy confidence battle, feeling like I had bombed out on the first day and couldn’t do this alone. And quite honestly, I was a bit angry at myself for becoming so dependent on someone and needing Jorge so much.

But maybe my expectations were just set too high. It seems appropriate to remember Jorge’s mantra when I go out of town and leave him with the kids– “My goal is to just keep ’em alive.” He doesn’t try to make fancy dinners or keep the house clean or chaperone the kids’ field trips. He doesn’t try to replace me; just mitigate the damage of my absence. So I’m giving up pretending to be a great adventure traveler who can do this on my own and doesn’t need Jorge. I shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that when he’s with us, we’re a good team. Without him, there will be more wrong turns, lost socks, missed buses and miscalculated finances. But, as we have no other choice for the next month, maybe I just need to see the good side of this mayhem.

After all, life’s journey isn’t really about arriving at the destination in a straight line free of detours or wrong turns. Since no one can avoid the proverbial ‘end of the road’ anyway, why take the highway to get there when you could take a colorful chicken bus, stopping along the way in little towns with quirky turtle-volcano fountains and spontaneous heroes on motorcycles.

And when I do return home it’s more than just organic spinach and endless piles of clean laundry that I’ll appreciate. It’s the acute awareness that Jorge and I are a great team. Being married to Jorge is definitely not taking the highway. It’s simply finding a colorful yet carefully planned route to visit the amazing, connect with the quirky and linger with the unforgettable–together.

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Souvenir Shopping: It’s all about asking the right questions.

I love to shop on vacation. Every place has a niche market and just being there makes me want it. Sadly, even items which wouldn’t catch my eye at home seem like a good idea when I’ve had to get my passport stamped to get there. 20130726-184133.jpgRugs in Turkey? We’ve hauled one home. A dozen sheepskins in New Zealand? Packed and transported. A Portuguese watering can…red Moroccan ballet flats… white Cuban table linens…hand blown Egyptian glasses and matching pitcher? All selected, bargained, paid, packed, hauled….and now sitting in my house. The problem is that when I get home, those red shoes hurt my feet, the sheepskins feel like a PETA faux pas and the white table linens are just plain impractical. My travel shopping sprees clearly don’t translate well to my real life.

The sobering reality of this phenomenon is that it doesn’t take a passport stamp to trigger it. This past summer in Florida, I was brainwashed by pink. Sad for me because by the end of the trip, there was actually a flock of pink yard flamingos in my trunk, most likely breaking an interstate commerce law as I was driving across state lines with the intent and purpose of displaying tacky lawn decor in others’ yards.

Talking this over with a friend, I’ve realized that this shopping alter ego, what I’ve called the Flamingo Effect (after my misfortunes in Florida), goes well beyond style and souvenirs. My friend whose passport stamps rival Hillary Clinton has noticed that this effect colors her view of men, too. She admits that men who would not turn her head at home look more attractive abroad, when she’s immersed in their country. Home court advantage? Maybe. A slight Japanese man gives off a sexy vibe. She finds herself wondering about the angular German man across the cafe. And I confess a strange allure to the sultry Turkish man that offers me tea and croons that my eyes are like the sea. Thankfully neither of us has managed to bring home any of this type of souvenir.

After years of over-shopping, I have realized the sad truth about souvenirs: Just like the handsome men, not every thing that catches my eye really should be brought home. But when I’m shopping somewhere away from home, I’m convinced that this is THE item that, once I return, will transform my mundane life into a little vacation every time I see it. And that’s probably the core of the issue–I want to bring that vacation feeling home.

This summer is a little different though. We’re not taking rolling suitcases that we can overpack. Instead, we’re hauling backpacks on the chicken buses in Central America. Every ounce is carefully considered. I can’t let myself fall prey to the Flamingo Effect.

So what do I bring home as a souvenir? Writing this, I remembered back to high school French. The root of the word ‘souvenir’ is simply ‘to come to mind again.’ There’s nothing in the definition about needlessly spending money on trinkets.

And truth be told, I know it’s not the stuff I cram in my bag that puts me on the road more than 3 months each year. Instead, it’s the personal connections that feed my wanderlust. It’s walking down a street at night and glimpsing a family moment through a partly open door. It’s learning where someone’s life has taken them and then letting the story resonate with me for years as I wonder how it ended.

It’s these moments that are the best souvenirs.

