Hola friends! We’re back! It’s INSIDE A TRAVELER’S WALLS time again! Have you missed it? I know I have missed the weekly dose of inspiration.
If you are new here I would like to introduce you to our weekly series “Inside a Traveler’s Walls” where we feature families living in less traditional, unique homes. If you think you might be one of those families and are interested in being profiled please contact me for details.
The biggest realization was the cost. We didn’t need to be millionaires to take on this lifestyle. But we did need to make changes to how we were used to living in the States. ~ Mickelle
Are you ready to meet the Weary family? You are going to gasp in the first couple of paragraphs, you are going to say to yourself “wow, these people are cool” and then you are going to wish this was your life. Trust me! I don’t want to give everything away, but lets just say that Ken has experienced something probably none of you readers have (I know I have not). I teared up when I read it. And wait until you hear their WHY for choosing this lifestyle, it’s magical. I felt like I was right there with them experiencing the Mayan culture, shopping at the markets and learning about the local culture. I know I am being very cryptic, but I just don’t want to give away too much. This post is something you need to read slow and focused, it’s that good.
My kids are seeing how different people live, and they see that many of the people we would deem “poor” are actually “rich in happiness” ~ Mickelle
And to think that their amazing travel lifestyle all started with a run in the mountains of Guatemala. And now this family has traveled all over Mexico and Central America with plans to hit South America very soon. It’s that easy folks, well we all know it is not that easy, but it is possible. Housing is available at a discount, internet is possible, adventure is awaiting and culture is alive. Bam! Go for it!
Life south of the US border is slow. Family life is a priority. Women bring their children everywhere and breastfeed them everywhere. Education is a luxury, it is highly valued and too often scarce. People are gentle, kind and always willing to help. We find so much beauty in every place we visit. ~ Mickelle
Thank you Mickelle for sharing your biggest misconception about this travel life. Many families have mentioned the same misconception to me. I think it is difficult to get it immediately while moving every month or two. We have had to seek outside help to make it happen for our kids and myself. Frankly the kids are doing great, but I am still struggling. Your advice on how to do it differently is noted and I am sure my readers will appreciate it.
Get ready to laugh out loud, this lady is funny, smart and on her game. I think my favorite part of the whole post is her bathing suit adventure. Each culture has their different way of dressing and I can concur that trying to find an active wear bathing suit in Central America is very challenging. Think bling and tiny! Another laugh out loud moment was when she wrote this, “Yes, I’m the mom that shows up with two kids and three digital devices hogging the bandwidth.” How many of you travelers can relate to this one? You are going to enjoy this post readers. It is written from the heart, with wit, love and a great desire to share. I think this family has spent a lot time developing their “why” and it clearly shines through.
Ok, enough of my chatter. Grab a cup of coffee, a comfy seat and get ready to be inspired.
Introduce us to the people you live with?
We are a family of four that left the comforts of suburban Seattle, Washington in the Summer of 2014 to experience a whole new way of living.
I am Mickelle, a school teacher and math specialist. I have a Master’s Degree and spent 5 years working for a start-up company building math software. When the kids were young, I worked and then quit to take care of the family. The decision to quit my job changed much of our family dynamics for the better. We were all happier and healthier. I felt like I was living the American dream – Stay at home mom with one girl and one boy. A devoted, loving husband in the corporate world making the American Dream possible. Nice vacations every year. Organic fruits and veggies. Money going into retirement accounts and our only debt was our mortgage. Occasionally I felt restless, but not unhappy. I felt lucky and grateful.
And yet, I still gave up this life.
My husband Ken is a self-described technology geek and avid learner. On the infamous 9/11, Ken was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He walked down 72 flights of stairs, along with thousands of others. On many days since then, he has evaluated his life. On most occasions, he decides he wouldn’t change a thing. He is where he wants to be. On those occasions that he’s unhappy with some aspect, he works to make it different. Ken spent years working his way up the corporate ladder which frequently involved travel and long days. Today he works independently from wherever we are, together as a family. While we’re no longer collecting the frequent flyer and hotel points at the same pace, we’ve got plenty of ways to spend them (he hoarded them in his past life). He is an avid runner, has completed several marathons and long distance relay races. Most importantly, Ken is a family man. He makes sure the two of us continue dating (each other), and he makes sure he has special time alone with each kid.
