Rome Tours with Kids

Rome Tours with Kids

We are a traveling family, but we do not travel extravagantly. We don’t do fancy resorts, will spend an hour studying local transport options from the airport to our budget hostel, rather than hopping a more expensive taxi or private shuttle, and definitely don’t do guided tours. This last habit is directed as much by our frugality as it is by our failure to ever find a guide that added much value to the historical sight we were seeing.

But after a decade of my wife and I dragging our 14-year old daughter and 12-year old son to various parts of the globe and trying to instill in them the same appreciation for differences in time and place that we have, we’ve come to know what they like – ice cream – and what they don’t – anything having to do with learning, especially learning directed by mom and dad about architecture, art, or history. So when we decided we were going to take them to Rome, we knew we had to do something different.

Rome Tours with Kids turned out to be a great solution. Our kid-oriented Colosseum tour satisfied my wife and me because it was a tour with a knowledgeable guide who spoke good English and introduced our kids to the wonder of ancient Rome in a fun and educational way. It satisfied our kids because the guide was engaging and conveyed the right amount of information to pique their interest without boring them with details and the tour lasted just long enough to keep them entertained without tiring them out. And because Rome Tours with Kids employs only guides who have passed a rigorous certification test administered by the Tourism Department of the Italian government, our guide was able to draw from a deep-based knowledge of many areas that added to what my wife and I had already learned from our own research.

Rome Tours with Kids also offers kid-friendly tours of the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, and although we arranged to be reimbursed for the cost of our tour in exchange for publishing this review, we are not biased in whole-heartedly recommending any of the tours offered by this company based on our experience with the Colosseum tour. We would have taken advantage of their expertise for another tour if we were in Rome for a longer period of time. Fortunately, we threw coins in the Trevi Fountain, so it is guaranteed we will be returning.

Colosseum tour for kids

THE COLOSSEUM TOUR

We were scheduled to meet our guide, Francesco, at nine a.m. in front of the Colosseo metro entrance, but we showed up 30 minutes late. We were certain he would already have left since we had pre-paid the tour cost, but Francesco was there, waiting and ready to go. After friendly introductions, he led us past the lines of those “unguided souls” who were waiting to purchase tickets and through the “vomiturium:” the portals that allowed 50,000+ free Romans, foreigners, and slaves to enter the arena and find their seats in less than 15 minutes. ”They didn’t have to go through security,” Francesco quipped in explaining how quickly folks could be seated. It was just one of the ways he easily contrasted ancient Rome with real-life experiences that are familiar to our kids.

Our first stop was the upper level of the arena and a view from the balcony over the streets leading to and the piazza in front of the Colosseum. Francesco explained the significance of the nearby Constantine Arch and pointed out buildings from ancient Rome, the Renaissance and Reformation, and contemporary construction – in explaining Rome’s nickname of the Eternal City. The kids remembered that point as we strolled the streets several days later and found the ancient ruins where Julius Ceasar was stabbed to death in 44 B.C. parked next to a taxi stand.

After viewing history outside the Colosseum, we wound our way back down to the lower bowl of the ampitheater. We stood for a moment gazing with wonder at the magnitude, in both size and legend, of the structure, Francesco said, “I come here just about every day and still feel the same awe. This place does that to everyone on sight, I only add the words.” He then entertained us with stories that combined myth and fact and compared them to modern realities. For example, he pointed out the similarity of the design and capacity of the nearly 2,000 year old Colosseum to most current football stadiums and noted how the seats closest to the action tended to be occupied by the more wealthy.

The original floor of the arena was constructed of wood and is long gone but a reconstructed section gives us an idea of how it may have looked in gladiator times. Most of what is visible now is the underground labrynth of passages where animals and slaves were kept before it was their turn to take part in the games being played above their heads. The basement looks bright and somewhat inviting as a refuge now, with moss growing on the brick walls, but Francesco drew a vivid picture of the damp, dark, and desperate conditions that existed in 80 A.D. He explained how slaves worked the trap door system to bring animals and gladiators to the arena floor to surprise the audience and combatants, or as a complement to one of Rome’s foreign conquests that was being reenacted as entertainment.

In a more philosophical moment, Francesco asked us to imagine what it would be like to have your homeland conquered by the Roman army, then be marched in chains to the magnificent and opulent Rome – which you had likely never seen anything like before. You would be thrown into the dark cells under the Colosseum floor for days or weeks, and then have to listen to the roar of the bloodthirsty crowd as you waited your turn to be forced into a life or death battle. He asked us to think how many thousands of souls had left a piece of themselves behind.

The kids actually responded to this with due solemnity. But the highlight of the tour, especially for a family as competitive as ours, was a trivia contest proxied by Francesco that pitted parents against kids and required us to tally the points we scored for correct answers in Roman numerals. Hint – know your Greek and Roman gods!

