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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.


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.


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.


10 Responses to “The Hardest Part of Overland Travel – Going Home”

  1. Always a lovely read, although this one gave us some anxiety about “going home”. Hope the blog is gonna continue when you get home so we can here about the exciting office life and Coconut’s driving progress 🙂

    Posted by Fanny and Joe | July 18, 2016, 10:15 am
  2. Boy oh boy, can I relate! The transition is rocky for free spirits like us. Hang in there – you are such great role models for your kids, and there will come a time when they realize and appreciate it!

    Posted by Christine L | July 19, 2016, 1:22 pm
    • Thanks, Christine. So sorry we will miss India in Nawlins. It would have been great to see her again after so long and to introduce Coconut and J to her. It’s just curl for the fire to pack up and go again.

      Posted by Paul Carlino | July 20, 2016, 11:11 pm
  3. Narnia was a sweet life indeed. Great post. You guys are damn cool parents! I am already scheming a way out of this life of routine and complacency.

    Posted by Una | July 20, 2016, 8:03 am
  4. So what I gather from reading this is you are NOT happy to be back in the USA and you are going to do everything in your power to get your kids to dislike being in the USA as well.

    Posted by christine ofarrill | July 20, 2016, 3:11 pm
    • Basically, correct. Though, it has more to do with going back to our former way of life than being in the USA. If the USA was as low cost and carefree as all the countries we spent the last year then it would be fine.

      Posted by Paul Carlino | July 20, 2016, 11:07 pm
  5. I admire that you could organize yourself so as to take full ownership of your life for an entire yr while so young. I bow to u both in awe. So many furtunes but also great abilities to creat the means, develop an apparently solid relationship, etc. I remain open mouth that u were considering continuing your trip which implies u could have. I want u as my financial adviser.
    I’ve dreamed of taking one yr off. I settled for 6 months. Now I aim at hopefully not dropping dead the day I retire (or shortly thereafter).
    Putting my dream not away but still in conforting view on a nearby shelf, I’ve been dragging my family two months or more a yr in a trailer as far as I can go. I understand that I am a rarity particularly for US standards in terms of amount of time spent on the road vacationing, but it is how I breath. I trade what many consider necessities for what I see as vital: freedom, time, privilege to travel and experience new things.
    As I write, I am in the last row of our van driving home still in disbelieve about having to appear enthusiastic and refreshed on Monday when I will go back to work after 5 glorious weeks and close to 5000 miles. I feel like pouting and running away instead and it has been only 5 weeks. I would probably need hospitalization in your shoes.
    But it is what it is. And how privileged we are me w my 5 weeks, u w your yr.
    When I come back home w dirty kids, dirty laundry and hardly tough able dog, I focus on all the Hurd fun it took to get them that dirty. And I want more travel. I can’t imagine y anyone would need more than one skillet and a pot to cook, or more than 3 tshirt to wear. I like open windows and hate a/c. On Monday I will sit in my completely sealed office w a blocked window and a temperature which is always too cold or too hot for me.
    I just breath. We work to live and play. U r doing it right. U got it right. Well: start planning your next adventure. It’s what helps me. I am planning mine, weeks or even weekend at the time, but planning.
    Next week my oldest one (15) will fly to Germany for more vacation and adventures. My youngest one (10) will be camp host at a state park we love (well dad will be camp host but Matteo is seriously invested). They will spend August there. I, on the other hand, will be in Alexandria working to make dreams possible. I will join them on the weekend. Little breaths of freedom and sanity.
    If your kids like consistency and structure carring part of their world w them may prove easier. I often carry friends of my kids w us. Maybe it’s not doable for a yr but as u come back to VA think of ways to continue to promote the outdoors and traveling in your kids by maybe including their peers whenever possible during shorter adventures.
    U r not putting your sails away. Think of it as of a harbor stop to restock.
    I have many short trips scheduled for the Fall and the kids’ school vacations. Next summer I am planning for Chile. Think w R what u will do next. Sending u kisses.

    Posted by Giordana | July 22, 2016, 2:16 pm
  6. Just found your blog and this was the first post I read. I totally understand your feelings, I have gone twice around the US by motorcycle, both times about 30 day trips and rode my motorcycle to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, a 12901 mile trip in 35 days. I can’t concentrate at work, feels like prison to me, I’m stuck. My son is done with college and now working (still lives with us) and my daughter just started her 2nd year of college. I have been reading blogs like yours as much as I can in preparation for my motorcycle trip to South America in 2 years and at the same time to try and convince my wife to sell our house and take a trip to SA in a van/truck. She’s still afraid of the unknown but my mind is set, it’s just a matter of time for me. I’m now going to read more of your blog, thanks for a great blog 🙂

    Posted by George Ferreira | September 27, 2016, 1:54 pm

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