My daughter Ela is a 10-year old, independent girl, and is a bit obsessed with “girl power” (her words). She gets carsick, which isn’t her best quality on long, winding driving days. But, she still loves traveling, and she often dreams about the places we’ll go next. Ela is the most social person in our family. Her best experiences are often those coupled with chance meetings with English-speaking girls her age. Like me, she prefers living near warm, tropical waters where she can spend several hours at a time snorkeling, swimming and splashing the rest of us.
My son Tag is a 7-year old boy who rarely stops talking or moving, except when he’s sleeping (and not always then). He is obsessed with Legos, sticks, rocks and collecting the odd objects that appear in his path. Tag wants to return to Seattle, but only because he thinks we’ll buy him a Xbox and he can collect more toys. I believe Tag would be happiest in an unchanging home, where we could provide a regular schedule. However, he also thrives under the constant proximity of his immediate family and doesn’t express a need for other kids his age. He doesn’t recognize it, but he enjoys hands-on activities where he can take in the sights, smells and culture of new environments. Traveling is good for his soul.
Where are you in the world and what are you living in?
We don’t have a permanent home. We’re nomadic. We travel with whatever we can fit in our car – a Toyota Highlander, with the third row ripped out (this gives us more trunk space) and a car top carrier. For the past two years, we’ve driven in and through Central America and Mexico. We usually find a city and stay between 2 weeks and 3 months. When Ken is on a contract, we tend to stay longer. When he is not, we intensify our travel and explore more places. Currently, we’re in the Yucatan Peninsula, living in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. For the past 6-months we’ve bounced all around Southern Mexico. Our Mexican Tourist Visas are up soon, and we plan to spend the following 2-3 weeks in Belize. We like the Yucatan so much that we may return. Or we may read an article about another fantastic place and go there instead. Sometimes we plan to stay in a place for 3 months and then uproot after 1 or 2. It depends on how much fun we’re having.
In the past, we’ve rented a house in Guatemala for $450/month, an apartment in Nicaragua for $390/month, house sat in Costa Rica for free, and stayed in a hotel/apartment in Mexico for $600/month. We’ve spent countless nights in hotels, often booking the hotel only minutes after our arrival at a new place. We’ve lived in the mountains of Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua, and along the coasts of Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras and Mexico. We’ve stayed in big cities with populations nearing 1 million and smaller towns closer to 10,000 people.
Our car (which still has US plates) is central to our lifestyle. It gives us the flexibility to up and go, tour the surrounding areas or quickly hit the beach.
Why did you choose to live in your current arrangement?
Seven months before the idea of nomad travel had even come into our mind, my husband and I embarked on an adventure – running the mountains (and one volcano) in Guatemala on a guided trip. Our guide and his family of 5 are US expats that live in a small town surrounding Lake Atitlan. It didn’t take long before we fell in love with this area, the Mayan traditions, and the markets full of fruits, vegetables, beans and other delicious foods. I could see myself shopping at the market and taking the food home to cook. This is particularly telling because I’m not a natural in the kitchen. I cook to eat, not because it is relaxing or enjoyable. More than anything, I wanted my kids to see the simple lives that we were witnessing every day. The small homes with dirt floors, wood burning stoves and corrugated metal fences. I wanted them to see traditional Mayan traje (clothing) and women carrying baskets to the market on their heads. I wanted to live in a town small enough that we could walk to everything and where most families didn’t have one car, let alone two or more. And in front of us all week, leading us on grueling 6-hour trail runs was Greg, our guide, answering all our questions, and proving to us that many other families had done what he and his wife did.
It was an epiphany. We didn’t need to wait for the kids to go to college before we traveled. Ken and I are healthy, educated and resourceful. Why wait until we’re older and perhaps less mobile? Also, by taking the kids, we could give them a perspective of the world that most kids in the US aren’t exposed to. We could show them different lifestyles and transform the definition of what is normal. We could show them the world.