We spent most of our time with Francesco in the Colosseum but also visited a few sites within the adjacent sprawl of ruins that is the Roman Forum. It was in the Forum, in front of the Curia, the seat of the Roman Senate, that the kids were awarded their prize for prevailing in the contest: a mini-replica Colosseum and gladiator helmet keychain. It was here that we parted ways with Francesco as my kids, glowing with the exhilaration of victory, placed their gladiator helmet keychains over their pinkies and drew smiling faces as if they had just prevailed in a battle to the death.

Kids Tour of Roman Forum

DETAILS

Our Colosseum tour lasted two and one-half hours and cost €200. This did not include the cost of the entry ticket that allows access to the Colosseum and to the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine Hill complex.

We really enjoyed this tour and feel it is worth the cost. It was a high-quality tour with an engaging and knowledgeable guide. It was probably the highlight of our time in Rome. This is an introductory level tour, however. I consider myself an armchair historian and at several points during our tour we passed by informational signs or sights where I ordinarily would have stopped. I realize this was the trade-off I made for a fun and enjoyable experience for our family. The company does suggest the content of the tour is tailored to the level of the tour participants, which suggests that the tour can be as deep or shallow as your family wants. Our own guide, Francesco, was always willing to answer any questions I had about sites or things that were not part of our tour specifically, which is evidence that the engagement level of your family will dictate how the tour proceeds. As a bonus, the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine Hill entry ticket can be used on consecutive days (but not for the same attraction), which allowed me to go back the next day to Palatine Hill and linger over this amazing time in history.

Rome Tours with Kids

Hosted

The writer of this piece was hosted by the destination, which means that they did not pay for their experience. They also were not paid by the destination, which means that they are free to express their honest opinion of the experience, which they do here. We just thought you should know.

This is the End – Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the End – Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the end.

In the words of the somewhat famous and totally unpredictable Jim Morrison of The Doors, this is the end, my only friend, the end.

My family and I just completed a year-long overland adventure through Mexico and Central America. We left Virginia on August 1, 2015 and drove our 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van – which we named Wesley – through Mexico and Central America. We’ve now landed softly at the family lake house in New York’s Catskill Mountains where we will take contemplative walks in the woods and frolic in the clear lake water before launching back at the end of the month into the hard work of being middle class Americans.

IMG_4287

Relaxing on the dock at the lake has proved to be a soft landing before re-entering the rat race of middle class America.

I want to thank Paige Conner Totaro, the founder of www.alloverthemap.net for hosting my blog this year and for providing R and me with lots of other advice and inspiration. If reading about our adventures has infected you with the travel flu, as we hope it has, you should continue to visit Paige’s site for great tips and ideas for individual and family travel. For example, Paige’s latest post describes an amazing Yucatan vacation rental for families, to host a family reunion, or for a girlfriend getaway. It may be too fancy a place to host a drunk frat brother weekend.

I also want to thank everyone who we met on our journey who helped us, hosted us, or just said “Hi.” I don’t want to start naming names for fear of leaving somebody out, but the amazing and adventurous people that we met are the main reason why this year will be unforgettable for us. Thank you.

DCIM103GOPROGOPR6413.

We only had these folks in the van for a few minutes, but I remember the conversation and we all had a few moments of fun with strangers, which seems easier to do when we are all foreigners to the place where we meet.

Finally, thanks to all of you who have taken the time to read my blog. I know that sometimes I can go on and on with no apparent point, but I hope it was as much fun for you to read my blather as it was for me to think it up and write it.

At the outset of our trip, I attempted to interest you in what we were doing by posing three questions. Now, finally, as my last blog post of this trip, I will attempt to answer them.

Q1. Is Mexico as lawless as the media portrays?

A1. I don’t think so. We survived without anyone shooting at us, robbing us, or even frowning at us. On the contrary, Mexico was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the trip and we spent five months in various places there. It is one of the most beautiful countries – stunningly tall mountains, endless and mostly deserted beaches, outrageously delicious and affordable food – and has the most friendly people. I kid you not, even the machine gun patrols that drive around looking for trouble-makers waved at us. Don’t let the media fool you.

Q2. Does the Bright-rumped Attila still ply the skies above Central America?

A2. We didn’t see the bird in our travels through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, but we did see a mass nesting of sea turtles, hundreds of monkeys, stingrays and reef sharks, scorpions, tarantulas, dolphins, sloths, jaguars (at a zoo), and toucans.

R clowning around with a big monkey at the mall in Panama City.

R clowning around with a big monkey at the mall in Panama City.

Also, to soften the blow of missing out on the Bright-rumped Attila, we did spot its cousin the Bright-rumped Tanager one fine day while hanging out on the back porch of our workaway in Costa Rica.

