It's nearly time

It's getting close!  In a few weeks the year will have turned and I will feel justified in beginning to think about and plan where we will go this summer.  The planning and dreaming will sustain me as I climb the last weeks to the peak of the school year.

That's the problem with winter break, it feels like the midway point and it should be the half way mark of the school year, but it isn't.  It is actually the hell that is the last few paces as I crawl, on bloodied knuckles over jagged rocks littered with the bodies of the fallen,  to the summit of misery.  Its the time where I am certain I will not survive the weeks and months ahead.  Its where I cry for no reason, slam doors, laugh at inappropriate times, render myself generally ineffective, embarrass myself with my cynical attitude,  and wonder what good can come of my life.

Yup.  It really is that bad folks.  I'm sorry if you feel bad for me.  Don't.  I choose this career for the sole purpose of being able to travel.  Any other profession would give me a measly 2 weeks vacation a year.  There isn't anything in this world I would ever want to do for work 50 weeks of the year.  I don't even like work.  I do what I have to do until I can pack a few changes of clothes and a good book in a backpack and go off as far away as my budget will allow.

But back to that planning.  School can be made just bearable enough when I think about castles and train trips in Romania or jungles and river trips in Colombia- two places that are top on the list.  They were top last year too but the DR won out to make the kids happy.  And I had a way better time than I thought in the DR.  In fact, I would go back if there weren't so many other places I wanted to go!

Asia tops the list, Malaysia specifically.  But the plane tickets alone would eat the entire budget for the trip.  So we stick to South and Central America.  Not complaining!


What do you mean, Day 7?

That's what I said to myself when at our staff meeting today when our administrator gave us a reality check by reminding us that it was only day 7 of the school year. So why was I sitting there feeling like it had been 7 months already? Really, when she said it was day 7 it was like I was in an underwater tunnel dream. No, really? It just can't be.

And so now here I am up way too late on a school night trolling the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree for some tidbits about far away places, and already dreaming up where we will go next summer which is fully 10 months away.

Planning the trips is an escape from reality for me, gives me a life preserver to hold on to. But I have travel on the brain because I have been going to my 7th grade classrooms to do my "hi I am your guidance counselor" dog and pony show. I start my Prezi with a question "where in the world did I go this summer?". I gave them a few hints like a map of the DR and a photo collage from our trip. They seemed to have fun guessing where we went, and were predictably grossed out when I told them how many changes of clothes we bring for a month on the road.

So it's Day 7.

Of 185.

Way to early to start counting down the days until I am on the road again.

But not to early to get lost in researching the perfect out of the way places for us to go!


Post trip angst

So my usual post summer trip angst is lasting a little longer than usual, probably because I have been obsessing over family travel web sights like www.familyvagabond.org. Among other things, this website profiles the many families who have forsaken a predicable and tethered life for a nomadic lifestyle, oftentimes undertaking journeys with no planned termination.

Does my infatuation indicate a desire for this life for my own family or am I just being nostalgic?

Flashback to spring 1992. It was all about acquiring my very own VCR and a 19 inch TV. I had just graduated from the University of Michigan with a useless degree in psychology which I put to work in a halfway house for women who were dually diagnosed. Luis, fresh from the Coast Guard, was making pizzas at a popular local place. We were 22 years old and ready to settle in to an uneventful life in the Midwest. Then I had one of those conversations that end up steering life in a completely different direction.

One of my very best friends, Sean, had recently made the move from the midwest to San Francisco. When I shared my excitement about getting my share of the American dream he did not congratulate me. Instead he was very blunt, he said I was going to get stuck in the Midwestern rut and never get out. It gave me pause, because this was a familiar story to me, a story that haunted me in it's somber regret. It is my own mother's tale from the mid 1960's, of how she was going to break free of plans and conventions. Her plan was to get in her car and just drive out of Detroit, to leave her predictable life behind, head west on I 94 and see where it would lead her with no plan or end point in sight. Two hours out of the city she decided to turn back, changing the course of her life forever. The heavy feeling of regret sinks in heavy on my chest as I recall this story, I remember the look on her face and the mourning in her eyes as she mused over this one life's chance she did not take.