The biggest realization was the cost. We didn’t need to be millionaires to take on this lifestyle. But we did need to make changes to how we were used to living in the States. By eliminating most of our monthly and annual expenses, controlling impulse purchases, and renting places by the month, we could afford to travel for a long time, perhaps indefinitely if we wanted. Goodbye corporate paycheck and benefits. Goodbye traditional public schools. Goodbye closets full of clothes and shelves full of toys. Hello world!
What do you do to personalize your unique (less traditional) living situation?
We carry more stuff with us than most traveling families. Since we have a car, we fill it. However, I don’t think I do much to personalize our living spaces. We resist buying rugs or throw pillows because those items become a burden when it’s time to move on. We only spend money on household items that truly make our day-to-day living exponentially better. Some might think we’re being cheap, but really, it’s about not taking on more than we can comfortably take with us.
Whenever it’s convenient, we display our kids’ art. Santa brought them a bunch of clay for Christmas and we proudly put each character they built on the mantle. When it was time to move, we took pictures of the clay animals and got rid of them. Taking pictures of their achievements goes a long way to taking less with us.
We used to have pictures of family and friends from home, but I stopped putting them on the walls. It was too much work.
Tell us your favorite and least favorite room in your space and why?
This is the hardest question to answer because our living spaces constantly change. However, our day-to-day life is better or worse depending on the state of the kitchen. A larger kitchen makes it easy for me to make homemade applesauce or tomato sauce, favorites for our kids. A smaller kitchen is less motivating and more difficult to eat healthy food at home. We always ask for a fridge in a hotel room and probably get it 2/3 of the time.
What is the biggest misconception you had about your current living situation before you started living in it?
I thought the kids would easily pick up Spanish. Not so. Our youngest refuses to speak it. Outright refuses. He’s quite stubborn so we have to wait him out and simply hope that there’s Spanish working in his brain that will come out some day. Our daughter is slowly learning some Spanish, but it’s not coming easily. That said, she can order the most sophisticated desserts in Spanish. Her sweet tooth is clearly her motivation. I’ve never been strong at learning languages, so I continue to struggle. While my vocabulary is decent, when I keep it up, I can’t understand Spanish when it’s spoken to me. It all sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher – Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. My husband, a Texas native, speaks Spanglish (broken Spanish with English mixed in) and it gets us by just fine. He’s our lead interpreter.
If I had to do it all over again, I would have tackled the language in a totally different way. I would have signed up for weekly or bi-weekly classes and inundated ourselves with it. I wouldn’t have counted on the exposure of our surroundings to have a big impact. Sadly, we have gotten by quite easily with English.
What is the one household item you carry with you every time you move or the one item you cannot live without?
Our Vitamix. Our Guatemalan housekeeper used to make us fruit smoothies every day for lunch. I use it for crepe mix and soups. It brings us expat envy.
What do you miss most about permanent, stationary, traditional living?
Oh, so many things!
- It’s very yuppie of me to admit this, but I miss Starbucks. At one point we went for over a year without one, and I was elated to find several in the Yucatan.
- We also miss the library and carting home 30+ books at a time. We use Kindles now, but I still prefer the real thing. eBooks aren’t quite the same for my 7-year old either.
- At times I wish we had more options for regularly scheduled extracurricular activities – martial arts, swim lessons, art lessons, etc. We participate in extracurriculars, but usually for one for two sessions only.
- Consistent, stable internet access. Imagine living without it. This can be painful.
- Finally, we miss family and friends. A lot. My daughter used to spend the weekend at her Grandma’s house, and we got together with the extended family several times a month. The hardest part of this lifestyle is being away from them and not getting to participate in the Friday night campfires or the family dinners.
What is the one item your children carry with them to make their unique (less traditional) home more comfortable?
One item? I wish. My kids need recognizable stuff at bedtime. Each child has a special blanket made for them by their grandma and pillow cases from their beds in Seattle. They also have special animals that they’ve slept with since infanthood.
Our daughter has quite the collection of Monster High Dolls, while my son has a set of Magnatiles. We have a bin of Legos and a decent amount of art supplies. This keeps the kids happy.