Q3. Can a 1985 Volkswagen camper van handle the ups and downs of the Andes Mountains?

A3. Unfortunately, for reasons too depressing to get into again, we didn’t make it to South America so I am not able to answer this question based on an actual experience of driving through the Andes. However, based on our van Wesley’s performance through the numerous Sierra Madre ranges in Mexico, I have no doubt it could have conquered the Andes Mountains as well.

When we reached the top of one of the mountains we'd climbed, we just had to stop and pee

When we reached the top of one of the mountains we’d climbed, we just had to stop and pee

Okay – now that there are answers, I will pose a final question. This one was originally asked by the even more famous and less unpredictable Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin in the popular but not very rock and roll song “All of My Love.”

Q4. Is this the end or is it just the beginning?

A4. It’s the beginning. Even though the blog of our real-time overland adventure is at a convenient stopping point, the Vanamos family will not go away. We will be launching our own website – www.vanamos.net – very shortly.

On the website you will find updated articles about our experience posted weekly, the latest about our vantastic Volkswagen Westfalia – Wesley, information about preparations and budgeting for our year long adventure that you can use to plan your own trip, maps, what we know about border crossings, family travel guides for each country we visited so you know where to go and what to do, photos of me in a bathing suit to print and hang around your house for daily inspiration, and much, much more.

So stay tuned and let our end (of sorts) be your beginning. If I’ve delivered any message at all this year, let it be that there is a lot more to life than living 9 to 5.

Family Road Trip Through the USA

Family Road Trip Through the USA

After driving nearly 14,000 miles in eleven months to Panama and back, Wesley had delivered us to Laredo, Texas, with 12 days to go 2,000 miles to NJ for my niece’s baptism. With our spectacular border crossing in the rear view mirror, we found a Worldschoolers family north of Houston who is in the midst of selling their house and belongings in preparation for their own around- the-world-adventure. Israel, Michelle, and their three boys Joaquin, Jovani, and Judah, were gracious hosts who allowed us to use their beds, eat their food, swim in their pool, and stick around their house for two days while the epoxy we used to seal Wesleys’ leaky engine coolant recovery tank cured. This tank was the part that burst its seams while crossing into the U.S. and Israel talked me into taking the extra day to remove the part from the engine compartment and seal it rather than invest many dollars in extra coolant to keep the tank topped off during our drive home. It was a good call and has spared R and me a lot of anxiety during the long days of driving.

Houston family

The Vanamos team (sans Coconut) poses with our host family in Spring, TX – Israel, Michelle, Judah, and Jovani. Also missing from the picture is their 13-year old – Joaquin.

Since we crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. we’ve flown a butterfly path nearly 2,000 miles long towards the east coast along state highways, American scenic byways, and windy country roads. We have avoided interstates for a number of reasons. First, Wesley does not have air conditioning so we roll with the windows wide and the constant truck and SUV traffic on the interstate makes a lot of noise as it speeds past. Second, Wesley tops out at about 55 m.p.h. – I kid you not, we’ve been pulled over twice for driving too slow – and we can hit that just as well on even the curviest of backroads as we can on an interstate. Finally, the interstates are boring. There is more to see when riding the state roads, and the glimpse it provides into small town life makes us feel more connected to a place even though we are just passing through.

The hanging tree in Goliad, TX, where justice was delivered swiftly.interstate.

Justice was delivered swiftly at this spot in Texas.

J is amazed at the shelves full of fireworks at a store in Tennessee.

Fireworks store in TN. J imagines all the mischief he could cause if he only had the time.

Abandoned farmhouse in VA. Scenery along the country roads is more interesting.

Abandoned farmhouse in VA. Scenery along the country roads is more interesting.

We’ve hardly seen any people as we buzz by under the canopy of the country roads. They apparently only come out of their air-conditioned houses to mow their expansive lawns, put gas in their cars, and visit the ubiquitous Dollar General.  We can, however, smell the same roadkill as the locals, see the rusty cars and other stuff they have piled in their yards, and get a measure on what makes each town unique. We’ve driven through the Arkansas hometown of Miss Teen 2008 (Stevi Perry), saw the Mississippi swamp where Kermit the Frog was born, shared a cookie in Alabama with the uncle of former major league baseball player Josh Willingham, and been enticed from our lunchtime picnic table by a personal tour of the local history museum in Goliad, Texas, by staff member Marty.

This is the design on the town flag of Goliad, Texas. It dates from the Texas movement for independence from Mexico and represents determination. We will cut off our arm before we submit to your will.

This is the design on the town flag of Goliad, Texas. It dates from the Texas movement for independence from Mexico and represents determination, as in – we will cut off our arm before we submit to your tyranny.