Motivated by the fear of getting stuck in the Midwest forever and the fear of not wanting to have the same regrets as my mother, I proposed to Luis that we move out west, to San Francisco. We could sleep on sean's floor until we figured out what we were going to do. He really didn't have to think about it, and it surprised me how easily he agreed. I guess he figured he had nothing to lose. He had severed his Long Island, NY roots when he joined the coast guard and his military stint gave him a taste for adventure and travel. He was easily sold on the idea. By summer we had gotten rid of most of the things we accumulated while he was stationed in Port Huron, MI and I was a student in Ann Arbor. We packed up the Nissan Sentra and got on the road.

It was liberating, exciting, and felt so very right. We didn't know it then, but our decision to pack up and leave the midwest began a nomadic and rootless period of our lives that are a constant reference point and testament to the benefits of selling all your stuff and hitting the road.

Hoarders and Vagabonds

With all this free time on my hands and paralyzing indecision about what to do with it led to a hoarders episode marathon over the weekend. If you have never seen an episode of hoarders it is crazy. I have never been so motivated to clean, sort, and purge in my life. Courtesy of Netflix I watched at least a dozen episodes over the course of two days.

This is the result:

The iPad camera could not capture the true number of bags of crap I gleaned from the room of my two children, there are several that are not shown in this picture. The kids and I worked for eight hours on Sunday and could not believe what has accumulated...over the past year! We did the same haul out last summer and we were amazed then too.

Besides watching hoarders for hours, I spent a lot of time cruising websites of families who had sold all their stuff to begin a family adventure of world travel, calling themselves nomadic families. I was simultaneously feeling superior to the hoarders and inferior to these vagabond family travelers and their cool name which spawned a full day or purging my house, beginning with the kids rooms. Because if I'm not going to have a nomadic family, well at least I can clean out my house like they do and by god at least I won't be a hoarder!

The other thing that motivated the clean out was realizing, yet again, that when you can live for several weeks out of a backpack with not much more than three changes of clothes, a few books, and a toothbrush, well, the average American child's room can feel a bit overwhelming. There was stuff coming out of our ears!

The clincher came when my daughter was in tears over how small her room was and how she needed more space. I looked around, and with the wisdom of those psychologists on the hoarders show fresh in my brain I said girl, you don't need more space you need less stuff. And that started the cleaning binge which resulted in the enormous pile in the foyer. Lucky for me my children were also motivated to clean out the stuff so there were no battles to fight.

The kids are going to have a yard sale this weekend. I have no doubt that they will use that money to buy more stuff.


Coming home

It's inevitable, we have to come home sometime. Like most people, I have a love hate relationship with this unavoidable aspect of traveling. The mood in my family is unmistakably grim as we sort out our gear and pack up. We know we to expect when we touch down, a life of relative ease, comfort, and convenience, and the truth is there is a part of us that craves the indulgence. The showers will be hot, the tv channels in English, and the tap water will be suitable for drinking. But still, I am a little misty eyed at the though of going back and wonder if I am actually meant for a life of perpetual wandering or if my melancholy is just a symptom of being bitten by the travel bug once again.
Bracing ourselves for reentry, the first thing we notice as we exit the airport is the lack of taxi drivers hustling for our business, we are left completely alone as we step into the arrivals area. Its pretty quiet and downright orderly.
As we drive home fro the airport, I am keenly aware that the streets are noticeably free of bags of rotting trash and broken glass. My hometown looks freshly scrubbed and polished, as if a new city beautification program was started while we were away. The difference in the condition of the roads and sidewalks is astounding to me. Not only is it clean, but the sidewalks here are virtual cakewalks compared to their Dominican counterparts which are full of potholes, crumbling concrete, and random two feet drop offs into open sewers.
Funny how I can be so pleasantly surprised by quiet and clean streets.
After the initial blinding gleam, all this calm and organized quietness really gets on my nerves. I get downright bored and highly agitated by how easy everything is from effortlessly purchasing $275 in groceries at Costco to getting in my car, which I know affectionately call a gua gua, and easily navigating the roads in relative safety to run errands. It's all too easy. Is this it? This is my life? Where's the difficulty, the struggle, the unknown? It's all too sanitary. Traveling is such a high, and coming home is, well, it's a low. I go from being grateful that everything is so easy to being irritated by it.
The whole thing is made worse by the thought that school starts again and I will be so busy I will want to rip my head off. I won't be able to sleep from all the anxiety and I won't be given a moment of downtime until late each evening.
This blog is meant to be a platform for me to document the highs and lows of traveling on a backpacker's shoestring budget. The trip doesn't start when the plane takes off, nor does it end when we leave our last hotel behind. There are lots of significant moments, thoughts, and decisions that are part of the journey.