Do you have a pet joining you in this journey? If so, has this been complicated? Any advice?
No. I cannot imagine adding a pet to the already long border crossings. As much as my children would love a pet, it’s not going to happen while we remain mobile.
What is your best resource to find items you need for your place?
There is no one best resource. Often, there is no resource, and we make do without (which is also an amazing life lesson). Every city is different, and we simply make adjustments. For months, I needed a new bathing suit. I had no idea how fast we would go through them. Here we were in Costa Rica where you’d expect to find a plethora of options. However, I wasn’t looking for a tiny bikini with fringe and even tinier bottoms. I wanted a high-quality sporty two-piece that would stay in place while I frolicked in the ocean dragging the kids along with me. This was nearly impossible to find, and if I did find it, it would cost three times what I’d expect to pay in the US. I chose to wait. I chose to wear my old bathing suit and hold onto the bottoms whenever I emerged from the water. We feel the same way about clothes. If we want US styles and quality, then we go to the second-hand stores, where we pay ridiculously low prices, usually $1/piece. When we buy new clothes, I find that within a week, I’m hand sewing a seam that came loose or that the material is uncomfortable.
Regardless of what we’re looking for, it’s a two-man search. We actually keep lists on our phones (wunderlist app) so that we always know what we’re looking for.
Finally, visitors from the US are the best mules! They bring watermelon toothpaste, updated car tabs, red vines, electronics, new cotton t-shirts and many other goodies.
If you could only have one of the following in your home which one would it be and why? space, natural light, dishwasher or above average internet.
Easy. Above average internet. In fact, we all go a bit crazy without good internet. It’s a must-have for my husband to work and we’ve often paid dearly for it. My kids want it to download library books and to play education and not-so-educational games. I want it to keep in touch with my mom and friends. After a couple of days without it, I load up the kids and we find an internet café. Yes, I’m the mom that shows up with two kids and three digital devices hogging the bandwidth.
Natural light is second, but it’s a far distant from the internet. Space – Nope. We’ve learned that we prefer less space. What is a dishwasher?
If you were to compare your unique (less traditional) home decorating style to a kitchen appliance or gadget what would it be and why?
A sponge. Our sponge is available in 1 brand, 2 colors and is easily replaceable. Our sponge starts out new and firm, and we use it until pieces are dropping off of it. We use it daily and it has several purposes – cleaning everything from food to counters and yes, the floor. I use it to squish bugs, especially ants that are rampant in this climate. Gone are the days of different colored sponges for different jobs. If we’re lucky, it dries overnight, killing most of the bacteria that grows during the day. This sponge isn’t high quality, but it doesn’t need to be. Because it’s small, we may take it with us to the next city. But, if its substance is used up, we let it go, replacing it only if it’s truly needed at our next stop.
How do you keep traditions alive for your family in your unique living situation?
Like everything else, we keep only those traditions that have deep meaning for someone in the family. I like having an annual picture with the kids and Santa Clause. However, this can be challenging. One year, our picture was with a powder-blue Frozen style Santa Clause taken for free in a fancy mall in Panama. Before we’d encountered this option, I thought our best option was taking a picture of the kids with a large blow-up snowman outside a second-hand store in Guatemala. Last year, our best option was a blow-up Santa in the lobby of a hotel in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. I enjoy these pictures. Someday, we’ll line up all the pictures and it may be these unique ones that mean the most to us. They’ll tell a story and bring back more memories than those with department store Santas and long lines.
Holidays come and go. Many are ignored unless the kids make a big deal upon their arrival. Birthdays are much simpler. The birthday person gets to choose the events of the day. We’ll buy special decoration if that is important to the birthday child. Menus are planned, often including lots of candy and favorite meals. Birthday cake has been replaced with brownies, dressed with chocolate frosting, ice cream, whip cream, m&ms and whatever else we’re able to find. Presents are coupons for extra digital time, digital books, digital music, dates to choose special activities and even Slug Bug points.
How do you decorate for the holidays in your unique (less traditional) home or do you skip it all together?