 

We also made a few interesting stops. The Natchez Trace Parkway follows a 500 mile long trail formerly used by bison to go from watering holes in Natchez, Mississippi, to salt licks near Nashville, Tennessee. After pioneer hunters killed all the bison, it was used for commerce and ambushes by Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez Indians, Ohio Valley tradesmen, and cutthroat bandits. We stopped at the Parkway visitor center for Pioneer Day where Coconut stitched a leather pouch, J wove a basket, and I read the informational displays which I’ve summarized in the previous sentences.

J will be prepared for Basket Weaving 101 when he gets to college.

J will be prepared for Basket Weaving 101 when he gets to college.

Pouch making

Coconut learns how to stitch a pouch out of deer skin to carry her musket balls and/or headphones.

We also stopped at the visitor center for the distillery of the internationally famous Jack Daniel’s Whiskey in tiny Lynchburg, Tennessee. We learned that Jasper “Jack” Daniel died from an infection in his toe after kicking his office safe in frustration, further supporting an article I recently read that alcohol makes people more violent.   

IMG_6220

I wax poetic about Jack Daniel’s charcoal mellowing process while Coconut thinks about Pinterest.

I was okay to drive after leaving the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, TN, because there were no free samples.

I was okay to drive after leaving the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, TN, because there were no free samples.

We spent our last day on the road at Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA. It’s a nice park with a great swimming lake but our stay was overshadowed by the fact that the next day would be the last of our year-long overland trip.

The Vanamos team poses with Wesley in Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA. Our final day on the road before returning to Alexandria.

The Vanamos team poses with Wesley in Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA. Our final day on the road before returning to Alexandria.

On Monday, we arrived in Alexandria. Coconut and J were excited to soak up a few days at home with their friends before we set off to New Jersey for the baptism and then to my father’s lake house in New York for the month of August, but R and I were not excited to arrive. As we drove through town it seemed that not a blade of grass had changed, despite the fact that we felt very different. The weight of reintegration had already settled over us, and we know it will be more difficult than reintegrating after a week-long vacation because we’ve experienced something bigger.

We’ll keep our heads up. As Michelle, our Houston host, said to us – even though we felt like we were imposing in a big way, having us there, talking about our experiences and all the things that they have been excited about, was like infusing new blood into them. It renewed their vigor amidst the stresses of going to work, trying to sell the house, and daily living in an American suburb. Somehow, we’ve got to channel all the excitement that we’ve felt for each day on the road into building a new plan for our future – even though starting in September, the immediate future will be spent in Alexandria.

A Spectacular Border Crossing

A Spectacular Border Crossing

On Monday we crossed the border from Mexico to the United States at Laredo, Texas. This is the same border crossing we used in August 2015 to get from the US to Mexico to begin our year-long overland adventure. We would have liked to take a different route back to see new things but our second choice of crossing, at Brownsville, TX, is only accessible by Mexico Route 101. This road was recently dubbed the most dangerous highway in Mexico by NPR due to the proliferance of kidnappings and carjackings by bandits and organized crime gangs.

We thought that being left naked in the desert would be a bad way to end our year of overland travel, though honestly, everything we have with us is threadbare from a year of constant use so would likely have no value to anyone. Only Wesley, our 1985 VW Westfalia, which has a brand new coat of paint and sparkles like a Kristy McNichol smile from “Little Darlings” would attract any attention.

So we chose Laredo again. And even though we’ve done many border crossings since last August and they’ve lost their intimidation factor, we were still a little nervous because of the 20 kilos of pure Colombian powder, the two migrants, the satchelful of weapons, and the copy of “The Great Shark Hunt,” Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo commentary on American politics that we had in the roof box.

Things got even more interesting when we pulled up to Aduana (Mexican Customs) in Nuevo Laredo (on the Mexican side of the border) to cancel our temporary vehicle import permit. The line was longer than anything Tony Montana would have contemplated and the temperature was 115 degrees. To ratchet things up a notch, we got conflicting advice from Mexican Customs officials about whether we needed to have our passports stamped out of Mexico (we opted for the stamp). Finally, with our paperwork complete and after a possibly illegal U-Turn against oncoming traffic, we found ourselves in another long line to cross the bridge over the Rio Grande to the US.

 

You can buy anything while waiting in traffic to cross the border, even a large wooden carving of Jesus on the cross.

You can buy anything while waiting in traffic to cross the border, even a large wooden carving of Jesus on the cross.

By this time Wesley’s temperature gauge was reaching extreme levels and despite turning the engine off every chance we could, the red warning light started blinking just as we put our nose onto the bridge.

“That’s good.” I said. “It means it’s working. It’s not a problem until the red light stays on.”