And so that’s what I’ll take with me from this summer. And that’s how I’ll reminisce when I want to recapture a bit of our trip…

….I’ll return a stack of barely read library books for my kids and remember volunteers inviting us to help them deliver books to rural schools in Ahuacapan…I’ll see a young hispanic bus boy at the pizza place in Arlington and think of a chicken bus entrepreneur who saved money working 16 hour days in a pizza joint in Jersey, returning to La Perla to buy two successful chicken buses.20130726-183500.jpgAnd I’ll get an email and two phone calls from my mother in a period of three hours and remember the clean-cut bright young man in Suchitoto who could have been my son in ten years, but who’s unnamed crime while working in Jamaica keeps him on road and scared to return to the US. He admitted he has no one at home to help him sort it out, much less someone who looses sleep at night or sends emails during the day, wondering where he is.

But I think it goes deeper than just remembering stories from the road. Instead, it’s living with a traveler’s inquiry to feed my wandering spirit, even when I’m home. It’s adopting an awareness that I don’t have to cross an international border to connect, but sometimes just walk across the street and ask the traveler’s perennial question, “Where are you going? Where have you been?” Everyone has an answer worth hearing and worth remembering.

So today in Nicaragua and two months from now in Arlington, I’ll live with the consciousness that everyone is a fellow adventurer in this journey we call life. If I do choose to take a minute or an hour, or a lifetime to get to know that traveler, my own life will be richer for having taken the time to ask. And instead of the hassle of hauling home clutter, my souvenirs will be the stories I’ll collect and the memories I’ll carry.

What Can a Book Do? Guest Blogger Dylan Herrada shares how he’s making the world a better place.

Editor’s note: One can’t travel through Central America without having a jolt of guilt from the extreme poverty. There’s an undeniable gulf between the few ‘haves’ and the mass of ‘have nots.’ We had all been feeling a nagging desire to do something, and were hoping to find somewhere to volunteer.

We had come across various volunteer organizations over the last few weeks. The reality of last minute volunteering is that it’s not as easy as one would think. Understandably, organizations seem to want at least a week long commitment. There’s also been the questionably large financial commitment–explained as processing and project fees. Such a financial request made us wonder who was padding their pockets.

Then a few days ago, we had a chance encounter while waiting for a bus. Since travelers are rare around here in El Salvador’s nascent tourism industry, we immediately recognized each other as foreigners amongst the local crowd at a bus stop. We never miss the opportunity to connect with a fellow adventurer.

It was through this chance encounter on the way to Ahuachapan, El Salvador that we met adult siblings that were traveling together–Wendy and Matt Finlayson. We immediately connected with Wendy and Matt and were impressed with their genuine kindness and warmth (along with the fact that we couldn’t imagine our kids choosing to travel together some day!)

Here’s what Dylan Herrada (11 yrs) had to say about the experience:

A few days ago we met some people that were doing some volunteer work in El Salvador. They were delivering books to remote rural schools. Some of these schools had a library of maybe 10 books. We asked if there was anything we could do to help. They said yes.

The next day we woke up at 5:30 am. By 6:30 we were riding in the back of an old pickup truck. We went to the first school that had about 45 students ranging in age from 3-8. Some of the students had never seen Americans. Some of them couldn’t read at all while others were barely reading.

We gave them a box of Spanish books containing around 50 books. I read a book to the children and they listened carefully and really liked it. 20130714-144544.jpg They were excited that we had brought them these books.

At some schools, each student’s mother had made their child a special book bag to take a book home and share it with their family. 20130714-150648.jpgThe problem was that they had so few books, only one child in each class was allowed to take home a book each night. This is a picture of what one entire school’s library looked like.20130714-144821.jpgNow that they have the books we delivered, more children can bring home a book and read. To us the books may seem like a small amount but to them it was a mountain of books.

There were three schools that we visited in total that day. Some of the schools had more students. At the other schools, we did a presentation of some of the books. We read them the 2 books that the kids in other schools had liked the most. Then I helped to teach them some basic English words, give them the box of books and get ready to move on to the next school. It wasn’t sad to leave since we knew that “Books for a Better World” would be back next year to encourage the teachers, visit the school and bring more books.20130714-144707.jpgMost of the roads were dirt roads so we went down some steep, rocky hills. The rain had made deep ruts in road and we had to hold on tightly. Sometimes, the truck would slowly slide down the hills.20130714-151815.jpgIn all we went to 3 schools. We had intended to go to four but it started raining heavily and the dirt roads became inaccessible. We had to go back to the hotel, soaking wet but feeling like we had been a part of something important.

That day will definitely be the highlight of our vacation.

– Dylan Herrada

Final editor’s note:
What an amazing day we had. Never could have planned it, but it was perfect how it worked out. Glad it seemed to impact the kids, too.