Really? Spend money on holiday decorations that I’m absolutely NOT going to carry with us to the next country? Actually, I do. Two years ago, I went as a Christmas tree for Halloween, and we used the decorations at Christmas. I found colored lights and cheesy ornaments at the 3Q store in Guatemala. (3 quetzals equals about 25 cents!) Last year we found ourselves celebrating Christmas in Oaxaca, Mexico. We’d walk through the streets and see all these stands selling pink and blue Christmas trees and tons of cheap ornaments. My daughter begged for a tree to decorate. We gave her a budget of 100 pesos (about $6) and let her go crazy. She bought a turquoise tree, cheap, sparkly wrapped mini presents and other tawdry additions. She also bought thread for stringing popcorn and fruit loops around it. She spent every last peso and it was the best $6 spent all month. Both kids spent hours making decorations out of recycled cardboard paper to add to their tree. We strung adorable handmade Christmas angels, snowmen and elves across the front window.
What is your favorite part about this lifestyle choice?
Last summer, while living in Costa Rica we found ourselves surrounded by white-faced monkeys at Manuel Antonio Beach and watched a three-toed sloth cross our driveway. Last November, my 10-year old daughter and I learned to scuba dive together while staying on Roatan Island, Honduras. In January, we took hour-long walks through the town of San Cristobal de las Cases, Mexico often ending the day with hot chocolate and our daily trip to the mercado. In March, the four of us spent 30 minutes feeding manatees at an animal rescue sanctuary in Palenque, Mexico. Last week, my husband and I saw a shark, two baby turtles, a stingray and a seven-foot barracuda while snorkeling in the Caribbean Sea. Every month we share unique experiences and make memories that I never dreamed possible. This lifestyle choice is as much for my interest and desire as it is to educate the kids about the world. I never know when one of these magical days is about to happen, but they are not far and few between. They happen all the time.
But there’s something else happening. Something even more incredible than swimming in cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula and releasing baby leatherback sea turtles into the wild. My kids are seeing how different people live, and they see that many of the people we would deem “poor” are actually “rich in happiness”. At the same time, they see those that are poverty-stricken, like the little kids begging for leftovers in restaurants in Esteli, Nicaragua. They understand what it’s like to live where you can’t drink the water and toilet paper can’t be flushed. They have friends that live in houses with ash toilets or fancy port-or-potties. At ages 7 and 10, they see first-hand how fortunate we are. I don’t know what this means for their future, but I’m confident it will make them good world citizens.
Many traveling families subscribe to the “house is not a home” theory. What is home to you?
This is a great question, and I enjoyed thinking long and hard about it. Home is where I can make homemade applesauce for Ela and tomato sauce, freezing half of it, for Tag. Home is where we gather in the kitchen for warm crepes, stuffed with loads of strawberries or raspberries, or pancakes every morning. We know we are home when we do big food shopping at the mercado, carting bags of fresh fruits and veggies from the market that will last us a week. Home has more than one sink, with one in the bathroom and one in the kitchen. Home means my husband and I can go to bed at separate times than the kids, which means more than 1 room, but not necessarily 2 bedrooms. Home often, but not always means, leaving the car parked for weeks and only driving for out-of-town outings. Home also means that educational materials are scattered over half the dining room table or piled on an out-of-the-way shelf. Remnants of art projects litter the floor and Lego creations are displayed somewhere prominent. Home is wherever we can maintain some daily routine and eat more than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches without going out for supplies.
What makes you love the place you live?
Do you ever stop and think about how lucky you are? How wonderful your life is? I do. All the time. I marvel at the architecture of Spanish colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and wrought iron balconies. I hold my husband’s hand while watching our kids splash in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea as day turns to night. I feel the community spirit while watching Mayan men, women and children shuttle their way to worship, all dressed in the same pattern of traditional clothing.
Life south of the US border is slow. Family life is a priority. Women bring their children everywhere and breastfeed them everywhere. Education is a luxury, it is highly valued and too often scarce. People are gentle, kind and always willing to help. We find so much beauty in every place we visit.
Can home be a person, or an idea?