“Screeeee!!” said Wesley in a high pitched voice which turned out to be engine coolant bursting from the hose that led from the coolant recovery tank and spilling onto the hot pavement of Puente Internactional II like so much green blood. Ah, the irony. After 12,000 miles and eight countries Wesley had staged a temperature tantrum on the threshold of America. We had overheated and there was nothing we could do but turn the engine off and wait for it to cool down.

Wesley spilled it's huts on the pavement in protest of our return to the States

Wesley spilled its guts on the pavement in protest of our return to the States

In true rat-race fashion, though, cars immediately started cutting the line in front us. Nobody stepped out of their vehicles and paused for a moment of silence, came to offer us condolences, or even blinked an eye. After all the mountains Wesley had climbed, all the narrow streets it had navigated, all the deserts it had crossed, all the memories it had given us over the last eleven months, this felt like a slap in the face. So, rather than sit there and be a spectacle, we put Coconut behind the wheel and J, R, and I stepped out of Wesley like proud parents and pushed.

Being behind the wheel while crossing an international border was definitely not what Coconut thought she would be doing when she woke up Monday morning. But she stepped upon crunch time.

Being behind the wheel while crossing an international border was definitely not what Coconut thought she would be doing when she woke up Monday morning. But she stepped up during crunch time.

Despite our best efforts, though, we couldn’t push fast enough to keep the gap with the car in front of us tight enough so that people couldn’t continue to edge in. Heartless bastards! Then, further solidifying the respect we feel for the country and people we were leaving, a Mexican woman stepped out of the air conditioned car behind us and put herself between us and the car in front like a linebacker stepping into a hole between the tackles that was there only a moment before. Now we could inch our way towards the border like everyone else!

Wesley, with crossed seven countries and wears their flags like badges of honor but needed to be coerced to return to the States.

Wesley crossed seven countries and wears their flags like badges of honor but needed to be coerced to return to the States.

After several minutes of this situation, another Mexican offered to pull in front and tow us with a rope. This worked perfectly until he ran out of gas and had to remove the towline from his rear bumper, where it was attached to us, and place it on his front bumper so another Mexican guy he had flagged down could tow him.

Wesley was towed across the bridge, until . . .

Wesley was towed across the bridge, until . . .

. . . the car towing us ran out of gas and became the tow-ee.

. . . the car towing us ran out of gas and became the tow-ee.

By this time, though, we had pushed and been pulled to within thirty yards of the checkpoint (no longer thinking in meters as measurements in our minds went from metric to imperial halfway across the bridge.) However, the final approach was up a slight grade and Coconut, who was now pushing so she wouldn’t get arrested for driving underage, slipped because she couldn’t get enough purchase on the oil-slick tarmac to push Wesley across the finish line. The moment of truth had come. R turned the ignition key and Wesley roared back to life. R gunned the engine to finish strong but just as we were about to throw up our arms so the tape could break across our chests like we had run a 12,000 mile marathon, the customs officer put an orange cone down and walked away. Shift change.

R turned off the engine rather than idle and we waited, flushed and sweating like drug mules; adrenaline and fatigue mixing together. Coconut was so exhausted from the experience of being thrust behind the wheel to steer the van across an international border that she said she felt like crying. J was as red as a tomato and R and I felt time stand still like we were waiting in line at the grocery while the cashier changed the tape to give us a receipt. Rather than peruse the celebrity gossip magazines, we should have rehearsed her lines.

Except for a few miles in North Carolina and Alabama, and two hours the day before, I had driven Wesley the entire trip. We expected that I would be behind the wheel when we made our final border crossing and I had practiced how I would answer certain questions, not because we had anything to hide, but because some of them are open-ended. When the officer asked where we were coming from, we didn’t want to launch into a paragraphs-long narrative about our last twelve months. We wanted to be as concise, yet as honest, as possible. R was not prepared.

US Customs Officer, “Where are you coming from?”

R, “Uh. Mexico.”

“Where in Mexico are you coming from?”

“Uh. We drove all over. This time we were in San Miguel de Allende for about a month.”

“You were in Mexico for a month?”

“This time. We were here for about three months before.”

“You’ve been in Mexico before?”

“No, this was the first time.”

Pause. “Where are you going?”

“To Virginia.”

Pause. Officer pokes his head into the driver’s side window and eyeballs Coconut and J in the back. “Do you have any illegal contraband in the vehicle?”

“No. We checked the website last night and ate all of our fruits and vegetables. We have some cheese and salami.”

“Any weapons or alcohol?”

“No. We have a bottle of mezcal and some fruity kind of liquor that we brought from a vendor along the side of the road.”