So what's a trip to the Dominican Republic going to cost?

When it comes down to it our family bases the choice of country for our summer trip on cost. We like to be away for 3-4 weeks, therefore our maximum daily budget cannot exceed 150 usd per day. It is always my goal to keep the costs as much below that threshold as possible. We weren't sure we could afford the Dominican Republic, but we're pleasantly surprised. Here's a breakdown of our budget by city, for our family of four.

In Las Galeras we rented a bungalow at La Isleta, just 100 meters from the beach. We cooked most of our meals, but ate out one restaurant meal every other day. We had a terrific trip by horse to Playa Madama, Taino caves, and a look out point. We also had a double beach excursion by boat to snorkel at Playa Fronton and to a famous but remote beach, Playa Rincon. We traveled by bus, gua gua, and the occasional motoconcho. Our average daily cost was 106 usd per day. This bottom line could have been considerably cheaper if we didn't splurge on French bread and chocolate croissants every day or eat out. The restaurants were really expensive, especially the ones run by French expats which were ridiculous. At those we paid 35-50 usd for a family meal. The local places, including the fish shack on La Playita, cost us around 20 usd for a family dinner. But still, I would say for the experience we had and the great place we stayed we came out really good.

Santiago turned out to be delightfully inexpensive in terms of food and lodging, compared to the beach. For two rooms at The Colonial we paid 32 usd and meals for the day were about 30 usd. Throw in some souvenirs, admissions to museums and monuments, and average in the costs of gua guas in and out of the city and it looks like around 90 usd per day.

Costs for moncion ran us 105 usd per day for a place to sleep and three meals. Add in the outings we took and all that ice cream and it is more like 125 usd per day.

And on to the capital, Santo Domingo. The hotel we stayed in on arrival, the Green House Aparta Hotel turned out to be kind of a rip off with a 60 usd price tag and 30 usd meals. On the back end of the trip we splurged on the Hotel Palicio for 109 usd per night which includes a fab breakfast buffet and roof top pool set in a restored 1700's colonial mansion. We found very economical places to eat, costing the family 15 for a meal, including drinks. Just order the plate of the day and you will get the best food at the best price.Buying coffee and cigars to take home ran up our budget a bit, but in the end our daily budget for Santo Domingo ran us about 150 usd per day.

All in all we found that the Dominican Republic can be done on a family backpacker budget of 120 usd per day. We used local transport, stayed in small towns, and ate with the locals or cooked in. We did a few special excursions, but not a lot of them. We brought our own bottles of water into restaurants most of the time. We bought low priced souvenirs but splurged on a box of cigars. We stayed in cheap lodging but had a two night splurge at the end of the trip. We went out for ice cream almost every day. The way we traveled this country may not be for everyone, but it was the only way we could realize the dream of a true postcard perfect Carribean vacation.

Location:Dominican republic


The grand finale

I'll have my complimentary espresso in the courtyard please, of the Hotel Palicio of course!

It's always nice to splurge on a nice place at the end of a three week backpackers tour through a developing country. On a recommendation from the Jacobsens, we booked a room through at the fab Hotel Palicio.

A restored colonial mansion that dates from the 1700's, the hotel is fantastic complete with courtyard, balconies, and a maze of hallways and secret nooks.

We are paying 106 usd a night, which includes a really nice breakfast buffet, rooftop pool, and free espresso all day long.

The rooms are great, and the bathrooms are huge.

Really. It is so very nice. Especially for a family of grimy stinky backpackers. I was worried they would turn us away at the door when we walked in.

More on touring the capital city later. For now, we are chilling out in the breezy courtyard with an espresso.

Location:Dominican Republic

This is Moncion

Mostly made of cement to withstand the humidity, the buildings are brightly painted. Some have a foundation of cement with rough hewn planks of wood for the walls.

The more upscale homes in moncion have wide driveways and elaborate fences and gates.

More average homes are close together, brightly painted, and made of cement.

Others are made from just wood.

A quaint looking place behind a gate.

A beauty salon on the main town square. This place was getting a lot of business, although you cannot see anyone inside in this photo.

In between homes are a maze of alleyways which were fun to explore.

Traipsing around town with nothing much to do led to the fire station where we were treated to a personal tour.

Further on the walk revealed this odd store front, which was never open the three times we walked by so we never did figure out what it's purpose was or meet the quirky person who made this collage.