Absolutely. My home is Ela, Tag and Ken. And even though she’s not with us, home is my mom. We miss her more than you can imagine. We dream she’ll be able to join us some day.
Words of wisdom to anyone considering venturing out into the world of unique, less traditional homes?
Go. Just go.
Stop making excuses about why you can’t do it.
And maybe don’t tell anyone about it until you have solid plans. We planned for seven months before we left. We told our family two months before we left and my husband gave his resignation one month before we left. Keeping things quiet gave us the time to get our ducks in a row so that when people tried to tell us it was too dangerous or career limiting we’d have the research we needed to respond or reflect.
What is next for you? Will you continue to live in your current home or try something different?
We hope to continue traveling until we no longer want to do it. The amount of time we spend in each country often depends on how long they will issue us and our car visas. Every border crossing is different and must be researched ahead of time. (I can’t imagine doing this before the internet!) Right now our goal is to be in Columbia, South America for Christmas. But that could change.
How do you educate your children?
My idea of education is a constantly changing one. I’m still trying to figure out what works for the kids and for me. (Remember, I have an education background.) Recently I learned the term “Worldschooling” and that describes a lot of what we’re doing. I also love the idea of unschooling, but I don’t think I can do that for math. In my opinion, math is the most important subject, and probably because the kids know this, they fight me on it the most. We do as many hands-on projects, science experiments and field trips as possible. For us, a field trip is simply an educational term for exploring a new town. Often these excursions will spur the kids to do more research on their own. Recently we went to a cave and the kids watched several YouTube videos on other caves around the world. They were fascinated. Then we started swimming in cenotes in the Yucatan, and they’ve been asking questions about those. We’ve also been studying the ocean – salinity, buoyancy, coral reefs, animal life, ocean and seas. I don’t believe any of this is related to Common Core in the US, and frankly, I could care less.
As long as my children show growth in their reading, mathematical development and ability to explore and research the world, then we will continue with this hodge-podge education. The results I’m seeing are astounding. Both kids use the digital world seamlessly, download free audio and eBooks from the library weekly, seek their own knowledge when curious and ask an unending list of questions. Honestly, it’s a challenge keeping up with them.
You don’t need to be an expert to teach your kids. I would encourage anyone that wants to travel, but is hesitant to leave their country’s school system to do it anyway. There are many schools in the world and there’s an abundance of resources for homeschooling. The help you need is out there. Find it and you won’t regret it.
How do you make a living?
We started out two years ago with some savings which initially was a big help. My husband took a sabbatical from working. This was great for all of us. He recharged his batteries and we spent more quality time together as a family than ever before. Today Ken does consulting and works from wherever we are. To date, he’s found contract work using his personal network and websites that cater to digital nomads.
Our long-term goal is that he will continue to find online consulting gigs. We believe we’re 2-3 years ahead of the curve on this, and that exponentially more and more remote working opportunities will continue to enter the marketplace. We’re lucky that he has both technology and business experience.
There are three other things that help us financially when traveling long-term.
- We don’t have any debt, except for our mortgage in Seattle. All college loans, cars and credit cards are paid off.
- We keep our annual and monthly expenses to a minimum. Our house in Seattle is rented, and therefore we are not paying both a mortgage in the States and rent on the road. Gone are the Amazon Prime, Costco and Hulu memberships. Gone are the reoccurring cell phone charges.
- Although living expenses vary in Central America, we find that we are paying significantly less overall, and therefore we need to make less money.
And the biggest benefit. Time Together. We spend more time as a family in one year than most families get in several years. I no longer miss my husband and kids during the day. We spend hours and hours together, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Quote to Ponder:
Do you ever stop and think about how lucky you are? How wonderful your life is? I do. All the time. ~ Mickelle
BLOG – SunglassesRequired.com
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Wow! Take it all in! This is a family, just like you and I, making their dreams come true. Was I right about this post being filled with so much goodness? I just love that she added in the part about how certain “things” make it more financially possible for them to travel. I found this most helpful. We live by all of the same rules and we don’t miss any of it one bit. If anything we feel less weight on our shoulders.
What do you think? Could you live this life? Why or why not?
Have a fantastic day.