In retrospect, R’s answers were so contradictory that no international smuggler would ever utter them, but so nonsensical that no border guard worth his weight in salt could let them go unchecked. The officer walked into his little glass booth and came back with an orange slip of paper that he stuck under our freshly painted wiper blade. “Pull forward to secondary inspection. An officer will direct you where to go.”

We pulled forward and an officer directed us into a garage where various other vehicles were in various stages of being inspected. One family parked next to us had all of their luggage on a table and two officers were opening suitcases, trying on dresses, and snacking on yucca chips. Another vehicle was being driven around by a US Customs officer and everywhere officers were walking around with those mirrors on a pole that you can use to look up girls’ skirts.

Oh boy, I thought. We’ve been living in this van for a year. They are bound to find something. A stray firecracker. A pocketknife. A withered piece of fruit. Which one of us should go to jail? I figured they should take R because she was driving, and really, it made financial sense for us because I have the higher paying job.

Fortunately, the officer tagged to inspect our vehicle didn’t appear to want to be bothered. He asked a few questions which I helped answer (i.e., Where are you coming from? We spent last night in Monterrey), got us out of the van, and poked around a bit in the living room before telling us we could go. I heard him ask another officer if he had made any lunch plans. Since it was about 4 in the afternoon and the guy had apparently not yet eaten lunch, he must have had other things on his mind than looking for contraband on a family of four from Virginia.

Fine with us. We drove away without anyone welcoming us back to the States or mentioning Wesley’s eyelashes – which were a big hit at all our other border crossings. We used dead armadillos as mile markers (I’ve seen hundreds of armadillos but have yet to see a live one) and drove a ways into Texas before stopping to rent an overpriced hotel room at a Days Inn.  Just another spectacular day in our year of overland travel.

The Hardest Part of Overland Travel – Going Home

The Hardest Part of Overland Travel – Going Home

When we first conceived this year-long fairy tale of an overland adventure, we anticipated arriving in Patagonia in Argentina after eleven months and 29 days of driving, hopping in a plane to D.C., and shipping Wesley back to Baltimore.  The trip would have a clearly defined beginning – when we left Alexandria – and ending – when we got on a plane to go home.

Vanamos family 1

The Homestead, July 2015.

Before we left on the trip we realized we would not make it to Patagonia because it would not allow us to plant a flag anywhere for longer than a few days. We would have to be in the van, driving, a lot. Instead, we saw Bolivia as the horizon of our dreams. But we still expected to get on a plane and ship Wesley home.

At some point after we set forth we reevaluated that plan and decided that we would not be extending our year-long trip (more about how Coconut and J helped make that decision below) for longer than a year, and that Panama was as far as we could go.  To go further, i.e., to go to South America, 1) required us to put Wesley into a container at great expense to ship it to Columbia, and 2) it didn’t make financial sense to do this because we wouldn’t have much time to drive around before we had to pack Wesley into a container again at great expense to ship it home.

We reached Panama City on April 25 – too soon to call it quits and ship the van home and too late to pack it up and ship it to Columbia. That left us no alternative but to turn around and drive Wesley back to Alexandria in reverse order through all the countries we had driven in the last eight months.

While it didn’t seem a great option at first, in retrospect we are happy with it because a second opportunity to drive through each country has allowed us to chart different routes than we took the first time. This has given us a fuller experience with each country. For example, on the way to Panama City, our impression was that nothing existed in the country for hundreds of miles between destinations except houses built on stilts and mosquitoes. On the way out, along the Pan American highway, Panama started to look like a more modern country with towns and stores. Though, no matter where you go, it’s really hot (except, apparently, in Boquete, an expat mountain enclave in the northwest which we missed both times.)

Costa Rica was as expensive on our first pass down the Caribbean coast as on our second pass up the Pacific coast, but we got to spend our hard earned colones with different merchants and confirm our suspicion that Costa Rica is the US’s expensive callgirl. Our second time through Nicaragua, of course, was unforgettable. We met a beautiful, inspiring family in Paul, Marisa, and their two great kids Owen and Abby, we got to reconnect with our chocolate-making, idealist friend Maria and her son Angelo, and we purchased a piece of property that will ensure we go back at least once. More likely, we will go back many times.

Our first time through El Salvador we took the beach road, which felt very developed and familiar. On our second pass, we stuck to the northern mountain areas which have a more local, agricultural, and revolutionary flavor. And in Guatemala, we drove through the highlands instead of the lowlands so got to see the mountains and volcanoes for which the country is known.

By seeing different parts of each country, we were able to re-evaluate our first impressions. Mexico isn’t as dirty or poor as we first thought, mainly because countries to the south are dirtier and poorer. But it still has the best food, the friendliest people, and is the most affordable.