Painted a garish orange and green, the town square drew us each day.

We never caught this place open either. Check it out, it's a vintage vw van converted into a food truck with an awesome mural of shaggy on the side.

I don't think these food trucks go anywhere though because they are hooked into the city electrical wires, see them on the top?

One nice about traveling in out of the way places where there aren't ready made tourist services is how nice it is to just sit and get an ice cream as the day's major activity.

If you are looking for something completely different in your travels I would recommend doing a home stay at casa de las anas in moncion. the food is good, the people are nice, the natural scenery is unspoiled by tourists. You will be treated practically like a celebrity here.

Location:Dominican republic

Take me to the river

While getting our daily ice cream fix we met a family of Dominican Americans from orlando, fl who were visiting their childhood hometown. They were pretty surprised that some random Americans would be in moncion, that there would be anything to hold our interest or attention. We tried to explain that it's the small town atmosphere that allows us to see how a regular Dominican family lives that draws us.

A favorite Dominican family outing is a trip to the river. Julia's brother Juan (but you can call him Che), his 12 year old daughter Diana, and Ana Maria took us to the Mao River to have a swim. You never really know what you are getting into with these things, and i only knew enough Spanish to ask how long the drive was. The drive was only 40 minutes but it was one of the most bone breaking trips I have ever made. The road was so full of boulders and ruts that you just got thrown around the van then whole time.

There had been a lot of rain lately so the river was swift and muddy. It looked like chocolate milk. We weren't too sure we would swim in such a place, but they found a little bend in the river and yeah, we swam in it. Even found some giant rocks to jump off of. But don't jump out too far or you will be carried away by the current.

That's Che, Diana, Ana Maria, and Maya. Those girls just loved Maya and indulged her with spontaneous moto rides around town.

An enormous lunch at Julia's was waiting for us when we returned, followed by a siesta in the hammocks on the porch. The river swim prompted Diana to need to get her hair worked on all afternoon. Her normal state of hair, as is most of the people here, is a kinky curl. So let me digress to comment of the racial makeup up Dominicans, which I found to be interesting.

First, you should know that the indigenous people, the Taino, were wiped out within 50 years of the arrival of Europeans who, by trading in slaves and sugar, were made very wealthy. Racially, most people are an interesting mix of African, indigenous, and European. Less than 20 percent of the people are pure African or European, and no one is all indigenous. I am pretty sure I have never been to a place where the native people were completely decimated. Oh, and that goes for most of the native animal species too.

Which brings me back to Diana's hair. Like a lot of women here, she has long, thick, black hair from her indigenous side and the curliness of of her African side, resulting in a lot of hair to work with. A wash and a lengthy comb out gets the hair put up into giant rollers the size of soup cans which are kept in for the entire afternoon. The result is perfectly straightened long hair which is then tightly wound around the head and secured with bobby pins.

Maya watched Diana's mother fuss with her daughter's hair. This made Maya want to take out her braids. So, for 2 hours 4 of us women worked on taking out maya's tiny braids with a toothpick.

Location:Dominican republic


Touring the countryside by motorcycle

Our day was spent on the road touring the countryside on two wheels. Luis and jack drove a borrowed moped, Maya rode with Ana Maria, and I rode with Pablo, a neighbor guy.

We spent nearly four hours on various grades of roadway, some nicely paved, others rocky, steep, and eroded. No, we are not wearing helmets. No one does and I don't even think they exist here. Entire families and several packages routinely ride a single motorcycle. A woman carrying a sleeping baby while holding on to the driver who is clutching a toddler and a propane tank between his legs while he navigates his motorcycle through potholes and around busses is completely common. Helmets? Nah, there isn't room.

We visited several lookout points on the lake without seeing barely another soul. It's hard to imagine this place being kept a secret from the clutches of mass tourism forever.

Fencing is made from sticks poked into the ground that eventually regrow into trees. Makes for a beautiful and natural fence eventually.

A walk down to the water yielded a stinky dead crab. She asked to take it home but luckily I didn't have a plastic bag so we threw it back in the water.

We stopped at a local swimming hole where large extended families we spending the day playing in the river. We got a lot of stares and I was grateful that I wasn't wearing my bathing suit.

The kids have made themselves at home in moncion. We told them we'd be home in a few days and jack said, "why? This place is just like home!"

Location:Dominican Republic