I was super impressed with this organization. It was small enough to be extremely fiscally responsible but large enough to be effective. They work with the Department of Education very loosely to gain appropriate entré into the schools–but not so closely that there’s any concerns about favoritism. Their book selection was culturally sensitive and relevant. They have a great rapport with the teachers and directors and they see a marked improvement in the schools with whom they’ve developed an ongoing relationship. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a volunteer organization with such a low overhead–though this did mean we traveled in the back of a pick up!

It was fun, meaningful day. I can even see Dylan and Abigail following in the footsteps of Matt and Wendy some day and heading out on their own adventure together…20130714-150323.jpgIf you’d like to know more about Libros para un Mundo Mejor, go to http://www.booksforabetterworld.com. And in a few weeks, check out the website to see their updated video that they made. Maybe you’ll recognize a few faces.
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Neglectful Parenting: What you give your kids from poor planning and missing toilet seats.

I was beginning to wonder this morning if we hadn’t bitten off a bit too much on this trip. Rain, fatigue and long travel days (and nights) were taking their toll. I was questioning what the kids were really getting out of this experience. Eight more weeks in Central America felt like an eternity.

Perhaps most difficult part was the fact that the deeper we’d ventured into Guatemala, the more difficult it had become for Jorge and me to communicate with our limited Spanish.

This morning, we took the ferry from Panajachel across Lake Atitlán to San Pedro. 20130701-200001.jpgWhen we arrived with no hotel reservations, this small, quirky out-of-the way town seemed about to do us in. As we stood a block from the dock, we read from the guide book that no mid or high range hotels existed. I found myself becoming annoyed for not paying more attention to our itinerary.

This hillside lake town was mostly traditionally dressed Maya, with some travelers, and a few quirky uncategorized who came and never left, as is often found in off-the-path, but still marginally touristed towns. 20130701-200502.jpgWe set out to find a hotel. The first hotel we saw was unthinkable.

Jorge reluctantly said we’d take it.

I saw fear on the kids faces, and though I was trying to disguise my own anxiety, it was apparent to the children that things weren’t looking good.

No doubt frustrated by their parents’ poor Spanish and motivated by the need for a toilet seat, a clean bathroom, and a porch hammock, the kids took action.

So here’s how they saved the day and found a lovely room: Weighted down by their backpacks, Dylan and Abigail intrepidly walked in the gate of one hotel after they next. They’d look around for the office and find someone to help. Speaking in Spanish, Dylan would ask if they had a room for 4. Abigail would pipe in, also in Spanish–2 adults, 2 children. Then they’d ask to see it. Led to the room by the clerk, they’d set off up the steps, and I’d follow a distance behind.

I’d look on in awe as they’d do all the things they’d watched Jorge and me do–they’d check out the bathroom, look behind the shower curtain, and check the bed. And they’d say what they’d heard us say: they’d make a nice non-committal comment and as they’d walk back out of the room, Dylan would ask the price. Abigail would remind the clerk that two of the people were little kids and always asked if they’d charge less for kids. They’d inquire about the hot water and Wifi. If there was no lake view, they’d ask if there was a room with a nicer view. Then they’d thank the clerk, and explain that they were going to walk around and think about it a bit. 20130701-200925.jpgIt was like a little Jorge and Susannah, except that entire interaction was conducted in Spanish.

Their efforts paid off. After the sixth hotel, all unsuitable, they finally found one. It was clean, had three beds, two hammocks (!) and a private patio garden. They negotiated half-price for kids and as they started to walk away, the clerk, obviously entertained by the duo, said he’d take off another 25 Quetzales if they came back and took the room.

So for the moment, as I watch the kids swing on their hammocks, I’ve stopped wondering what they’re getting out of this trip, if we’re watching too much soccer on TV, spending too many hours in hammocks, or not eating enough vegetables. Today they arrived as strangers in a town. Within an hour, they were swinging on twin hammocks on the porch of their tidy garden room.20130701-201650.jpgThe lesson to me is that we did, in fact, bite off a bit too much to take this trip. But, I’m beginning to see that biting off a bit too much makes us better parents. If we loved them by keeping their days planned and pre-booked, we’d miss out on giving the kids the chance to have experiences where they are genuinely in control of their destiny.

In our first-world life, it’s hard to find a situation where children are forced to use problem solving skills when it really matters, weigh priorities which directly impact their comfort, and negotiate with adults, more than just trying getting more screen time.

We joke that after growing up with such intense traveling summers, they’ll never want to leave the comforts of home again when they’re adults. But tonight, that worry doesn’t matter as much as the realization that through these trips, the world has become internalized for each of them in a way that they will never loose.20130701-201256.jpg