On the other hand, deciding to turn around and go back was the hardest choice we have made – harder than breaking our road rules, accepting our homeschool failures, or living our couch potato existence – because in the end we’ll be home and both R and I expect to hate being back in Alexandria (no offense to all of our very good friends who live there). Unlike Paul Simon, we do not wish we were homeward bound.

R and I are certain that if we didn’t have kids we would not have turned around. It’s hard to describe the freedom one feels being untethered from the responsibility of a job or a cell phone or any of the trivial things that seem to matter so much, and to be able to spend your days exactly how you choose to spend them. However you imagine that freedom of choice would feel, it is a baker’s dozen times better. And of course, there are all the awesome countries we’ve seen, experiences we’ve had, and people we’ve met along the way.

DCIM103GOPROGOPR6413.

Picking up people is always fun. This is on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, where if you miss the bus for the ferry to the mainland, you’ll wait until tomorrow.

IMG_3423

Playa Maderas, Nicaragua. Three friends hitched a ride on the way to town.

As I have said many times to my family while playing my tiny violin, I have the most to lose by going back to Alexandria because I am the one who goes back to work. The thought of being behind a desk again is more than depressing. It’s like I’m flour and someone mixes me with water and salt, takes a tiny piece of me and rolls it into a ball, then flattens me in a tortilla press over and over until there’s nothing left of me but circular pieces of cooked dough that will get stale and fed to the street dogs.

Coconut and J made it clear early on, however, that they would not be happy overlanding for longer than a year and rather than force them, R and I conceded. After all, part of this experience is to empower them to be able to make choices that impact their lives. And we understand their perspective. Overlanding is hard, and we now know it is particularly hard for our kids who like a modicum of stability, which packing up and driving on every few days does not provide. They both did better when we were settled in a place for a week or more, and R and I can accept that this is what our future abroad looks like, at least so long as we have Coconut and J in tow. For now, we need to help them to envision that future.

There is always a way out.

Coconut and J expect going home to be the best thing since Netflix added another season of whatever crap it is they watch to its catalogue. And R and I realize we did this to ourselves by being responsible persons and good providers. If we lived in Alexandria in a house with a leaky roof and no window screens, had to share a bathroom with our neighbors, and polished shoes at the Metro station to put food on the table, Coconut and J may not want to go back there.

They expect to go back to doing the same things that they did before we left that have made them want to return in the first place, and to love it. While that warm, fuzzy feeling of something familiar may exist for them initially, as responsible parents, R and I feel an obligation to do everything we can to make them hate it.

We know being home isn’t going to be as much fun as they think it is. Their freedom to wake up and fry their brains with 16 straight hours of YouTube, and our ability to cater to their needs, are going to be severely compromised by all the other demands of rejoining the race, and we won’t let them forget it either. We want them to remember that they have a choice.

The first time Coconut says she doesn’t want to go to school – whoa-ho-ho! Let’s get a plane ticket to somewhere. Every time J complains about doing homework or studying for a test – Hey-hey-hey. Remember when you didn’t have homework or tests? Whenever they want to eat out – we’ll eat PB&J at home.

Are you kidding me? You would choose elementary school over this?

Are you kidding me? You would choose elementary school over this?

R has said over and over that this year has been her lifelong dream come true (which implies that I am her Prince Charming?!) She has also recently lamented that when the end of a fairy tale gets writ, everyone lives happily ever after. But we don’t see this ending – returning to Alexandria – as our happily ever after.

We’ve stepped through the wardrobe, seen Narnia, and it’s unsettling for us to be stepping back into our former lives after such a transformative experience. In fact, it seems like a step backwards. And maybe, after the glow of excitement from renewing old habits has dimmed for Coconut and J, the memories of all they have seen and done will take hold and coalesce around this thought – that living in Candyland is pretty sweet.

A Short History of San Miguel de Allende

A Short History of San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel was founded by a Franciscan monk in 1542 and fortified as a Spanish garrison in 1555 to protect the new road from Mexico City to the silver center of Zacatecas. In 1826 it was renamed San Miguel de Allende after favorite son Ignacio Allende who was one of the conspirators that spearheaded the Mexican Revolution from Spain and had his head chopped off for his efforts.

Not much else happened in town until 1938 when an art school was founded. The resulting arts scene attracted the famed beatniks who wrote poems and got drunk here in the 1950’s and put the city on the map as a destination for foreigners, which in turn attracted the 35,000 or so ex-pats who live here now. Finally, in 2016, Vanamos arrived in an effort to make more of our own history.

San Miguel Coconut

Coconut strolls down a shady avenue in San Miguel de Allende.

As far as Mexican colonial cities go, San Miguel is not our favorite – placing third in that category behind Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas. It trends toward gringo and there are a lot of shiny, new SUVs woven into the threads of traffic that wind into and out of each roundabout. But it does have spots of local flavor that remind us of what we love about Mexico and even the dead come alive to admire how the late afternoon sun dances through the cobblestone streets which are narrow as coffins.

SMA street

View up one of the narrow streets towards the church.

With the help of our friends Sean and Mittie, who have been extremely generous and laid back as we’ve crashed their place a second time (we were here in September as well) for going on three weeks, we’ve explored the town and put the finishing touches on our year abroad. We’ve gotten into a comfortable daily routine of sleeping late followed by morning walks to the fruteria for our daily greens, and then conquering whatever task we’ve set for ourselves for the day.

Coconut and J have both (mostly) finished their portfolio of “school work” to be submitted with a letter describing their “educational progress” to the school system to which we are returning. This is more of a relief to me than it is to them – no more do I have to argue with them to “do your math.” I feel like I’ve gotten out of school for the summer.

homeschool coconut

Coconut finishes up one of her last Algebra lessons for the year. What a relief!

R and I have been flying around interviewing upholsterers, painters, and mechanics to see who is best qualified and available to reupholster, paint, and do mechanical things to Wesley. Everything has finally been arranged and pieces of Wesley are all over town.

delivering the bench

Sean helps deliver Wesley’s bench seat to our upholsterer, who literally works out of a hole in the wall.

Our upholsterer, who we affectionately refer to as “the gangster of thread” because he’s got a lot of tattoos and his friends hang out around his sewing machine eating chicken feet, and not the sweet, gummy candy that we like but the ones with bones and crinkly skin that looks like a scrotum. The Gangster of Thread told us that it would take three days to fashion covers for Wesley’s seats and cushions using the material we purchased in Guatemala but that was more than a week ago. Every few days we go check on his progress and he tells us that it will be ready that afternoon.

gangster of thread

Pastor, the gangster of thread, and one of the seat covers he made for Wesley.

Our painter seems like a nice guy – he picked up a family of hitchhikers on the way to showing us his shop – and promised us that Wesley would be back in our possession in less than a week because he only takes one job at a time. When we went to check on him a day after dropping the van off, it hadn’t been moved from where we had parked it and he had two other cars under the tent that acts as his garage. He told us that he planned to start Wesley that afternoon.

I was definitely not qualified to remove the cabinets, but managed to do it.

Removing the cabinets wasn’t particularly difficult, but there were a lot of nuts and bolts and wires and hoses and it took time. I managed to keep my swearing to a minimum.

Empty Wesley

Wesley, empty of cabinets and everything else that made it home for the last 12 months. The real trick will be whether I am able to put everything back together.

The main reason we needed to take out the cabinets is so that this rusty panel could be replaced.

The main reason we needed to take out the cabinets is so that this panel that is rusted through can be replaced and then painted with the rest of the van.

Stripped and ready for paint.

Stripped and ready for paint.

Our mechanic only had Wesley a day longer than he said he would have it, but changed every spare part that we had brought along – oil and filter, brakes, belts, fuel filter, engine gasket, plugs, air filter – and probably would have changed our sheets if we left our bed with him. The parts haven’t fallen out, indicating he put them in correctly, but we still question his competence because we don’t know what evaluation he may have done before installing the parts and whether those parts needed to be swapped, or if he just did it because we had them handy.

mechanic shop

This is not a junkyard. This is where we took Wesley for a tune up. All the VWs in the yard gave us hope that the mechanic was familiar with that style engine.

Despite these apparent setbacks, we’re still optimistic that we will have Wesley back by the weekend, put back together by early next week, and be on our way back to the States shortly after.

In between our days of work, we’ve tried to make room for some fun. We met a family in town and had a blast shooting them during a round of paintball in the “Urban Labyrinth” arena – which was like nothing we would ever experience in the States. The playing area consisted of crumbling, burned out buildings with holes in the walls between the apartments that were just large enough to crawl through, re-bar poking out through the cement foundations, no railings on the staircases, and thorn bushes in the courtyard between the buildings. It was pretty awesome.

Coconut hair

Coconut decided she wanted to have the ends of her hair dyed purple – a five hour process that turned out royally.

And so it goes. We’ve visited hot springs, done laser tag, gone to parties, taken classes at a local writer’s workshop, and gotten off the beaten path driving Sean’s 1995 Land Rover Defender around San Miguel (the vehicle he and Mittie plan to drive south on their own year-long adventure starting next April).

Road shot

Sean, Mittie, and their Beast.

There are still a few things to do – I’d like to visit the home of Allende which has been turned into a museum and we’d all like to go to the toy museum showcasing a century of what kids around here used to play with – but for the most part, things are winding down. We expect to be out of Mexico three days after we hit the road. It might take a week to ten days once we hit Texas to make it back to Alexandria. The writing is on the wall, the end of something is our future.